Annual trip to Tokyo, Aug-Sep 2011. Tokyo has its fair share of skyscrapers, and some of the really sleek-looking ones are to be found in Shiodome. Also to be found - down below - are some very peculiar sculptures of spotty fat humanoid things lying sideways and with their hand firmly... up the bum? In broad daylight. I'd hate to think what they might get up to at night.
Overview and HistoryTokyo will be the first city to turn into a spaceship and fly away, possibly powered by the real volcanic erupting action of Mt. Fuji!Robots, fish, manga, crowds, and all things exaggerated.Here's a true story: a Japanese friend of mine in New York City once amazed me by the way she ate a tangerine. She opened the rind with three small slits, removed the fruit as a globe without breaking the rind into pieces, then sucked the juice from each little wedge of the fruit. She then put the seeds and pulpy bits back into the hollow rind, patted it closed so it looked whole again, and trotted over to the garbage can to drop it in. It looked untouched when she was done with it. Phenomenal! Remember this story when we get to "emptiness" later on.Although Japan's people trace their roots back thousands of years before recorded history, Tokyo itself did not even have a proper castle until the sixteenth century. Maybe that's why they went hyperspeed into building up so fast after they caught one.The city was twice completely destroyed in the last century, first in the earthquake of 1923 and then again in the bombings of WWII. It was completely rebuilt in time for the 1964 Summer Olympics; Tokyo appears to be so modern for these reasons.For an example of some new construction projects, take a loot at the Maru building and the Tokyo International Forum. The Tokyo International Forum is an exhibition and concert hall and conference center that, from the outside, looks like a boat. A shiny steel boat made of glass...The city first became the center of a national government in 1603 under Tokugawa Ieyasu, and only became the imperial capital in 1868. During this time period the population grew to more than one million people, ranking it among the largest cities in the world.Fortunately for these teeming masses, Tokyo was designed around several large train stations all to be connected by the under and over-ground railways. It's got the largest network of trains in the world today, including the monorail and magnetic-levitation bullet trains that travel at speeds up to five hundred kilometers per hour! You can kill a lot of meters going that fast.There are lots of bridges in Tokyo for surface transport. Here's the Harumi bridge, 600m long.Thirty five million people now call Tokyo home, in what is called the Tokyo Metropolitan area. What was once simply a city has now become a group of twenty-three wards, each with their own local government.With 35 million people, taking care of waste treatment is a serious business. Here's the Meguro cleaning factory and its accompanying green space.The government of Japan has its center in Tokyo, as do the Imperial Palace and Japanese Imperial Family. The government is a constitutional monarchy with one emperor and an elected parliament. Contrary to popular belief among four-year-olds, the Power Rangers are not part of this government.Along with London, Sao Paulo and New York, Tokyo makes up one of the world's most important financial centers.In stark contrast to the unbelievable concentration of people, Tokyo has many beautiful parks and temples of outdoor open space. Here's a forestry research lab still within city limits, and a separate panorama from the oldest Shrine of the Kanto sect. This one is dedicated to Konyo Aoki, the person who discovered the sweet potato! Thank you, Konyo Aoki!Getting ThereThe international airport for access to Tokyo is Narita International Airport, and for domestic flights people use Tokyo International Airport (Haneda).There's a shuttle bus between them and both are connected with buses and trains into the city. You can also take the MONORAIL, cool cool cool!! It's about one hour to get to Narita airport from Tokyo center.TransportationAs we mentioned above, Tokyo was laid out with trains in mind. The subway systems were given right of way in the urban planning process and if you look at the map you'll see how big it is.But this is not some bland grey and square urban planning affair. Tokyo's metro stations were designed by various imaginative architects in prestigious competitions. They came up with some extremely natural organic shapes and tones in these efforts. Result: spirals in the underground.Here's a look at the Tokyo station with view from the Yaesu side. This one actually dates to 1914.People and CultureJapanese culture is very formal, extremely polite, and crazy about things that light up. And more things that light up.The concept of "emptiness" is crucial to understanding Japanese culture, and tricky to explain in western language. Think of the grace and control required to eat with chopsticks compared to stabbing with a fork.Emptiness means... the space between things has more potential than a space filled by things.Cherry blossoms are one of the signature fascinations of Japanese culture. They smell so sweet and drift through the air so lightly, so ephemeral and lovely you wonder how they can be real. Filmmaker Akira Kurosawa has made entire movies about the blossoms.Nature is the master of emptiness and the best art uses minimal substance to show the calmness and vast expanses. Maybe this octagonal pavillion will help.Aha! The entrance to this temple has a perfect example of structure defining emptiness.But "High-tech" and "clean" also perfectly describe Japanese culture; everybody knows they have the coolest tech gear.Japanese people also have the longest life expectancy on earth, quite possibly thanks to their fish intensive diet more so than their tech gear.Things to do & RecommendationsRead some Haruki Murakami. Get a book and read it on the metro, his short stories are excellently weird and dark, yet uplifting. Okay I want to be culturally sensitive here but everybody knows Japanese culture has a very very weird side. Murakami will show it to you. Ultra-violence and sex in animation, fetishes, panties for sale in a vending machine?! To know it is to love it, that's what I'm saying.Go directly to The Museum of Photography. What did you expect we'd want to see?Tourist boats are another popular destination for visitors. See Tokyo from the Sumida River.Experiment with the ritual and ceremony of tea-drinking, perhaps in such a tea room as this. See what I mean about emptiness?Like the Empire State building or the Eiffel tower, the Tokyo Tower is a major tourist attraction, especially among people who aren't so into the idea of scaling Mt. Fuji in between rounds of plum wine.Assignment: locate and defeat Godzilla.Lastly, go wrestle with these chairs. Remember what we said at the top about exxageration...Text by Steve Smith.