LETTER FROM TOKYO

Seeing an old friend in a new light

Tokyo Station, like many parts of the city itself, is enjoying a new lease of life. The revamp it is undergoing has restored its 1914 brick facade, adding to the charm of the building for the hosts of commuters who converge there every day.
Tokyo Station, like many parts of the city itself, is enjoying a new lease of life. The revamp it is undergoing has restored its 1914 brick facade, adding to the charm of the building for the hosts of commuters who converge there every day.PHOTO: AP

Japan correspondent Hau Boon Lai is back in Tokyo, now a far cry from the city he left 10 years ago, and he likes much of the transformation, including the revamped and new hubs of activity

Like a friend I have not seen for a long time, Tokyo has been transformed as a city in the 10 years we have been apart, with almost every part of it looking familiar, yet different.

The long-awaited reunion begins at Narita Airport. The approach towards the runway over beautiful rice fields - check. But what has happened to the smoky walkways in the terminal? The smoking rooms are no longer token ones - they are now equipped to make the smoke stay inside, which means fresh air for the rest.

That's just the start of what has turned out to be one wonder after another in the three weeks I have been back, as I put on my walking shoes and retraced some of my footsteps from a decade ago.

From the shopping havens of Shibuya and Omotesando, and the business district of Akasaka, to the Shinagawa and Tokyo railway stations, the nation's capital city is buzzing - it has new buildings, a new subway line and revamped stations, and more roads have been closed to vehicles to accommodate pedestrians and shopping.

The renewal is a much-needed one. Tokyo in 2003 was in danger of looking its age, and its old buildings and stations - marked by forbidding stairs and dingy passageways - were ill-equipped for its ageing society. At that time, Tokyo was more than a little tired and frayed.

My first stop is of course Shibuya, a shopping and entertainment district I called home for more than three years the last time I was here. It will be home this time too, for another three years, possibly more.

The Shibuya "Scramble" Crossing - popularised in movies - still awes. Hundreds of pedestrians (some swear at least a thousand at the absolute peak) zigzag across this multi-way cross-junction when the light turns green for those headed towards the shops or the train station.

The difference lies in the alleyways farther from the station, where new convenience stores, cafes and dining bars beckon to one and all, replacing old wooden structures that used to house provision shops and the like.

Another stark change is the absence of what used to be regulation ties and jackets - people get a reprieve in summer partly because of energy-saving efforts related to the ongoing Fukushima crisis - but the result is a more informal and relaxed atmosphere.

What goes for fashion seems to go for some people as well - sales staff are more ready to engage others in conversation than they were before. Store assistant Mieko Yamada doesn't just ask me to pay for my purchase - she also asks if I am on holiday, what work I am engaged in and whether I am enjoying myself in Japan, something I never encountered before in sales transactions during my previous stint here.

What has not changed, however, is that people still stride along at breakneck speed.

Though caught up in the rush, I still find it impossible to miss Shibuya Hikarie, a 182m-tall behemoth sporting 34 floors and four basement levels, which opened at the eastern part of the station in April last year.

Touted as a destination rather than a building, it wants to be the "somewhere" that people at the Shibuya Crossing are going to, offering a department store, organic products, offices, a 2,000-seat theatre, galleries and high-end restaurants. It has succeeded to some extent, attracting more than 14 million visitors in the eight months or so since its opening.

One train stop away is Omotesando Station and the Omotesando boulevard - which still houses Coach, Hermes and an endless array of high-end stores. What's new is the Omotesando Hills residential-cum-shopping development, whose six levels stretch 250m up a gentle slope. The 80-year-old Dojunkai Aoyama Apartments were torn down to make way for the development, which has been in operation since 2006.

Such conversions from purely residential to mixed-use developments are necessary for a more optimal use of land in densely populated Tokyo.

From Omotesando, I move on to Akasaka, one of Tokyo's business districts. As night falls, the streets between the Akasaka and Akasaka-Mitsuke stations become brightly lit, with cafes, ramen chain outlets and food places dominating and facing the main road.

This is a welcome change from 10 years ago, when the roads were dimly lit and filled with aggressive touts tugging customers into one of the many hostess bars, which have fallen in numbers and been relegated to the back alleys, where they serve a dwindling clientele of hard-drinking salarymen.

A similar renewal is happening at other shopping and entertainment districts, including Shinjuku. Here, the red-light district Kabukicho is still sleazy, but just a block away, railway company JR East last year began work on a new building that will be integrated with a new station exit, envisioning it as a landmark office and commercial complex that will grace the Shinjuku railway station, the country's busiest. The development is scheduled to be completed in 2020, which happens to be the year Tokyo hosts the Olympics.

What is remarkable is that the massive projects and changes on the ground seem to have taken place without much bureaucratic wrangling - as was the case in the past, when residents might delay projects in courts - surely a sign that the people themselves are eager for change.

Meanwhile, at Shinagawa Station, the change has been seismic. Previously, the understanding was that Tokyo Station would be the only important shinkansen or bullet train hub, so the decision to make Shinagawa one as well, implemented in late 2003, came as a pleasant surprise. And it hurts not at all that the station has been refurbished to reflect this new hub status.

In the meantime, Tokyo Station has benefited from having Shinagawa share the shinkansen burden, being less crowded now. It is almost done with its own revamp, which has restored its 1914 facade.

I have holidayed in Japan in the past decade, but I visited the prefectures and flew to those destinations via Haneda Airport, thereby missing the transformation in Tokyo.

Now that I am back, the old friend and I have a lot of catching up to do, so no prizes for guessing what I am doing this weekend, as well as the many weekends ahead. In fact, even as you read this piece, I am probably in the yuppie suburban neighbourhood of Jiyugaoka, checking if my once-favourite omelette rice shop and second-hand bookstore are still around, and what new wonders are in store.

boonlai@sph.com.sg