Recentelijk heeft Stephen Hodes drie maanden in Tokio doorgebracht om de stad en de cultuur te leren kennen en te proberen die te doorgronden. Drie maanden is veel te kort voor een stad van 37 miljoen inwoners en voor een cultuur zo complex als die van Japan, maar hier zijn zijn indrukken – in het Engels – in een vrij lange brief aan de stad. Voor de geïnteresseerden.

A rather lengthy letter to Tokyo - May 2016

For me Tokyo is somewhere between here and there. It seems, at first sight, somewhat recognisable and somewhat familiar, but the better you get to know it, the less familiar it becomes. First and foremost, Tokyo is different, earnestly different. The words I associate with Tokyo are earnest, intent and intense. Tokyo is many faces, but it is overridingly serious; it is not to be taken lightly. It does not reveal its self easily and to truly understand it, is hard work, but the rewards are proportionate to the effort invested. As Edward Glease wrote in The Triumph of the City, ‘The silk curtain of Japan's insular culture remains relatively difficult for outsiders to part…..’. And Ares Kalandides wrote in his blog Places, ‘The fact that the city is there mostly for the locals and not for the visitors makes it feel more real, less commodified.’ Maybe this is why Tokyo now still feels authentic, whatever authentic may mean in this day and age.
This is a letter to a city that I have come to love and as with all those that we love, it is far from perfect, but in its imperfections, totally lovable.
There is a strong feeling of history about Tokyo which, in a way, is strange as there are very few old buildings, very few monuments and almost no statues celebrating great men, women and deeds of the past (probably the best known statue is of Hachikō, a dog who came to meet his master every day, also after he died, thereby symbolising fidelity and loyalty). The average age of all of Tokyo’s buildings is 26 years. Young, very young, yet the sense of history is everywhere in the rituals and traditions that guide its inhabitants. It is the intangible sense of history that so permeates the city, that makes it so very different from any other metropolis I know. So don’t seek the difference in the tangible, but in the intangible.


I no longer recall what struck me most about Tokyo when I came here for the first time, but very high on the list was undoubtedly the respectful way in which the city’s inhabitants behave - the consideration for the other is striking. The desire to help even when you have no common language. The unfailing good service whether it be in a coffee shop, convenience or department store, at a shoe repair bar or in a restaurant – excellent service is the norm. And no tips please, because service is not money motivated; it is how we treat one another. And where the respect is probably most visible is at rush hour in the metro when hundreds of thousands pass through the metro stations on their, often long, commute. Every morning and every evening, for example, almost 1 million commuters pass through Shinjuku train station in a courteous and organised fashion, in a dance of determined and earnest dancers. No one jumps the queue, no one pushes in front or bumps into you - it is like a graceful murmuration of starlings.

Once in the train something seems to take hold of the Tokyoites. Just about everyone is engrossed in his or her smartphone; not for a few minutes, but for the entire trip. It’s almost if they have taken the line from Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If’ very seriously - "If you can fill the unforgiving minute With sixty seconds' worth of distance run." As irritating as I find this device obsession, one thing I find very commendable is that no one uses their mobile in the train, on the platform and rarely in the streets, to phone – though incidents of phoning in public do seem to be on the increase, they are minimal. In the carriages quiet reigns and for many it is also the chance to nap.


So safe and silent
Being a self-diagnosed light sufferer of misophonia, the quietness that reigns over many parts of Tokyo are extremely attractive to me. Not in areas such as Shibuya with its huge flashing neon ads and related noise, or Shinjuku with its masses, but many areas and parks in and around central Tokyo are remarkably peaceful. Tokyoites are by and large soft spoken, except when they are not, and then they can be very noisy.

Another aspect that puts Tokyo in a league of its own, is the safety, cleanliness and hygiene. I believe that it is unparalleled when compared to other metropolises in the world. The Economist's Intelligence Unit not only ranks Tokyo as the safest city in the world, but also as the most populous. The combination of these two factors makes it exceptional. The stories about Tokyo’s safety are numerous, but two simple examples strike me as being typical of Tokyo’s safety. Often clients would come into the Starbucks I frequented, put their bags, mobiles, pc’s and other valuables down at a table on the second or third floor and then go downstairs to order, leaving everything out on the table. Another point that often struck me are men with large wallets of smartphones protruding out of their back trouser pockets or women with bags wide open on the busy streets or in the busy metros. Never does it seem to go wrong. The streets are safe, day and night, and spotlessly clean. Never once in the last three months did I feel remotely unsafe. It is possible!

Eyes on the street
I came to realise during my stay in Tokyo that the ideas of the influential American urbanist Jane Jacobs, such as eyes on the street, sidewalk activity and short blocks, were mainly driven by a need for safety and that possibly these ideas do not apply to Tokyo. The one aspect that Jacobs stressed that definitely counts for Tokyo is density, bringing more people, more frequently in face-to-face (productive) contact with one another. But when people can be trusted and when one therefore feels safe, the other aspects she stressed suddenly seem far less relevant. In fact, Tokyo has almost no eyes on the streets. Even in the areas where there are small, low rise buildings and housing, the buildings are closed and inward looking. One of the aspects of Tokyo that so underlines this feeling of safety is the large number of young (school)children out alone on the streets, in the parks or travelling alone in the metro. Sadly this is not something seen in many other large cities and therefore is so striking in Tokyo, the world’s largest metropolis.


Tokyo has no downtown, no one centre. It is more an ‘archipelago of neighbour-
hoods’, connected by a very superior (underground) infrastructure, with traditional areas with their roji (alleyway) neighbourhoods such as Yanaka, Shimokitazawa, Nakameguro or Sangenjaya, with their small buildings, narrow streets and many small shops, cafés and restaurants and on the other hand Omotesando Hills, Roppongi Hills, Ark Hills and Tokyo Midtown with their highrise buildings, cosmopolitan business like feel, expensive brand shops and beautifully maintained public spaces. This has led some observers to claim that ‘Tokyo has a dissociated and fragmented nature, with no center to give you a sense of direction.’ (Anna Berkhof, Tokyo Totem) This is written from the viewpoint of a visual and spatial hierarchy that does not work for Tokyo. Tokyo must be understood by connecting the dots, where each dot has its own substructure and together they form a rambling whole. Tokyo is more a forest with its own ecosystem than a cultivated agricultural landscape. It is in many ways the antithesis of most cities as we know them. It has no overriding structure such as Paris or New York, it has no squares as in London or Beijing, it has no centre, downtown or uptown as in Sydney or Chicago, it has no dominant buildings or monuments as in Washington or Rome or physical attributes as in Rio or Cape Town.

Just as the Japanese seem to live in a variety of ‘rooms’ and to move from one room to the other, each with its own identity and set of rules, so is Tokyo a physical representation of these ‘rooms’, each with its own prevailing character.
If you look beyond the scale of the city and you learn to read the dots, then a ‘surprisingly comfortable and intimate city’ will reveal itself (Anna Berkhof, Tokyo Totem).

The way of the gods
Another aspect that possibly explains why Tokyo, why Japan, is exceptional, is the predominant religion. Shinto ("the way of the gods") is the indigenous faith of the Japanese people and as old as Japan itself. Shinto is the largest religion in Japan, practiced by nearly 80% of the population and is unique to Japan. Only a small percentage of these identify themselves as "Shintoists", as there is no way, no ritual to join Shinto, to become a member. Shinto does not have a founder, nor does it have sacred scriptures or dogmas. There are no absolutes in Shinto, no absolute right and wrong. Nobody is perfect, but Shinto is an optimistic faith, as humans are thought to be fundamentally good. Shinto is also very strongly intertwined with nature, with mountains, rivers, plants and trees and the role that nature plays in the life of the Japanese. What also differentiates Shinto from many other religions is that men and women can become priests and are allowed to marry and have children. The strong role that rituals play in Shinto and the daily life of the Japanese people must, to a degree, explain what makes Tokyo so different from any other city, why the city is so safe, so clean, so respectful, so livable.

In addition, the four seasons are very clearly marked in Japan, and the changes through the year are dramatic. Time and a sense of transition, of impermanence is a precious entity in Japanese culture in which all that is, fades at some point in time. When I arrived in Tokyo in March it was cold and even snowing in the mountains outside Tokyo. In April the plum and cherry blossoms came to life and dominated the streets, canals, parks and rivers and the temperatures began to rise. And in May, the blossoms had long faded and it was warm and sunny.

Tokyo could also be called ‘the naked city’. The many onsen (hot springs) and sento (communal bathhouses), though decreasing in number, are very much part of the fabric that forms this city. Here the facilities for men and women are most often separated and nakedness becomes the great leveller (except for those with tattoos who are not permitted to enter as tattoos are a sign of belonging to yakuza, a Japanese criminal organisation). Onsen offer hot water pools from geothermally heated springs, sometimes outdoors, but most often indoor. Here the bathers are required to follow a strict etiquette that ensures cleanliness, hygiene and respect for others. In these bathhouses everyone, young and old, the powerful and the less powerful are, for the time they spend in the baths, equals.

Architecturally Tokyo is visually a chaos of styles of often ugly buildings. As refined as the Japanese aesthetic sense can be, their buildings seem to radiate ‘temporality’ which is also seen in the short average life of buildings in Tokyo. The idea that buildings and cities should seem as natural as possible and that they should be in harmony with the rest of nature, as they are only temporarily there, creates the tradition of making ‘temporary’ buildings. I haven’t managed to completely fathom out why this is, but maybe it has also to do with natural disasters with which Tokyo has had to deal and with the knowledge that that which is built today will be gone tomorrow. And it is maybe connected to what the well-known Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa described as, “an uncertainty about existence, a lack of faith in the visible, a suspicion of the eternal.” The city preserves relatively few buildings and has relatively few monuments. Japan has in total about 3.000 monuments of which almost half are natural monuments. In the words of Edward Gleaser, ‘there are downsides to preserving too much’ and therefore upsides to not doing so.

Michelin capital of the world
No description of Tokyo would be complete without mentioning the cuisine. Tokyo has well over 80.000 restaurants and more Michelin stars than any other city in the world (more than 210 Michelin stars and more than 330 bib gourmands). Tokyo is followed by Paris with a ‘mere’ 90 Michelin stars. You can eat excellent food at very reasonable prices or pay an arm and a leg at the almost-impossible-to-get-into restaurants. Always the service will be excellent. You can eat in one of the many tiny restaurants or in one of the specialised restaurants serving only one type of food, such as soba, ramen, tonkotsu, sushi, sashimi, tempura, yakitori, kaiseki, udon, okonomiyaki, etc. When it’s well done, the presentation can be stunning, the eye for detail exceptional and the rituals for each type of cuisine makes eating and drinking in Tokyo a unique experience.


There are many other words that I could use to describe the Tokyoites: honest, organised, respectful, clean & hygienic, well-dressed, reserved (except when they’re in the ‘noisy room’), hard-working, different yet collective, inflexible, difficult for non-Japanese to read, punctual and so many more words. What the future will bring for Tokyo is uncertain. It has shown that that it can be resilient and very flexible over the years, however the challenges it faces for the rest of this century are enormous - economically, demographically, politically and maybe most of all, culturally in an increasingly global world. But for now it is an inspiring city and a model for other metropolises around the world.

Watashi wa Tōkyō ga daisuki. I greatly appreciate what you have shown and shared with me.

Stephen Hodes