Tokyo #1: When you see the green man, walk

“Space,” it says, “is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space, listen…

Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Chapter 8, Douglas Adams

Tokyo is big. Really big.

We landed at Narita airport, outside the city, and got a bus in. About fifteen minutes into the journey we hit the city. An hour and a half after that we reached our hotel. Not because we were stuck in traffic, UK style, but because the city just went and went and went and went. Tower after tower, building after building, road over road over road. It’s huge.

It’s one thing to read and know a place is big in factual form. It’s another to be in it. And when we found out that our guide wasn’t going to be able to meet us, we had literally no idea where in this vast sprawling metropolis we should begin.

I was travelling with a tall German photographer who looked like the giant Gulliver in Lilliput, and we set out into the sprawling unknown around Shinjuku railway station to see what we could discover for ourselves. What we discovered (and I wonder if there is an unwritten universal law about this when you’re lost) was a sex district similar to Soho in London. Shops with plastic curtains with 18 and an x underneath it hid what looked like internet cafes inside. We were confused. But upstairs, my curious photographer  discovered, was where the action was. Only he was told ‘Japanese only’ (much to my relief!).

In spite of the fact that the city itself is big, it’s perfectly made for 5’3″me. On the metro the seats were the perfect width and height, and if you had to stand, the rails to hold onto were not too much of a stretch up. I could see, for the most part, exactly where I was going without having my view blocked by people taller than me. But it made my poor broad, 6’4″ tall photographer even more conspicuous than he already had to be to with his giant camera pointing about. He was forever knocking into people, having things in his face, ducking under doorways and archways.

So as well as being big, Tokyo is small. And perfectly formed. The streets were clear and clean, everything manicured and shaped to be aesthetically pleasing. Every piece of space was efficiently used, but in no way looked cluttered. It was only after I returned to London, that I realised what a green city this is in comparison, and how gratuitous our park spaces and the patches of green at the ends of streets, the trees along the pavements and the endless unkempt raised flower beds would be in Tokyo.

Commuters head to work early, but there’s not really much for visitors before 11am. Up early on our first morning we caught all kinds of workmen setting the city in order, trimming the trees, arranging lights, cleaning the streets, polishing the windows.

And the people themselves seemed extremely orderly. No one rushed or power walked. Everyone formed orderly queues for the trains on the platforms. It was most obvious at street crossings, when even if there was no traffic coming at all, everyone waited until the green man appeared before they crossed. It was amusing at first, but by the end of our stay, we’d assimilated ourselves into obedient and conformist Japanese. And then it was funny seeing my photographer walking a full head and shoulders above everyone else.

I had expected Tokyo to be a modern version of Delhi – packed full of people and buildings, and although it was full of people and buildings, something about the orderliness of everything, made a city so large somehow feel very zen.


One response to “Tokyo #1: When you see the green man, walk

  1. I’m not a big fan of Tokyo — like you said, it’s just so big…and so urban (concrete and steel as far as the eye can see). I’ve only been there once, but I always remember that I saw two bagpipers in Tokyo and none in my visits to the UK.

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