Organised, chaotic, indulgent and repressed, Japan's extraordinary capital really justifies the 'city of contrasts' label, says Stephen Bayley
Saturday 10 December 2005
There is a certain lazy sort of travel article that begins "Tokyo - city of contrasts". This is not one of them, but I can assure you right now that Tokyo is, indeed, a city of contrasts. If you are expecting the mysterious east, the floating world, Zen moon-viewing platforms and geishas, you will be astonished at how very westernised it is. But if the familiarity of the cars, clothes, buildings and drinks, and ubiquity of signs in English lull you into thinking you understand what is going on, bafflement soon follows. In Tokyo, surface and substance are very different.
The Japanese have a great sense of beauty, but no sense of ugliness. Large parts of Tokyo look like a very brightly lit, steam-cleaned downtown Pittsburgh. And then there is the conflict between spiritualism and materialism. Or, at least, we see it as a conflict, but the Japanese, perhaps, do not. The same culture sustains a reverence, say, for the delicate and exquisite "death poems" of Zen monks and, at the same time, for the most extreme forms of consumerism known on the planet. Death poems were final thoughts on imminent expiry penned by, for instance, the 13th-century Hosshin:
Coming, all is clear, no doubt about it.
Going, all is clear, without a doubt.
What, then, is it all?
Hosshin was illiterate, but his Chinese teacher taught him to meditate on a symbol in a circle. This he did, we are told, until "his rear became rotten and maggots bred there". Nowadays, Japanese designers apply the same discipline to the research and development of luxury cars.
It is nearly 25 years since my first visit to Japan. The journey, with its eight-hour time-shift, has always been a nightmare, although slightly less so now that you can fly non-stop in around 12 hours. In 1981 Japan Airlines still operated antique, narrow-body, but long-range Douglas DC-8s. Still, an obligatory stop in Anchorage, Alaska, was required before glasnost freed up Russian air space. Obliged to deplane at very much the wrong time of day, the sole concession to cultural or intellectual curiosity in Anchorage's transit lounge was a giant polar bear in a glass vitrine. The caption stated that after the creature was killed, liquid fish fat issued from its mouth for several hours.
Now you travel in a single hop on a 747 and, if you are lucky, spend most of the journey unconscious and horizontal - travelling east against the sun, night catches up with you very quickly after an afternoon departure from London. You enter a state described by John Updike as "Sweet fish tinned in the innocence of sleep... stray yen jingling in the sky of our snoring". And, long-haul, I always think of Robert Conquest's lines:
After the horrors of Heathrow
A calmness settles in.
A window seat, an ambient glow,
A tonic-weakened gin.
Quite so. Back in 1981, when Lexus did not exist, a Tokyo luxury car was a Hirohito-era, piano-black Toyota Crown with bevelled-edge looking glasses and antimacassars. It was driven by someone wearing white gloves who looked as if he should have been flying a Nakajima seaplane. Taxi drivers still wear white gloves, but Lexus has become a credible luxury product at least the equal of its European rivals. That is how much Japan has changed in a quarter of a century.
Back in 1981, there were westernised luxury hotels, but they often retained a period aroma, as if you were rooting through long-undisturbed drawers in an anteroom of the Imperial Palace. (Frank Lloyd Wright's Imperial Hotel would be an example.) That, too, has changed. We stayed in what, thanks to Bill Murray, has become one of the world's most celebrated hotels. The Tokyo Park Hyatt is the star of the surreally detached film Lost in Translation and the preferred hotel of Terence Conran, no pushover when it comes to impressing via hospitality. Here Murray suffers great luxuries which fail to rouse him from the metaphysical and physical anguish and agonies of severe jetlag.
Your taxi enters the Tokyo Park Hyatt via a swooping ramp. Quaintly, cabs still have that Rube Goldberg rod-and-crank device to open the near-side passenger door: an early intimation of Japanese mastery of automated systems. There's a fine coffee shop and deli on the ground floor, but then you have to whoosh up a whopping 42 storeys before you find reception. And the famous New York Bar and Grill is 10 storeys above that. The Zagat guide gives it top rating, but the most impressive things are the amazing views and the commensurately amazing prices. Splendid for a reflective movie-flavoured drink in the style of Bill Murray, but there are many thousands of better, not to say affordable, places to eat in Tokyo. Zagat appears to have suburban criteria and may be easily impressed. But to experience the rest of the Tokyo Park Hyatt is to experience what is very likely the ultimate in modern, international hotel-keeping.
Service, cordiality, comfort and quality of materials are all impeccable. The whole place hums with wealth and efficiency. Forget something, return to your room from the lobby, and they have tidied it up already. They either have secret listening devices or cleaning crews are hidden behind false panels in the woodwork. Bathrooms have more extra-fluffy, blinding-white towels than even a profligate gourmet bather can find a use for. I could not count exactly how many outlets the shower offered, but jets of water reached surprising places.
Outside the marmoreal bathing area, a zero-tolerance attitude to dirt and mess was obvious everywhere. They were cleaning the outside of our 47th-floor windows the day a typhoon was blowing out. Rocco Forte's European hotels reach an agreeably high standard, but the Tokyo Park Hyatt makes them look amateurish, penny-pinching and crude in comparison.
But, of course, there's a universe of other reasons to visit Tokyo. These might be summarised as shopping, eating, sightseeing. First, the question of getting about. Tokyo is a city comprising different cities. There is "the amusement zone" of Odaiba; Shinagawa with its vestiges of the ancient; Shiodome with the 333m tall Tokyo (television) tower, built in 1958; Ginza, the electric boulevard; Marunouchi with the central station, government and business; Shinjuku, the high-rise area; Shibuya, funky and smart shops; Ikebukuro with its art galleries and Toyota's Amlux Auto Salon; Roppongi, night life; Akihabara, home of Electric City; Ueno with its temples and parks; Asakusa where, they say, time has stopped.
This would be confusing enough, even with viable maps, but until General Patton suggested a revisionist approach to the matter, it had not occurred to the Japanese to use street names. Buildings have numbers requiring feats of memory that humble the London cabbie's Knowledge. To be certain of getting somewhere, your host needs to draw a map of your destination. There are obvious methodological problems here, but in compensation taxis are superlatively clean, if expensive and slow.
It would be impossible to do all of mad, sprawling Tokyo in a visit of conservative length, so best to pre-edit and concentrate on a few areas, a few shops, a few sights and a few restaurants. Successfully booking a restaurant requires the intervention of hotel staff and the sole glitch in the Park Hyatt experience was being sent to one that was shut, as many are, on Sunday night. We were in Ginza, which is deceptively brightly lit, but then went exploratively around a dark corner into a sinister alley and entered the noisy corridor of a restaurant that was open. A new Rolls-Royce Phantom with privacy glass was outside on this rain-slick night with its engine left running.
The restaurant turned out to be the Old Okinawa. Staffed by enthusiasts in piratical Edo-period bleu du travail, with headbands and pedal-pushers, we ate at a counter and drank huge glasses* * of sinus-achingly cold beer. We ate pork ears with hot spice, pork tripe, smoked pork snout, pork ears and goat sashimi. An American friend told me he had been served a still live, pumping fish heart and eaten a blancmange-like treat in a Tokyo restaurant that, to his subsequent horror, turned out to be whale sperm.
Old Okinawa, for its part, had a pickled snake (about 2m long) in a Kilner jar on the counter. Other memorable meals were at Fukuzushi in Roppongi. This is classic sushi, immaculately served in classic surroundings by shouting enthusiasts with frighteningly sharp knives.
Or Kyubey in south Ginza. This has the reputation of being among Tokyo's very finest, something that was confirmed when the proprietor alarmingly told us in English that his son works in London's gastronomically and economically stratospheric Nobu. I think we paid £100 a head for astonishing sushi, but hot and cold sake numbed the pain.
For tempura, the deep-fried Japanese speciality, you go to rustic Asakusa, where Edokko serves the battered shrimp-on-rice tendon in a discreet polish-smelling wooden interior behind white noren, or curtain doors. Imported wine is now widely available, but local beer seems more sensible (and is more reliable). Lunch and dinner are served surprisingly early. Whatever time you take it, eating in Tokyo lets you share itinerant rogue chef Anthony Bourdain's "dead bang, surefire, king-hell rush". Tokyo food is wonderful.
As a shopping city, Tokyo makes London or New York appear puritanical. You might start with a visit to Yodobashi Camera on what is now called Shinjuku's Electric Street to experience what they cheerfully describe as the "total multimedia life". Or to experience what I would call 42nd Street Photo as seen in an over-speed, hand-cranked movie with DayGlo coloration. They have digital devices you cannot even imagine; prices are not especially competitive, but the range of products and energy of the sell are utterly intoxicating.
Tokyo's great stores are Parco, Seibu and Itesan. They are not particularly distinguished from Europe's or America's best, but most have astonishing food halls with irresistible tasting samples. You could wander and graze all day, an interesting low-cost option. The most European shopping street - it even has pavement cafés - is Omotesando in Shibuya. Here you find the label boutiques; off Omotesando is Cat Street, with more adventurous fashion shops. Some are very, very strange.
Life on the Tokyo street is so amazingly interesting that conventional sightseeing seems redundant. It would be perverse to avoid the Imperial Palace and the Nijubashi Bridge, or the (reconstructed) Meiji Shrine in Shibuya's Yoyogi Park, but our excursion into the folkloric was on this occasion restricted to Asakusa, the only part of Tokyo which retains a feel of the low-rise Edo period when old Kyoto was still the capital. Here is Tokyo's oldest temple, the Senso-ji, built in 628. There is incense in the air and sombre couples in dark suits. In Asakusa you find Kappabashi Dogugai Street, which has more than 170 cookware shops that will sell you a katana blade so you can pretend to be either a samurai or a sushi chef. But just to remind you this is modern Tokyo and things are slightly mad, Asakusa also has the 22-storey HQ of Asahi Breweries, designed to look like a foaming glass of beer.
The daily possibility of earthquakes has affected the Tokyo mentality, but the threat has been treated with typical Japanese thoroughness and practicality. Even so, they are still haunted by a collective memory of the great earthquake of 1923 which, with terrible symbolism, struck in the middle of the harvest season. Contemporary writers claimed to have a sense of foreboding. From its epicentre in Sagami Bay, 1,700 separate quakes emanated over three days. The first were so violent that the seismographs in the Central Weather Bureau stopped. There were rumours that unnamed occidental powers had invented an earthquake machine. A theory unproven, the old low, wooden city nevertheless went up in flames - leaving Tokyo the overwhelmingly modern project it remains to this day.
So much has changed since 1981, I had to retire to the bathroom to reflect on it all. A quarter of a century ago, some hotels still maintained traditional Japanese lavatorial arrangements, with separate bowls dedicated to the different human waste functions. This was a powerful source of anxiety to the under-researched. Now the best ones have the most perfect symbol I know of the Japanese achievement. This is the amazing Toto Power Toilet. These come with more standard features than a haut-de-gamme luxury car. You get: heated seats, variable power wash, a sound system, climate control, multi-function bidet, a fine-spray and an exhilarating blast of hot air for purposes of drying. Eventually, I imagine, they will fit one to a Lexus, and thus we will be able to have an authentic Tokyo experience without getting out of the car.
Tokyo is inventive, yet traditional. Well-organised, but chaotic. Regimented, but anarchic. Indulgent, but repressed. Western and Eastern. There is a certain sort of travel article that ends, Tokyo is a city, in fact, of wonderful contrasts.
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