TOKYO LOOKS TO THE FUTURE But a touch of tradition colors high-tech capital

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Tokyo, capital of Japan, capital of the western half of the Pacific and probably one day capital of the world, is a city infatuated with the future -- its future, Japan's future, the planet's future, the future of everything.

Not that there is an absence of history about the place. There is the emperor, with all the panoply that surrounds him. There are the Kabuki theater, the tea ceremony, the shrines, the quietude of the temple gardens. The perfect symmetry of Mount Fuji, still unexpectedly visible off to the west of the city on clear mornings, is an ever-present reminder of Tokyo's place in the continuum of Japan.

But history is not what dominates anymore. Tokyo today is overwhelmed not by tradition, nor by its central role in this most remarkable of nations, but by the simple and memorably dramatic fact of her modernity.

This aspect of Tokyo provides an extraordinary illustration of how a city, and a people, can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Four decades ago this was a place of ruin. The people wore little better than rags. The nation was under occupation, and many nearly starved. But pride and perseverance are among the multitude of Japanese qualities. In only 40 years, an almost unimaginable rebirth has taken place. In Tokyo the evidence of it, in the buildings, in the attitude, in the sense of total confidence, in the style of the city, is everywhere.

A celebrated Tokyo architect, Fumihiko Maki, recently was quoted as saying that he and his fellow Tokyoites were "experiencing an exciting moment that doesn't come often in the history of a city. Tokyo is ascendant, flourishing. We have the money, the opportunity and the tradition." He also, interestingly, pointed out what is as obvious about Tokyo as it is about that other likely candidate as a world capital city, Los Angeles -- that it has no center, no downtown. "It is a chaotic labyrinth of small, interesting inner spaces, constructed from light, fragile materials and connected to each other by a complex network of grids, radials and spirals."

In Tokyo all this can be seen and sensed and experienced by any visitor -- through a mixture of osmosis and participation. Lest anyone is tempted to do so but is intimidated by the city's only half-deserved reputation for high prices, it will be comforting to learn that this most fundamental way of coming to appreciate Tokyo can be accomplished for less than the cost of a subway ticket.

True, if you wish to savor the most exotic kind of sushi, visit a seven-story disco or indulge in the almost decadent excesses of Tokyo consumerism (a lungful of strawberry-flavored air or a cup gold-dusted tea), some small quantity of yen will have to change hands. Simply by watching and listening, in certain places and at certain times, one can imbibe the makings of what appears to be a whole new world -- one seemingly drawn from the pages of science fiction, and yet one which is on show today as fascinating fact. The certain places are too many to count; the certain time generally is after dark, when one takes part in the stunning drama of a modern Tokyo night, when the Japanese so rapturously reap the rewards of all those years of rebuilding and rebirth.

Take an example. A glistening wet Friday evening on Harumi-Dori Avenue -- if not Tokyo's Fifth Avenue, then at least its Sunset Strip -- will provide an experience, an example, that is as good as any. To anyone who has lived in the city that has been Japan's capital since 1868, the aspect of the avenue is one of profound ordinariness. Yet to a newcomer it is as memorable a view of the coming nature of urban life as one is ever likely to encounter.

But the images of empire are, it has to be said, mere fancies here. Harumi-Dori is very much a place of the 20th, or even the 21st century, and one walks along it plunging ever further from the courtliness of old Tokyo, and ever deeper inside the neon fantasia of shopping and entertainment of the Ginza. This is the place where the Tokyo Mint once stood -- Ginza meaning "the silver quarter," and thus yet another reminder of the city's past. -- Tokyo's obsession with tomorrow is always colored -- and that is in part what is so charming -- by a remembrance of yesterday.

Venture ever deeper and yesterday soon moves over, to be replaced, or overlain, by a wild and throbbing and polychromatic confusion on all sides, all evidence of Commerce and Technology. A good place to start is the mighty cylindrical glass and chrome tower, the San-ai Dream Center, filled with scores of shops selling miniskirts and tight sweaters and Wacoal computer-designed automatic memory bras (they use your body heat to mold themselves to your curves, then remain that way through 10,000 washes).

On almost every corner you will find a tiny sushi bar, perhaps an automatic one, all high-tech coziness, the patrons sipping sake cheek by jowl, in a small wonderland of bamboo and stainless steel, calligraphy and computer screens. The traditions are still there: The crew-cut "itamae-san" is slaving to slice and shape the slivers of blue-fin tuna and awabi and torigai and ark-shell, to ensure that the rice below appears to have all its grains aligned and to see that the nori in which the sushi rolls will be wrapped is crisp and flexible.

Then, a little farther along the street, halfway toward the vast Tsukiji fish market in which 190 tons of tuna are auctioned to the city's sushi bars each day, stands the Kabuki-za theater where, if you've a mind to (and if you come before 9 p.m.), you may watch one of the lengthy "song, dance and skill" (the word's literal translation) dramas that remain so popular in modern Japan.

Just beside the Kabuki theater, perhaps a few yards back along Harumi-Dori, is the place to glance back. Perhaps it is quite late on that Friday night now, and the rain has worsened, and the neon madness of Ginza reflects itself as great puddles and smears of carmine and chartreuse and aquamarine and jasmine and heliotrope.

Suddenly, from somewhere above and up a little way, come a hiss and a rumble and a thunderous roar. Above the roadway something blue and white and adorned with rows of brilliantly illuminated windows streaks across the field of vision. Whatever it is moves tremendously fast, and one has the impression, what with the people and the neon and the cars and the rain and the flashing lights and movement of every speed and direction, of tTC being caught up in some immense and infernal machine.

The sensation is not at all unpleasant. In fact, most say it is rather exciting, but there is a sudden strange feeling of being just a little out of control, as though this city has for that single moment become just too complicated, too many-layered and multi-textured and polychromed and babel-filled and crowded, with too much noise and light. The whole city is experiencing a caffeine rush, a jolt of urban electricity.

But then calm of a sort returns. The sound retires, the lights slow, the crowds continue moving to and fro, uninterested in whatever had sped by up above. They would have known, of course, that it had just been a bullet-train, a "shinkansen." Tokyo Station is but a few hundred yards up the track, and the bridge for the specially built shinkansen road, next to but separate from the ordinary, subsonic railway line, soars over Harumi-Dori just beyond the freeway bridge.

At a mean speed of 120 miles an hour, the bullet train is an icon both of today's Tokyo and tomorrow's world, encapsulating in one long cylinder of metal and glass a thousand images of high speed, high technology, perfect accuracy, temporal precision and cleanliness, and with a staff that customarily displays an old-fashioned courtliness and eternal politeness -- a transport, in other words, of sheer delight.

Within a half-hour, then, on this stroll from the Hibiya subway station to the Kabuki-za theater, so many of the layers of Tokyo are seamlessly unveiled to the visitor. Tradition is there. The relentless search for pleasure, invariably erotic or narcissistic, is there, too. The high technology is everywhere, with the automation of everything that needs automating, with the rococo use of neon, the pulsing of the music, the blaring of the pachinko game salons, the ubiquitous vision of the green-glowing, blue-glowing, unblinking computer screen. And everywhere you walk you will find the people of Tokyo, friendlier than in any city anywhere. The turbocharged modernity has not changed everything: The majority of the city's 10 millions still cling to the rituals of social protocol, and a stranger from beyond the shores of Japan will receive enthralled gazes from a people who are still, to an unsettling degree, unfamiliar with, and enchanted by, the reality of foreignness.

All of this is immersed in an ocean of Japanese tradition, dignity and harmony.

On one level, this sea of Japaneseness is very obvious. Almost everyone you see is Japanese. Almost everyone behaves in a similar fashion. They dress differently, maybe, though usually very well; most act with an impeccable politeness. There is a clear pride in having everyone belonging to a common culture. Conformity, at least by day, is everything.

Eccentricity is rare. Even the most outrageous behavior is usually studied, and temporary. The punks dress up as punks for only a few hours each week, then quickly return to their pinstripes and sailor suits. There is thus a delicate integrity about the place. The unpleasant features of most other urban giants -- crime, poverty, decay -- are all but invisible.

On another level, there is a curious, and curiously pleasing, anarchic quality about the city, as though it presented a circuslike performance of the eternally unexpected.

What might be around the next corner? What light, what structure, what event? You never quite know in Tokyo. Unpredictable and astonishing though Tokyo seems, it is what no other city of its size and scale manages to be -- sanctuary-safe.

So there is infinitely more to Tokyo than the presumption that one, particularly at night, is living on the lip of some caldron. On any morning along Harumi-Dori, all is always back to a reassuring normal. A million men in blue suits and white shirts step up from the subways to a million tasks in the skyscrapers, just as in any other city.

For those who remain skeptical about the coming change in the world's present order, for those who remain to be convinced that the torch of world leadership is now passing to nations like Japan, and to the network of nations around the Pacific, today's Tokyo remains to the unbelievers just this -- a labyrinth of chaos, a confusing and overwhelming place.

If you go . . .

The subway system in Tokyo is vast, but easy. Take trains on either the Hibiya or Chiyoda Lines for Hibiya station; or the Marunouchi or Ginza Lines for Ginza station. If you can't figure the fare, buy the cheapest ticket you can and then hold out a handful of coins for the collectors at your destinations; they won't mind at all. Staff at the Tourist Information Center (known everywhere as the TIC) in Hibiya will load you down with maps and guides in English or any other major tongue.

If you have a problem as a tourist call 0120-222-800, toll-free: Charming, English-speaking operators will go to enormous lengths to help you.

The best guidebook: Kodansha's "Gateway to Japan," $15.95.

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