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.

Alleyways of Shibuya

7 07 2008


Bangladesh festival

15 06 2008



Less-well known than its hugely popular Thai, Indian and Jamaican blow-outs, Yoyogi Park hosts a constant stream of national days and themed flea market/ foodcourt/ musical events. Today it was Bangladesh’s turn. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting a lot – is the Bangladeshi influence that strong in Japan? – but apparently, its stronger than I thought because it was a well-organised and well-attended event, with girl drummers performing on a stage under billowing orange curtains, radios blasting, Bengali babes in bright saris and shady-looking dudes promoting halal groceries or Roppongi bhangra nights. Curry sizzled and incense wafted, and ethnic-hippie-chic chicks walked around comparing crocheted shawls at each of the different booths. It also gave me an opportunity to get up close and personal with the underappreciated (by me, until now) murals painted onto the support pillars of the concrete pedestrian bridge. Right in the thick of the flea market part of the event, they provided a great colorful backdrop.


 This one was particularly cool – a little freaky even. The picture is of the park, so its almost like you are looking through the concrete to the other side of the wall – and the little figures at the bottom totally throw out your sense of perspective. I was fascinated.



Meanwhile, next door there was  another new artistic arrival. Chanel’s mobile artpod – a sleek white building designed by Iraqi star architect Zaha Hadid- has been set up in the forecourt of the National Gymnasium, complementing perfectly its swooping roof and unusual curves. Fresh from its home in Hong Kong, the moveable structure will be packed up and shipped to cities around the world for a temporary exhibition of the Chanel company’s contemporary art collection.







15 06 2008

Takadanobaba is the student-y area around Waseda University, best known for its dive bars, cheap restaurants, Burmese food and (this being Tokyo), a grandiose fake Gothic cathedral plonked randomly next to the traintracks, which I’ve posted about it before.

I was there today on the new subway line which connects the area directly to Shibuya in about 15 minutes (although of course, you could just get the Yamanote line from Shibuya. In 12 minutes. But anyway…) Its not a bad place to wander around, with that shabby charm that Japan does so well…







But perhaps the neighborhood’s biggest claim-to-fame is that it was the home to legendary animator Osamu Tezuka and his most famous creation. The iconic character Atom Boy ( “Astroboy” in English) was born, according to the story, in Takadanobaba on April 7, 2003. The local JR train station uses the Astroboy theme song as “train approaching” music in tribute. And now, they have installed, these large and seemingly hugely popular murals outside the station – I saw several kids and adults stop in their tracks to search out and photograph their favorite Tezuka characters; from “Astroboy”, “Kimba the White Lion”, “BlackJack” and “The Phoenix”. I couldn’t resist doing the same;







Note the contrast between the shiny future-Baba of the Astroboy murals and the charmingly decrepit reality 😉 

So my next Takadanobaba question is: whats this about?




8 06 2008


Shibuya was heaving and hot this weekend; it was fun to see everyone out, shuffling by in their bright, holiday-like Summer clothes, tanned girls in spaghetti straps and buff boys in tanktops. Loft Department Store – in the middle of their heavily advertised Fathers Day campaign – was having a “fan fair” with different kinds of fans to beat the heat. They also turned on the sprinklers to send cooling water vapor down the little alleyway outside their main entrance, causing quite a stir.


Elsewhere, anti-globalisation protesters ( a pathetically small number of them anyway, heavily outnumbered by their police escort) waved Che Guevara flags outside Tower Records:


Hungry shoppers lined up for hours at the currently “in” place;


And I found these cool, funky little grafitti stickers someone had plastered over Meijidori:



And my favorite: this poster for the “Eternal Wind Foundation” with a close-up picture of an ass!







Tokyo Street Glam

7 05 2008

Around town

7 05 2008


Grafitti serpent attack!

Pork noodles

I like fresh juice too, you don’t see me putting up signs about it

“Extravagant once in a while” : aren’t we all?