Sydney Morning Herald Magazine
So I wrote for Time Out’s Greatest Cities book about how Kyoto was the best. But this time around I raved about Tokyo, because I’ll do anything for a nice byline.
Tokyo ought to rank somewhere between Lagos and Tehran for quality of life. It’s the focal point of the most populous conurbation on the planet, and is one of the most crowded cities. It’s often expensive, always cacophonous and, at first glance, ugly as sin.
The tourist bureau likes to show pictures of cherry blossom and Shinto shrines, but the real icons of this city are grey boxy offices and salarymen being stuffed into rush-hour trains.
Yet Tokyo is consistently rated one of the world’s most livable cities, and rightly so. It may not be as pretty as Paris, Athens or Rome, but it works like nowhere else on Earth. Those commuters that ride nose-to-stranger’s armpit arrive at their destination unruffled and on time, then set about making this extraordinary city tick.
I’m writing this in a coffee shop whose owner says, in seriousness, that his skills are comparable to the lightsaber technique of Obi-Wan Kenobi. He says it takes five years to learn how to make a cappuccino, and he refuses to serve espresso after 2pm because says he has to share the power grid with too many other people so the extraction will be too weak. He’s perfect fodder for a quirky Japan story. But you have to take him seriously because his coffee is sensational.
Such people exist in every corner of this city, slicing sashimi, mixing drinks, designing clothing, playing jazz, obsessively and brilliantly. Michelin lavished the city with stars, making it their unofficial culinary capital of the world, but the French tyre makers don’t tell you that the ramen chefs, bakers, confectioners and bento-box producers are all equally fanatical.
My friend’s mother makes tonkatsu by day and teaches tea ceremony in the evening. The two pursuits sit at opposite ends of Japan’s cultural spectrum, but she takes them equally seriously, because in Tokyo if something is worth doing, it’s worth getting obsessed about.
I arrived in Tokyo 12 years ago. I came for the clichés – the futuristic megalopolis with a cartoon veneer – but I found an urban colossus that should be the template for every other city. Women can walk the streets alone at night; machines never seem to be broken; scams are rare; nobody tips; and if you drop your wallet in the street, someone will race after you to return it.
On the rare occasion that I leave Tokyo, I can take my luggage to the convenience store and mail it to the airport or resort. Needless to say, it arrives exactly on the hour I specify.
There are greener, more picturesque cities in the world, but Tokyo is a place of mesmerizing details, like a bumper jigsaw puzzle in which every tile comes from a different, random box, but the tabs all click into place anyway.