Saturday, February 17, 2007

The City of Ever-Changing Pleasures

[English version; per la versione italiana abbiate un po' di pazienza]

Organism: (noun) a whole with interdependent parts compared to a living being.
Orgasm: (noun) a sexual climax characterised by feelings of pleasure.
ORIGIN from organ ‘swell or be excited’

Back in 1992, when I was still dreaming of writing a guidebook to this city, I tried to find a reason why someone would be interested in visiting such a place. I needed a key, a slogan, something to both convince a publisher and give me a guiding idea around which to write the book. Defining Tokyo and selling it as a place worth visiting is not that easy though. I’m not talking about its being far from both Europe and North America, or the high prices. It’s just that Tokyo can hardly be judged or appreciated by applying some of the typical parameters we generally use when we look at a city. Think about Rome, Paris, London or New York and there are some images that immediately come to your mind; places and monuments that, for better or for worse, have come to symbolise them and contribute to their myth.
Now think about Tokyo.
I bet you would be hard pressed to come up with a definite image. The typical impression that people get by reading articles and books or watching TV programs about Tokyo is a jumble of buildings and signs and colors without a definite order or direction. Several years ago, for instance, an Italian journalist was sent here to work as a foreign correspondent, and upon arriving, he looked down from the window of his airplane and was reminded of a room in which a kid had just scattered on the floor several boxfuls of building blocks. It was a polite and imaginative way to say that Tokyo is, after all, an ugly city.
The Japanese are infamous for lacking creativity. They are – or used to be – accused of stealing other people’s ideas and work on them – even though they often manage to improve on them and create something totally new. The same concept can be applied to the Tokyo landscape – more or less.
This is a short list of famous Tokyo spots:

- the Tokyo Tower. Imagine the Eiffel Tower, but slightly different in shape. The Japanese version is 330 meters high, i.e. 30 meters higher than the French tower. Unfortunately, it’s been painted in red and white broad stripes. The overall effect is totally different: the ever-proud French have turned a mountain of iron bars into a national symbol. The Japanese have turned the same amount of iron into a giant pylon. It still attracts millions of visitors every year though, mostly from the countryside.

- Tokyo Station. The city’s central station has two exits, respectively facing east and west. The latter, called Marunouchi Exit (from the name of the business district nearby) is almost the perfect copy of the central station in Amsterdam.

A fair example of post-Victorian red brick architecture, indeed. Built in 1914, it is the oldest remaining station in the city. However what you can see today, though, is about 1/3 shorter than the original building: the top floor was destroyed during WWII.

- Odaiba. This waterfront area, one of the new Tokyo sub-centers, is a much more recent addition to the city’s landscape. It used to be just a landfill – Tokyo’s dump, to be precise – but it has now grown to be a major money-making attraction. I won’t go into too much detail; I’ll just mention that, among other things, you can admire 1) a coliseum-shaped Italian-themed shopping complex; 2) Little Hong Kong; and… 3) the Statue of Liberty. Well, a perfect copy.

If the original is still off limits for fear of a terrorist attack, just board on a plane and come here!
Otherwise we are back to square one, that is the mess of building blocks.
I’ve just re-read what I’ve written so far, and I’m afraid this piece is turning out completely different from what I intended to write. It seems that I’m putting down Tokyo, while actually I want to express just the opposite. I guess what I’m trying to say is, to get the most out of this place you have to approach it differently. Here you won’t find any Champs Elysees or other breathtaking examples of urban architecture. After having being almost totally destroyed twice in the XX century, you will hardly find any significant remnants of the past. As for urban planning, it is simply non-existent (after all this is a city whose geographical center is a big hole; a huge, mostly deserted area entirely occupied by the Emperor’s properties under which not even the subway is allowed to pass). But it is this ever-changing chaos that hides most of the city’s fascination. It seems that here things are allowed to grow, develop, change and die according to a natural inner rhythm, like a living organism, in which beauty is to be found in the easily overlooked small things. If you just walk around, and even let yourself lose your way and get lost, you will discover around every corner many little big surprises whose crescendo causes me something similar to an orgasm. In a sense, if you really want to enjoy and “live” Tokyo, one of the best things you can do is throw away your map and follow your instinct. The combination – sometimes the clash – of new and old and the ceaseless input of new cultural imports from around the world, give the city an energy you can hardly find elsewhere. It is the excitement of an urban culture constantly in the process of creation.
There are times, like those crispy winter mornings when the sky is crystal clear and the chilly air makes me walk faster and my heart beat slower, that I feel like I own all the back streets. I own the dilapidated little houses that lean against the cold gray skyscrapers. I own the ubiquitous ugly electric wires hanging over my head and the garbage gathering at every corner.
I feel like I own the whole damn place.

Better Later Than Never / Meglio tardi che mai

[English version; per la versione italiana abbiate un po' di pazienza]

I should have started this a long ago. Fourteen years ago, to be precise, that is when I came to Japan to improve my limited Japanese speaking skills, secretly hoping to find a job and settle here for good. Fourteen years have passed already, and many things have changed in my life, both inside and around me. Most importantly, I’ve nearly lost any capability to detach myself from my surroundings and see things from the outside in. It has come to the point that when I see a foreigner on the subway, I tell my wife “Look! A gaijin!”, as if I wasn’t one myself. As the world’s best-known Japanophile, Lafcadio Hearn, once said, if you really want to capture and put on paper that feeling of novelty and excitement we all have when we are first introduced to a new place or society, you have to start writing as soon as you set foot on that land, while your sight is still pure and your look on things is not distorted or weakened by habit, prejudice or any other kind of cultural or psychological filter. Routine is a dangerous beast that insinuates itself in every aspect of our life.
I actually tried to follow Hearn’s advice back in 1992, but at the time I knew almost nothing about zines and independent publishing, and blogs didn't exist yet. I actually was young and na├»ve enough to dream that everybody back in Italy was only waiting for me to write a Tokyo guidebook. You see, I wanted to start from the top. So I contacted several publishing houses, and at the same time I began to furiously read books at the Japan Foundation library and take notes, while tirelessly exploring the city. Then the replies from Italy finally came back, and I found out that nobody was really interested in my genial idea. I came close once, but that publisher had just commissioned a guide of the whole country to a fellow expat, so... That was pretty much the end of my ambitions as a writer, and then, as I said, routine set in, and I began to take even Tokyo for granted.
I don’t know where all those notes and half-written pieces are now. I probably must have lost or thrown them away one of the three times I moved. It doesn’t really matter, anyway, because at the rate with which Tokyo changes, at least 70% of that information would be useless today. What is important, though, is that after a long lethargy, my curiosity for this city and appetite for urban exploration have come back to life, stimulated by a series of recent occurrences:
- my relatively recent acquaintance with the world of zines has made me finally understand (better later than never…) the importance of writing for myself first, and secondly as a means to communicate, putting aside any dream of fame and financial success. Also, not only zine-making has given me the desire to share my knowledge with other people, but also the cheap, DIY tools through which I am finally able to reach readers worldwide;
- in 1603 Tokyo – at the time still called Edo – was chosen by shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa as his power base and the site for his castle, thus becoming the de facto capital of the country (even though the imperial court remained in Kyoto until the fall of the shogunate, in 1868). 2003 was the 400th anniversary of this event and more than 700 events were organised over a 15-month period. Well, you know what? I live here, and if I hadn’t read about it in the paper, I would have never known it. These so called celebrations – mainly small festivals and exhibits – have been so subdued that nobody here realised there was anything in the works (the people who rule Tokyo are obviously not as proud of their city as the ones in Paris...). That’s a pity, if you ask me. Therefore I decided to give my modest contribution to this anniversary;
- joining the international zine and blog community has made me aware of one thing: many people in Europe and North America are still very much fascinated with Tokyo and Japan in general. For better or for worse, Japan is still seen as an exotic land full of strange, weird and wonderful things. I do hope my little labour of love will not only help me express my love for Tokyo, but it will also bring people closer to this unique city.