I am tired of hearing Tokyo called an ugly city. In guide books, newspapers and travel Web sites I am constantly seeing people badmouth the aesthetics of the people of Tokyo. I first saw Tokyo in 1991 and most recently in 2006 I’ve lived there for periods of time on several occasions. Tokyo is a clean, beautiful, interesting city and does not at all deserve the bad rap it has received internationally.
For me, there are 2 cities in the world that shine as beautiful and interesting places: London and Tokyo. Both of these cities are large, busy places that have not allowed themselves to forget history or beauty. Many parks and historical sites make these cities wonderful places to spend time. They are both very modern places with everything available to the visitor and many things taking place that one wouldn’t want to miss.
So how did Tokyo get such a bad reputation among westerners? I think it’s a combination of things, really.
1) Japan is a foreign place where westerners often feel isolated and overwhelmed. I have traveled to Japan many times with westerners who suffered from culture shock and couldn’t adjust to Japan. Tokyo was the first and last place (sometimes the only place) they saw in Japan so they associate their bad impressions of Japan with Tokyo.
2) Japan is a modern city. Due to the rebuilding after the bombings of World War II and major earthquakes many of Tokyo’s older buildings simply aren’t around any more. This is unfortunate (or not, depending on how those buildings looked) but the new buildings that have been built are very nice. Tokyo has a much higher percentage of new construction than most major cities in the world. Many people react to this negatively but I think it creates a charm all its own. I like the sleek, often futuristic, look that many parts of the city has to offer. Their new buildings certainly aren’t as ugly as many of the new buildings I saw in Europe. What bothers me, however, is how often people fail to mention all the attractive old buildings that still stand.
3) Japan is a bustling city. As the capital of an active, modern nation and its busiest port of commerce Tokyo is a happening place. A lot of people, traffic and money move through this city. One would think this would make the city a madhouse but it really isn’t. The Japanese are polite and efficient (two qualities that repel many westerners I’ve known) and those qualities are reflected all through the city. It isn’t long before a person can figure out how the train stations and traffic work and then the city lies at your feet. However, in my experience, many westerners take a look at all the motion and activity in Tokyo and simply can’t adjust.
4) Japanese architecture differs from what westerners are used to. Not in any dramatic sense but the differences are there to see. One example is local laws prohibit buildings from blocking sunlight to other buildings in certain instances. As a result, some buildings have angled, triangular looking tops rather than squared. I think it adds to the interest of the city but many westerners have remarked on how they look “bizarre.”
5) Above all, Tokyo’s bad reputation continues because once an idea is planted in peoples’ minds it is very difficult to remove it. Many people believe the entries they read in their guide books describing Tokyo as ugly. Many of the guide book writers seem to be copying older accounts of Tokyo that they’ve read. They probably fear being seen as ignorant if they don’t repeat the popular wisdom.
A great solution to this problem would be to visit Tokyo and see for yourself. For those who can’t, I’ve included a few photos on this page to show some of the spots I visited in 2006. Enjoy.