April 28, 2010

Its now been a couple of weeks since Asako and I left Tokyo for the north of Honshu (Japan’s largest island). During that time I was hoping to catch up on many of the things I had seen and done in and around Tokyo but not yet written about but somehow I ended up spending all my time soaking in hot mineral springs and doing little else. So, before we move on to Iwate a few more of the things I liked about Tokyo….

Tokyo is an incredibly pedestrian friendly city. It has developed at pedestrian scale and so  feels human scale. That may seem a surprising statement considering the cities population of 20 odd million people, notoriously and inhumanly crammed into rush-hour trains like battery hens into cages or the Blade Runner-esque landscape of night-time Shinjuku and the being-sucked-into-a-black-hole soundscapes of the ubiquitous pachinko parlours. Despite such assaults on human dignity most of the city maintains the sense that it was built for human habitation (compared with, say, Miami which feels like it was designed for the easy movement of automobiles delivering human-consumer-units to shopping malls).

Much of the street layout of Tokyo dates from the time of the pre-Tokyo city of Edo (1603 – 1868) which, unlike contemporaneous western cities, had very limited animal and cart traffic so the streets were kept very narrow. In fact, a conscious de-stocking of Japans countryside, towns and cities occurred in an effort to protect the environment in rural areas and the health of the townspeople. Edo was the largest city in the world at the time but 44% of the population occupied only 18% of the land so even back then space was at a premium and it made sense to keep streets narrow and allow more space for homes and workshops.

Typical Tokyo street

One outcome of the organic development of the city from Edo times is that the streets are now too narrow for the free flow of automobile traffic (excepting motorbikes and scooters). To avoid crawling along in cars at a snails pace the vast majority of people walk or cycle short  distances and use public transport for longer journeys. While many western cities are now introducing car-free zones in order to create pedestrian friendly public spaces it occurs by default in Tokyo. Its not that cars are prevented from using the streets its just really impractical. The streets are so narrow that you can only drive very slowly and hope you don’t meet a car coming the other way. Most streets have no footpaths – there’s no room for them as many streets are barely wider than the footpaths of other cities – so pedestrians walk down the middle of the streets, ruling the roads, as cyclists weave around them. What a wonderful turn around: public space for people!

Tokyo neighborhoods are made up of labyrinthine networks of little streets which are connected by a small number of “main” roads. While in Tokyo I was regularly cycling from Sakura-josui to Inashiro, a journey  of about 15 km’s and only had to cross three roads that had two or more lanes of traffic. It’s a great city for cycling. Not only for the mostly car free roads but its a relatively flat city as well, making for really cruisey rides. Another excellent feature for cyclists is the placement of convex mirrors on many of the street corners allowing you to see whats around the corner without slowing down. The only difficulty is negotiating the labyrinth. There are no street names or numbers so following directions is near impossible. When cycling I overcame this difficulty by sticking fairly closely to the train lines – kind of like dropping pebbles as you go.

Street scene around Sakura-josui, Tokyo

Another aspect of the city that remains from Edo times are the “shopping streets” of small independently owned “mom and pop” businesses. Sure, there are the big chain stores, franchises and “convenience” stores but there is still very strong support for locally owned businesses selling daily necessities. Where in many cities the arrival of convenience stores and supermarkets is followed closely by the disappearance of independent vegetable vendors, butchers or fish mongers this has certainly not been the case in Tokyo. I have read that supermarkets and convenience stores sometimes struggle to survive in Tokyo because of the overwhelming preference for the locally owned and operated businesses. While, no doubt, this has a lot to do with the fostering of personal relationships between sellers and buyers it is also, I think, related to the street layout of the city. The small narrow streets that restrict traffic flow also thwart the classic supermarket or shopping mall ‘appeal’ as the one stop, drive in and fill up with a car load of groceries, easy shopping experience… When on foot or bicycle you can’t really do a weeks worth of shopping all in one go, instead you are much more likely  to pick up one or two things you need to get you through the next day or two. Easy enough to do if you’re passing by all the small stores selling the various day-to-day items you might need on your walk back from the train station to your house. The narrow streets around many stations are lined with just such an array of stores.


Supermarket, Tokyo


Vegetable store

Tofu store

Tea shop

Miso shop

Fish store

Asako and I had the good fortune of arriving in Tokyo just in time for sakura-matsuri (cherry-blossom festival). The sakura blossom announces the arrival of spring and the time to plant rice. There are enormous numbers of sakura throughout Tokyo so at this time of year the city looks incredibly beautiful  with bursts of white and pink appearing in the sky and covering the ground in blossom snow. There is an interesting story about the origins of the many sakura trees in Tokyo. During the Edo period a certain Daimyo, or fuedal lord, in an effort to curtail the  repeated uprisings of the masses planted sakura throughout the city. But this wasn’t simply an attempt to suppress revolution with beauty (although if it was to work anywhere it might just be here). The cunning part was to create a festival around the blossoming of the sakura in which all classes of Edo society could celebrate together. The sakura-matsuri was to Edo Japan what football is to most of the world and in typical Japanese fashion a highly aesthetic and formal affair. Sakura-matsuri is still a very popular, if less formal, festival in Japan and come spring families, friends, workmates etc., hold cherry blossom viewing parties (or drinking sake under the cherry tree parties) wherever the sakura are to be found.

Sakura viewing party, Tokyo

And then there are the spontaneous street parties. One Sunday afternoon I chanced across a street “rave.” With a sound system powered by a portable generator a dj enticed passerby to spend a few minutes shaking their booty with complete strangers.

Street party, Tokyo

A few random images and we’ll be done with Tokyo, for now.


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