symbol of the Japanese success story, is a huge
megalopolis situated on the Pacific coast of Honshu, the
largest island of the Japanese archipelago. In 1590, the city was
established as Edo, the capital of the
shoguns, the series of hereditary absolute rulers of Japan
and commander of the Japanese miltary. Edo enjoyed its own vibrant
culture, the famous ‘floating world’ of pleasure quarters,
theatres and cherry blossoms, immortalised in the Japanese woodblock
prints of the time. After the decline of the shoguns in 1867 (and
the restoration of the power of the Emperor), the city was
renamed Tokyo, the Eastern Capital, proclaiming its new
beginning as a dynamic modern city and the example of an increasingly
modernised country. In spite of the catastrophic 1923 earthquake
and near total obliteration during World War II, Tokyo began to
rise from the ashes to host the 1964 Olympics and went on to preside
over the Japanese economic miracle.
That this perplexing amalgamation of neighbourhoods and districts
is able to function as whole is largely due to the uniquely efficient
network of rail and underground lines that crisscross and
surround the city. These are Tokyo’s arteries, transporting
masses of businesspeople, office workers and students from the suburbs
and placing them in vast stations. Over 2 million people a day travel
through Shinjuku Station alone. The towering business
districts are swarming with soberly dressed businesspeople and the
demure young secretaries known as ‘office flowers’.
The architectural anarchy and sheer crush of humanity attacks the
senses. Among the frenzied consumerism, brash electronics
outlets are stacked next to sophisticated upscale boutiques
and hordes of giggling schoolgirls swooning over pop idols and the
latest fashions in glitzy emporiums.
Tokyo has a temperate climate, with warm but sometimes muggy summers
and mild, dry winters. The balmy warm spring days of April
to May are the best times to visit the city.
Downtown, old neighbourhoods are dotted around antiquated shopping
arcades and the clatter of the temple bell echoes over the rooftops.
Here, the rhythms of the seasons are observed. Tokyoites flock to
ring in the New Year at the revered Shinto shrines and in springtime
there's a flurry of flower-viewing parties and picnics under the
cherry blossoms. Lively, traditional festivals punctuate the humid
summers and the spirit of the old Edo also flourishes in the neon-bathed
entertainment districts: modern-day ‘floating worlds’
complete with karaoke and cinemas, bathhouses and shot bars. Traditional
kabuki theatre thrives along with opera, ballet and symphonic shows,
and Tokyoites are passionate about sumo, baseball and today–
in the wake of Japan’s co-hosting of the 2002 World Cup –
football. Food, an additional obsession is well catered for in this
city of 60,000 restaurants and the largest fish market in the world.
From bowls of steaming ramen noodles to slices of sashimi, chefs
compete to provide the freshest produce, and food `presentation
is elevated to an art form.
The focal point of Japan’s highly centralised government,
business and financial institutions, Tokyo has been seriously affected
by the country’s continuing recession, bank collapses and
financial scandals. Many certainties of the past appear to have
vanished, however, opinions vary widely as to the extent of the
damage and what lies ahead. Surprisingly little of this trepidation
is apparent to visitors, as – on the surface, at least –
Tokyo and its people are still prosperous and forward-looking.