Tokyo's Old Gods and the New, by Joel
It could well be that our internal clocks are still adjusting, yet I can’t help but attribute my lingering travel insomnia to the captivating, enigmatic essence of the world’s largest city. To describe the contrast between Tokyo’s old and new culture as juxtaposition doesn’t quite ring true, since the term implies a jarring clash of contexts. Even in the most congested neighborhoods, the Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines dotting the back alleys seem to mesh fluidly against the cascading fluorescence of the logo-adorned skyline, as if ancestor worship and conspicuous consumption were the most natural of pairings. Old world idols preside over immaculately manicured parks whose trees encroach then recede before the throb of neon hyper-modernism, the lure of the new gods intensifying then abating with each step. If this integration might appear somewhat contradictory - if not untenable - to a western observer, the locals don’t appear bothered as they shuffle along with eyes glued to their smartphones one minute, pausing to press their hands and bow in homage to invisible forces the next.
Over the past week, I've noticed a peculiar phenomenon, that while perhaps not unique to Tokyo, is more apparent here than anywhere I can remember visiting. Its artifice trumping that of New York, Bangkok or Hong Kong, this city dangles eye candy everywhere you look, and with so much competing for your attention, it’s hard to focus on any one thing. It feels a little like like being moved along on one of those horizontal escalators at the airport, but on fast forward, your brain working overtime to process all the stimuli flying at you.
In the most densely populated areas of Shibuya and Shinjuku, the sights, smells and sounds threaten to overwhelm, stifling my ability to discern and select from the various offerings, despite my very particular needs and wants. The seemingly unlimited options - for food and drink, entertainment and recreation, debauchery and kitsch - all begin to meld into one hulking, orgiastic spectacle. Try to capture it in a photo and your viewfinder renders an indistinguishable blur awash in shimmering light, failing marvelously to register the experience. Try to encapsulate it in a sentence and words inevitably fall short. More than once I've turned my back and retreated down a quiet sidestreet, left with the impression that in the end so many choices leaves none at all.
The phenomenon is apparent enough if you stroll through Don Quijote, an eclectic mega-store carrying a bizarre assortment of products, from costumes to hypercolor candy, cosmetics, toiletries, household appliances and tens of thousands of other quirky items arranged from floor to ceiling across multiple floors. The dizzying task of selecting just one item for purchase from among this vast array becomes an exercise in commodity fetishism. Since you can’t take the whole store home with you, your purchase aspires to become emblematic of the shopping experience as a whole, a memento of the place and your memory of it. You return to your hotel room and tear open the package only to discover that removed from its place among the collection of other absurd items, it’s just another thing that you haven’t the slightest clue how it came to be, when you’ll ever use it, or why it exists. Robbed of its context, the promise of alchemical transformation rings hollow, and that leopard print and rhinestone thong, is in the end, just another pair of underwear.
words and photos by Joel.