The grey sprawl of Tokyo was an intimidating version of the future, not yours or mine, but our children's.
That's how acclaimed travel writer Paul Theroux opens Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (2008), the story of his journey from London to Tokyo by rail. Peering out of his hotel window, he describes the city as a necropolis—a giant concrete graveyard devoid of human touch. The swarm of salarymen rushing on their busy commute, and an intricate maze of noodle shops, massage parlours and pachinko halls only make him feel more alienated. He opts to stay in rather than venture out and explore his proclaimed city of the dead.
In Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003), the film many foreign visitors associate most with Tokyo, the city is a cipher, a weird, quirky or inaccessible backdrop used to focus our attention on the American protagonists' midlife crises. Bill Murray’s character, movie star Bob Harris, never bothers to understand his Japanese director, and Scarlett Johansson’s Charlotte is left to awkward interactions with robots. The city’s depth and diversity are lost in lonely self-contemplation.
While it’s set in the fictional Japanese metropolis of Niihama, this year’s remake of manga Ghost in the Shell, also starring Johansson, will likely reinforce the idea of Tokyo as a locus of advanced but alien technology and social engineering.
Whether futuristic, quirky or cold, Western travellers’ perceptions of Tokyo haven’t changed much in the years since Lost in Translation. Recently, however, people and brands have tried to present other images of Japan, as the country's tourism industry experiences unprecedented growth. The number of visitors to Japan surged from just over 6 million in 2011, to about 22 million in 2016. One of last year’s most popular buzzwords was “legacy” (regashii) relating to the impact of the 2020 Olympics on the city. For the Japanese government, this legacy means, among other things, an ambitious target of 40 million annual visitors by 2030. What should Japan do to achieve such a number? And on whom exactly should it focus for its long-term strategy?
Tour guide and consultant Charles Spreckley offers a reverse Lost in Translation solution. Tokyo, in his view, is misrepresented by the grandiose: big companies, neon signs and sensorial overload. In fact, the opposite is truer. His initiative, People Make Places, focuses on the city’s roots—small, neighbourhood businesses. For Spreckley, under the flat, upper layer of economic stagnation thrives a dynamic culture of chefs, designers and entrepreneurs driven by a unique artisanal spirit.
“In the West, the common aspiration is to become rich and famous”, said Spreckley to Japanese magazine Tōyō Keizai, but the Japanese spirit of the artisan (shokunin katagi) champions a more modest sense of fulfillment derived from honing one's skills and maximising customer satisfaction.
Another brand that is built upon craftsmanship for its success is Lexus. For its multipurpose space Intersect in Aoyama, Lexus brought together famous masters of various trades—DJ Towa Tei assembles the soundtracks, fragrance artist Yuica mixed the aromas, and chef Daiichi Tajima designed the menu. Interior designer Katayama Masamichi beautifully defined the space's borders using a clever play on the Lexus spindle grill. The outcome gives a strong sense of identity while maintaining seamless connection with the Aoyama neighbourhood.
Katayama wanted to create the ideal salon of a Lexus owner with ambient design that enables a free, and transparent exchange of ideas. The wall display of Lexus parts was done in collaboration with the company's engineers, the Lexus dashboard inspired the mahogany boards on the basement’s ceiling, and even the lamps bring to mind Lexus headlights. Lexus, in Katayama's work, is not a car, but a craftsman's careful attention to detail, and a passion for a refined lifestyle—regardless of whether the product is a car, a wallet or a beer glass.
Travel used to be the business of countries. Tourism boards were the main clients for ad agencies in an international network of ‘destinations’ that promoted unique ‘sites’ or ‘attractions’, where people were able to take pictures, enjoy local food and buy souvenirs. Today, however, we speak of a global network of technology companies like Google, AirBNB or TripAdvisor, which often rely on cities as a primary unit. City hubs use local people, rather than attractions, to promote the consumption of experiences rather than goods. ‘Immersion’ is the word most commonly used for this type of travel.
Spreckley's book is a novelty in the category of tour guides because it taps into this new breed of travel. Its big, glossy pictures and hard cover make it closer to an art or photography album than guides by Fodor’s or Monocle. Instead of Lonely Planet's brief descriptions of three to five restaurants, the book provides lengthy conversations with the professionals behind 48 different spaces. The use of people's vocation as the pretext of deeper conversations sheds new light on Tokyo's unique composition and enables a fresh outlook. This is no paperback to carry around but, as Spreckley puts it, “a book for Tokyo lovers”. It belongs on a shelf, more than in a backpack, and it’s durable enough to survive a long period of urban immersion.
There’s speculation that AirBNB's new offerings for 2017 will include lengthier three- to six-month rentals. With longer stays, mainly in cities, the culture shock of Lost in Translation will no longer suffice as an experience in and of itself. Long-term travel should encourage deeper exploration and conversation, and engaging with local craftsmanship or professional skills is one direction people could take. "People become litter as they become alike", Theroux writes. By showcasing Tokyo's various artists, artisans and professionals, the city can clean up an image that’s been unfairly trashed.
|Omri Reis is senior research executive at Flamingo Tokyo.|