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Travel
March 03, 2016

Discover why Tokyo Is A Truly Hybrid City

Text by Nisha Jhangiani. Illustration by Rahul Das

There’s technicolour. There’s tranquillity. Tokyo seamlessly marries the modern with the traditional…

My first impression is that of utter confusion. On one end, I see a typical Zen garden, reminiscent of the miniature landscape style that has prevailed in Japan since the 14th century. This oasis of rock, water and bonsai is surrounded by imposing skyscrapers and a bevy of kaleidoscopic lights and hues that would put a flashy circus to shame. Not one local citizen understands a word of what I say but, without exception, each one of them has been of assistance by pointing the way (often walking with me to safely plant me at the destination I have somehow communicated to them via a map) or speedily tapping on their somehow superior smartphones in an attempt to initiate a cross-cultural translation. It’s eerie, the sense of sisterhood I feel towards Scarlett Johansson.

Everything falls into place one morning though, as I lazily stroll through the dense woods that protect the Meiji shrine. An impressive array of sake barrels catches my eye and I learn that they are donated every year by Japanese breweries as a token of worship. On the other side of this display stands another offering — barrels of wine from the Bourgogne region of France. This East-West synergy is a result of Emperor Meiji’s successful attempt to merge the feudal Japan of his era with a more modern way of thinking by establishing ties with Europe, a gesture that has the French region saluting his vision to this day. Japan truly is a paradox of ideas, lifestyles, thoughts and habits that shouldn’t coexist but somehow do. Once you serenely accept this bizarre fact, it’s ridiculously easy to fall into the city’s subtly seductive trap.

I would be hard-pressed to choose between savouring the old and discovering the new in this city. The most memorable day I had was in and around the Sensō-ji Temple, where a few tense minutes were spent surreptitiously following a bunch of sumo wrestlers dressed in their holiday best, me attempting to photograph them and they gracefully skittering away. I imitated the traditional kimono-clad women as they bowed and clapped twice in homage to the Buddhist deity, and selected my fortune from a rattling can that laid out a token number through which I could identify the wooden drawer where a printed lucky note awaited me. The gentle customs and rituals still prevail along with a dignified respect for history — I found myself unable to do much except humbly join the process.

When dusk fell, it was another matter. The billboards screamed messages through neon lights as I manoeuvred myself in Shinjuku, weaving across the alleyways of Golden Gai. There is no sensible way to describe this eccentric labyrinth of tiny two-storey buildings, littered from bottom to top with individualistically styled bars, most seating no more than eight to 10 patrons. Jazz, hip hop, blues or else Art Nouveau, grunge, vintage — one can choose from music themes or decor, and sit down to a tumbler of Japan’s famed Yamazaki whisky or play on the wild side with home-made plum tequila and red chilli-infused gin. Karaoke is as good as a popular sport here and I spent a hysterical couple of hours humming with a motley bunch of locals, expatriates and tourists as we sang to Japanese and ’80s pop music alike. As if this social exercise was not enough, I managed to find myself seated for the robot show later at night. If Golden Gai was hard to explain, the robot experience is simply impossible to summarise. This is Japan’s obsession with light and technology come to life in a show format where tribal dancers, skimpily-clad performers, drummers and singers create a hedonistic ambience with a bevy of walking-talking props like sharks, dinosaurs and, naturally, robots. It’s probably what a futuristic asylum of neurotics would function like. Well, I’m addicted.

The food culture extends far and wide as well, from unfussy sushi parlours to interactive teppanyaki eateries like Gottsui, where one must sample the mountain of eggs, vegetables and meats that make up an okonomiyaki or Japanese omelette. Fusion cuisine can be found at Maru and it’s a great example of how technique, ingredient and taste can be brought together to introduce a novel form of gastronomy.

A multi-storey building devoted only to Chanel and the largest Uniqlo store ever (12 floors) are regular sights as are the papier-mâché sake sets, screen-printed kimonos and distressed half-curtains lined with calligraphic art that one can find in the quaint Oriental Bazaar. Kyukyodo opened its first branch in 1663 and still retails incense and rice paper from the upscale Ginza district.

Perhaps for me, the now understandable dichotomy of Japan shines through best at Bunka, the city’s premier fashion institute. Form dummies are reconstructed every year to emulate the average class body types; a simple and clever way to monitor changing measurements over years. The teaching systems are unparalleled in their visionary way of thought; the learning is cutting-edge. And yet, all courses are taught in Japanese and most students (the alumni includes Yohji Yamamoto and Junya Watanabe) carry on to work for Japanese brands or make a name for themselves within the country and consequently the world over, instead of marching on to luxury fashion houses in Europe.

Nowhere else have I seen this perfect marriage of old and new. It is this union that forms the integral and intrinsic soul of Japan.

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