[Editor's note: This article is a reader response to a piece we published in December on experiencing the city through its street patterns.]
During my 9 years living in Tokyo, I became quite the pedestrian wanderer. Its densely distributed streets and chaotically-organized approach to urban planning made every walk a unique experience. Tokyo twists and turns, rolling and flattening in every conceivable degree possible.
Much of what is seen in the media in Canada tends to portray Tokyo as a hectic, neon-bombarded metropolis, but the city is far more complex, subtle and intricate than that. Were you to take an overhead Google Maps look at Tokyo, it would indeed appear to be a seething labyrinth of a city. But on the street level, you would find that much of the chaos is subdued by the highly disciplined and rather immaculate organization and mindset of the residents living there. Though the city itself may not appear to have been planned in an efficient, grid-like manner, the way public transit runs, the way residents diligently maintain the cleanliness of their streets, in my opinion, somehow make the city feel much more “straight” and organized then it is from a visual standpoint.
There are certainly pockets of vertigo and excess, but what’s particularly fascinating about Tokyo are the numerous pockets of tranquility one can stumble upon when walking in any direction. As concrete and dense as the city is, with its crazy zoning laws and oddly shaped plots of land, Tokyo-ites do understand the need for breathing spaces and will slot them into as many available slivers of land as possible.
The more than fifteen tiny “owl parks” in the Ikebukuro-Otsuka neighborhood, for example, each far too small to house a group of more then 8 to 10 kids, are seemingly dispersed at random throughout its mazelike collection of streets and blocks. They are, in a sense, treasure pieces, meant to be stumbled upon and discovered, like an urban how-many-of-these-parks-can-we find-is-there-another-one-around-this-bend type of game. They also have a functional purpose, serving as landmarks from which to navigate from within the neighborhood, as its density and layout could quickly lead anyone to lose their bearings.
It is very difficult to find a street in Tokyo that runs perfectly straight for longer then 500 meters, as there are always subtle curves or bends running through their lengths. Thus, there are barely any vanishing points to be seen. Instead of drawing your eyes down a street as in New York, the buildings themselves become the focus of attention and admiration. Tokyo is vast with a population of some 13 million (much more when the morning commutes come in), and yet there are relatively few skyscrapers compared to other North American cities
Each skyscraper then, tends to mark one of the multiple “downtowns” that exist in Tokyo (for example, the Tokyo Metropolitan Building in Shinjuku, Sunshine 60 in Ikebukuro, the Shin Marunouchi Building in Marunouchi, and the Mori Tower & Tokyo Midtown buildings in Roppongi). Each of these areas has their own commercial centre and residential zone, their own local economies, and their own style and feel. If one were a hermit, he or she could comfortably live forever in one of these areas without ever venturing into another despite it possibly being only a kilometre or so away.
Because of all of this, not only directionally, but from a lifestyle perspective, it’s quite easy to lose oneself in Tokyo. Originally planning to live there myself for only a year, I ended up staying much much longer as the city pattern(s), its layout, its breakneck speed at which buildings are constantly being razed and erected, proved to be far too stimulating and engrossing.
Living in Toronto (or really Mississauga) as I do now, while I do love Kensington, the Beaches, Danforth etc., it all feels a bit too comfortable. I don’t feel quite as motivated to just go out for a walk or a bike ride as I would in Tokyo. While it’s nice to know a city “like the back of my hand”, I don’t get that sense of adventure or potential for discovery when I walk around Toronto that much anymore.
Of course, there are several benefits to living in Toronto that Tokyo can’t match, but in terms of how a city layout can contribute to a person’s quality of life, if one were to seek an existence in which his or her sense of wonder and drive for exploration is never exhausted, Tokyo would be the place to go.
There are certainly other chaotically-patterned metropolises around the world, yet none of them are quite so simultaneously dense/open, loud/quiet, old/new, provocative/safe, crowded/lonely, static/shape shifting and all-in-all comfortably challenging and predictably paradoxical as Tokyo.
Kirkland Hu is a GTA resident and regular OpenCity blog follower. Having spent his formative years in the sleepy prairie city of Regina, Saskatchewan, he credits his past relocations to Toronto and Tokyo as key moments of enlightenment in his life.
Photo by the author, map from Google Maps