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Friday, September 24, 2010

東京 (とうきょう) - Tokyo

Big brother to 大阪 (おおさか - Osaka) and perhaps one of the most recognisable elements of Japan, 東京 sits unapologetically on its throne as Japan's capital and largest city. The metropolitan part of 東京 is a self-named prefecture in itself, but the greater 東京 area straddles three other prefectures and is home to more than 35 million people; on average, about 2500 of them are packed in per square kilometre.

If you're anything like me, the first two things that will come into your mind when you arrive in 東京 will be "people" and "buildings". Let me show you why.

For the unprepared (and probably many of the prepared), 東京 is a dizzying maze of busy people and buildings stretching across the horizon in all directions. Unlike 神戸 (こうべ - Kobe) which is relatively straightforward and easy to navigate, the layout of 東京 can only be summarised by giant spaghetti bowl-like charts of crisscrossing train and subway lines. There are hundreds of train stations, dozens of different lines and thousands of places to go. This makes it very difficult to work out what to visit first and it can all be a bit overwhelming to begin with.

This is because 東京 is more a conglomeration of cities than one big one - a lot of the time you're not so much travelling to a different suburb as a different town. There's no need to visit them all and nor would you want to try on the first go, so for the moment let's focus on a few of the "must-sees", the staples of a successful first trip to 東京.

渋谷 (しぶや - Shibuya)

渋谷 is situated about fifteen minutes from 東京駅 (とうきょうえき - toukyou eki - Tokyo Station) on JR. It seems almost exclusively built for the young people of 東京, a crowded night life and shopping district where the average age seems to be about 20. Outside 渋谷駅 (しぶやえき - shibuya eki - Shibuya Station) is a famous pedestrian crossing that allows people to cross into 渋谷 to and from all directions; when the man goes green, the entire square is inundated with hundreds of people - it's become a bit of a symbol of 渋谷. From above the crossing, huge neon signs and screens flash away with commercials and music, letting you know exactly what you should be looking for at the trendy shops across the street.

By night, the area turns into a popular entertainment district filled with restaurants, bars and people trying to get you into both. This is probably the place to go to experience the hustle and bustle of 東京 - millions pass through the station each day and the nighttime lights, sights and sounds are probably exactly what you imagine when you think of the capital.

The other thing 渋谷 is famous for is the sad story of ハチ公 (はちこう - Hachikou), a faithful Akita dog who accompanied his master to and from 渋谷駅 on his daily commute to 東京大学 (とうきょうだいがく - toukyou daigaku - Tokyo University). The professor died at work one day and never showed up for their usual meeting at 渋谷駅; this didn't stop ハチ公 sitting and waiting for him at the station every day for the following 9 years. Long after the poor dog's death, ハチ公 is considered a role model for loyalty he has featured in books and movies since.

One of the entrances to 渋谷駅 is known as ハチ公口 (はちこうぐち - hachikou guchi) - the "Hachikou entrance", featuring a bronze statue of ハチ公 facing the station in eternal vigil; his inscription says "忠犬 (ちゅうけん - chuuken - faithful dog) ハチ公". He's rarely the only one waiting for his friend either - he's one of the most popular landmarks for people to meet up at 渋谷駅.

原宿 (はらじゅく - Harajuku)

Just one stop from 渋谷駅 is another area called 原宿, which takes the youth culture one step further (and then breaks into a run); it's probably the only place I can think of that makes 渋谷 look conservative. Made famous in several songs and movies, the "原宿 girls" have become a bit of a pop-culture symbol of Japan in recent years. Needless to say, 原宿 is where they come to hang out; a lot of the time this is done in the hope that they'll be photographed for one of several photobooks and magazines about the different 原宿 fashion subcultures. Without pretending to fully understand, I would guess the girls above are dressed in ゴスロリ (gosurori - "goth loli") style. This is a combination of two subcultures - the dark colours and morbid motifs of "goth" with the frilly Victorian England, Alice in Wonderland "lolita" style.

Some of the other popular styles are punk, hip-hop and "Visual Kei", which is inspired by 80s big-hair American rock.

Not surprisingly, 原宿 is a favourite hangout for cosplayers as well - some people seem to blur the line a little between clothes and costume.

One of the main streets of 原宿 is 竹下通 (たけしたどおり - takeshita doori - Takeshita Street), which on the weekends becomes a hive of activity between the dresser-uppers and the photographers. Between all the international chains are plenty of inexpensive little shops that sell an increasingly bizarre range of styles so that everyone can continue pushing the fashion envelope. You never quite know what you're going to see... vampire teeth, for example.

新宿 (しんじゅく - Shinjuku)

If you see a picture of the skyscrapers of 東京, chances are the camera is squarely pointed at 新宿, its main business and government district. The enormous twin-tower 東京 metropolitan government building is located in 新宿 which has free observation decks that can be used to peer over the limitless 東京 skyline. 

東京タワー (とうきょうたわー - toukyou tawaa - Tokyo Tower) is located in an adjacent ward and offers a similar view but its observation decks cost money to access; the other obvious problem with using them is that you can't see 東京タワー. It's the orange Eiffel Tower-like broadcasting tower visible in the night shot above - you can see it from a lot of places in 東京.

新宿駅 (しんじゅくえき - shinjuku eki - Shinjuku Station) is the busiest in the world with over three million people passing through each day; this is probably one of the reasons it has a population density of about 17 thousand people per square kilometre. I would think that most of these people would be there for work during the day, but after dark people swarm a part of 新宿 called 歌舞伎町 (かぶきちょう - Kabukichou) a nightlife area to rival 渋谷. 歌舞伎町 got its name from an Kabuki theatre that was supposed to be built there but wasn't; instead, it became the entertainment precinct of 新宿, filled with thousands of restaurants, bars and live music clubs. It's also known for its ホスト (host) and ホステス (hostess) クラブ (clubs), where people pay large amounts of money to have pretty people pour them drinks and laugh at their jokes; having said that, as "red light districts" go, this one is relatively uncontroversial and safe to wander around.

秋葉原 (あきはばら - Akihabara)

秋葉原 has made a name for itself as the electronics hotspot of 東京. In fact, it's also known as "electric town" and if you go there, you'll be able to see why. Almost every shop sells some combination of appliances, electrical fittings, new and old video game systems and computers.

The parallels with Den Den Town in 大阪 are numerous, particularly the オタク (otaku - geek) culture; if you're interested in アニメ (anime) and 漫画 (まんが -manga), this is definitely the place to go to get your fix. You could also try out a メイドカフェ (meido kafe - "maid cafe") as I mentioned earlier; 秋葉原 is known for them.

Here, you can be served food and drinks by staff dressed up as maids who welcome you "home" as you walk in the door, take photos with you and occasionally play video games. These are awfully strange but worth at least having a look at if you're interested in the quirkier bits of Japanese culture. If maids aren't your thing, there are also cafes where the staff dress up as other コスプレ (kosupure - cosplay) staples like butlers, 忍者 (にんじゃ - ninja) and アニメ characters.

As you can probably see even from this short introduction, Tokyo is a gigantic melting pot with hundreds of different ingredients from the traditional to the ridiculous. The first few times you go there you'll probably find yourself completely saturated - it really is too much of everything. According to a friend who lives there, it's necessary to find a way to switch off from it and get away every now and again, even if it is just finding some green amongst all the grey.

If you can manage that, you may be able to deal with living in one of the world's most nonstop cities, but personally I'm happy in humble 神戸. For me, 東京 is a bit like a rollercoaster - loud, expensive and exciting... in short bursts. If you're into the work hard, play hard lifestyle of the locals though, you might just find your calling in 東京.

And lots of people and buildings.

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