Tokyo seems never to end. Even from 200 metres up on the observation deck of the Metropolitan Government Building, all you see stretching out until they blur together are thousands of densely packed office and apartment blocks. Only the nearby National Gardens break the monotony of concrete and glass. Rivers, parks, roads and railways are simply swallowed up.
The city streets are as wide as European motorways; the stations are the size of airports. The crowds expand to fill them. Hurrying salarymen toting briefcases. Bent old ladies with surgical masks and bells on their bags which tinkle like the collars which cats are made to wear to stop them catching birds. Orange-haired teenagers hunched over iPhones as they shuffle down the pavement and into the Metro and onto trains and out at the other end without ever looking up.
When the cherry blossoms come, the crowds descend on the parks and sit in huddles under the trees, laughing and chatting excitedly, or jostle with selfie sticks held at arm’s length. They take the train en masse to Naka-Meguro at the end of the Hibiya Line and clog the streets either side of the canal, stopping for selfies, street snacks, beer or cherry blossom ice cream.
Searing neon fizzes from every surface. Music explodes from animated billboards. It follows you across the street along overhead wires. More of it pierces out of the sides of trucks as they inch through the middle of town. The noise from Vegas-scale pachinko parlours deafens as you pass by the door. Digital birdsong plays in the stairwells in stations. Elevators and escalators chatter away to you. The station cleaner’s rig plays Fur Elise to warn you that it is approaching from behind. The Yankee Doodle Boy heralds platform announcements; a jingle celebrates a train’s departure.
Yet even in the middle of Tokyo, there are pockets of perfect tranquility. Just a block or two back from Ueno Park, where shrieking couples lark in swan boats and tightly-packed groups share bentos on mats spread underneath the cherry trees, the scale shrinks and the noise is muted, the crowds vanish and the neon never intrudes. The alleys are lined with old wooden shophouses and discrete galleries, and temples and shrines, gnarled pines and ancient cedars.
Two hours to the north in Nikkō, there are no high-rise blocks; no neon, no gratuitous music, no bustling salarymen, no teenagers with orange hair. There are just quiet restaurants and antique shops and a mineral-green river which hurtles over boulders and flows under a humped-back bridge. In the forests in the hills, there are gilded temples with intricately painted eaves and dragons and grotesques and the original monkeys to see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil. It is as beautiful and as peaceful as anywhere I have been in the world.
To the west, deep in the Japanese Alps, the streets of the old town of Takayama are lined with wooden buildings from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries: inns and craft shops and sake breweries. In the early evening, after the day-trippers have left, an old man potters down the street in pyjamas, and a lady kneels outside her house to pull up weeds, and a couple slowly rolls by on bicycles.
It is hard to comprehend how a single nation can be at once so manic and so sedate, so big, so bright, so loud, yet – at the same time – so quiet and calm; how unspoilt heritage can coexist so closely with ruthless modernity. It is almost as if there are two Japans.
© Richard Senior 2015