Tokyo Takes Your Breath Away
Whether admiring a garden, riding the subway, or paying for food, the effect is the same
TOKYO — THE standard advice about visiting Japan is to bring a lot of money and get out of Tokyo as quickly as possible. Do heed the first part. Think twice about the second.
Tokyo may be gray, bureaucratic, and full of wan businessmen who haven't had enough sleep in weeks, but it is also the best place to have a multifaceted experience in Japan. In the space of a few days you can investigate the highs and lows of Japan's consumer economy, explore the oddities of the Japanese use of space, and examine what will be an especially difficult issue for the Japanese in 1995: memories of World War II.
What is more, all this can be accomplished relatively cheaply.
The first thing to do is to overcome the sticker shock that grips every visitor to Japan. One dollar buys about 100 yen these days, but unless you grasp just what a yen can buy, you will spend the whole trip with your mouth open as your wallet empties.
I recommend a stroll through one of the city's high-end supermarkets.
There you can marvel at the $8 packages of a dozen plump strawberries and the $16 half-gallon cartons of fresh-squeezed orange juice, flown in from the United States. Or stand in amazement in front of the melon section, and wonder what distinguishes the $12 everyday melons from the $120 gift melons.
The Meidi-ya supermarket chain is excellent for sticker-shock therapy. (It has branches near the Hiroo and Roppongi subway stations.) These outposts of consumer excess are where the elite shop to eat.
To round out the retail experience, make your way to a working-class neighborhood called Musashi Koyama. Just outside the Yamanote subway line (Tokyo's equivalent of the beltway in Washington, D.C.), Musashi Koyama has a vast covered shopping arcade. It's about six blocks long and filled with shops of all kinds: shoe stores and electronics emporiums, tea merchants and kimono sellers, places to buy housewares, and places to try on the Chanel-inspired costume jewelry favored by so many Japanese ``office ladies.''
You might even find an inexpensively priced tea set (a ceramic pot and five little cups) to your liking. The toy store sells collections of Godzilla and Ultraman figures that make amusing souvenirs.
Most important, Musashi Koyama's prices will fill you with pity instead of horror. Seeing a $120 melon in a glitzy supermarket is one thing; wondering how ordinary Japanese can pay $800 for a simple foam couch that looks as though it belongs in a child's room is another. Musashi Koyama also has a store where everything costs 100 yen ($1) - an excellent place to measure the value of Japan's currency today.
Japan's manageable scale
I'm about 5 feet, 6 inches tall, and I have to say that I thoroughly appreciate how well-proportioned Japan feels compared with Western countries. Everything - office furniture, city streets, food portions - seems condensed, perhaps 10 to 12 percent smaller than it is in, say, Europe. So I also recommend exploring the density and compactness of Japanese life.
The most unforgettable way to feel compact is to ride the subway, preferably on a train headed toward the city center during the morning rush hour. Try the Chiyoda line, normally filled with true-to-stereotype Japanese office workers, at about 8:30 a.m. on a weekday. Make Otemachi, Tokyo's Wall Street, your destination.
As far as I know, this experience is not life-threatening, but you may have your doubts as the press of the crowd squeezes the air from your lungs, and the motion of the train jostles you in a way that makes most roller coasters seem like baby carriages.
At about $1.50, this thrill-seeker's ride is a bargain. And afterward, you will better appreciate the demands that Japan's economy exacts from its workers.
To find a far more pleasant Japanese space, take the subway to the Rikugien Garden. I won't go into rhapsodic prose to describe the garden for you. Suffice it to say that after even a few days in Tokyo, you will find this spot charming.
It was first landscaped at the turn of the 18th century, then owned by the founder of the Mitsubishi corporate empire, briefly inhabited by a Japanese prime minister, and turned over to the city of Tokyo in 1938.
You will think you are walking through a woodblock print: There is a pond with a bridge, and not too far off, a stone lantern. There are carp in the pond, sculptured trees, and a network of pathways. (In true Japanese fashion, signs mark the ``regular route,'' lest visitors not know what everyone else usually does.)
All this occurs in a remarkably small space - 1.2 acres and yet you can find yourself alone, dazed by the bucolic serenity of it all, in the middle of a congested city.
Rikugien Garden can become crowded, although not with tourists, so go on a weekday, and try to go early. Bring a camera, or your fellow garden visitors may look at you as though you are missing the point.
Exhuming wartime memories
Aug. 15 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Japanese surrender ending World War II, so this year is a fitting time to visit the Yasukuni shrine and museum. Both honor Japan's war dead.
The museum costs 200 yen, cheaper than most Tokyo tourist sites, and is open daily. Walking around the shrine is free. On display in the museum are devices used in kamikaze raids, such as a piloted torpedo and a small human-guided missile that Japanese bombers launched from the skies. A plaque says that 6,000 soldiers died in suicide missions in the war.
More poignant is an upstairs room that you may be tempted to overlook, since it is removed from the museum's main exhibits. Several large cases hold the pictures and personal effects of some two-dozen young men - all students or then-recent graduates of Japan's finest universities - who died during the war, many of them in suicide attacks. There is very little in English at Yasukuni, but no translation seems necessary.
Downstairs, at the very end of the exhibit, are two pictures taken in 1945: scenes of people bowed in front of the shrine, weeping at the news of Japan's surrender. Like the room upstairs, the photographs convey the misery brought about by imperial Japan's brutal reign.
At the gift counter you can buy Lucite paperweights that preserve sprigs of cherry blossoms: The young men who chose to die for Japan were often compared to the small pink flowers - evanescent and beautiful.