Tokyo: The Ancient City From The Future [PHOTO ESSAY]

Kabukichō
Tokyo's throbbing Kabukichō red-light district.

TOKYO -- After an extended trip to one of three “command center” capitals of the world economy, I found myself reflecting on the great metropolis that is Tokyo, one of humanity’s landmark settlements. A thought emerged from my sensory-overloaded memories, an idea that got at the essence of this newly visited place. It’s a biased and not particularly informed observation, but one that shapes my already fading memories of a city that endures and evolves as you walk its streets. Tokyo's essence is its intertwining of the futuristic and the ancient, the frenetic and the serene. It's the way even a short stroll through the city often took me on an abridged tour of its history, from the temples and shrines of a long time ago to the screaming lights and eccentricities of the present.

Sensō-ji temple The juxtaposition of the crowded Sensō-ji temple and its tranquil gardens illustrates the essence of modern Tokyo.

This is a tale of Tokyo, but for me the tale began in Paris, where my concept of a city's indelible essence arose five years ago, when I was intrigued by Paris’ challenges to conventional notions of what one is allowed to do with -- and to -- a city. From I.M. Pei’s modern glass pyramid in the courtyard of the classic French Renaissance-style Louvre Museum to Henri de Miller’s strange 1986 L'Écoute sculpture resting literally in the shadow of the centuries-old St. Eustache church, the city is not shy about conflating modernity and antiquity .

Louvre I.M. Pei's iconic glass pyramid can be seen through a window at the Louvre Museum in Paris.

This idea of a bold city unafraid to obstruct the beauty of its past with the innovations of its present was shaped as I took walks by the Seine.  Tokyo, the site of my first landfall in Asia this summer, presented its own version of that theme: tranquil enclaves among an onslaught of novelty and cacophony that blend into a seamless yet occasionally jarring whole. 

Robot Restaurant A scene from a futuristic show at Tokyo's Shinjuku Robot Restaurant.

As I meandered through the city, I repeatedly found surprises, places that reshaped my concept of this epic metropolis. Time and again I passed from a glut of neon to an enclave of serene nature.

Tokyo Garden Tokyo's many gardens provide refuge for travelers weary of the city's frantic modern districts.

Tokyo is a place where in just a few minutes you can go from gawking at the sleazy madness of a six-floor sex shop to drifting into a meditative trance in a bastion of silence and antiquity, knowing that you’re following in the footsteps of monks and samurai.

Harajuku Throngs of people cross the street in Harajuku, Tokyo.

After wandering among the frenetic crush of humanity known as the Harajuku fashion district, I stumbled on the expansive, wooded Yoyogi Park and its inspiring Meiji Shrine, with its 40-ft.-tall tori made of 1,500-year-old cypress. 

Meiji Shrine Tori Forty-feet-tall tori made of 1,500-year-old cypress guard the entrance to the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo's Yoyogi Park.

Meiji Shrine The imposing Meiji Shrine provides a welcome respite at the heart of Tokyo's Yoyogi Park, just steps from the crowded Harajuku fashion district.

Similarly, after an awkward stroll through the in-your-face Kabukichō red-light district, it was refreshing to duck into an izakaya in the well-preserved, unhurried Golden Gai district just off the main drag, for sake and Asahi.  Even the mundane often resulted in unexpected gems. On a coffee run aimed unsuccessfully at diminishing my pounding headache (sake doesn’t sit well with some Westerners, myself included) the morning after I saw Golden Gai, I discovered a beautiful green space I didn’t know existed, mere feet from the commercial hum, called Shinjuku Central Park.

Shinjuku Central Park A summer scene in Shinjuku Central Park.

And of course there was another beautiful, imposing structure near the park’s Northwestern border, namely the Kumano Shrine, where a groom and bride posed for photos in traditional Japanese garb. The ceremony was a living example of old meeting new in Tokyo, as skyscrapers loomed overhead.

Kumano Shrine A wedding party takes in the inspiring environs at Kumano Shrine in Tokyo's Shinjuku Central Park.

Perhaps the most recognizable sight in Tokyo is the imposing Imperial Palace, whose expansive grounds gave a discordant response to the busy neighboring Ōtemachi area. It’s the symbol of old Edo, located just steps from the heart of the city's busy financial center.

Imperial Palace Grounds A view of the sparse grounds of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.

Imperial Palace A guard tower on the grounds of Tokyo's Imperial Palace.

After fighting through the thronged lanes of Asakusa to snap a few shots of the city’s most crowded tourist trap, namely the Sensō-ji temple, a pleasant garden awaited, seemingly miles from the din. 

Asakusa This Asakusa shopping street leads the way to Tokyo's famed Sensō-ji temple.

Sensō-ji temple garden A peaceful garden sits just adjacent to the tourist trap that is Tokyo's Sensō-ji temple.

And then there are the solitary places visitors see and perhaps photograph often in Tokyo, whose provenance I quickly forgot. As I look over the pictures of my journey, I stumble on this one of an aging graveyard with a modern office building built practically on top of it. I can't remember where this was, but it’s immediately recognizable as Tokyo, a place where the kind of juxtaposition the cemetery offered is always just around the corner.

Tokyo Graveyard A Tokyo graveyard rests somewhere in the massive metropolis.

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