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Looking beyond her neon expectations, Joanna Trollope discovers a magnificent city where nothing is as it first seems
Before I went to Tokyo, I had two vague preconceptions about it. One was a Lost in Translation image of neon, noodles and karaoke bars in streets festooned with cables. The other was provided by people, mostly men, who’d been there for work and had been baffled by it. ‘It’s a business city,’ they said, ‘Pretty bleak. You won’t like it.’
But I did like it. I liked it a lot. I had the huge advantage of meeting up with a great friend there, someone who has known Japan for 20 years and who was determined that I should see beyond my preconceptions.
‘The thing about Tokyo,’ he said, ‘is that it is extremely Japanese, almost the essence of Japanese-ness. And the other thing is that nothing is as it seems’.
Tokyo appears, at first glance, almost familiar. There are the glittering high-rises, Prada, advanced technology, coffee shops, Western lavatories (with heated seats – heaven) and posters of Victoria Beckham. The younger Japanese speak English. But when you look closer, you see that the recognisable elements are nothing more than symptoms of the Japanese admiration for Western culture, especially French and American, and have been laid, like a veneer, on a city profoundly rooted in its own national character.
Take, for starters, the basic layout of Tokyo. It lies wrapped round the northern and western shores of Tokyo Bay, and at its centre, like a spider in a web (in this case, the spider is Emperor Akihito), is the huge, hilly green island of the Imperial Palace. Nothing is visible of the palace. There are just green slopes with carefully stunted pine trees and stretches of moat with bridges and watchtowers. The Imperial Family is still deeply remote and deeply revered, and they go about their formal, austere, rule-bound lives in utter and absolute privacy at the heart of this ceaselessly moving city.
Beyond this secluded heart, the city stretches away, seemingly to infinity, lightly balanced – as so much in Japan appears to be – on the shifting tectonic plates that could explode into an earthquake at any time. Nobody speaks of it. Nobody in Tokyo, it seemed to me, speaks of anything potentially alarming or disrespectful. The inhabitants are simply focused on surviving the tension of living and labouring in a city crackling with energy and crammed with people.
There are many elements in Tokyo to assist them. I was entranced by the subway – clean, courteous staff and punctual to the second. I loved the taxicabs, with their white lace seat covers and the older drivers in white cotton gloves. I relished the absence of litter, the safety of the streets, even at night, and the fact that, because the Japanese regard good service as normal, they are offended if you tip. I thought the food was fantastic, the welcome dignified and the shopping fascinating and beautiful (I came out of the Shinjuku branch of Isetan with more gifts than I could carry, all exquisitely wrapped, serenely accomplished in two hours). And I loved the trees and hedges trimmed to bonsai perfection, the waterfalls cascading silently down the interior walls of shops and offices, the flowers arranged as if they were small sculptures, a bloom in a vase.
Around the green lung of the Imperial Palace lies a ring of districts, all with separate personalities. From the business area of Marunouchi, to the shiny shopping streets of Ginza, to the embassies of Roppongi, to the temples (red and gold, and garnished with flames, Buddhas and dragons) of Asakusa, and the neon and noise of Shibuya, there is a change of mood every mile. In a single day, I was steered up the Tokyo Tower, through the giant legs of a disconcerting spider sculpture, into the amazing shopping mall of Roppongi Hills, up to the extraordinary temple of Senso-ji, and then out on the wonderful new monorail across Tokyo Bay to Odaiba, where we sat on a man-made beach below the Rainbow Bridge and watched the flying fish flipping in the sunset sea.
Finally, there was Harajuku on a Sunday morning. This is parade time for teenagers so wackily, crazily and inventively dressed and made up as to make Western adolescent attempts at sartorial anarchy look pathetic. These kids, bold and noisy, mean you to stare, to take their pictures.
It made me wonder, looking at them flaunting their carefully contrived oddity, if, in the future, they will have the power to take a radical sledgehammer to this industrious, polite, organised society, where taboos are the norm, respect and shame still dictate personal conduct and it is considered very rude to talk in a public lift. Will these teenagers ever have the economic clout to assert the cult of the individual and the tolerance of the different that they are picking up from the West? And do I, however terrific I think they are, really want them to?
Friday Nights by Joanna Trollope (£18.99, Bloomsbury) is out now. BA flies to Tokyo from London Heathrow. Visit ba.com