Tokyo: The city of quiet chaos

Gazing down the strip of neon lights in Harajuku's main shopping street at dusk.

It’s hard, in the thick of it, to give you an honest impression of Tokyo. It’s not an easy city to describe. Perhaps because it is in no simple way a singular thing. It is and yet it isn’t, in every way.

Tokyo, a city simultaneously contradicting itself. Yea, I like the way that sounds.

Being the largest metropolis in the world with a population nearing 38 million, I expected Tokyo to be loud in every way, obviously, but our first impression was incidentally obverse. On our first trip on the Tokyo Subway line was spent in silence. The train was full. Every seat was taken, every person awake, only speechless, mute, taciturn. Even a gentle whisper between Cait and could have been heard by all. The only sound surrounding us was the mechanical rumbling of the train gliding along the metal tracks.

Emerging into the station, we were greeted by the sound of shuffling feet, moving so swiftly they collectively created a peaceful rhythm throughout the station. Like a silent  film soundtracked by the menial parts of life, the opening of doors, the swiping of subway cards, the stomping of feet. 

Smoke rising over crowd at Senso-Ji.

Two monks await a private ceremony at Meiji-Jingu.

A large corporate group of Japanese men visit Meiji-Jingu shrine.

Everything feels so reserved, so proper.  Everyone bows for everything - a casual thank you, a hello among friends, an acknowledgment of an exchange.  The city is spotless though there is never a garbage can in sight. The public washrooms all have automated toilet seats that play a variety of noises to cover over the sound of any unmentionables, birds chirping, a flushing toilet and sometimes classical music. 

It’s a funny clash in Japanese culture. Obsessed with sumo and sake but also Sega and Anime. Reserved and yet flamboyant. The outward adult meets the child within as men in suits stop at multi-level video arcades and read Manga on the train ride home. There are certainly two sides to everything here in Tokyo.

Modernity of Monks, photographing snapshots on an iPad at Sensō-Ji Shrine.

A young couple in traditional Japanese Kimonos walk through Senso-Ji.

It wasn't until our Saturday night that we found a place in Tokyo were everyone seemed to confidently let loose.  We finally made our way up to Shinjuku’s entertainment district. The lights were bright, the streets full. We had tickets to see a show at Robot Restaurant, perhaps the most satisfying tourist activity I’ve indulged in in years. Divided into multiple acts, the show consisted of numerous plot lines from forest creatures wrestling robot invaders, ninja warriors at battle and a variety of random dances that, though plotless, remained thoroughly entertaining.

Dancer at Robot Restaurant interacting with the audience to build anticipation for the shows main act.

Dancers emerge from neon smoke to start the show at Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku.

Neon robot preforms disco dance as part of entertainment at Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku's entertainment district.

The building itself was a chaotic mashup of kaleidoscopic mirrors, neon patterns and shiny metals, like the inside of the treasure chests filled with kids prizes at family restaurants. Seashells, robots, rubber toy lizards and masks. It is a weird place, in every way, but left us amused an intrigued by a chaotic contradiction of the Japan we’d come to know. The city had let loose in this neon district, our tiny glimpse of Tokyo’s many sides - every quiet, chaotic minute simultaneously contradicting itself.