Tokyo isn’t just a city. It’s a megacity—the most populous metropolis in the world. Surprisingly, just 400 years ago this global powerhouse was little more than a backwater castle town on the shores of the muddy Sumida River. Over the past century it has been twice virtually annihilated—first during the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake and subsequent firestorm, and again in 1945 after the devastation of the Allied bombings. Each time it has risen like a phoenix from the ashes, reborn in an ever-more-modern reflection of itself.
But progress came at a price, and by 1990 the cost of living in Tokyo was also the highest in the world. If you stood in the high-fashion district of Ginza, the area beneath your feet would have been worth an astonishing $20,000. In response, Tokyoites redefined overspending into an art form. As darkness falls, the city crackles to life in bursts of neon energy. Scrolling signs slither down the sides of skyscrapers, while multi-story television screens flaunt hot young bodies flashing hotter new gadgets. On the streets below, designer girls in ice-pick heels download horoscopes onto their iPhones and chatter to each other like a flock of sparrows, while tuxedoed Svengalis urge you into darkened bars where financial doom awaits. Those Japanese who are not of the City, who are still inculcated with the frugal values hammered home in the aftermath of the war, mutter darkly of modern influences. But Tokyo is to Japan what New York is to America, and, like New Yorkers, Tokyoites don’t care what anyone else thinks.
And yet … there is another side of Tokyo. You can catch glimpses of it in Asakusa, deep in the heart of old Tokyo—a village that became a city yet remained a village, where people still leave their doors unlocked at night and old-fashioned cottage industries fill the hot summer air with the scent of fresh-cut tatami or the sour tang of fermenting soybeans. You can hear it in the sharp clap of wooden sticks and the call “watch out for fires!” of the neighborhood volunteer fire patrols. And if you look carefully, you’ll even find the occasional stiff-backed woman in a three-layered kimono surreptitiously enjoying a burger in a corner fast-food restaurant. And just beyond the well-lit train stations, under soot-smeared bridges, you’ll discover an inconspicuous soup stand where salarymen gather each evening, to share a bottle of sake and smoky camaraderie, just as their ancestors once did.
Dig deeper, and you will find Tokyo’s feudal heritage in moments as ephemeral as the first cherry blossoms in spring. Tokyo is one of few places in the world where a flower can bring an entire city to a state of near-sexual excitement. Cherry blossoms last for less than two weeks and are symbolic—as any Japanese on the street can tell you—of the impermanence of life, the sadness underlying its exquisite beauty. Cherry blossoms fall in their prime, as samurai warriors were meant to do. The samurai may be long gone, but throughout the bars of Tokyo, gray-haired businessmen still moon about, composing haiku and dreaming of shedding career and kin to follow the blooming flowers down the spine of the Japanese Alps. High-end kurabu bar hostesses compose themselves into human ikebana flower arrangements with the same eye for art and beauty as the geisha who once frequented the pleasure districts of old Edo, famous throughout Japan.
Look out over Tokyo and you will see a 21st-century megalopolis, a city of glassy skyscrapers ringed by an elevated super toll road, like a modern Great Wall of China. But Tokyo is far more than that. It’s a place where the past is inextricably woven into the present; where pockets of ancient traditions don’t just survive, they thrive in the midst of an ultramodern consumer culture. And like a well-forged sword, it is precisely this balance that gives Tokyo both the resilience and the flexibility to survive everything from catastrophic fires to Hello Kitty as it moves confidently into the 21st century.
Writer, filmmaker, and photographer KARIN MULLER is the author of Hitchhiking Vietnam: A Woman’s Solo Journey in an Elusive Land; Inca Road: A Woman’s Journey into an Ancient Empire; and Japanland: A Year in Search of Wa.
Shop National Geographic