The author, smiling winningly Scott Raymond home

Reflecting on Tokyo

16 Oct 2003

I’ve been thinking about how my expectation of Tokyo compared to my experience of it. The Tokyo of my imagination, of my anticipation, was a world of constant overload and dizzying scale. The buildings were one hundred stories tall, there were one million people in the intersection, and there were infinity little blinking lights that bleep and bloop.

And when you throw yourself into that world, you won’t recognize a single word that you hear or symbol that you see. And for a while, your mind won’t stop, can’t stop trying to process and make sense out of everything, looking for patterns—when you’re listening to a crowd of people speaking in Japanese, you’ll swear that you hear words that you recognize, you hear people say your name; your mind is looking for meaning, grasping at straws. But eventually your interpretive muscle is fatigued and your mind gives up and accepts meaninglessness. And then, this world becomes a semiotic isolation tank. All signifier, no signified. And so you’re utterly alone with your thoughts, more than you could ever be in a city you know. A foreign city as a massive medium for meditation, the perfect petri dish for personal reflection. Like Ransom in Out of the Silent Planet who found himself on another world, so alien that his mind couldn’t make heads or tails of anything; he had to retrain his eyes to even recognize the horizon. That’s how I expected to feel, to some extent.

And that’s partly how it was. There were definitely moments of “unsettling horizontigo.” But the problem with anticipating a place is that your anticipation can never even approximate the real thing, it “omits and compresses” whole universes of details. And the real Tokyo, or I should say, the details of Tokyo in my experience, were much more… human-scale than I had envisioned. Despite the five-story-tall TV screens, the miles of high-rise department stores, and nonstop crowds, there was still a sense of proportion. Best example: About where this picture was taken, I experienced what Wordsworth called a “spot of time”—a small moment that is inexplicably memorable and life-giving—when I was sitting by the lake, a little boy ran up to me and spewed out a torrent of excited Japanese. I think he was telling me a story about something he had just seen. All I could do was smile and nod, and he was a little confused about why I didn’t talk back to him. His parents came up after a minute and taught him how to say “bye”, and we waved.

The anticipatory and artistic imaginations omit and compress; they cut away the periods of boredom and direct our attention to critical moments, and thus, without either lying or embellishing, they lend to life a vividness and a coherence that it may lack in the distracting woolliness of the present.

—Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel