Two weeks ago, as Hong Kong was swept under the tide of bacchanalia known as Art Week — basically a non-stop stream of parties and other well-lubricated events revolving around Art Basel Hong Kong — something remarkable happened to the city’s tallest building. Normally, the 484-metre-tall International Commerce Centre is illuminated by an unceasingly kitschy programme of LED animations, including (I kid you not) a cloud shaped like a teddy bear. But on a hot and very humid Thursday evening, the LED display suddenly began pulsating, as if representing the rhythm of the city’s heartbeat.
It was actually the work of Carsten Nicolai, a German artist commissioned by Art Basel to transform the ICC into what must have been the world’s largest piece of art. Standing on the roof of Central Ferry Pier 4, surrounded by three-metre-high LED panels and replicas of the King of Kowloon’s graffiti, Nicolai created a remarkable, hypnotic show of light and sound called α (alpha) pulse. The effect was enhanced by a mobile phone app that synced up with the tower’s pulse, turning an ordinary handheld device into a cryptic beacon. It was an interesting way of translating the enormity of the ICC into something more approachable. “Artwork should have a human scale,” Nicolai said the next day, in a conversation with German curator Nicholaus Hirsch. “It should not be too monumental.”
Nicolai’s starting point for α (alpha) pulse was the relationship between light, sound and the human experience of the city. “Our body is defined by a pulse,” he said, and this is literally affected by sound and light: “These three elements can synchronize. Our body is always adjusting to the environment.”
It didn’t look like much at first. “Just a bit of snow,” I thought as I gazed at the thick, heavy flakes settling onto the street outside. But Tokyo doesn’t get a lot of snow in the first place, and I should have realized from the way it was sticking to the willow tree outside — or the excited news coverage on TV, whose live-on-scene reporters stood in front of struggling commuters, snow piling up on their sodden heads — that this wasn’t going to be a light dusting. This was snow day snow.
We walked to the metro, plastic umbrella struggling against the wind, passing by grimacing cyclists and buses with chained-up tires thudding ominously down the street. By the time we arrived in Harajuku, half an hour later, the city was already in blizzard shutdown mode. Service on a growing number of train lines was suspended; there was hardly any traffic on the streets. As we passed down one back alley, a car got stuck in a snowy gutter and its driver rushed out and used his hands to dig out snow from beneath one of the tires. “Mondai nai, arigato” — “Don’t worry about it” — he said when we offered to help push the car, so we trudged on down the street, the sound of fruitlessly spinning wheels receding behind us.
Later that evening, as the sun set and we made our way down Meiji Dori to the heart of Shibuya, shops began to close early. Cars rolled past with a muffled crunch; people giggled and smiled as they made their way through snowbanks. Here’s the thing about snow: it makes even the biggest city in the world a very small place indeed. There was a sense of common purpose, a temporary breach in the anonymity of the streets. Grown men and women threw snowballs at one another in front of shuttered department stores. A week later, when Tokyo was blanked with another record-breaking snowfall, people were spotted skiing around Shibuya.
I arrive in Tokyo on a clear, crisp afternoon. As my train makes brisk progress from Narita Airport to the city centre, I stare out the window at the country fields giving way to suburbia and then a densely crammed cityscape. The city seems calm. Kids run freely through an asphalt schoolyard. Uniformed boys play softball in a neighbourhood field. Men stand next to the muddy banks of a river, hitting golf balls into the water.
I’ve come here to see how Japan’s capital is bearing up under what has been described as the worst disaster to hit the country since World War II. Two weeks ago, on March 11th, an earthquake stirred up a tsunami that rushed towards the country’s northeast coast. Thirty minutes later, 30-metre waves crushed towns as far as ten kilometres inland. Fishing boats were dropped on top of three-storey buildings. Thousands of people were swept out to sea amidst churning rubble. When the sun set three hours later, tens of thousands were dead and hundreds of thousands homeless.
As I write this, another disaster brews. Damaged by the earthquake and flooded by the tsunami, emergency generators at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant failed, causing the cooling system to malfunction. Reactors overheated; a meltdown seemed imminent. Spooked, foreign bankers, English teachers, and even journalists have fled Tokyo en masse. Radioactivity has since been found in vegetables, milk and tap water. Shipping companies are avoiding the port after Fukushima was revealed to be spewing contamination into the sea.
Skyscrapers loom, and, with them, the unknown. Friends are surprised I’m even here. If international headlines are to be believed, the world’s largest city, with 35 million people and an economy 40 percent larger than Canada’s, is on the verge of becoming the next Chernobyl.
One of the greatest surprises I encountered when I visited Tokyo last spring was how quiet the city became when you ventured away from the train stations. The above photos were taken less than 15 minutes by foot from Shinjuku, one of the world’s busiest transportation hubs and the centre of a huge business, entertainment and shopping district.
The bungalows I came across in central Tokyo reminded me a bit of the Japanese-era houses I found in Taipei neighbourhoods like Shida. But those parts of Taipei were intensively urbanized less than 50 years ago — Shinjuku has been a busy part of Tokyo since the Yamanote Line opened in 1885. Then again, multi-family dwellings didn’t become common in Japan until after World War II.
Why do so many Japanese people wear masks? The question became stuck in my mind almost as soon as I arrived in Tokyo late last month. Everywhere I went, on the streets and in trains, nearly half of the people around me were wearing surgical masks.
I already knew part of the answer: people wear masks when they are sick. That’s the case for many people in Hong Kong, and even in Vancouver and Toronto, especially after the SARS outbreak of 2003. But that didn’t seem to explain why such a huge percentage of people in Tokyo wore masks. Was half the population really suffering from colds? It seemed unlikely. Did people think that the masks could filter out radiation, which everyone worried would float down from Fukushima? That seemed unlikelier still.
Last Saturday, two weeks after the Japanese earthquake, I found myself in Tokyo. I was on assignment for a Canadian magazine — more about that on a later date — and I spent much of my time wandering the city and speaking to people, trying to get a feel on how the city was coping with the disaster and the disruption it had caused to daily life, not to mention the persistent threat of a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima power plant.
By the time I arrived, the mood in the city was not one of panic, or even overt tension, but rather a quiet, constant stress that seemed to pervade every aspect of life. Tokyo was barely damaged by the earthquake and for the average person, the question of radiation was still hypothetical, despite the news of contaminated vegetables and (slightly) radioactive tap water. Compared to the devastation up north, where tens of thousands of people were killed and hundreds of thousands more left homeless, Tokyo got off easy.
But a conversation never lasted long before turning to everyday uncertainties — whether there would be fresh produce in the grocery store, whether the power would be on — and long-term anxieties: will the economy recover? Just how bad is the radiation, anyway? And it was hard to escape the reminders that this was not a normal time. The streets in Shinjuku’s normally-buzzing Kabuki-cho were quiet. Billboards and video screens were dark. TV screens on the JR rail lines flashed constant announcements of train services cancelled by blackouts.
Whether surfacing, globetrotting, or merely in transit, it’s best never fully to trust the travel section. Take Tokyo, where over the last few years a number of writers have labored to portray the southwestern neighborhood of Naka-Meguro as tragically hip.
Descending from Naka-Meguro’s elevated subway station into a quotidian landscape of utilitarian shops and services, though, “hipness” wasn’t the first thing I felt washing over me. If anything stuck out, it was the neighborhood’s anomalous politics: I’d arrived on the eve of Japan’s historic 2009 election, when the Liberal Democratic Party lost its majority for only the second time in history — but had clearly retained much of its popularity in Naka-Meguro.
Parked in front of the station was a minivan mounted with speakers, blaring the slogans of an LDP candidate busy shaking hands with voters on the sidewalk below. Further into the neighborhood, posters confirmed that Naka-Meguro’s constituency was either an LDP redoubt or at least one of its targets. It meant a substantial number of people here were clinging with uncommon sympathy to the party most associated with Japan’s elite establishment. “Hip” seemed increasingly far from the right word to describe the place.
In Ginza, it seems almost as if Japan tucks its true self out of view. Sure, the row of colorful, vertical signs advertising the largely upscale shops and services along the district’s main drags echo similar scenes all over the country, but the façades (and often stores) they’re attached to are too cold and modern — too standoffishly minimalist — to really reflect the soul of the country in which they’re located.
It’s not surprising, perhaps, that the area would turn out this way. Once a city of half-timbered matchstick homes, Tokyo began, in the wake of several disastrous early Meiji-era fires, experimenting with brick as a building material. Ginza was an early adopter of the new medium, along with Victorian building styles favored in the West. British architect and engineer Thomas Waters designed a made-over Ginza, completed in 1877, that was known as Renga-gai (“brick street” or “bricktown”). Only the kanji and katakana on its signs would have distinguished it from major commercial districts in North America or Australia.
Renga-gai literally bit the dust in 1923, when it was leveled by the Great Kanto Earthquake, but American bombers probably would have reduced it to rubble anyway. In its current incarnation, Ginza bears more than a passing resemblance to plenty of other anonymous shopping zones across East Asia. Its backstreets, though, tell a slightly different story about the neighborhood.
The curve of a closed eyelid, the outline of a nose, an unmistakable set of lips: enough to discern the outline of a singer, covering, along with the notes floating up from her mouth, almost all of a multistory building in Akasaka. Halfway across Tokyo, a family of turtles somehow scales the vertical wall of an apartment building in Shinjuku West. The two façades may have little in common otherwise, but both are exceptional in their respective environments — touches of whimsy in neighborhoods best known for their relative seriousness and severity, where staid office suites, the official aura of embassies, and sometimes too tastefully-restrained hotels combine to form a neutral cityscape deferential to the business conducted therein.