But a touch of tradition colors high-tech capital


July 07, 1991|By Simon Winchester | Simon Winchester,Universal Press SyndicateUniversal Press Syndicate

Tokyo, capital of Japan, capital of the western half of the Pacific and probably one day capital of the world, is a city infatuated with the future -- its future, Japan's future, the planet's future, the future of everything.

Not that there is an absence of history about the place. There is the emperor, with all the panoply that surrounds him. There are the Kabuki theater, the tea ceremony, the shrines, the quietude of the temple gardens. The perfect symmetry of Mount Fuji, still unexpectedly visible off to the west of the city on clear mornings, is an ever-present reminder of Tokyo's place in the continuum of Japan.

But history is not what dominates anymore. Tokyo today is overwhelmed not by tradition, nor by its central role in this most remarkable of nations, but by the simple and memorably dramatic fact of her modernity.

This aspect of Tokyo provides an extraordinary illustration of how a city, and a people, can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Four decades ago this was a place of ruin. The people wore little better than rags. The nation was under occupation, and many nearly starved. But pride and perseverance are among the multitude of Japanese qualities. In only 40 years, an almost unimaginable rebirth has taken place. In Tokyo the evidence of it, in the buildings, in the attitude, in the sense of total confidence, in the style of the city, is everywhere.

A celebrated Tokyo architect, Fumihiko Maki, recently was quoted as saying that he and his fellow Tokyoites were "experiencing an exciting moment that doesn't come often in the history of a city. Tokyo is ascendant, flourishing. We have the money, the opportunity and the tradition." He also, interestingly, pointed out what is as obvious about Tokyo as it is about that other likely candidate as a world capital city, Los Angeles -- that it has no center, no downtown. "It is a chaotic labyrinth of small, interesting inner spaces, constructed from light, fragile materials and connected to each other by a complex network of grids, radials and spirals."

In Tokyo all this can be seen and sensed and experienced by any visitor -- through a mixture of osmosis and participation. Lest anyone is tempted to do so but is intimidated by the city's only half-deserved reputation for high prices, it will be comforting to learn that this most fundamental way of coming to appreciate Tokyo can be accomplished for less than the cost of a subway ticket.

True, if you wish to savor the most exotic kind of sushi, visit a seven-story disco or indulge in the almost decadent excesses of Tokyo consumerism (a lungful of strawberry-flavored air or a cup gold-dusted tea), some small quantity of yen will have to change hands. Simply by watching and listening, in certain places and at certain times, one can imbibe the makings of what appears to be a whole new world -- one seemingly drawn from the pages of science fiction, and yet one which is on show today as fascinating fact. The certain places are too many to count; the certain time generally is after dark, when one takes part in the stunning drama of a modern Tokyo night, when the Japanese so rapturously reap the rewards of all those years of rebuilding and rebirth.

Take an example. A glistening wet Friday evening on Harumi-Dori Avenue -- if not Tokyo's Fifth Avenue, then at least its Sunset Strip -- will provide an experience, an example, that is as good as any. To anyone who has lived in the city that has been Japan's capital since 1868, the aspect of the avenue is one of profound ordinariness. Yet to a newcomer it is as memorable a view of the coming nature of urban life as one is ever likely to encounter.

But the images of empire are, it has to be said, mere fancies here. Harumi-Dori is very much a place of the 20th, or even the 21st century, and one walks along it plunging ever further from the courtliness of old Tokyo, and ever deeper inside the neon fantasia of shopping and entertainment of the Ginza. This is the place where the Tokyo Mint once stood -- Ginza meaning "the silver quarter," and thus yet another reminder of the city's past. -- Tokyo's obsession with tomorrow is always colored -- and that is in part what is so charming -- by a remembrance of yesterday.

Venture ever deeper and yesterday soon moves over, to be replaced, or overlain, by a wild and throbbing and polychromatic confusion on all sides, all evidence of Commerce and Technology. A good place to start is the mighty cylindrical glass and chrome tower, the San-ai Dream Center, filled with scores of shops selling miniskirts and tight sweaters and Wacoal computer-designed automatic memory bras (they use your body heat to mold themselves to your curves, then remain that way through 10,000 washes).

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