Mon, Feb 11, 2013 - Page 12 News List

Yomping through the drizzle

Taking the scenic route on foot is an ideal way to explore Tokyo’s strange mixture of modernity and tradition

By Marcel Theroux  /  The Guardian, TOKYO

No one greeted me, no one tried to talk to me, no one ripped me off, and I never ate a bad meal. It seemed perfectly natural for a gaijin (literally, an outside person) with no Japanese and a big backpack to be yomping through the drizzle.

Every now and again, I’d have what I thought of — no doubt, inaccurately — as a moment of wabi-sabi. I’d see a little temple, or a tiled house with an orchard of persimmon trees around it.

I walked past miles of industrial hangars echoing with the sounds of heavy machinery, and through residential areas that had, within living memory, been open fields.

Gradually, I became familiar with the way the city rises and falls. Hotels, skyscrapers and big department stores were clustered around the train stations that link the suburbs to the transport system. Some of them were like miniature Tokyos with high-rises and neon signs — the suburb of Tachikawa had its own red-light district, where hostess bars and karaoke clubs were housed in the upper stories of tall buildings. But half a mile further on, the architecture would shrink again, and the landscape would revert to residential suburbs of two-story houses.

Tokyo today

Modern Tokyo is the product of two cataclysmic 20th-century events: the 1923 earthquake and the World War II. The destruction gave planners a free hand to design a city that was unsentimentally efficient and dynamic. But there is little visible remnant of that older Japan. I looked in vain for the delicate imperfections of wabi-sabi.

At times, the urbanization seemed relentless. Whenever I saw something that wasn’t concrete, I had the urge to snap a picture of it. On my third day, as I raised my camera to take a picture of some aubergines growing on a tiny plot of land, I was struck by a strange realization: I had become a Japanese tourist.

That lunchtime, I found a tiny restaurant, run by a couple who were at least in their 70s and possibly a decade older, opposite the campus of Tokyo Gakugei University. I banged my head on the low pole by the entrance. There were half a dozen tables inside and one other customer, slurping his noodles companionably. Its authenticity was only enhanced by the fumes from a paraffin stove and a television showing a Japanese quiz show.

I ordered by pointing at a photo in the menu and using a phrase I had learned from my tape: kore okudasai — this, please.

I watched the quiz show while the elderly chef rattled pots in the kitchen. Then his elderly assistant slowly brought me a pretty lacquered tray with tempura, soba noodles, pickles and a satsuma. I took a picture of it.

The number and visibility of very healthy, active older people is another of Japan’s minor oddities. Life expectancy in Japan is very high. But while its citizens are living longer lives, fewer and fewer of them are being born. The country has actually been shrinking at the rate of about a million people a year. The government has projected that the population of the country will have shrunk by a third by 2060. The prospect of a collapsing, senescent population struggling to maintain its living standards and its infrastructure seems like a vision from a dystopian novel, but it’s something the Japanese are having to take seriously.

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