When night falls in Tokyo, the neon lights are full on. In the up-market area of Shinjuku, colourful beams of light race up and down the facades of buildings. The streets are teeming with people and the window fronts of the electronics stores are full of TV screens all tuned to the same channel. The air is full of the delicious smell wafting from a yakitori fast-food restaurant.
Inside, a young woman sits smoking a cigarette. She looks so elegant she could be sitting in a cafe in Paris. Glamour is to be found everywhere. Tokyo feels like the urbane lifestyle cranked up into overdrive.
A first-time visitor to Tokyo will be confronted with a plethora of impressions. The young bloods in this very expensive part of Tokyo wear boots and elaborately gelled hairstyles. Society ladies toddle along the pavement in high heels, armed with expensive handbags.
The entertainment district of Kabukicho is packed with nightclubs, Karaoke bars and love hotels with translucent windows through which no eye can pierce. It’s a place of maximum anonymity in a metropolis of 35 million people.
As soon as you land in Tokyo, you get the impression you have travelled 10 years into the future. Nowhere is that feeling so intense as at Shinjuku station. About 3.5 million people pass through the complex every day.
It’s a warren of platforms, escalators and endless corridors. And yet everything runs smoothly and orderly. No one barges and passengers stand patiently in line waiting for trains.
Someone carries a linen bag with the words “Don’t hammer against a wall expecting to turn it into a door” printed on it. That could be Tokyo’s motto. The city exudes an atmosphere of disciplined civility.
Although everything is highly charged, nobody dares to let their impulses take control.
Standing in stark contrast to the capital city is Kyoto. If you travel there by Shinkansen high-speed train, you arrive in a railway station with a 500-metre-long, glass-roofed atrium.
But as soon as you leave the building and step into the streets, you feel as if you have travelled back into the pre-modern era.
High-rise buildings are banned from Kyoto. Instead, the city has so many temples, palaces, shrines and zen gardens that it would take weeks to visit them all.
Japan’s old imperial city was founded in the 8th century with streets laid out in a grid system that make Kyoto very easy to navigate. For centuries, Kyoto was the political and religious capital of Japan.
With the rise of the samurai class and the beginning of the Tokugawa era in the 17th century, Japan’s emperor lost influence and power and became a figurehead. Edo, as Tokyo was once called, became Japan’s true political capital with the shogun there as the true ruler.
“Kyoto has managed to avoid overbearing modernisation,” says Wolfgang Schwentker, professor of comparative history at the University of Osaka. Grand buildings give Kyoto its character. The city has a traditional feel and is oriented toward culture and aestheticism.
“The Americans consciously avoided bombing the city during World War II,” says Schwentker.
The streets in the district of Gion are lined with restaurants that are both fancy and refined at the same time. It has just been raining and drops of water fall from the eaves. Balconies are covered with flowering plants.
A geisha wearing traditional Japanese costume walks daintily down the street.
Storm clouds loom above Kinkakuji temple in the north of the city. The temple’s Golden Pavilion stands behind a large pond in which the building is reflected. The structure is completely covered in gold leaf.
A Buddhist student who, it is said, could not bear its beauty burnt it down in 1950. At least that is the story as told by Japanese author Yukio Mishima in his book The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. The pavilion was rebuilt after the fire.
On a day like this, when the weather is bad, there are hardly any visitors and Kinkakuji becomes a quiet place of contemplation.
Of course even Kyoto cannot escape some aspects of modern life and the south of the city has plenty of industry.
By the same token, Tokyo also has its share of historic places of interest such as the imperial palace, the Meiji shrine and Sensoji temple in Asakusa. But Tokyo has always been a city with one foot set firmly in the future.
Edo’s rise began when General Tokugawa Ieyasu usurped the emperor’s power and founded the Tokugawa shogunate. Japan’s regional princes were obliged to travel to Edo every two years and reside there to demonstrate fealty, explains historian Schwentker. “The samurais lived in the west where today the elite universities are located.” When the Meiji emperor restored his power in 1868, he moved himself and his court to Edo. The city was renamed Tokyo, which means the Eastern Capital.
The driving force behind Japan’s modernization was strategy. “China became a mere toy for the major Western powers after the Opium War,” says Schwentker. The Japanese wanted to prevent that happening to them by embracing a rapid programme of modernisation. “The idea was: only by modernising can we stare the West down if push comes to shove.” Japan’s confidence increased when it beat both China and Russia in war.
In 1923, a devastating earthquake provided the opportunity to completely remodel the city.
“Tokyo became Japan’s window on modernity.” Today, Tokyo is a showcase for everything that is modern and trendy, a year before it arrives in the West.
To get an impression of how this works, go to the hip area of Shibuya, or even better Harajuku. Takeshita Street is lined with stores. It’s quite possible you may inadvertently walk into a photography session for a fashion magazine or blog.
“Tokyo absorbs energy,” says Schwentker. If the city were a country, it would have a higher GDP than Thailand or Austria.
Tokyo has no single area that can be called its “centre” but is a collection of sub-centres. Tokyo’s underground rail network map looks as if a toddler using coloured crayons wildly drew it.
It’s not unusual for anyone with a job to spend two or three hours a day commuting to work. Those who can afford it, live close to one of the rail stations.
To get an idea of just how big Tokyo is you can return to Shinjuku and visit Tokyo’s city administration, housed in two enormous high-rise buildings made from steel and glass and designed by the architect Kenzo Tange.
There is a viewing platform in the 45th floor of one of the towers. A sea of roofs and buildings will greet you in every direction extending into a hazy horizon. From this vantage point, Tokyo looks like a set from a science fiction movie. On a clear day, you can see Mount Fuji far in the distance.
Kyoto, on the other hand, is surrounded by mountains and cannot grow any bigger than it already is. The city slowly blurs into the natural surroundings. That is most clearly seen from Kiyomizu-dera, a temple in the east of Kyoto.
The first hall in the Buddhist complex was built in 789, while the present building dates from 1633. Not one nail was used to construct the timber building. The temple has a large veranda with a view over Kyoto.
In the distance are mountains. It’s not a view of the future, as in Tokyo. It’s more like gazing down upon an open-air museum.