Japan's capital is a place of unfathomable size, endless variety and constant movement, but just below the surface of this futuristic megalopolis is a surprising and delightful sense of calm
Author Robert Michael Poole Photography Marie Takahashi
• Population: 37.1 million
• Area, in square miles: 3,300
• Residents per square mile: 11,300
• Number of Fortune 500 companies: 48 (#1 in world)
• Number of Michelin stars: 331 (#1 in world; Paris has 85)
• Deaths from eating fugu (puffer fish) since 2002: 13
• Priciest tuna sold at Tsukiji auction: $736,000 ($1,238 per pound)
• Number of people using Shinjuku Station every day: ≈3.6 million
• Base metro fare, one way: 160 yen (≈$2)
Standing in front of the spectral figures in Lee Changwon’s “Parallel World” exhibit at Mori Art Museum, you can’t help but feel drawn toward the gallery’s large windows, beyond which Tokyo sprawls and shimmers.
The museum occupies the top few floors of the 54-story Roppongi Hills Mori Tower, a building whose futuristic design seems at times to compete with the artwork it houses. In true Tokyo style, the Mori doesn’t host permanent exhibits, opting instead to go with a revolving program of challenging and sometimes controversial art.
This is the place where the celebrated Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s bicycle sculptures rose to prominence. A more recent show, “Arab Express,” highlighted some of the grittier pieces by Middle Eastern artists, including Egyptian Ahmed Basiony, who was killed during a protest in 2011, and Halim Al-Karim, who avoided conscription into Saddam Hussein’s army by hiding in the desert for nearly three years.
It’s compelling stuff, if a little on the dark side. But then, you can always return to those enormous windows to lighten the mood.
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Manager, video-sharing site Nico Nico Douga
“I love CA4LA, a Japanese hat shop that’s like a museum. It’s loved by the Harajuku youth, snazzy adults and celebrities. The original Japanese craftsmanship makes you stand out from the crowd.”
Spokesperson, Tokyo International Film Festival
“Morita-ya in Marunouchi has some of the best Wagyu beef cooked in traditional ways, including shabu-shabu (hot pot), sukiyaki (sweet hot pot) and yaki-shabu (grilled-meat hot pot).”
Account director, Fashion TV
“I like Tableaux Lounge, in the Daikanyama district, which offers obsessively created, picture-perfect European dishes, an impressive wine list and an array of cigars to enjoy while sunk in a leather sofa, live jazz music serenading you.”
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The suburb of Shimokitazawa is a hipster’s paradise, a tangle of alleys jammed with vintage stores, record shops and music venues. Standing outside the subway here you’ll find hirsute street performer Rikimaru Toho, whose act is reading aloud from Japanese manga comic books.
“When I was younger, I played guitar,” he says. “Now manga is my instrument.” At his side is a significant stack of comics, from which he’ll pluck one and assume the personas of its characters. During a performance, his voice will veer from somber baritone to feminine shriek, while his face will twitch and wince through dozens of expressions.
As Toho sees it, his readings do more than indulge an obsession with manga; they give him a way to honor the tradition of Japanese storytelling, passing down modern interpretations of age-old folk tales with every squawk. “Please,” he says quietly to the people gathered around him, “allow me to make a powerful performance.”
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