Nobody rambles across Tokyo. It is the ultimate megacity: a vast web of suburbs — of small cities, really — radiating out from a hub of skyscrapers. More than 30 million people live within 50km of its center.
A city this big and complicated can only function because of its extraordinary mass transit system, which shuttles millions of workers to and from its suburbs each day.
But I wanted to experience the city at walking speed. Somewhere under the concrete, the tower blocks, the monorails and the overpasses, lie other versions of Japan: the culmination of thousands of years of island history, presided over by an imperial family that still traces its descent in an unbroken lineage from the sun god, Amaterasu.
This strange combination of modernity and tradition is what’s so intriguing about Japan: bullet trains and tatami mats; pachinko parlors and tea ceremony; concrete ugliness and a reverence for natural beauty; the kitsch of Hello Kitty and the simplicity of haiku.
So one bright December morning I started my walk across Tokyo from the summit of Mount Takao. Takao is in a nature reserve on the western edge of Tokyo’s municipal boundary. It is roughly 65km as the crow flies to the heart of the city. With me that first day was Mr Suzuki, a handsome, 68-year-old former airline steward who had taken up guiding in retirement.
We had reached the summit by cable car, after a 90-minute train ride from downtown Tokyo but from here on, we were traveling by foot.
Looking west from the summit, we could see mile upon mile of velvety green mountains, home to wild boar, monkeys, barn owls and flying squirrels. But east of us lay the urban sprawl of Tokyo: the city fanning out from the bay, its central district a hub of distant gray spikes.
It would have been serene, except the mountain was heaving with visitors. Tokyo is short of green spaces and Takao is a popular place for day-trippers. Most had come to admire the late autumn colors of the maple leaves. They were snapping pictures on their mobile phones and “oohing.” Some were in full alpine kit, with walking poles, tin mugs jiggling on their backpacks, and gas stoves. But no one was going as far as me: I had four days’ walking ahead of me before I reached central Tokyo.
At the base of the mountain, Mr Suzuki and I ate a bowl of buckwheat noodles at the Maple Leaf noodle shop. Mr Suzuki spoke English with the careful pronunciation and vast vocabulary of the autodidact. He wanted me to clarify a few points of translation: “Marcel-san. Should I say soba with grated taro, or soba with grated yam?”
And in return, I questioned him about the mysterious Japanese aesthetic principle of wabi-sabi.
“Very difficult to explain in simple words, Marcel-san,” said Mr Suzuki. “This is part of the Japanese spirit. Nothing permanent, nothing perfect, nothing finished.”
Wabi-sabi is most visibly expressed in the arts that are unique to Japan. There is a hint of it in the apparent artlessness of Japanese flower-arranging; in the wonky teacups that are prized for tea ceremony; and in the somber colors and weathered old stones of Japanese garden design. Wabi-sabi belongs to premodern Japan: the Japan that predates manga, industrial development and the armies of salarymen riding commuter trains to work. But it retains some significance, particularly to older Japanese people, for whom it also seems like an ethical imperative.