City of the Imagination

24 07 2008

For a city of its size and importance (it is often said) Tokyo offers remarkably slim pickings for the sightseer. Held up against its peers (say, Paris, London and New York) , one starts to wonder: “Where is Tokyo’s Louvre, British Museum, Statue of Liberty?” (Although, actually it does have one of those, at one-third scale, in the harbor.)

Flattened by war, earthquake and greed,  little of its history remains.  Its “big ticket” items are pretty lackustre; Tokyo Tower (an Eiffel knockoff slightly shorter than the surrounding buildings), Disneyland ( fun, but an imitation), the Imperial Palace, invisible behind its moats (nothing to see here, folks!)

Even the “national shrine” at Meiji-jingu is little more than an impressive gravel driveway, leading you to expect a monument of much greater proportions than the wooden shack waiting anticlimactically  at the end.

All this is true. And yet, it misses the point. Because with a few exceptions (the skyline view from Rainbow bridge, Fuji on a clear Winters morning), Tokyo is not about the “Big Picture”. It is all about the details.

A visitor’s most memorable experience here could be the walk from their hotel to the nearest 7-11 : a weird sticker on a vending machine, a teenager with shaved-off eyebrows clumping down the street in a Little Bo Peep dress. Bizarrely branded snack foods in odd flavor combinations.

In Shibuya, androgynous gigolos lounge around in shirts with “Muthafucka happy time” stitched on the back in rhinestones, and black neo-fascist trucks roar past playing disco music, down streets of teenage malls and whale restaurants.

That is the joy and the beauty of Tokyo. It never makes sense. You never know. You can walk around a corner – any corner – and find a stray medieval castle, or a lifesize blue elephant statue, or Missy Elliott on a shopping spree, a dog on a skateboard, or a shop selling chocolate-covered squid, or a tiny ricefield in the middle of a highly urbanized suburb, or a vending machine selling rice or batteries, or (yes, the legends are true) used underwear.

And this is what gives Tokyo its boundless energy – more than anywhere else I know, there are no limits – not of taste, or logic, or even economic feasability. Anything goes. And once you are attuned to this – the city’s hunger for the new, its insatiable and unerring instinct for weirdness – you see it everywhere.

People often ask me “Where do you find this stuff?”. But I answer; “How can you live in this city and not see it?” Its everywhere. There is so much weird shit you are tripping over it  on a daily basis.

So in this spirit – the spirit of what makes Tokyo tick – I have thrown together a list of some of my favorite attractions; no Tokyo Towers, no Imperial Palace, nothing you could conceivably find in London or New York. Just Tokyo ; raw, uncut and deliciously random.

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