My arrival in Tokyo triggered an audio-visual snow crash. Our group of English teachers staggered red-eyed and exhilarated from Narita airport and slept upright on the train that drew us into the city. Then, stung by sunlight and late-summer heat, we emerged from the underground, falling headlong into the electrified plungepool of Shinjuku.
In the centre, I felt like everything yelled for my attention, and my head soon ached with trying to decipher the crackling static of this new language. Waves of salarymen, miserably overdressed for the heat, poured around us; flashing signs and billboards jostled overhead, and the whole carnival was set to dated muzac, which burbled from escalators and department stores.
And the scale of the place is inhuman. I believed that I had travelled before arriving in Japan in 2006, but I had felt never felt this dumbstruck.
Now, almost ten years and many trips to Tokyo later, I wonder how many of those first few days really happened the way I remember. I was wired on adrenaline, I barely slept. There are dream-like jump cuts in my memory; it’s early morning and I look out from a high floor of the Keio Plaza Hotel; I am being jostled through a narrow street crowded with ramen stalls; I tentatively prod something translucent and fish-like with chopsticks in a dim, subterranean restaurant, late at night.
Long before I came to know the city, or at least have a working knowledge of its surfaces, I'd only ever seen Tokyo’s iconic skyline razed to the ground in Akira, the classic 1980s cyberpunk anime. This was not the only time fiction buttressed experience and memory of Tokyo. That view from the Keio Plaza? I took in the same view at night —sinister red lights now studded the tallest skyscrapers—and all I could see was the opening to Blade Runner, the camera panning over towers and plumes of fire and smoke.
Or my first night in Tokyo, drunk with new friends in a low-tabled izakaya, singing karaoke in a box overlooking the twinkling skyline. Was that us? Or was that Lost in Translation? Where was the real Tokyo?
Whenever I arrive in a new city, especially when faced with the incalculable scale of somewhere like Tokyo, I quickly reach for stories because they help shape the jumble of the present into something reassuring and comprehensible. But stories can also oversimplify and close us off to experience. I love “The Most Photographed Barn in the World” passage from Don DeLillo's White Noise:
Once you've seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn... We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We've agreed to be part of a collective perception… A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.
As a foreigner gliding across the surface of the city those first few days, this is exactly how Tokyo felt; otherworldly, unreal. Because, in a way, I had already seen the bustling pedestrian intersection at Shinjuku, or the parade of costumed eccentrics in Harajuku, countless time before.
Take Mt. Fuji. In woodblock prints by 18th century ukiyo-e painters, it is often depicted as serene, dusted with snow. And yet friends who climbed the well-trod icon could only admit to being underwhelmed. It amounted to little more than an eight-hour queue up a steep, gravelly slope to the summit where, if they were lucky and the cloud cleared, they got some half-decent views.
The reality of the experience didn't quite square with the Fuji they'd pre-seen. As Alex Kerr points out in Dogs & Demons, Japanese shrines, temples and zen gardens are regularly shot to keep out of frame the unsightly shops, apartment blocks and telephone wires that crowd around them. It is all too easy to see the cities we've gone looking for.
The city skyline by night. Image: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty.
However, I wasn't illiterate, or a tourist, for long. Living in rural northern Japan improved my Japanese very quickly, and I threw myself into daily life. And I went back to Tokyo as often as I could afford. My parts of the city, my experiences and stories, took on a tangible, idiosyncratic form that was mine alone. DeLillo's comment came to seem less and less profound.
Towards the end of my time in Japan, a colleague asked me what my favourite Japanese place was. I liked the village where I worked, but it couldn't compare with the capital. Tokyo was a dazzling place, with endless things to see and do, and my strongest memories – an overnight bus trip to see Radiohead, or New Years' at the colossal AgeHa club in 2008 – painted a picture of a city that could never grow boring.
I liked its anonymity. People didn't stare the way they sometimes did in the countryside, and I could float around unnoticed. Yet I also had great friends to ground my experience in something real.
I answered that I really liked Tokyo. He replied gruffly: “Tokyo's not Japan.” OK, I could see what he meant. On the surface of things, the glittering international cosmopolis, its youth and pace of life, bore little resemblance to the towns and villages, where the population is ageing and traditional values and rituals still have a central place in daily life. But after three years on a teaching program where transience was the norm, Tokyo had become a more real place for me, somewhere I could go anytime and start where I left off.
In 2015, I worked briefly in a small tourist town on the Spanish coast. Aside from towering castle ruins and bone-white beaches, the place was only notable for its improbable international airport and complex of EU buildings overlooking the Mediterranean.
On a quiet Saturday morning, I set out early and got purposefully lost in the old town at the foot of the castle. I found brightly painted houses, worn stone staircases, cooking smells and conversations spilling out from kitchen windows. This was the real Spain, I thought, triumphantly.
And as soon as the thought had popped into my head, I knew it was rubbish. The scene had merely resonated with a Spain I already knew from TV, films, books – a Spain I had gone looking for. I see now that this desire to secure “real” experience is just symptomatic of the loneliness and confusion of a new place. That urge wore off in Spain, once I'd made good friends and found things to do, and it wore off in Japan, too.
Are there any real Tokyos? There are certainly mine. And each time I go back, new experiences reframe my half-remembered stories, and both undercut their verity and make them, and my relationships, more real.
Dan Bradley is a writer and translator from Japanese. His translation of ‘Mambo’ by Hitomi Kanehara appears in The Book of Tokyo: A City in Fiction, an anthology of new Japanese fiction from Comma Press. He lives in London.