Tokyo, Japan

June 26, 2009

Tokyo had two faces: Yamanote and Shitamachi – uptown and downtown, mod and trad, respectively.

High Fashion and High Jinks in Yamanote

The dichotomy was not as physically striking as, say, Pudong and Puxi in Shanghai, which were geographically distinct. In Tokyo, the separation was more subtle, with one side bleeding into the other. They were not districts of the city, but a subcultural distinction. Nevertheless, the two areas’ antithesis was palpable as soon as I met my friend-cum-guide, Mr. A., who had lived in nearby Kawasaki on and off for some years now.

Mr. A. planned our city tour. I noticed that the spots he would take me and my travel buddy to visit were clustered on one side of the city – the western part. It all seemed both logical and practical: it was a time-, money-, and energy-saving itinerary. However, when I suggested a particular place on the other side I got a stern refusal. As human nature would have it, the forbidden fruit looked more enticing than the permissible ones in the basket.

The Mikoshi, a Symbol of the Traditions of Shitamachi

Mr. A, perhaps unconsciously, limited his tour to Yamanote, the face of modern Tokyo. Literally, the name meant “towards the mountain” – it sat on an elevated area preferred by the feudal privilege class for its cooler climes. Today, it was the “uptown” part of the city, not only geologically but culturally. This was the face that Tokyo put on to occupy its niche among world-class cities: upscale, state-of-the-art, avant garde, forward-thinking, Western.

Yamanote was best exemplified by Roppongi, a newly developed district gleaming with high-rise condos, high-end brand-name shops and entertainment, high-brow art installations, and high-class denizens of yuppie Tokyoites and expats. But all that glitters was not gold; I heard some of the habitues here were arrivistes: show-biz types, IT moneymakers, all sorts of gaijin (foreigners), and allegedly even Yakuza members comprised the Roppongi demographics.

Despite its raunchy reputation (most of the locals, usually the older set, I had talked to had low regard for Roppongi), art was alive and well in the district, home of “the art triangle”: The National Art Center Tokyo, Mori Art Museum, and Suntory Museum of Art. Alas, browsing modern art was not part of our agenda, which was such a pity because the exhibitions were open to the public for free.

National Art Center in Roppongi, Tokyo
Maman in Roppongi, Tokyo

Just outside the 54-storey high Mori Tower stood Maman, the famous Louise Bourgeois spider sculpture, which I had previously seen in a friend’s photo taken at Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain. I had certainly not expected to see one in Roppongi! But there she was in all her ten-meter-tall pregnant glory. I went directly under its latticed sac to check her marble eggs. All accounted for – she hadn’t lost her marbles!

Another kind of giant jumped at me – humongous video screens that camouflaged entire walls. One of these vidi walls announced the death of Michael Jackson (which I initially thought was just a bad-joke-gone-viral). It was one of those “where were you when it happened” events – and I’d never forget hearing about it in Roppongi.

More of Mori Tower in Roppongi, Tokyo
Showing on the Wall: Video Wall in Roppongi, Tokyo

Behind the skyscrapers, public art, and mod glitz, our feet led us to a vestigial oasis of traditional Japan in the form of Mori Garden. Located beside the TV Asahi (a national TV station) headquarters, the garden was quietly Zen. Old camphor and cherry trees in the area had been preserved here, as well as the original terrain that directed the water flow in the garden pond, a soothing water symbolizing the unity of Tokyo’s old and new faces, the crossroad between Yamanote and Shitamachi.

Mori Pond: A Symbol of Old and New Tokyo, of Yamanote and Shitamachi

It was late in the afternoon and I had seen Tokyo’s new face, but I couldn’t shake off the allure of the old. Besides, I wanted to rendezvous with a local Tokyoite I knew in that area. Finally, I was able to convince Mr. A to let me go by myself. I braved the convoluted Tokyo Metro alone to Shitamachi, the face of traditional Tokyo.

Literally, Shitamachi meant “low city” as it was located in the marshes of Sumida River and Tokyo Bay. Historically, this was where the lower castes of Japanese society lived – the merchants, entrepreneurs, and artisans. This community was presented so vividly in a recent Japanese period film I had seen: Always – San-chome no yuhi (Always – Sunset on Third Street). This was the face of Tokyo that was more akin to Kyoto: traditional, working class, collectivist, and nostalgic.

I took the Ginza Metro to Ueno. This line was the oldest in Tokyo (it opened in 1927); its yellowed tiles and smaller, shaky trains gave its age away. It was like being transported to Tokyo of decades past, similar to the NYC subway back in the 80s. Curiously, it was only in this line that I saw protective railings between the platform and the railway for suicide prevention.

Chuo-dori in Downtown Ueno, Tokyo

I emerged from Ueno Station to the busy Chuo-dori (Chuo Avenue). At first glance, this downtown didn’t seem any different from, say, Ginza or Shinjuku: busy and lit up by neon lights. But its lack of sheen and a rather stale air soon emerged. My Tokyoite friend and I cut through Ueno Park, known as a haven for the homeless. I did see some pushing their shopping carts on the sidewalk but mostly keeping to themselves in dark corners. The homeless here seemed more discreet than their in-your-face Third World counterparts.

Kaminarimon in Asakusa, Tokyo

Our leisurely stroll from the subway station through Asakusa, the heart of Shitamachi, was poles apart from my Roppongi experience. We entered through the Kaminarimon, a gate of the Senso Temple, marked by a giant chochin, a hanging lantern made of paper or silk. The whole thing screamed old and quaint. Shitamachi brought me back down to traditional Japan from the extraterrestrial futuristic world over at the Yamanote side.

I found Asakusa a charming place conducive for unhurried exploration on foot. The Nakamise Shopping Street and alleys that bisected it perpendicularly exuded this Shitamachi vibe (as in the aforementioned movie): low wooden structures, lighted lanterns, traditional merchandise, and the occasional jinrikisha (rickshaw) zipping by. Smaller versions of the chochin adorned the pedestrian streets flanked by small souvenir shops and traditional Japanese restaurants. My friend’s elderly parents had a kimono shop in the area.

Shitamachi Spirit on Nakamise Shopping Street
Kumi from Asakusa

What made the whole promenade come together was the koto music wafting from unseen speakers. The sparse plucking sound of the koto (a traditional Japanese stringed instrument) was an ethereal minimalist music both unobtrusive and unyielding to other aural stimuli. It might be a tad contrived, but this was one tourist trap that could pleasantly detain. Along the way I saw many Japanese traditional items on display, such as the mikoshi, a portable Shinto shrine carried by devotees on their shoulders.

Finally, I capped the day of pounding the pavement with a rejuvenating and wonderful dinner at Tofuro Bakufu-cho. I devoured hefty servings of tempura and wasabi-dipped delights. The most delightful item on the menu though was ganso mocchiri tofu (original creamy tofu) – a soft round tofu that melted in the mouth. I melted with it; I thought I’d died and gone to heaven! Could this be the forbidden fruit that Mr. A didn’t want me to partake?

Heavenly Tofu Ball from Tofuro Bakufu-cho, Asakusa, Tokyo

This day-long tour around Tokyo was a great face-off between the city’s two faces. Yamanote versus Shitamachi, Roppongi versus Asakusa. Ultimately, there was no contest between the two phases of one face – the yin and yang of Tokyo. Was it a toss between a bronze arachnid sculpture and a fluffy tofu ball? Perhaps a cop out, but it was a draw. Otherworldly and heavenly – both were a delight to the senses. Both represented Tokyo in distinct, complementary ways.