Tokyo: how to find calm in the chaos

Tokyo is a real blitz on the senses. But this neon-lit labyrinth has its secret serenities, while a boat ride away are islands where nature calls the shots

7 mins

It was my first meal in Japan. The waitress set a beer down before me, gathered her petticoats and knelt next to my table. “Repeat,” she said, in sing-song English. “Delicious, magic, yummy, yummy.”

I looked around the plush-pink ‘maid café’ at the couples sharing ice-cream sundaes, then – banishing British self-consciousness – followed her cue. She applauded excitedly, before shaping her thumbs and forefingers into a heart, angling them over the lager and making a pouring motion. “Invisible magic”, she beamed. Then she was off, bounding over to present a businessman with a soon-to-be similarly enchanted bowl of noodles.

So this is Tokyo, I thought, and it’s as singular as they say.

Arriving in Japan’s capital city is famously befuddling. Fifteen-storey cliffs of neon are no respecters of jetlag. The world’s most populous metropolis scoops up the first-time visitor in a blur of sodium light, cutesiness and discombobulating technology.

Tokyo strikes you initially as being like some giant machine, with cars and consumers providing fuel to the round-the-clock crankshaft. Some 23 million people live and work here, among rammed sushi joints and sleepless corporate towers. The skylines are electric-indigo; the soundtrack is a barrage of candied pop tunes and rattling subway trains; the speed of life, on first impression, is breathless.

It’s relatively common for travellers to skim over the capital in a bid to get out to Kyoto and the ‘true’ Japan, but I had come because I was keen to experience Tokyo itself. I would be travelling from its highest tower blocks to its most remote island outposts, located a full day’s voyage off shore but still part of the administrative area. The plan was to sample the city’s different faces, which wouldn’t necessarily be simple.

“I’ve lived here for 18 years,” Yukiko, a downtown cycle guide, told me over her bento box lunch. We were watching Tokyo’s broad Sumida River flowing steel-blue in the sun. “But I still feel I don’t really know it.”


Accumulating capital

There are precious few old buildings in Tokyo. This is due firstly to a cataclysmic earthquake in 1923, and secondly to US bombs during the World War II. With scarce exceptions, everything standing has been constructed, or reconstructed, within the past 90 years: its Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, its tower blocks and market halls. Looking out from the 45th-floor observation lounge of the Metropolitan Government Building, it’s clear just what a phenomenal feat of planning this represents. As far as the human eye can see, and notwithstanding a hazy mountain belt, there is nothing but city.

But Tokyo’s position of power is relatively new. For generations, Kyoto was the undisputed seat of Japan’s emperors and leaders. Only in 1590, when a feudal lord named Tokugawa Ieyasu settled in the then-obscure riverside town of Edo, did Tokyo’s story gain speed. Through strength and deceit, Ieyasu became the nation’s de facto ruler, creating a shogunate, or military dictatorship, that lasted two centuries. When imperial power was finally restored in 1868, the Emperor’s court moved from Kyoto to the more strategically located Edo. Shortly afterwards it was renamed Tokyo, meaning ‘Eastern Capital’.

At dusk on my first few nights here, the streets morphed into a twinkling morass of a billion-and-one details. Pavements became dense with flashing vending machines and face-masked salarymen. I would be returning to this Tokyo soon. Before then, however, my trip was taking me to the very furthest reaches of the metropolitan area. Where I was headed had a social history every bit as layered as the city proper, but getting there would require a 1,000km voyage south.

Islands of calm

A humpback whale breached with a moiling splash off starboard as our ferry turned into the bay. There could have been no more apt welcome. While Tokyo itself is all about progress and commerce, its outlaying Ogasawara Islands are a magnet for nature. The archipelago’s 30-plus islands, looming from the Pacific in a series of jutted green ridges, joined UNESCO’s World Heritage List in mid-2011. They’re home to just 2,400 people, but the ecosystems here draw wide attention.

Having never been joined to any other landmass, the islands host a large number of endemic animal, bird and plant species. Many are endangered or protected. As recently as early 2012, a type of shearwater seabird previously thought extinct was found flitting over the waves here.


They’re not easy to reach...

They might technically be a district of the city but there’s no airport, so the weekly ferry from Tokyo Bay, taking 25.5 hours, is the only feasible transport option. My ‘berth’ was a floor shared with more than 100 others – fun in the early evening, when it was all video games and instant noodles; interesting later on, when heavy seas turned it into a swaying jumble of blankets and startled snores.

Gulping down sea air on deck in the morning I met Jun, a softly spoken Tokyo government worker revisiting the islands of his birth. “The city is where I live, but Ogasawara is home,” he explained. “When I was a boy in the 1950s, there were only 200 of us living there. Like paradise. Just beaches, sea and rainforest.”

The islands, historically known as the Bonin (‘uninhabited’) group, were settled first by a canny US trader in 1830, before being reclaimed by Japan in 1862. “The Americans occupied them again after Second World War, then finally they returned to Japan in 1968,” Jun continued.

Ogasawara’s go-slow vibe was apparent from the moment we docked on the main island of Chichi-jima. Shorts ’n’ shades tour operators clustered the quay. Behind them, the chief township, a sunny huddle of ramen restaurants and T-shirt stores, gave a set-off point for the rest of the island, where red hibiscus hung on warm hills and honeyed scents shimmered from the trees. The skyscrapers of the city felt continents away.

Chichi-jima measures only 4km by 6km, making exploration easy. My four days here zipped by. On my first morning I hiked above town and emerged high on a rocky headland, my only company the endemic giant hermit crabs making slow progress through the undergrowth. The next evening I took a night tour. In Greater Tokyo, the electric glow abated the darkness; here it was the moonlight. The skies were starclustered, and stirred with the silhouettes of metre-wide Bonin flying foxes.

A boat trip proved special too, thanks to some incredibly playful whales and a barefoot walk along one of the unpopulated neighbouring islands.


Most rewarding, though, was a long hike out through the valley scenery of the Nakayama Pass to the empty sands of John Beach. The pass afforded a scintillating view, elevated further by the knowledge that within its gorges were birds, bushes and butterflies that simply didn’t exist in the wider world.

By contrast, the islands’ wartime history was anything but uplifting. As one local bar-owner put it, “Ugly things happened here.” Charred aeroplane wings in the jungle asserted his point. Japanese troops defended this territory fiercely from the US. Even now, incongruous gun placements still stand above white beaches. The rusted shell of a bombed ship lay in the aquamarine waters offshore.

But the spirit of Ogasawara was perhaps best channelled through its residents. One evening, unprompted, a fellow diner with no English, worn jeans and a wide smile covered my bill at a restaurant. While I was protesting, he ushered me to meet his friends at a small karaoke bar, bought shochu barley spirit all round, crooned a few songs then disappeared into the night. “You are our guest here,” one of his acquaintances advised me. “It’s the local way.”

On returning to the frenzied pedestrian crossings of the city, I found the Tokyo of popular imagination in ready supply. It was there in the Akihabara district, where the megastores were heavy with electronic gadgets and manga comics. It was there in Harajuku, where ballgowned goths sashayed past capsule hotels. And it was there in Shinjuku, where hi-tech towers and the world’s busiest subway station combined to create a simmering stew of commuters.

Chaos theory

For all the city’s quirky futurism, Tokyo’s symbolic heart remains the Imperial Palace where shoguns and emperors have both resided. Its broad stone walls sit on a man-made mount surrounded by black pines, and a double-arch bridge still spans a moat under a 17th-century watchtower. There was a time when this watchtower, 15m high, was the tallest construction in town.

Historical value remains integral to the Japanese spirit. “I think people in Tokyo appreciate older traditions more now,” explained my walking guide Nomura as she poured us tea in her eighth-floor apartment. From her window we could see the new 634m Tokyo Skytree, the world’s second-highest building. “Because of the tsunami and the economy, people feel more unstable about the future. They’re finding comfort in traditions and family relationships.”


With stereotypical Japanese modesty, Tokyo keeps many of its choicest treasures well hidden. At an old, mosaic-clad bathhouse in an Asakusa backstreet, a handful of loose yen afforded me a long wallow in hotspring waters, alongside locals ranging in age from five to 90.

The next night I ate among the narrow, smoke-filled alleys of Omoide Yokocho, where 50s-style grills still cook up yakitori (chicken skewers) to be knocked back with sake and edamame beans. And there was a similar time-warp close by, among the bars of the Golden Gai district, where the streets have famously attracted artists and musicians for generations.

One place, however, defined the city’s odd mix of old-world composure and new-world clamour. The Shinto shrine of Meiji-jingu is set in 700,000 sq m of wooded grounds. It’s a cool, evergreen oasis that seems to exist in a different dimension to the city outside. Dedicated to the great-grandfather of the current Emperor, it’s essentially a Zen courtyard located at the centre of more than 100,000 trees.

Nomura and I entered through the soaring torii gate and watched as white-cloaked priests wandered past prayer boards and ritual cleansing basins.

We looked closer. The shrine itself was covered in pockmarks from coins that had been thrown during the New Year period, a time when some three million worshippers arrive en masse and literally fling money at the shrine as a form of spiritual donation. “It gets intense,” said Nomura. And if I had learnt anything from Tokyo, perhaps it was this: that there was chaos in the calm, and calm in the chaos.

That evening, wedged onto a subway train at rush hour, Nomura pointed out an advert above our heads featuring a picture of a breaching whale. “They’re promoting Ogasawara,” she told me. I saw flashes of valley-green and azure-blue in my mind’s eye. Tokyo, like both its past and its population, has multiple faces.

Local view: Mikiko, tea seller

“I was born in Tokyo. It’s part of me. I remember when it was all fields around my house. It’s all changed, but I still see the scenery in my mind.”

Local view: Kanata, schoolboy

“I like Tokyo because there are lots of people. But I can’t see the stars at night. When I grow up, I want to live near the ocean.”

The author travelled with Inside Japan Tours. The ten-day tailormade itinerary included Tokyo and the Ogasawara Islands. 

Related Articles