Tokyo, the world’s largest and most densely populated metropolitan center, has often been called a “city of villages.” While this might sound strange, it makes real sense to me the more I walk around this great city.
On days off from school, I’ve often picked a train station at random and spent hours exploring a previously unknown neighborhood. One of my favorite things about this city is the fact that around any corner you might find a temple that is hundreds of years old, a Japanese garden that belonged to a wealthy samurai during Japan’s feudal-era, or you might just find a 7-story electronics store and arcade.
One of the reasons that Tokyo has become a “city of villages” is because while earthquakes, fires, and bombings have all continually re-shaped the city, it has continued to re-build with an eye toward the future. Meanwhile, Tokyo has also maintained important links to the past, through parks, temples and other sacred historical places.
In fact, a great deal of history can be found just by investigating the names of the different train stations – each of which is named after the neighborhood it resides in. For instance, 高田馬場 (TakadaNoBaba) is a word made up of four different kanji characters. The first character, 高 (taka) means “high.” 田 (da) means “rice field,” 馬 (noba) means “horse” and the final character, 場 (ba) means “place.” So what kind of nonsense is “high rice-field horse place” and what does it have to do with history? Well, when Tokyo was first built, it was divided into what was called the “High City” and the “Low City.” The High City was on higher ground, and safer from flooding and the stink of the fish market. The Low City was, well, the opposite – and you guessed it, the rich samurai lived in the High City while fisherman and other common people lived in the Low City. The neighborhood now known as Takadanobaba was in the high city, surrounded by rice fields – and as for the “horse place,” that’s where it really gets interesting. Traditional Japanese archery, which was a very important tradition for samurai, was practiced on horseback. Takadanobaba is where archery was practiced in old Tokyo, and so it is where many samurai families kept their horses stabled.
Takadanobaba isn’t the neighborhood that I live in, but as it is a part of the area where I go to school each day, I feel a strong connection to it. It is also the area where I first stayed in Tokyo, in a hotel, for a week after arriving. Isn’t it interesting how quickly we can feel a connection to certain places? In fact, even though Takadanobaba is not the center of Tokyo, in my mental map of the city, it is – simply because it was my first real impression of the city, with everything that I learned afterward spreading outward from there. I think this fits with something that Japan scholar Paul Waley once said about Tokyo: “It’s a city where you make your own map.”
What do you think he meant by that? If you were to draw your own map of Portland, marking only the places that you think are important, what would it look like?
Tokyo has 23 special “wards,” such as Shinjuku and Meguro, and within them many neighborhoods, such as Takadanobaba. Each neighborhood has its own unique history, and plays a special role in Tokyo’s overall character. Ginza, for instance, is the home to Tokyo’s grand kabuki theaters. Nearby Marunouchi, meanwhile, contains both the Imperial Palace, as well as Tokyo Station – both of which I’ve told you about in a previous post. Another place we’ve talked about is Yanaka, which has survived earthquakes and bombings to become one of Tokyo’s oldest and most unchanged neighborhoods.
We’ve also talked about Ryogoku, the neighborhood famous for being the home of Tokyo’s grand sumo arena. Isn’t it interesting how many neighborhoods in Tokyo are defined by cultural or commercial activities? Well, it’s no coincidence: Japan used to have a caste system, meaning that people of different professions had different levels of respect and opportunity within society. Old Japan wasn’t a place where anyone could do whatever they wanted; most people were born into the same profession as their parents, and they were stuck with it.
People who worked in professions that dealt with death – butchers, funeral directors – were always considered the lowest people in society, and therefore the funeral industry in Tokyo is all located in Yanaka. Because people didn’t want to associate with these workers, they were all forced to live in one area, near the graveyards, for many, many years. Even though the caste system is long abolished in Japan, its influence on Tokyo’s geography can still be felt.
Kabuki actors, now famous and highly paid, were also once considered to be lower class, at the same level as prostitutes – in fact, hundreds of years ago, many of the kabuki actors were also prostitutes in addition to being actors. While times have changed, the kabuki and all of the surrounding excitement remains in Ginza, a neighborhood that was once place where the wealthy would sneak in and out of for fear of being seen.
Japan’s national history, as much as Tokyo’s own incredible history, have influenced how the city’s many neighborhoods and districts have formed, changed and grown throughout the years. While natural and man-made catastrophes have helped to shape the city, its residents have unsentimentally managed to constantly rebuild, one village at a time.
I always feel as though I’m a resident of Tokyo, but at the same time, I never feel that I’m in Tokyo – when I step off of the train, I’m in Meguro, or Shibuya, or Harajuku – each of these places has its own distinctive feeling and mood. And while one can walk and not know exactly where one place ends and another begins, the fact that everyone in Tokyo travels by train greatly influences how we experience these many little villages that make up the massive city called Tokyo.
In modern times, no single thing has been as important in defining the “map” of Tokyo as the system of trains and subways. When meeting friends for dinner or karaoke, going shopping or out to see kabuki or sumo, there is only one thing that people talk about: What station is it closest to? I’ve never once heard people talk about street names or addresses during my entire time in Tokyo.
And with so many train stations and so many different lines, you can bet that there’s always one nearby, no matter where you find yourself on the Tokyo map.