I told a Chinese friend I would stop in Tokyo on my way home. “Tokyo is a beautiful city,” she said. “Sort of,” I said. After a day in Tokyo, I realized she was right. Tokyo is beautiful, not sort of beautiful. Tokyo business signs and outdoor advertising aren’t beautiful but they are swamped by many things that are:
- Small irregular streets. On foot, the weird address system works fine.
- Plenty of parks and greenery.
- Many small neat attractive shops selling a huge variety of goods. A miso store, for example. Many parts of Tokyo are like Greenwich Village, in other words.
- Clean convenient free public restrooms. Unlike other cities, as I’ve said.
- Excellent service in shops. Unlike Paris and Amsterdam.
- Excellent map and direction signage. In subways, for example, way-finding signs tell the distance, not just the direction, of the destination. This is so basic (distance and direction are orthogonal) yet other places, such as New York, don’t do it. Such creative attention to detail, such improvement on something so old (wayfinding signs) isn’t just helpful, it’s inspiring. I came across a construction site sign that appeared to say how loud the work would be. Again, serious improvement on tradition.
- Everyone I asked for directions was helpful, although many were surprisingly ignorant (e.g., didn’t know which direction to Roppongi).
- So very walkable. Partly because the streets are curvy, partly there are so many little interesting things everywhere I went but also because when I got tired of random wandering, I could simply go to the nearest subway station and get to my ultimate destination.
- The proportions of buildings. Slightly thin, slightly tall.
- The repeated exterior details of apartment buildings. They are not smooth slabs. They have visible balconies, stairs, etc.
- The food shops in the basements of department stores. There are dozens of small booths. One sells miso, another sells pickles, a third sells salads, a fourth sells eel, and so on. Not only is the food itself often beautiful — Japanese food packaging is supremely lovely — but it is beautifully arranged. You could learn a lot about aesthetics (the hidden laws of beauty) by comparing these displays with similar (less attractive) displays in other countries.
- Clean air, clean streets. In spite of heavy use.
- Well-maintained neat small houses.
- Temples scattered throughout the city.
- Healthy-looking people, especially old people. I think it’s all the fermented food they eat (e.g., miso, pickles), not the health-care system.
I did not find Tokyo expensive, even with the dollar way down against the yen. I never took a cab (and never wanted to — in Beijing I always want to). Equated for quality, I think Tokyo is cheaper than New York.
The tragedy of Tokyo is the lack of human diversity: few foreigners. Such a great city should draw people from all over the world, but it doesn’t. It has a a lot to teach the rest of us about how to live in cities (for example, where does Japanese perfectionism come from?) but somehow this sharing hasn’t happened. Like a cure for cancer in a journal no one reads.