The D&O Diary is on assignment in Asia this week, with the first stop for meetings in Tokyo, Japan’s capital city. Tokyo is such an amazing place. With a population of 13.8 million in the city itself and a total of 37.8 million in the Tokyo prefecture, it is by some measures the most populous city in the world. It is also a fascinating place. It is such a study in contrast, between the traditional and the modern, and between incredible organization and the disorder of its massive crowds.
It was great to visit Tokyo but I was unfortunate in the timing of visit, because I arrived during of a long stretch of consistently rainy days. The sun didn’t shine at all until the day I left. The majority of the time the rain was coming down in a steady drenching downpour. Even with an umbrella and a raincoat, I got soaked. (A weather system that was basically the outer edge of a typhoon that hit China apparently was responsible for all of the rain.) The damp and dreary weather did put a little bit of a damper on the visit, but I nevertheless managed to see a great deal of the city as well.
I stayed in a hotel in the center city, near the Tokyo Station and close to the Imperial Palace. The palace itself is not open to visitors, but I did have a chance to take a hike around the palace’s beautiful gardens. The Edo-era Shogun palace is almost entirely gone and most of the palace buildings today were rebuilt either after the 1923 earthquake or after World War II. The gardens cover areas where the Shogun palaces stood. The picture at the top of the post shows the Nijibashi Bridge and a portion of the Imperial Palace that is visible from the public park.
The steady rain was not altogether a bad thing. For example, because it was absolutely pouring rain the morning I went to visit Koishikawa Korakuren Garden, I had the place to myself. As the pictures below show, even in the rain, the park was beautiful. It is hard to believe that this oasis of calm exist in the heart of such a massive city.
The city’s beautiful parks are such a contrast with the rest of the hectic city. For example, on Saturday, on my way back to the subway after a stroll through Ueno Park in the northern part of the city, I walked through the Ameya Yokocho street market (Candy Story Alley, pictured below), which on Saturday afternoon was crowded with shoppers buying fruits and vegetables, clothing, and electronic goods.
Later, I visited the Harijuku district, in the Shibuya section of the city. Harijuku is an area of shops and cafes famous for its youth fashion and the street scene. I enjoyed walking around Harijuku and people-watching. I was at least twice the age of everyone else there. OK, more than twice the age.
Harijuku is such an interesting contrast to Tokyo’s much more famous high-end shopping district, Ginza. Ginza is, by contrast to Harijuku, clean, orderly, and seriously glitzy. The stores are for the same luxury brands you see in every major city in the world these days. I was there late on Saturday afternoon when one of the main streets was closed off to vehicle traffic, which at least made it pleasant to walk around.
On Sunday, I traveled on the Ginza subway line to the Senso-ji , a Buddhist temple in the Asakusa district. The approach to the temple is along a narrow alleyway lined with shops, a vestige of the times when pilgrims would arrive from long distances to visit the temple. When I was there, the alleyway was mobbed with visitors, despite the steady rainfall. The temple itself was crowded as well although the gardens surrounding the temple were quiet and calm. The temple is also near the Sumida River, a busy waterway spanned by numerous bridges.
Because Tokyo is so huge, its subway system is massive as well. It is also incredibly well organized. I was able to naviagte the subway without difficulty. It helps that the sign-posting and announcements are in English as well as in Japanese. Each subway line is color-coded and designated by a letter. Each subway stop on each line is designated by the subway line’s color and letter and by a number. The numbers run sequentially along each line, which makes it easy to identify stations and also to figure out the direction in which a train is traveling. All of that is not to say that using the system doesn’t have its challenges. The subway stations are enormous and sprawling with numerous exits. Trying to find the correct exit proved to be a challenging exercise at times. There was something about the Shinjuku train station. I was there several different times and each time I managed to get lost trying to find my way through the station. (Maybe it has something to do with the fact that it is the world’s busiest train station.)
In addition to mastering the subway, trying to figure out how and where to eat was also a challenge for me, at least on the days when I was on my own. Most restaurants only had menus printed in Japanese (not that it made much of a difference in many cases, as I am sure that I would not know what many of the offerings were even in English.) Many of the restaurants helpfully displayed plastic renderings of their meal offerings; this actually had a counterproductive effect on me, as the plastic models looked singularly unappealing to me. I generally aimed toward noodle dishes and I preferred restaurants whose menus allowed me just to point at the pictures. One afternoon, I did have an excellent sushi meal, at the Standing Sushi Bar (yes, you stand while eating your sushi), in the Shinjuku neighborhood.
I also had some excellent meals when I had local help choosing the restaurant and navigating the menu.
There was of course no shortage of things in Tokyo to baffle me, but one completely unexpected confounding thing was how early it got dark there. Japan does not use daylight savings time, and Tokyo is pretty far east in its time zone (Japan Standard time). So it started to get dark around 4 and the sun set just after 5 pm. The jet lag was bad enough, but the early sunset compounded my disorientation. Trying to find your way around a massive city like Tokyo in the dark is a struggle (and the rainy conditions didn’t help either). I tended to end my evenings early.
Japan has a national election coming up on Sunday, October 22. There were political posters on the subway trains and election coverage dominated the local news on TV. I didn’t follow all of the issues under discussion in the Japanese election but one issue that did get my attention is the proposal to amend Japan’s post-war Peace Constitution, to alter the document’s war-renouncing Article 9 in order to recognize Japan’s Self-Defense forces as its military.
Even if Japan’s war legacies were not an issue in the current election, it would have been impossible for me not to think about Japan’s complicated 20th century history while I was in Tokyo. Many of the major tourist sites in Tokyo — including, for example, the Imperial Gardens and the Meiji Temple – are associated with the imperial family. The question of Hirohito’s role in the country’s right-wing militarism before the war has long been controversial. In touring the city, there are constant reminders of the destruction the war wrought. Almost all of the historical tourist sites, including in particular the places associated with the imperial family, are reconstructions built after the war. Very few pre-war buildings remain.
I didn’t purposefully set out this year to visit so many sites of severe World War II destruction, but somehow during 2017 I visited Hamburg, Frankfurt, Berlin, Warsaw, Tallinn, and now Tokyo, all cities that experienced varying degrees of severe damage from the war. It has now been over 70 years since the war’s end, and the cities have all been mostly rebuilt, although in Berlin, for example, it is still an ongoing process. Cities like Tokyo and Berlin paid a terrible price for their country’s involvement in the war. Now that the cities are rebuilt and the terrible events are a couple of generations in the past, the remaining issue now is what the war means today.
I thought about these issues as I made my way through the crowds on Tokyo’s streets. Because of the language barrier, I didn’t get to talk to as many people as I would have liked. I will say, the Japanese are unfailingly polite and uniformly friendly, at least in a formal way. Everyone I met was nice to me and helpful. Walking around this busy modern city, the thought that our countries fought such a terrible and destructive war only a short time ago seemed unfathomable.
Where I ended up with these thoughts is that even if we now live in a time of peace that was unthinkable then, we can’t forget what came before, as unimaginable as it all seems now. Better to live a world where we can visit each other’s countries and experience each other’s culture. I feel as if my first encounter with Japan’s culture enriched me and expanded my horizon. I will have to come back (when the weather is nicer, I hope), to try to meet some more of the country’s people.
More Pictures from Tokyo: