[book review] Tokyo Totem A Guide to Tokyo

Tokyo Totem A Guide to Tokyo
A different introduction to Tokyo, Tokyo Totem is not your usual guide book. It steps away from the glitz and glamour of Tokyo and gives you a different view of the city. Instead of the tourist traps, this book is a great guide on seeing how the city actually lives and breaths. It shows you the ebbs and flows of one of the largest city in the world. How does 37 million people live and work in such cramped spaces and how it all works harmoniously.
Tokyo Totem

The book is a collection of articles ranging from the mundane convenience store to the enchanting bath houses. I never thought I’ll use the word enchanting for a public bath house, but I’ve you’ve been to a city sento, you’ll know what I mean.

There’s a lot to say about this book and it’s so hard to categorize because the topics are so diverse so I’ll just focus on the one that I enjoyed a lot.

Ever Transforming Tokyo

A big theme of the book is how Tokyo is an ever changing landscape. Japan being a earthquake heavy country, this means that building codes are strongly enforced and old buildings are torn down rather than maintained. This means that the building you saw two years ago during your vacation are probably gone by now. This is why it’s so hard to stalk some film locations as the whole scenery has probably changed by the time you went on that vacation.

In the book you’ll see several examples like the combini who keeps changing owners yet occupies the same space throughout the years. This is one aspect of Tokyo that baffles a lot of my tourists friends. The contrast between the old and the new is obvious just because of the temples besides the modern skyscrapers, but there’s really no district in Tokyo that you can point at and say that  it has been there since the 1800’s. This is a great contrast compared to older European cities like Paris or Amsterdam. However, a redeeming factor with all this is how areas change but it’s purpose doesn’t. There’s a few places in Tokyo that still retained it’s purpose either because the family continues it or the place is known for that expertise. Places like a butcher, sushi shop, or knife seller. The physical buildings might have changed and now looks modern and yet its purpose hasn’t changed in hundred of years. One of the authors compare this to Amsterdam where the building is 400 years old, but the meaning is lost now that it’s a sex shop.

This fluidity of Tokyo is sometimes confusing and yet comforting for me. Right now there’s even several construction sites near my apartment and it went through the building life cycle of Tokyo. A building has been there for twenty years, gets demolished and new one replaces it in a few months time. This renewal and rebirth is common in Tokyo. A part of it that one has to contend with. The book conveys how much of this change we rarely see especially for short time travelers. Even for somebody like me who has been here for 4 years, I can’t comprehend how much of Tokyo changes unless I frequent those areas.

This dichotomy of Tokyo is starting to get more obvious. Tokyo’s charm for me is its small alleyways and dirty corners. This usually contains small bars and pubs that cater to locals. Usually located near the stations, these watering holes are disappearing as part of Tokyo’s ever changing landscape. Being close to the station means that they are on prime real estate. Yet, these are the things that make the place unique and interesting. The book captures this evolution as Tokyo takes it’s final breath, clinging to the past and yearning for the future.

The Familiar Neighbor

Tokyo’s evolution as a mega city can be traced back hundreds of years ago when the merchants and the elite families occupy land in a certain type of way. Rich families usually have their homes in more favorable lands while the working class surrounds it. This evolved throughout the years and formed a certain bond among the neighborhood which you can still see around Tokyo if you look hard enough.

Far from the tourist areas, residential sections of Tokyo are a delight to see with the usual market street close by the station, a neighborhood park, and other fixtures that are always present in Tokyo streets. Unfortunately, as the whole of Japan is being urbanized, this common structure is slowly disappearing. Coupled with Japan’s declining birth rate, this comes with a whole slew of societal problems that will only get worse in the future. It’s not uncommon to see older people, living alone and sadly, dying alone in their homes only to be discovered days later. The rise of single occupancy housing adds to this complication as more and more people live alone rather than sharing households.

The book definitely recognizes this change as this played a big role in Tokyo’s development as a city. This is part of a larger issue as well that the Japanese government has to solve sooner than later.

A Different Set of Glasses

Living in Tokyo for 4 years, I miss a lot of the charm that I found when I first moved here. I clamored for challenge and adventure as every new corner and scenery is a new area to explore and learn from. As the months went by, a lot of it became familiar and second nature. I went out further to different parts of the country to explore more and chase that feeling once again. The more I went out and did newer things, the more I realized how being content is a big part of life.

This book gave me a new outlook on the familiar. How things that change often doesn’t and yet it does. How we see things is not how they are but is rather just a part of that evolution.

Tokyo Totem definitely gave me a new set of glasses to look at Tokyo with the enchantment that I once had and how I can appreciate the city further.




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