Italian cliff towns with terra cotta rooftops slipping into the sea. Downtown Charleston with cobblestones, wrought iron gates and colorful shutters. Hell, even the ancient Nabatean capital of Petra. What do all of these places have in common with eachother? Architectural consistancy, frozen in time. What do these places have in common with Toyko? Nothing. That’s the point.
The unfortunate combination of earthquakes, fires and wooden structures has resulted in the Tokyo we see today: an old city with no “old” city. There are towering skyscrapers of offices and apartments ranging in design from brutalist to art deco to scandinavian modern to that stuff they built in the ’80s. Nuzzled in between are squat concrete shops and homes with cars too large for their garages. There is a proliferation of powerlines and billboards and streetlights. Taking a wide view the effect is chaotic and less than picturesque. Honing in on the details, it’s truly beautiful.
The beauty is in a narrow city alley converted into a garden of exotic flowers and diminutive pine trees lovingly sculpted; a closed shop’s rolled metal door painted with cherry blossums, geisha and koi; a simple dumpling from a convenience store elaborately wrapped in decorative bamboo paper; a wooden shrine, its purpose absolutely indecipherable, tucked between a parking garage and a Seven Eleven.
Speaking of Seven Eleven, well known in the States as a place to play Russian Roulette with hot dogs, it is an absolute revelation in Japan. From sweet buns filled with pork to sesame seaweed salad, the prepared food is excellent. The ATMs function in dozens of languages. As a traveler in a new place, unable to rely on language and custom, there’s beauty in practical design and reliable quality in unexpected places.
In fact everything is so organized, the streets are so clean, the traffic is so orderly, the metro is so well-signed, the citizens are so refined and the sidewalks are so damn wide. This is an Asia that’s entirely new to me. With its international boutiques and cafes, Harajuku’s main drag could be in France. But just when you’re having a bout of continental dislocasia you come upon Meiji-jingu, a Shinto shrine with toweing wooden gates, painted paper sake barrels, and tiny children in traditional dress ready for their blessing. There’s beauty in the contrast.
The hideous concrete structure and crushing crowds of Tsukiji Fish Market could certianly leave you searching for beauty. Fortuanately, it’s easy to find here as well. It’s in the simplicity of a plate of perfect sashimi and a cup of green tea. Even in the most hectic places in Tokyo, like Ginza or Shibuya Crossing, there is something riotously beautiful in the vertical stacking of neon signs, in the slice and swoop of the kanji characters.
In some places you step back and take it all in. In Tokyo you lean in, look closely and admire the beauty in the details.