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My First Time to the Far East: A Foreigner's Impressions of Tokyo

04/12/2014 19:12 GMT | Updated 03/02/2015 10:59 GMT

My first glimpse of Tokyo was from the plane. As we began our descent, I peered out and saw Japan's capital city; a sprawling urban mass lying between the snowy capped peak of Mount Fuji, and the glimmering Pacific Ocean. Tokyo is vast: so much so, that from an aerial perspective, it almost seems as though it is trying to compete with the immensity of its surrounding natural environment. Home to nearly 40,000,000 people, Tokyo is a megalopolis of titanic proportions, seeming like a shrine to technology and feats of architectural engineering. Walking the streets means walking amongst a network of monumental skyscrapers and gargantuan buildings constructed from glass and steel. They loom high above you every which away, a kingdom of high-rise buildings. Initially impressive, soon they become oppressive; they block out the sky and you can feel their presence, their heavy weight pressing down upon you. These buildings aren't just office blocks, although there are plenty of those, but all sorts of things: apartments, department stores, restaurants, karaoke bars, pachinko arcades; the list goes on.

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Never before have I been somewhere so full of activity and dynamism. It sometimes felt like I was trapped inside a violent vortex of movement, because people and things are in constant flux from all sides: above you in the massive buildings, beneath you in the labyrinthine network of subterranean passages (also full of shops and eateries), and alongside you on the streets, where I witnessed such huge swathes people it made even the frenzy of Oxford street on Christmas eve seem like an oasis of calm. It is urban living at its most intense. The famous pedestrian crossing in Shibuya really is a sight to behold; there were just so many people, I couldn't quite get my head round it; all the individuals seemed to become one single, pulsating organism. Life seemed to be piled on top of itself; oozing out of itself; everything compressed together, nothing distinct, just a chaotic whirr of homogeneity.

Tokyo's vigorous human activity coheres with its urban topography: the flashing lights and colours and animated billboards, the noise that seems to emanate from everything and everywhere. They even have a theme park right in the middle of the city, including a roller coaster that goes through a building (completely hilarious and surreal - I highly recommend going on it). However, in some areas there was such a deluge of information and stimuli that I felt completely overwhelmed: my usual flow of consciousness was stultified, reduced to a gamut of pathetic whimpering noises, and the occasional expression of bewilderment: 'What is this?' 'Errrr...' 'Where am I?' "Ahhh' 'Help!' Simple communication was incredibly difficult; and it's not just to do with the fact I cannot speak or read an iota of Japanese: gesticulation, facial expression and tone of voice is entirely different out there; what might have conveyed my meaning in foreign lands elsewhere seemed to be redundant in Japan. Once I was out of my hotel, and without wifi, I really was on my own. My only option was to wander around aimlessly for hours, and I ended up stumbling across some fairly weird stuff; like a 'cat café,' with lots of solitary Tokyo inhabitants having a whole lot of fun playing with cats that were clearly sedated up to their eyeballs.

At times I remember feeling as though my senses had been violated, being exposed to such an incessant shower of information like that: the robotic noises of arcade games, the neon signs, the advertisements blasted out across the street from moving vehicles. And yet, the maelstrom I perceived on the city streets lay in sharp contrast to the tranquillity, elegance and refinement that also exists in Tokyo. Peppered throughout the city are stunning parks and traditional Japanese gardens. They provided me with respite from the mania of the streets, and they were some of the most exquisite horticultural settings I have ever seen. Shinjuku-Gyoen Park, in particular, I found profoundly serene.

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It looked resplendent in the afternoon sunshine, for the quality of the sunlight in Japan was like molten gold, and the park was full of trees with abundant autumnal foliage; a gorgeous spectrum of colours that ranged from scarlet and carmine, to amber and yellowed ochre. It was a visual feast that captured the essence of autumn. The trees stood on islands amongst placid lakes, linked by half-moon bridges beneath which small waterfalls gently cascaded over mossy rocks. All I could hear was the chatter of the birds and the gentle rush of the water; otherwise it was supremely quiet, and it was almost if I could hear the echoing whisper of the garden's own beauty.

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The order, purity and simplicity that characterise the many gardens, parks, and temples is also evident in traditional Japanese art, which I saw during a morning spent at the Nezu museum. The seventeenth century silk hangings painted with ink depicted elegant women adorned in kimonos beneath moonlit skies, under thickly blossomed cherry trees; a multitude of quintessential Japanese scenes. Such restraint; such elegance. The designs and the patterns were exquisite, and I could clearly see the influence on Western art. I was left wondering why British schools don't teach you about Eastern culture: its history, its art and its philosophy. They really should, because it is enriching and fascinating.

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I think my presiding impression of Japan, bearing in mind that I did only visit Tokyo, was the sense of dichotomy within its culture. I observed binaries that were teased out in all sorts of ways: the juxtaposition between the hyper-modern and the traditional; between the purity and delicacy of their art, their gardens, their intricate tea ceremonies (my friend took me to the oldest tea shop in Tokyo; definitely the most complex cup of tea I have ever had!), and the chaotic sensory assault that I experienced on many of Tokyo's streets. Public loos were either holes in the ground, or had as many buttons/controls as I would expect to see on a spaceship.

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What I found especially unsettling, though, was the contrast between a culture that is sexually conservative and, ultimately, repressed, and a lurid underbelly of sexual deviancy and perversion. Public displays of affection are definitely not cool, and yet it's also a place where there are female only carriages on the metro to protect women from being molested, a place that produces 'hentai' - cartoon porn where a giant octopus penetrating young girls with its tentacles is standard content - where hyper-sexualised manga characters are portrayed on giant billboards, as well as photos of real-life girls in school uniform, coquettishly bending over.

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I once went into what I thought was a regular café to make another pathetic attempt at asking for directions, and realised I had walked into one of Tokyo's famous 'maid cafés': the place reeked of sour milk, and was inhabited by several lonely old men being served by various girls dolled up in fetishized French maid outfits. Available to order on the menu were things such as a song sung to you by one of the maids, or even a meal spoon-fed to you by one of them. I mean... really? Yup, really. It was so gross. That is the best word I can think of; it was just really gross and creepy and depressing. Clearly this was a place of covert sexual titillation, emerging from the notion of subservience, as well as some serious Oedipus complexes.

Tokyo is a wonderfully exciting place but sometimes it did feel a bit much, quite inaccessible and utterly alien. Everyone in Tokyo is Japanese! It is not a cosmopolitan city; it is not like New York or London, which are international hubs, melting pots of diverse ethnicities and nationalities. The racial and cultural disparity conflated to make me feel like I had crash-landed onto a different planet. All the people staring at me quickly began to make me feel estranged, and it wasn't helped by the fact many of them were wearing surgical masks. And there are all these codes of conduct that the Japanese abide by; for the first time in my life I felt I ought to conform, I was genuinely scared about committing a faux pas. For instance, everyone walks on the left hand side on the street to avoid congestion, smoking outside isn't allowed (but, inversely, is allowed inside), and they queue up on the metro platform in anticipation of the arriving train (I would really love to see an attempt to implement this on the London tube - things would be so much more civilised!).

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I saw in Tokyo a very ordered society where people live co-operatively and respectfully amongst each other. It is sophisticated and it is highly stratified - Japanese can have up to four different words for the same verb, to be used accordingly depending on whom you are speaking to. It is a place where you work at a single firm your entire life, and seniority comes with age, rather than merit; and my god do they work hard there. Practically everyone on the street was wearing a suit; the industriousness was palpable. Perhaps this is why, although eating or drinking on the underground is a big 'no-no', falling asleep on a stranger's shoulder is totally fine!

What I experienced was a strange tension between the foreign and the familiar; between alien behaviours, and the common essence that unites us all - being human. I felt this quite profoundly on the metro, when I was deliberating whether I could, or should, take a stealthy bite out of my mochi (a Japanese sweet filled with adzuki bean paste - they are quite delicious) when I saw an elderly Japanese lady sit down. She was looking at a young mother holding her infant child. The baby was gurgling and playfully pulling at his mother's hair. The elderly woman looked at them with a beaming smile on her face; her expression spoke of human compassion, empathy, relation; of, most probably, her own memories of parenthood. The cycle of humanity; birth, life, death; we are all part of that - having felt so alien and different, suddenly I felt completely included and connected. I think there is a whole lot more to discover about Japan. I can't pretend I wasn't a little bit relieved to arrive back in England, where people actually understand what I'm saying, but then again, I'm simply longing to go back.

All photos blogger's own