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The people make the city

Illustration by Marie

I just returned to Philadelphia from my first adventure in Tokyo. While I have been to other enormous cities before, the verticality and density of Tokyo seems impossible to describe now that I am no longer amidst it, to witness it for myself. But these overwhelming elements are conjoined with a tranquility and repose that seem even more profound when taken in such stark contrast.

The quiet alleyways and twisting back roads coexist with the grand boulevard and the massive intersection. The beauty and atavistic energy of temples are bordered by cafe culture on one side and haute couture on the other as seen on Meiji Dori in Harajuku. In short, Tokyo is a city founded on complexity and contradiction, a condition which has been well-diagnosed by a fellow Philadelphian, Robert Venturi.

The Kabuki Theatre in Ginza seems quite at home rubbing shoulders with futuristic cousins like the Sony building with which it shares the neighborhood. But, for me as the son of both an architect and a painter, the radiance of the city was encapsulated in the unintentional. The stately design of the subway car, the clever railing on a stairway, the subtle hint of the ancient among the glittering future, all of these coalesce in this remarkable place called Tokyo. While I know the building has caused no small degree of controversy, the recently completed International Trade Forum also in Ginza designed by Rafael Vinoly is unquestionably one of the great buildings of the century and has been recognized as such around the world. You are most fortunate to have a work of such lasting aesthetic richness and yes, complexity.

But at the end of it all, one can have a city of great beauty, wealth and history and still not have a world-class city. I will not insult the residents of such cities by pointing them out, but suffice to say they exist in sufficient numbers on every continent. The reason Tokyo rises above other remarkable places is quite simple, it is the people. The people are generous, witty, resourceful and beautiful. They exhibited grace, dignity and solicitude at every turn of the road.

I would especially like to thank the gentle young woman who simply guided me from the Yamanote line to the Marunouchi line, when I brashly decided to go solo and decode the Tokyo subway system (though I understand virtually no Japanese). She was an exemplar of all that is good about Tokyo; a genuine concern for the welfare of those around you. I will be back to Tokyo, but from the warmth that is it in my heart at this very moment, I assure you it cannot be too soon.

Many thanks to reader Aaron Luis Levinson for this Rant.

Got something positive to say? We know that there are aspects of Tokyo that you love, and we'd like to hear about them from you. Send your 500-word rave (or rant, if you must) by fax to 03-3423-6931, or email to  

Metropolis Online
349: Life in the cycle lane
Playing chicken with a ladybike
348: Daisuki na Tokyo
Tokyo's my favorite!
347: Nihongo dake!
Why am I not fluent in Japanese yet?
346: People make the city
The beauty of Tokyo's people
345: Cross Training
Commuting by train in Tokyo
344: Yellow Line Fever
A guide for the blind... and a pain in the neck
343: Welcome to Tokyo
What did you bring me?
342: Positive thinking
Three reasons why we love Japan
341: I'm a rounder...
Veterans of Japan vs. Japan rookies
340: Discard your bank cards
The labour of replacing lost bank cards
339: Shoganai...
It can't be helped
338: Respect your environment
Poluution problem in Tokyo
337: Strike Three - You're Enlightened
How omiyage ruins a vacation
336: Missing manners
No manners outside of Japan
335: Goodbye jitensha
Is stealing bikes a popular pastime in Japan?
334: War of the Words
English borrows from other languages too!
333: ENGLISH ONLY, please
Don't bother writing your name in Japanese
332: A menu carved in stone
No special requests for lunch!
331: The Zen of Looking Busy
The art behind faking work
330: Lyrical Phlegm
Japan's spitting dilemma
329: Rock harder, Japan
Big, bad and ugly concerts
328: Noise Deficiency
The unrelenting quiet that is not Japan
327: Chopstick Diplomat
Constant questioning = constant answering
326: Game over
Cutting off the game for regular scheduled program
325: Grown pains
The hooligan behavior of middle-aged salarymen
324: The Price of Fame
Young teen actors light up on-screen
323: A Customary Affair
The universal language of consumerism
322: Robber barons
JR steals from the rich.. and the poor
321: Tegami Or Not Tegami
Deny the letter to save money
320: The Garbage Men
Variations of the "salaryman"
319: Holidaze
Japan - Home of the lamest holidays in the world
318: Box your ears
Be the karaoke star you've always dreamed of
317: The winter of my discontent
No oden if it's spring please!
316: The Bells
Going insane from bells and voices
315: The Big Tokyo Trash Mystery
No garbage cans + too much garbage= a clean city?
314: The Kamikaze Spirit
The war may be over but the spirit lives on
313: Movie Mania
Laughing alone in the corner
312: Geek parade
What's going on with gaijin men?
311: Gleaming gomi
Rinse it out before you throw it out
310: Lower Mathematics
Teaching practical mathematical equations
309: Escalator clots
Blocking the flow of escalator traffic
308: Sky's the limit
Favorite channel on the hit list
307: Bring on the studmuffins
Thanks to the "Men looking for women"
306: Burning Rubber
Narrowly averting bicycle collisions
305: Fishy Business
The sushi wasn't dead
304: The Invisible Gaijin
When gaijins collide
303: Talk work only
The Japanese perception of idleness
302: From kotatsu, with love
A blanket covered electric coffee table
300: Why 2K?
The millennium bug ain't no big deal

ISSUES 350-381
ISSUES 250-299

ISSUES 233-249