"Stories help shape the jumble of the present into something reassuring": But where was the real Tokyo?

The Tokyo skyline, with Mount Fuji behind it. Image: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty.

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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.

 
 
 
 

So how could Northern Ireland spend £400m on new infrastructure?

Great Victoria Street station, Belfast. Image: Milepost98/Wikipedia.

Last year’s confidence and supply agreement between the Conservative party and the DUP saw 40 per cent of the Northern Irish party’s £1bn price tag allocated to infrastructure. Although there is, at the time of writing, no functioning government in the North to spend it, where could £400m be best used?

Northern Ireland is not, geographically, a large place. The six counties are inhabited by under 2m people and, to use a comparative metric that anyone who has sat in a high school geography lesson may remember, the North is less than half the size of Belgium. Belfast and Derry, Northern Ireland’s two major urban centres, are only a 70 mile drive apart. On the face of it then, an injection of cash into infrastructure should be relatively straightforward.

Yet the Belfast Rapid Transit system is the only notable public transport infrastructure currently being developed in the North. That takes the form of a web of connected bus lanes, as well as investment in a new bus fleet for use in them, that aims to cut car use in the heavily congested city.

One way to spend the money might be to tame the Irish Sea. Democratic Unionist Party MP Sammy Wilson claimed back in January a bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland was “feasible” and would be a “much needed alternative” to the current ferry route. Unsurprisingly, he isn’t the first to notice that Northern Ireland’s east coast is only 20 miles from Scotland.

But while some MPs dream of bridges across the sea, interest in more useful infrastructure is less forthcoming. Take the NI Railways service, which despite the name only covers a fraction of the North. A simple glance over a map shows how fractured coverage is.

Even where the trains do run, the service is hardly efficient. The Belfast-Derry journey takes over two hours, which doesn’t compare well with the current London-Birmingham fast service, which covers almost twice the distance in 1hr22. Belfast City Airport, which last year handled 2.5m passengers, is serviced by Sydenham Station – but only via shuttle bus, which you have to request, or via the verge of the A2.

Meanwhile there is no train at all to Belfast International Airport: instead, an expensive taxi or a bus through the Northern Irish countryside is required. It may be scenic, but it isn’t good infrastructure.

That said, NI Rail saw 14.2m  passenger journeys last year, compared to 11.5m in 2012-13: the problem isn’t that there is no demand for infrastructure, simply that no one has bothered to build it.

It is a similar story with roads. Belfast and Derry are only a 70 miles apart, yet there isn’t a direct, or even indirect, motorway link between the two. In fact, there are only 60 miles of motorway in the entire North: all are in the east, almost exclusively focused on Belfast.


Northern Ireland is, of course, not the only part of the UK poorly supplied when it comes to transport. Anyone reading this who lives in the North East of England or who relies of commuters trains around Manchester, for example, will have experienced similar problem. So what makes Northern Ireland special?

Well: for a relatively small geographical area, there is a striking polarisation in the provision of transport. Not only is there an overall lack of infrastructure, but what does exist is overwhelmingly concentrated in the east. To take one instructive statistic, 51 of Northern Ireland’s railway stations are located east of the River Bann, the traditional dividing line between east and west.

This divide isn’t an accident: rather, it’s a legacy of the North’s sectarian history. The east has been traditionally unionist, the west nationalist, and there has been a strong bias in economic power and investment towards the former. As analysis from Northern Irish regeneration advisor Steve Bradley shows, the main rail and road networks are almost exclusively confined to areas where Protestant are more common than Catholics, and where the DUP holds political power.

So, if the North does come under direct rule from Westminster, there are some fairly obvious gaps in the transport network that could do with being filled – based on the needs of citizens, rather than their background or voting preference. But with the open question of the Irish border hanging over us – something which brings implications for cross-border travel along with everything else – the chances of that appear slim.