Driving in by bus last night I noticed once again, but maybe more clearly than ever, how--despite its surface aura of sleek modernity--unattractive is the visual appeal of Tokyo, seen from the perspective of a raised highway running through its heart. Wherever you look you see gray monoliths, some small, some gigantic, but all giving the impression of sameness, even in their diversity. One glass, concrete, and steel building is wedged next to the other, with no apparent plan or sense of orderliness. And this view dominates much of the sprawling metropolis, which gives the impression of endless architecture as far as the eye can see; it makes the layout and planning of New York City, by contrast, seem a model of urban thoughtfulness. New York--by which I'm referring mainly to Manhattan--with its avenues running north and south and its streets east and west has, for the most part, a clarity of perspective that makes Tokyo proper look chaotic and overwhelming. Even the most imaginative architecture--of which the city has multiple examples--gets lost in the jumble when viewed from a slight distance.
Manhattan has, I would venture, two dominant architectural districts--midtown and the Wall Street area. Tokyo seems to have dozens. And where New York has Times Square as its principal high-tech hub of entertainment, shopping, and tourism, Tokyo has multiple and far more extensive versions of the same thing--Shinjuku, Shibuya, the Ginza, Ikebukuro, and so on, all of them centered around a major train depot.
Even the area around the suburban Kichijoji train station is such a hub. Hundreds of young people, including street performers, congregate outside. Commuters stand in long lines waiting for buses. There are department stores, banks, restaurants, a huge shopping arcade, boutiques, night clubs, dozens of taxis, bars, and on and on. Outside of Manhattan, New York's boroughs have none of this. Downtown Brooklyn near Fulton Street is a rural backwater compared to Kichijoji, which is nevertheless just one of many such suburban towns ringing the sprawling monster known as Tokyo proper.
On the other hand, if you walk about ten minutes away from the hustle and bustle of the Kichijoji train station neighborhood, you move into a more orderly suburban environment of modest and occasionally impressive houses, lined up cheek to jowl, of course, but nevertheless, quiet, well mannered, neat, and carefully placed on narrow, clean, and eminently livable suburban streets.
At 11:00 a.m. I met Kei, his wife, Yasue, and adorable, well-behaved, and clearly intelligent six-year-old daughter at the Seikei campus gate and we joined the hundreds of people attending the cherry blossom festival. I gave Miyako a Godiva teddy bear clutching a bar of Godiva chocolate, and she seemed to like it very much, holding onto it as tightly as the animal did to its precious candy bar.
Sure enough, the campus was brilliant with cherry trees in glorious floral profusion, which brightened an otherwise overcast and chilly day. As usual at such events, there were many vendors under canvas tenting selling sake, beer, hot dogs on a stick, chocolate-covered bananas on a stick, yakisoba (fried noodles), and all sorts of other popular local foods and confections.
There were numerous games for children, like one in which the kids are given a hook attached to a paper string and asked to catch a small balloon floating in water. If the string breaks when it gets too damp, they lose. Happily, Miyako managed to hook a balloon. Another game, something like horseshoes, is wanage (ring toss), where the tykes throw small rings of twine in an attempt to encircle a cheap toy that they then win. We've all seen variations of this in the U.S. Miyako had a romp on an air mattress trampoline inside a blowup version of a genie castle inspired by Disney's Alladin movie, drove a tiny, solar-powered car around a miniature track, and put on blinders to allow a seeing-eye dog to lead her (with help from its mistress) around an obstacle course. A tea ceremony was being held outdoors at one place, a Sinatra imitator sang songs like "My Way" and "When You're Smiling" with near flawless English pronunciation and a less than flawless singing voice, and a full orchestra and chorus performed familiar tunes.
After a while, Kei and his family departed (Miyako needed a haircut before she begins first grade next week). Having left my fanny pack and money back in my apartment, I returned to retrieve it and to get the chill out of my underdressed bones.
In coming days, I'll add more photos of the Kichijoji experience, but for now I'll close with this shot of a somewhat shabbily dressed man I spotted standing outside a Buddhist temple on a nearly empty sidewalk just outside the perimeter of the big shopping center, offering his humble prayers. A sobering image only a few feet from the world of desire and consumption.