Tokyo is one of the most fascinating and overwhelming cities in the world. There’s just something about the place that keeps me coming back, a magnificence that often gets overlooked at first glance. It has more restaurants than Manhattan does, the safest streets a metropolis can offer, and an incredibly rich and diverse nightlife. Still, few cultures are as contradictory as that of Tokyo, a vibrant place where strict social dogmas are blanketed in a silent darkness that is difficult, if not impossible, to understand.
The city functions in a surprisingly orderly way given its overwhelming number of inhabitants: kids can safely walk home from school by themselves, families leave their houses unlocked, and pedestrians abstain from jaywalking—even at the most desolate of crossings. But Tokyo simultaneously indulges all manner of deviant sexual fetishes, such as the sale of used underwear from vending machines and grotesque pornography, in which the woman is usually dressed to look like a minor. What’s more, the Japanese mafia, known locally as the Yakuza, has been wholly accepted by the city’s upstanding citizens, who are well aware that the group has often been among the first to volunteer help when a catastrophe occurs—even before governmental aid has arrived.
It’s certainly not a conventionally beautiful city. In the first half of the 20th century, Tokyo was destroyed by an earthquake and ravaged by bombings in a span of fewer than 25 years. The constructional boom that has since ensued seems harried, as if it were happening in absence of significant and comprehensive planning. One example is the Jingu Bridge; once the elegant center of Japan, it now stands next to an elevated highway, which has grotesquely darkened it since the 1960s.
The relentless building continues despite a global recession, razing existing buildings to erect glass palaces for big businesses and housing projects for big families. The architect Yoshinobu Ashihara once called Tokyo amoeba-like because of its “amorphous sprawl and the constant change it undergoes, like the pulsating body of the organism.” He wasn’t wrong. Unpainted wood-frame houses have been replaced by larger buildings, most of them with lighter, brighter facades. On any given block, Swiss Alpine architecture sits next to Spanish Colonial, which sits next to early American Gizmo, creating a language of visual dissonance similar to that found in American desert cities. In Boku No Tokyo Mukaroku (An account of my paradisiacal Tokyo dream), author Tetsuro Morimoto wrote, “As for the Japanese, they are unfazed. They have absolutely no interest in how a city looks. They put down such a scene of disorder as quite natural, or rather, they are convinced that this indicated a civilized city.”
I have now been in Tokyo for two weeks. Time feels different here, although it passes neither faster nor slower. Days sometimes rush by in seconds, and yet I feel like I’ve been here for months already. I’ve been experiencing the city on a more conscious level than I ever have. Maybe it’s because there’s no culture shock this time, since I’ve already been here several times, having lived in Tokyo at one point for four straight months. More importantly, I’ve assigned myself the exciting duty of showing my girlfriend the city.
We are living in Shibuya, the commercial center of Tokyo, a place overrun with department stores, fashion boutiques, and office buildings, not far from the famous pedestrian scramble known as Shibuya Crossing, where, during rush hour, as many as 15,000 pedestrians cross the street at once. To be exact, we live in a monthly rental apartment in Shibuya’s Dogenzaka district, which is surrounded by famous nightclubs and love hotels—despite all of this, we’ve somehow managed to make it our home. While standing on our building’s rooftop, overlooking the city, I was reminded of something a friend once told me, which only now makes perfect sense: “Tokyo looks like someone really fucked up in Tetris.”
Photography by Allegra Pacheco