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.

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