text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
Every attempt to describe Tokyo is doomed to failure; unless one decides to stick to single-word tautologies like “metropolis” or to platitudes about its size, its abundance of everything, its huge crowds, its railroad network etc. Not that all these aren’t aspects of the phenomenon called “Tokyo”; they are but they are not enough to convey its essence: that it is, indeed, a phenomenon, perhaps unique in the whole world (not having visited New York, I keep an open mind but judging from my expectations about Europe’s metropolises and how they proved to be true or false when I visited them, I tend to believe that the above characterization, is true however exaggerated it might sound).
Tokyo is the closest illustration of what the English call a “city” –which is funny considering that technically it is not a city but a super-prefecture containing 23 municipalities, 26 cities and 17 islands. None of these cities is called “Tokyo”, there is no “municipality of Tokyo” or “mayor of Tokyo” and even the Japanese themselves, puzzled by the peculiarity of this area have assigned it the characterization “to” (“都”) which means “metropolis” or “capital” (the other prefectures are named “ken”/ “県”) and have designated it’s ruler a “governor” (“tochiji”/ “都知事”). And even though for most of them the word “Tokyo” is invariably preceded by the words “the problem of” (referring to its hydrocephalic overexpansion), I doubt there is even one who doesn’t think of it as the heart of their country.
Notorious for its lack of a “center” (unless we consider as its “center” the Imperial Palace and the gardens that surround it –which no one does) and for the absence of names and numbers in its streets, structured in a way and to an extent that would try the limits of anyone used to European city planning and architecture, filled to the brim with tiny alleys hiding treasures for visitors and natives alike and with avenues rolling like the roads in Heinlein’s story, brighter in the night than most cities are in the day, more futuristic than any science fiction and more old-school than any history, Tokyo is the confirmation (and the rebuff) of everything anyone has ever heard about Japan.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.