Life in Tokyo moves at a well-oiled clip, with an energy that borders on mania and an obsession with newness that seems to make all ideas quickly obsolete. Fashions begin to fade almost as soon as they are plucked from clothes hangers, and keitai (mobile phones) are traded up for each latest technological advancement. But even while throngs of tech-savvy, smartly styled Tokyoites trot through subway stations, there is a traditional side to this hyperurban cosmopolis, which may not be immediately evident.
Beneath the conspicuous consumption of its shopping districts and shiny façades of the latest architectural achievement, Tokyo throws out unexpected glimpses of its cultural core. At a Shintō shrine across town, a young man purchases a fortune and, after reading it, ties it to a strung frame whose many paper fortunes rustle like leaves in a breeze. In a neighbourhood sentō (public bath) in Asakusa, an old woman bathes with her tiny granddaughter, much as she once did with her own grandmother.
Tokyo’s unique vitality springs from this intertwining of the new with the time-honoured old. While it’s the wellspring of Japanese pop culture, it is also a place where the patrilineage of its imperial family is a tightly held institution.
It’s the city to which Japanese nonconformists flee but where individuality is often linked to an older form of small-group identity. It’s a metropolis where the pressure cooker of traditional societal mores and expectations explodes into cutting-edge art, music and inventions like the ‘boyfriend’s arm pillow’.
Even pop culture like manga, as it takes the world by storm, is rooted in the tradition of Edo-period ukiyo-e (wood-block prints from the ‘floating world’). And so, as its modern gears keep turning, the basic machinery of this intriguing city remains true to its origins.