Tokyo: 14 Neighbourhoods (1/3)

Tokyo: 14 Neighbourhoods. Tokyo's urban layout does not follow Western aesthetics.
Tokyo's urban layout does not follow Western aesthetics.

It is interesting to note that, unlike most modern configurations we have grown so accustomed to, Tokyo does not follow an overarching principle to unify its sweeping urban landscape.

Tokyo Metropolis is one of the 47 prefectures of Japan. It is one of the largest metropolises in the world by any metrics. With an urban space as vast, any attempts to encapsulate it in a single blog post will only result in more injustice than clarification, not to mention making the writer look recklessly inept.

To decipher the bits and pieces of this organic and elaborate cultural byzantine requires a life-time dedication that I suspect few has ever truly mastered, even for the Tokyoites themselves. Still, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. And so I wish to share with you a sketch of some parts of Tokyo that I have traveled to recently. Rather than seeing this as a complete guide, then, it would be wiser to see it as my initiation into this cryptic, and delightfully so, place.

Before we begin, it is interesting to note that, unlike most modern configurations we have grown so accustomed to, Tokyo does not follow an overarching principle to unify its sweeping urban landscape. Centering around the Imperial Palace expanding outwards, Tokyo seems, at least from a Westerner’s perspective, to lack logical and congruent organization to its municipal layout.

A glance at Google Maps confirms that many of the streets in Tokyo are not named. District numbering are often random and not in order. Houses are generally not numbered but labelled with residents’ names. There is no zoning akin to the industrial-commercial-residential separation we have in the West. Architectural style is generally not regulated and no effort is made to preserve view corridors or to preserve visual uniformity on a macro level.

Aside from pockets of modern grid system, like Ginza and the areas in its immediate vicinity along the Sumida River, roads often sprawl haphazardly like vines with a happy life of their own. Try to find an apartment without any instructions other than an address line, and you will know what I mean.

Donald Richie, a prominent American critic and writer on Japan, once said that “Tokyo’s style is an absence of style – that is, there seems to be no overriding authority (which is what style is – a kind of government) – and that the resulting mayhem is the style of Tokyo.”

Observing this mercantile-driven, bottom-up existence, Richie further comments that “in Japan, only modernized in the last century, units remain independent; hence the feeling of proceeding through village after village, each with its own main street: a bank, a supermarket, a flower shop, a pinball parlour, all without street names or numbers because villagers don’t need them.”  In other words, Tokyo is a city of villages – it organizes like a village; it evolves like a village.

Such absence of a grand design, however, should not be seen as sign of Tokyo’s underdevelopment. For starters, it does not seem to be an issue amongst the inhabitants themselves, who go on about their daily lives just fine. And while it defies Western aesthetics and its organizational logic, the enclosed and impromptu nature of the current arrangement is not only convenient, but is congruent to the Japanese values and the beliefs that make up its national psyche.

A village-style organization promotes social integration and a sense of community. Placing personal addresses in a private realm also reflects their value of privacy and the distinction of public and private matters. Inhabitants do not have to rely on cars to get to places, which is in turn conducive to personal and environmental health.

Mayhem or not, what is certain is the ability of the Japanese people to change, often at a radical pace and direction, if they desire so, as history has shown again and again.

With that in mind, here are the 14 neighbourhoods of Tokyo I have visited recently. They make up only a small slice of what the city encompasses.

Aoyama

Aoyama is not usually what comes to mind when people think of Tokyo. Lacking the fast-paced excitement characteristic of many attractions, Aoyama is closer to that composed and expensive neighborhood that people go to when they want a more tranquil alternative to its louder sibling, Ginza.
Home to many global luxury labels, Aoyama is surprisingly unpretentious and quiet. This hilly neighborhood also features the Aoyama Cemetery, one of Tokyo’s the largest and oldest cemeteries, and Akasaka Palace, originally built for the Crown Prince and now a state guesthouse for visiting foreign officials.

Tokyo: 14 Neighbourhoods. The arterial street of Aoyama. Tokyo: 14 Neighbourhoods. A boutique in Aoyama selling health products. Tokyo: 14 Neighbourhoods. A small street in the hilly part of Aoyama neighbourhood. Tokyo: 14 Neighbourhoods. Aoyama is home to many global luxury labels. Tokyo: 14 Neighbourhoods. Aoyama Cemetery, one of Tokyo’s the largest and oldest cemeteries. Tokyo: 14 Neighbourhoods. A small shinto shrine in Aoyama.

Ginza

If Aoyama is a calm and upscale neighbourhood, then Ginza is its flamboyant sibling. Commanding the status as The District for global flagship boutiques, Ginza is one of the few places where one finds the finest things money can buy, in goods and services.

It is one of the most Westernized districts of Tokyo and is constantly packed with tourists and businessmen alike. On weekends, the main street through Ginza is closed off to road traffic, allowing pedestrians to roam freely along the street merchants. Read more about Ginza here.
Tokyo: 14 Neighbourhoods. Ginza is the prime destination for international luxury flagships. Tokyo: 14 Neighbourhoods. Ginza has many eateries catering to the businessmen in the nearby office towers. They become especially crowded at night when people get off work to socialize. Tokyo: 14 Neighbourhoods. Kabuki-za in the Ginza district of Tokyo is one of the most well-known theatre for kabuki - a classical Japanese dance-drama featuring elaborate costume and make-up. Tokyo: 14 Neighbourhoods. The clock tower of Ginza Wako is a landmark of the neighbourhood. This Neo-Renaissance department store was constructed in 1932.

Continued in Part 2 | Part 3

.

NEWSLETTER

Receive beautifully crafted in-email photo stories from around the world, direct to your inbox.

Your details are protected and will not be passed on to any third parties.