Seeing an old friend in a new light

Seeing an old friend in a new light

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.

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