June 22, 2018

Urbanist Abroad: Day 18 – Tokyo

And so we wrap up our coverage of Gordon Price’s study trip, covering Hong Kong, Tokyo and Kyoto over the past three weeks. You can see all his posted pics on his Instagram account.

In his last full day, he shares some additional musings on high-speed rail logistics (and cityscapes), ‘Little Differences’ between Japanese and North American urban culture, and some final thoughts on economic and demographic change in Japan over the past generation that will yield further discussion upon his return. Enjoy…

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Some final bits of “real Tokyo” as Gordon Price departs this prefecture of 13 million people, just one part of the world’s most populous metropolitan area at almost 38 million. And we ask, “what core values do people embrace in an urban world some 15-20 times the size of our own?”

He’s shown us many examples over the past week, but in the following video (12+mins) by the Fung Brothers, we see two worth considering:

  • Convenience: Best represented by Family Mart, an institution like a grown-up 7-Eleven
  • Mario Kart: Those buggies seen outside the Apple Store on Day 6

Perhaps the latter one isn’t what we would traditionally consider a value, but it’s hard to define what this is. Recreation? Transportation? Product placement?

Whatever it’s expressing, Mario Kart is low intensity, individualized, and fun; and while there has been a spate of crashes in the past year, they’ve seemingly resulted mostly in property damage and injuries. Whereas in many North American cities (most prominently these days, Toronto), using the device called a bicycle is almost akin to a death wish.

Can you imagine the council debate on Mario Karts in your city? How different is it from a scooter, a hoverboard or even an e-bike?

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On Gordon Price’s last full day in Tokyo, we get a few more shots of that Tokyo colour (and pattern) that seems to follow him wherever he goes.

He also passes along some anecdotal statistics, which lead to a surprising trail of empirical support from various internet sources:

And on that note, a farewell look at Tokyo.

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Editor-in-chief Gordon Price spent part of yesterday on a guided tour of Kagurazaka, a traditional, prominent Tokyo neighbourhood, by local architect Shunji.

“The town is the stage” notes Gordon from the tour, an allusion perhaps to Kagurazaka’s history, which spans back at least to the 15th century when Edo Castle was built, as a roji community. Roji is the name for the characteristically narrow alleys tucked throughout the enclave; in this neighbourhood, roji are also closely associated with ryōtei — luxurious traditional Japanese restaurants — and the geisha who, at one time, served their patrons within.

Such a stage doesn’t quite exist as it used to, as recent decades have seen the infiltration of French restaurants, among other foreign intrusions. Kagurazaka street itself is seen as “iki” — chic, cool, stylish.

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The city of Shibuya, a critical exurb to Tokyo, ranks high on the list of places to visit in Japan for at least one major reason — it’s home to the two busiest train stations in the world.

Yet the city itself is less than a quarter million residents. How does that work?

Good planning and engineering (some of it quite creative). Whatever the magic combination of factors — including the famous scramble crossing in the video below — masses of people are able to move through and across this urban hub, which is also known for its concentration of corporate head offices and universities.

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Shibuya crossing.

A post shared by Gordon Price (@pricetags) on Jun 13, 2018 at 10:01am PDT

More from Gordon on Instagram…

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Design. Density. Delight. There’s so much going on in the many photos taken by editor-in-chief Gordon Price on his trip, which is, if you haven’t noticed by now, very much a working/thinking holiday.

As to what it all means…Gordon posits and proposes, and it makes you wonder along with him what makes Tokyo tick. How did they get a lot of things right, while also making so much of it beautiful?

Maybe you have some answers. Follow him on Instagram and engage. Your thoughts and ideas are always welcome; and as always, the pics below are just a sampling of what he’s posting.

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We appreciate the big things in life — big monuments, big moments, big vistas; as far as exotic travel goes, Japan seems to fit those expectations. Buddhist temples, sumo, Mt. Fuji, and so on.

Leave it to the urbanist, however, to notice the little things, and to capture some of the beauty and wonder of everyday life. And, naturally, to add some context for us to consider.

Perhaps in the form of a question. Like — what’s the source of my food? Why not go by bike, even in rain? Why are public bathrooms such a tortured topic in the west? If walking is so commonplace, why must sidewalks be so unremarkable? So invisible?

And why don’t we eat high quality sushi more often? (Indeed, why not today?)

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An embarrassment of riches from editor-in-chief Gordon Price from his first full day in Tokyo. One could say he’s having a green party.

If you’ve never been, anecdotal evidence would not bring one to associate Tokyo with trees and parks; indeed, whether you rank by density of tree cover (where Vancouver ranks first in the world), or by public green space allocation (where Moscow rules with an iron fist), Tokyo is well down on the list of naturally green cities.

The difference, perhaps — the city puts trees and gardens where people can see them, and even live within them.

It’s quite striking, and perhaps uniquely Japanese, as are many of the publicly visible artefacts of urban planning and design. Have a look.

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