In the largest metropolis in the world, the crowds bustling around you become a blur. Shibuya lies at the heart of this vibrant city. To me, standing in the middle of Hachiko crossing, the path of about one million people per day, I feel as if I’m at home.
Some may ask how somewhere so impersonal can seem like ‘home’. Yet, after walking to and from here twice a day at the age of seven, bustling through the crowd with my violin and school backpack, this is where my childhood heart belongs.
For as long as I can remember, I have met up with friends at the statue of Hachiko dog, outside Shibuya station. The well-known national tale goes that this little creature used to greet his owner at Shibuya station each day. Upon one occasion, his owner had a fatal heart attack at work, and the dog returned every single evening for nine years at the precise time when the train was due, until he too passed away in the snowy winter air. The statue was made in commemoration of him, and the exit of the station was renamed ‘Hachiko’, in honour of the little dog’s loyalty. Hundreds of people meet their friends here everyday and this legend is alive in the memories of all. He became a symbol of Japanese loyalty, particularly for the Emperor. Every year, on 8th April, dog lovers gather at the statue in honour of Hachiko. Legends such as these, reminiscent of the rich body of old legends and fairytales, stand in contrast to the coldness of a technologically plugged-in society.
“The overriding sense of Tokyo […] is that it is a city devoted to the new, sped up in a subtle but profound way: a postmodern science-fiction story set ten minutes in the future.”
David Rakoff, “Freud: Essays”
This is what people see in the streets of Tokyo. This is what people see when they see the crowds weaving in and out of each other at Shibuya crossing or the blinding lights of Akihabara, ‘Electric Town’. If this is all you see, of course I can understand the question, ‘How can you call this home?’
Perhaps images which the world has of Tokyo and Japan cause a misrepresentation – ‘otherness’. I think most regard it with fascination: the advanced technology, the bizarre fashions, the rather crass humour, lights, buzz. A blur of people and colour. People come to see, witness, experience the ‘otherness’. But I do not believe that Tokyo is only an exotic place to be marvelled at. Personally, I find that its culture of bizarreness is rather comforting. Where else would you find a female pop group containing 140 members (AKB 48), toilets which play classical music as you tinkle, or women dressed as Little Bo Peep, pushing prams – not for their baby, but for their dog? For a country so efficient (delay certificates are given to passengers to prove to employers that the train was delayed by more than five minutes – an event so rare that it renders delay certificates actually necessary), its creativity is surprisingly abundant. It is this creativity which gives the city warmth to its more ‘everyday’ kind of residents. So, I’ve described that the coldness and isolation of technology jars against the warmth of the city as a factory for innovation. This is still surface-level – an image.
“Je suis une aspirine effervescente qui se dissout dans Tokyo.” (“I am an effervescent aspirin that dissolves in Tokyo.”)
Amélie Nothom, “La Nostalgie Heureuse”
Maybe it’s the fast pace of life, sharing a city with thirteen million people, buildings being knocked down and replaced every few years, new and crazy (yet occasionally very useful) inventions every month, or the morning scrum to get onto the Yamanote line (unlike London’s Circle Line, it genuinely forms a complete circle) – Tokyo feels like a communal place. For the ‘normal’ citizens of the city, Tokyo’s wackiness is not particularly wacky. It’s just another shade in the hazy edifice of the city. Commuters may laugh quietly, but move on. The lungs of the city continue to breathe. For Tokyo’s everyday citizens, this ‘wacky’ ‘other world’ is real. And it’s theirs.
“There is no place like home.”
L. Frank Baum, “The Wizard of Oz”
So I challenge you: if you visit Tokyo on holiday, or indeed, anywhere, do not solely view that city or place as a tourist. Everyone enjoys touristy gimmicks once in a while. But take a moment to stop, meet some locals, and follow their lead. You might end up discovering more of the soul of a city than you would by following the beaten track.