Hello Tokyo, How You’ve Changed

Globe Trot: Tokyo

Returning to Japan’s teeming metropolis after a 60-year absence offers a distilled glimpse of technological progress and the immutable Japanese character

By Charley Gordon

(November 22, 2016) In the busy Asakusa neighbourhood of Tokyo is the Senso-ji Temple, a major attraction.

Globe Trot Ex-Press

Globe Trotting Ex-Press

Thousands of people jam the narrow street leading from the gate to the temple, which is lined with dozens of shops selling just about anything. Not everything sold relates to religion. In fact, there is a store that sells cookies that are made right in front of you by a machine. Japanese, unlike North Americans, don’t eat on the streets but those cookies are a temptation. Hence a sign, in the kind of Japanese English that has always held a peculiar charm:

“This street is not able to eat while walking.”

After being away from Japan for 60 years, it was encouraging to see that some things haven’t changed. The Japanese do things their own way, no matter how much Western influence they are subjected to.

Take the commercialization of the street leading to the temple. It shocked me, until I learned that the shopping street dates back to the 16th century. So maybe we shouldn’t mutter about it.

“This street is not able to eat while walking.”

As for the language, the fractured English speaks to something else about Japan. You can find lots of people who speak English in Tokyo, but not as many as you would think, given the westernization of Japan, given the years of U.S. occupation. Away from the big hotels and tourist attractions, it’s not always easy to find someone who can answer your question. One way of interpreting that is to suggest that Japan, unlike many other countries in the world, is not dependent on the tourist dollar.

In fact, there were stories in the local press about this while we were there. They cited statistics showing that Japan gets a lower percentage of its GNP from tourism than other developed countries. The tourist industry folks urged redoubled efforts to attract tourists, as they would, but I rather liked the idea of a country that doesn’t tie itself in knots to attract foreign visitors. There is no danger that Japan will turn itself into a theme park for tourists.

Japan, unlike many other countries in the world, is not dependent on the tourist dollar.

I lived in Tokyo for a year and a half in the ’50s, while my father worked in Korea for the United Nations. My sister and I went to high school, the American School in Japan. We loved the school and we loved the city. Tokyo was lively, safe enough that we could wander around on the trains and subways by ourselves without my mother worrying about us. The people were nice. We were sad when we had to leave.

For some reason, probably involving distance and money, I never got back to Tokyo until this year. I wondered if I would still love it. It turns out I do.

The Tokyo I saw this year bears very little surface resemblance to the Tokyo where I lived in 1956. The site of my former school is now occupied by a huge complex of municipal office buildings. The current version of the school is somewhere else, a big, beautifully equipped operation more like a university, impressive but not familiar.

In 1956 there were no skyscrapers, because of the fear of earthquakes. Today, skyscrapers are the dominant feature of the landscape. Downtown Tokyo is full of wide, multi-lane streets that look more Toronto’s University Avenue than your idea of the Far East.

But … leading off those wide avenues are narrow streets, too narrow for two cars to pass, and those narrow streets are lined with small shops and tiny restaurants where you only get pork, or noodles or beef or fish. There’s no danger of Tokyo losing its character. Little streets like this are sitting in the shadow of the skyscrapers.

In 1956 there were no skyscrapers, because of the fear of earthquakes. Today, skyscrapers are the dominant feature of the landscape.

It’s true that I can’t find my old house when I visit the neighbourhood in the southwestern suburbs. It’s probably been replaced by something newer, probably something bigger. But the neighbourhood is recognizable and the little square around the train station is the same, with the same fountain.

So, in important ways, the Tokyo I remember endures and there is a lot to like about it. Among them:

● The Japanese don’t seem to need stuff the way we do. Traditional houses, replicated in the inns that are called ryokans, don’t have beds, don’t have chairs. That’s a bit extreme. But try walking down a Tokyo street looking for a place to throw away your chewing gum. Trash cans are extremely difficult to find. Over here, if there were no trash cans there would be gum all over the streets. Not so in Tokyo. Which leads to the conclusion that the Japanese don’t make trash the way we do. Heedful of “this street isn’t able to walk while eating,” Japanese don’t have their hands full of candy wrappers and takeout coffee cups the way we do.

Garbage cans japan

Sort it Out: Garbage is an obsessive compulsive preoccupation in Japan.

When you visit Mt. Fuji you see another sign: “There are no trash bins on Mt. Fuji. Please take your trash home.” It looks like everybody does.

● There are homeless people in Tokyo. I know, I asked. But I had to ask. I saw two in five days in Tokyo, one in three days in Kyoto. How many would you see in five days in Toronto?

● There is a comforting sense of order about the place. Despite the gigantic population (13-plus million in Tokyo alone), traffic moves, trains are reliable and people don’t seem to crash into each other, either on the streets or the sidewalks.

In the debate between freedom and order, Tokyo falls solidly on the order side. On the subway escalators it is understood that riders will stand on the left, so that those in a hurry can walk past them on the right. On the staircases, arrows indicate the proper side to walk, usually the left but not always. This may seem a bit anal, but there are lots of folks — one station, Shinjuku, is used by 3.6 million people a day — and it is nice not to be crashed into.

Shinjuku Station Tokyo

Shinjuku Station in Tokyo: Over 3.6 million users a day try not to bump into each other.

There is a good sense of how to avoid problems where huge crowds of people meet. An interesting example: signs at major tourist attractions, such as shrines, warn against the taking of group photos. Selfies are bad enough in a crowd, but nothing clogs pedestrian traffic life a lot of people posing for a picture.

Most famously, people don’t jaywalk in Tokyo. It is stunning to come upon a red light at a narrow street crossing with not a car in sight and see dozens of citizens patiently waiting for the light to change. In our time in Tokyo I saw no one cross against a light — except, perhaps not unsurprisingly, a couple of cyclists.

What to make of this? Ottawa residents have been mocked for being the type who won’t cross against the light even at three in the morning with no traffic visible. Of course this isn’t true and never was, but the inference is clear: the decision not to jaywalk indicates a docility, an unseemly deference to authority somehow incompatible with being free and interesting people.

But there is another way of looking at it, at least as it applies to Tokyo. The folks waiting at the unbusy intersection are respectful of the law, to be sure, but they are also respectful of each other. To step off the curb while the others wait is to say “I’m more important than you; I have rights that you don’t have.”

To step off the curb while the others wait is to say “I’m more important than you; I have rights that you don’t have.”

In Tokyo they reject that kind selfishness and perhaps they need to in order for a city of that size to be able to work. I sort of liked it, myself. There was a little sense of community among us all, waiting at the quiet corner for the light to change.

● The muzak of Tokyo is jazz. Instead of mushy soft-rock and Beatles medleys played by string orchestras, you hear real music in the background at public places. It is not necessarily in-your-face, but it is real jazz, giving you an enjoyable cross-cultural experience when you hear Sarah Vaughan and Clifford Brown while you eat lunch in the restaurant city, as it is called it, atop a Ginza department store.

Clifford Brown

It’s not Muzak: It’s Clifford Brown

● There is an investment in infrastructure we can only look at in awe and envy. For example, most of the train platforms we saw have barriers that only open when the train arrives, a means of preventing fatal accidents and suicides (not to mention delays). The process of installing them is ongoing and costs are in the billions. Can we imagine a Canadian municipality or provincial government risking the wrath of taxpayers by spending related amounts to protect citizens?

An actuary's dream: Barriers at subway stations keep passenger risk to a minimum.

An actuary’s dream: Barriers at subway stations keep passenger risk to a minimum.

To take another, more exotic example, sidewalks on main streets in Tokyo and other cities have odd markings on them, notably a kind of raised yellow line that runs on the sidewalk, with a hard, rubbery surface textured with lines and dots, the lines going off in different directions at intersections. You think at first that the lines are just to separate the streams of pedestrian traffic, but in fact pedestrian traffic goes, oddly, pretty much were it wants.

Feel Me, See Me: Tactile ground surfaces help the blind navigate the concrete jungle.

Feel Me, See Me: Tactile ground surfaces help the blind navigate the concrete jungle.

The lines are called Tactile Ground Surface Indicators and they are designed to guide blind people on the streets, a kind of Braille for the feet, indicating intersections, entrances to stairs, subway platforms etc. What a thoughtful, and incredibly expensive, idea.

● Unlike what we see, or don’t see, in many Canadian cities, public toilets are all over the place, clean and well-marked, in subway stations, in department stores and any place where people gather. Urinals in public washrooms have little hooks beside them for umbrellas. What they don’t have, in many instances, is paper towel or hot air blowers (although the toilets themselves are rather alarmingly high-tech, with an array of controls that you might decide not to touch).

● The high tech is helpful in many ways. Japanese vending machines have everything and they are everywhere, perhaps reflecting the fact that many people work late and are a long way from home. Convenience stores, which are more plentiful than they are here, have good supplies of ready-to-eat fare. They also have the best ATMs in the city, with easy translation into English (and a readout of your bank balance in yen). Ticket machines in the subway stations also translate at the touch of a button.

● The trains themselves deserve a mention. In the stations the signage is excellent, in English as well as Japanese. The trains, from the Tokyo subways to the amazing bullet train to Kyoto, are smooth and quiet. You can hear the announcements and the readouts, in both languages, are clear. They even tell you which side of the train the doors will open. If you know where you’re going, you won’t get lost.

Not that it isn’t complex. There are 285 subway and train stations in Tokyo alone with a complex network of connections. You see people looking at their phones to figure out where to transfer. But you don’t see them talking on them. Signs urge them not to.

The shinkansen or bullet train is not only incredibly fast but also roomy, quiet and smooth. Train personnel bow as they enter the car and leave it. The train is almost always absolutely on time. One that we took was late — because there had been a major earthquake. Even then, by the time we got on it had picked up 20 minutes.

● Finally, there is an endearing goofiness to Japanese life that contrasts nicely to the nation’s buttoned-up image. The same people who wait at the light are the people who invented karaoke. They also created the pachinko parlour, a festival of flash and noise masquerading as a pinball palace. Japanese baseball games are raucous affairs, full of singing and crazy mascots. Some parts of Tokyo, such as the Harajuku district, have a distinctively offbeat personality. Harajuku’s Takeshita Dori (or street) is a bustling narrow thoroughfare jammed with stores selling the weird fashions that Japan’s teenagers especially favour. It looks like Halloween every day of the year. And at the end of it is a wide thoroughfare with upscale stores, resembling nothing so much as the Champs-d’Elysees.

…There is an endearing goofiness to Japanese life that contrasts nicely to the nation’s buttoned-up image…

Tokyo Hello Kitty Phone

Hello? Kitty? The strange side of Japanese culture includes the cat-like little girl, Kittty.

People who know modern Japan better than I do suggest that life there is not as pleasant as it seems. There is difficulty for some in finding work and many middle-aged men simply give up and stay home. And the country faces a more extreme version of the demographic challenge facing other nations, including ours. The population is aging and, because there is little immigration, in danger of shrinking.

…The country faces a more extreme version of the demographic challenge facing other nations, including ours. The population is aging and, because there is little immigration, in danger of shrinking.

But then, we have problems too. Most of the time when I travel away from Canada, I breathe a sigh of relief when I get home, because this is where things work. That sigh didn’t happen this time. Things work just as well there, maybe better in some ways. But the truly heartening thing about this return to Tokyo was that I could both marvel at the amazing modernity of it and find, without even looking hard, the city I loved 60 years ago.

Photo illustrations: Victor Bonderoff
THE EX-PRESS, November 22, 2016

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5 Replies to "Hello Tokyo, How You've Changed"

  • Chris November 23, 2016 (5:13 pm)

    Very enjoyable, I have always been fascinated by Japan and it’s culture, though I have yet to make it happen. Thank you for a lively glimpse of this least ‘scrutable’ of earths peoples.

  • Joan Monk November 23, 2016 (12:55 am)

    wonderful article.I almost felt I was walking with the writer.

  • Doug Small November 22, 2016 (12:08 pm)

    Why can’t more travel stories be written like this? Informative and balanced and with a lovely deft touch.

  • meterponk November 22, 2016 (9:26 am)

    I love your take on the EX-press logo with the horse circling the world…this article was fun to read!
    love from one of your great admirers!

  • Jay Stone November 22, 2016 (9:17 am)

    A great piece Charley, filled with stuff that no one else has ever told me. It makes me want to go there.

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