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Wednesday, November 3, 2004

Techscapes and Macrobiotic Highs: An Afternoon in Aoyama

Tokyo is the ultimate urban jungle and life here presents you with endless vistas of cunningly contrived concoctions of glass, concrete and steel, everywhere you look, and seemingly everywhere you go. Whether downtown or in the 'burbs, at home or on the streets, futuristic scenes surround you, seduce you, and astound you to the extent you start to feel like you're the star of your very own Blade Runner fantasy, playing in a cinema in another dimension. Futurism is the name of the game here, the dominant architectural theme, and it has been entrenched for so long it has written itself into the fossil record of the city, as well as the DNA of its inhabitants. It's a shrine to speed, a temple to technology; frenetic as a Drum&Bass track, and just as relentless. Sometimes it is just all too noisy, and all too totalitarian, and you long for a bit of old fashioned peace, a bit of the original 和 ("harmony", the former name for Japan). Interestingly enough, not all of the futurism in Tokyo is new, and some of it looks decidedly dated... that might seem paradoxical until you realize that futurism is a movement not an era, and tomorrow is a day that never dawns. Follow the tracks of the Yamanote Line between Kanda and Akihabara, for example, and you will find older incarnations of the genre, pylons, noodle shops dug under the train lines, slabs of concrete corroded by rust, untidy bundles of wires strung up wherever they will hang, and archaic air-conditioning vents spinning in the morning humidity... pretty it ain't but back in its time this was probably the most high-tech place on Earth, and the very vision of a glorious future. Who were the dreamers who imagined this city into being? I ask myself sometimes, when I am wandering around, what inspired their stupendous leap of imagination? If futurism is just a style, in other words, who invented it, and why? I believe that the official Futurism, the one that gets a capital F, was an Italian artistic movement, an anarchist movement of sorts with Fascist complications, which flared into life in the early 20th Century. Leading proponents of the movement, notably Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Giacomo Balla, and Umberto Boccioni, glorified fast cars and rogue locomotives and good factory mud, scorned women, proclaimed that war was "the world's only hygiene", and proposed a Khmer Rouge style solution to the "problem" of tradition. According to the Futurist manifesto and the manifestos which followed, museums and libraries should be burnt to the ground or drowned, and the city torn down and built again, from scratch, by every new generation. "Time and Space died yesterday," Marinetti wrote in the first manifesto, published in 1909. "We are already living in the absolute, since we have already created eternal, omnipresent speed." I don't know if there was any direct link between the European Futurists and Japan, although the Axis would later lead them into an ideological marriage, for a short time at least. Perhaps it doesn't matter whether there was a connection or not, this might rather be an example of synchronicity, of the Jungian kind. The way I figure it, in modern societies we all have a vision of how the future should look, each according to our own hopes and fears: it could be hyper-consumerist, neo-communalist, conformist, the brainwashed masses of 1984, or the individualist paradise symbolized by the jetpack and the Martian colonies in the works of Robert A. Heinlein. Others might imagine a world which is pacifist, Deep Ecologist, or perhaps populated by Mad Max warriors roaming the deserts fighting Google and its cyborg spawn. Disparate visions these are indeed, but where they intersect collective dreams emerge, lowest common denominator blueprints: in our case rockets and the atomic bomb, freeways and the motorcar, more recently celebrity culture, TV, and the Internet. Everything shiny and sci-fi, mind you, everyone air-brushed and glittery (and on that matter, note that you never see rust on The Enterprise. Nor do they have any astrologers or Feng Shui geomancers on the bridge! Why is that? What kind of technocentrism is being pushed?) In Asia, things turned out shiny and sci-fi, too, but much of the detail is different. Why so? I speculate that there was in fact a homegrown futurism in Japan, a Zen/Shinto futurism, which culminated not just in the Mitsubishi Zero, but also DoraemonGundamanime, and all these self-flushing toilets you find here today. Futurism may have dreamed of demolishing the ancient cities of Europe but it never succeeded there, the sway of the past was too strong. Tokyo, on the other hand, has always been a city in constant flux -- a chaotic frenzy of construction and destruction -- and Marinetti's Year Zero fantasies finally found their realization beneath a Pacific sky. Accordingly, I consider Tokyo to be one of the world's foremost "techscapes" -- an environment in which the landscape has been totally subsumed by the laws and logic of the megalopolis, and the technology which enables it. It is also a city so detailed, but yet so vast, you could spend years here and keep making amazing discoveries. I discovered something amazing today, actually, with my old girlfriend Akiko: the new Prada showroom in Aoyama. The latter half of this post concerns that discovery. A little earlier in the day, Akiko and I dined at one of Tokyo's quality vegetarian restaurants, Hanada Rosso, which the first half of this post will describe. All in all it was a very cool afternoon indeed, and the coolest aspect of the whole thing is, I believe that Paper Burning made it happen. It is a bold claim, but I stand by it!

High-tech beehive: Prada Showroom in Aoyama (Japan, 2004)
Branded as Tokyo's version of Milan's Via Montenapoleone and one of the top three shopping and entertainment hubs in the city, Aoyama (青山) and the neighboring Omotesandou (表参道) precinct is jammed with quirky boutiques, cute cafes, beauty salons, and even a United Nations University campus. There are plenty of restaurants as well, ranging from sushi joints to expensive French and Turkish eateries. Today with Akiko, a vehement vegetarian, I ventured to a classy macrobiotic restaurant called Hanada Rosso. Hanada Rosso has a policy which states, uncompromisingly: "Non-meat, non-milk, non-egg, non-chemical". When the menu appeared, Akiko and I both ordered the same dish: the Tempe-Burger, a tofu contrivance costing ¥1050. Possibly I followed her lead in ordering here, I am not sure why. But it was a good choice: not only was it delicious, but it left me with a peculiar feeling of satisfaction after eating it -- a kind of purity you might say, a sense of clarity, a macrobiotic high! I felt satisfied but not full at all. Perhaps it was because this food was spiritual food, free of harmful chemicals, lovingly prepared, with no bad dead animal karma to go along with it. Or perhaps it was because of the Korean Shizandra berry smart drug I had ingested just before the date, or even just because I was so glad to see Akiko again, after all our time apart!

Vegetarians visiting Japan often complain about their problems finding suitable food in the country. John Howley maintains a list of Japanese vegetarian restaurants on his website, mentioning only 20 establishments for the Greater Tokyo area -- a conurbation of 20 million people. So, that it is roughly one vegetarian restaurant for every million people (of course, there must be many which have flown under Howley's radar, but still, you get the drift!) Japan is not a vegetarian Utopia by any means, and this fact might seem surprising given its Buddhist past and all, the veneration shown to non-animate entities such as rivers and stones. People don't go heavy on the beef like they do in Australia or the States, but there is usually a certain amount of meat mixed into every meal in Japan -- even tofu gets doused in shaved fish! For vegetarians like my Akiko, trying to educate the masses, all this meat can make life a misery. However, there are vegetarian restaurants around, and if you are in Tokyo, I would recommend a visit to the Hanada Rosso. As well as a delicious range of main courses, the menu features organic beer and wine, soy shakes and organic coffee. The restaurant is located on the second floor of the Sleeve Building, 6-11-1 South Aoyama. The telephone number is (03) 3406 1264.

Having enjoyed a memorable hour or two at Hanada Rosso, playing some personality quiz games I have lately employed for nampa, it was time to hit the streets, and look at the surrounding attractions. We walked into the nearby Idee interior design shop to admire its ample Scandinavian and European displays. It was there, looking out the window, I caught sight of a particularly weird building in the distance, a building audacious even by Tokyo standards -- a crystalline pentagonal green pyramid which Akiko identified as the new Prada showroom. Although neither of us are brand label junkies (nothing could be further from the truth), we decided to make a beeline to the hive-like Prada showroom, to see what the fuss is all about.

Designed by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, the building rises from the street like a kaleidoscope, covered with bulbous, diamond-shaped windows. Once inside, those bulbous windows start to distort your senses, making the showroom seem both very big and very small, both at the same time! In fact, "kaleidoscopic" is the best way to describe this building, which is more a piece of art than just a mere showroom. Things always seem to shapeshift when you are inside it. While the outside is green crystal, the interior is a kind of stark white/pearl color which is both soft (in the carpet sense) and futuristic, reminiscent of a UFO. TV sets dangle on stalks from the ceiling, like anemone hunting for prey. Stairs lead to deep-set lounge recesses, where windows afford views of local landmarks, such as Roppongi Hills. It is all very cool, and I couldn't resist snapping off some photos on my keitai phone, even though I was reprimanded for it. 

We ended the afternoon at a cafe where Akiko showed me her iPod, a device I had never seen up close before. Scrolling through her Beatles collection over a Cafe Mocha, I had to confess her contraption made my own Sony MP3 player look a little bit silly, a little redundant. Such a shiny toy her iPod was, high-tech, but also organic... in many ways it was just like the organic high-tech Prada Showroom we had just explored, or a polished stone in a shrine that had miraculously come to life, and revealed its spirit to the world! Like the Tempe-Burger I had consumed earlier in the day, just like that Shizandra smart drug, this gadget seemed designed to lift your consciousness into a higher state of being. It wasn't Japanese, but it was still Shinto, and it was still Zen. It was not only Zen, but it was also a vision, and a visitor from the future. A future which, even now, is slowly dragging itself into manifestation, into being. The iPods are merely the vanguards of what is to come. Much as I hate to admit it, the vegetarians are probably much the same. Thus we have been warned. Watch this space for more!
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