Tokyo offers a lot of spectacle and confusion. This is just a façade. Behind the neon glare lies a steady, rhythmic and miraculous everyday world that can be yours if you want it to be. Tokyo Totem can guide you through this realm, made as much of souls as of stones. A city that exists as much “out there” as it does “in here”. To help you navigate this slippery slope, stretched between imagination and reality, you will occasionally find your path marked by a totem. It may be the recognizable chime of your train-stop, waking you from your morning slumber. Or the taste of your favorite food, lingering in your mouth, evoking pleasant childhood memories. Or perhaps it will be the faces that you can’t help seeing in the façades of this city. These totems signify the effort of your imagination to reach out into the world and connect to it.

It is perhaps good to state what this book is not. This book will be of little use if you want to know where to eat or what to see. There are other very good guidebooks available for that purpose. Instead this is a subjective guidebook that is intended to help you navigate and read this city in a way that evokes both a sense of adventure and a feeling of belonging.
  Throughout this guidebook, flaneurs, artists, designers, anthropologists, architects, bathhouse connoisseurs and many, many other seasoned urban explorers will invite you to look, read and experience Tokyo differently. They offer insights, angles and imaginations that will hopefully assist you to make this seemingly never-ending metropolis your own. Tokyo Totem is both an investigation of how home is understood and experienced in this city and an imaginarium for personal exploration and home making—processes that we think are deeply connected.

Cities are notoriously difficult to navigate. And we are living in an increasingly urbanized world. More and more cities resemble interiors, artificial places where the natural outside world is withdrawing. It is not too far-fetched to suppose that the art of urban reconnaissance (and thus of home making), once a purely artistic and intellectual endeavor, will one day become an accepted part of everyone’s education. It will be a craft that teaches us to make sense of our man-made world and to find our bearings in a physical and social labyrinth that is constantly changing. You will have to learn to make your own kingdom in a cityscape where everything is already claimed on many different levels, and to derive meaning from a place where everything already has a purpose and where nothing is just there—like a mountain is just there.

Unfortunately this craft doesn’t exist yet. It still has to be invented. And the knowledge on which it will be based is still scattered across the minds of the many millions of urbanites who feel inspired, amazed and at home in their cities. Knowledge that would be of great use to the many more millions of urbanites who feel lost in the maelstrom. To help construct and formulate this new craft, we asked many seasoned urban explorers, both outsiders as insiders, to join us in investigating the largest urban agglomeration the world has ever witnessed, a place were urban expansion is tangible: the Tokyo Metropolitan Area, a place where 37 million people try to make themselves at home.

Tokyo represents a unique urbanism because of two simple and straightforward facts: it is both the biggest metropolis the world has ever seen and the safest. Millions of people are crammed together in one of the most unremitting urban landscapes man has ever created, but there is almost no petty crime, no vandalism, no littering, no hooliganism and no violent demonstrations. Although we belong to that naive tribe of people who, despite the overwhelming body of evidence to the contrary, are optimistic about humanity’s future, we are continually amazed by this truly astounding phenomenon.

Although all cities are difficult to relate to, Tokyo in particular seems to baffle people. When we started our investigation we quickly realized that Japan, and thus by default Tokyo, provokes a lot of academic, artistic and ideological interpretations of its culture that in some way or another emphasize its separateness. These interpretations come from both foreigners and the Japanese themselves. The idea of Japan as a unique and monolithic culture is widespread, but there are also many who reject it. There is an acute and growing sensitivity towards any kind of generalization, Orientalism, Occidentalism, exoticism or cliché about what makes Japan tick. Starting a sentence with “The Japanese are” often elicits a sharp reprimand, and rightly so. So when we came to Tokyo to ponder Tokyo’s uniqueness, we had a lot of explaining to do.

Having gotten to know Japan a little better over the years, we can only say, in our modest estimation, that it has its fair share of unique qualities and wondrous features. But, like any other culture, Japan, and thus Tokyo, is no homogeneous, monolithic whole. It is divided by class, gender, generation and caste, by regional differences, subcultures and political flavors. Japanese culture is just one of many unique, diverse and dynamic incarnations of human togetherness on the planet—the product of people working together and making themselves at home together.

That many foreigners and Japanese think of Japan as somehow separate also cannot be ignored, however. Ideas on about identity, whether they be expressed by outsiders or insiders, are powerful forces inside any culture. If you think you are different, or if others think you are different, you may start to behave different. These kinds of ideas have a self-fulfilling quality about them.

At any rate, we didn’t come to Tokyo to acknowledge its monolithic nature. In some ways this guide proposes to do exactly the opposite. Its proposition is to break the city up into everyone’s city. It is intended to help you engage with this city in a way that makes sense to you, allowing you to create your own Tokyo. To overcome the confusion that cities evoke, perhaps this city most of all, we want you to imagine and experience a Tokyo that you can call your home. 

Cities are impossible to approach from an objective standpoint. There is just too much going on, too much to take into account. The formula that could explain a city would be endless. Buildings, people, jobs, ideas, conventions, fashions and technologies come and go unpredictably, leaving a changed city in their wake. We think that in these bewildering circumstances you can do only one thing: trust the subjective. A subjective compass does not make the metropolis more understandable. It does, however, make the metropolis more approachable. And, more importantly, it makes it yours. Cities will never reveal their position, if they have any. The only position you can learn is your own. With your own position as your compass, the city will reveal itself to be a deeply wondrous, mysterious, and enriching place.

A totem can be understood as a personal guide or an emblem that serves some group as a homing device, an orientation or a rallying point. In Tokyo there are many totems. Walking its many streets one encounters emblems that signify, for example, certain spirits or gods, fashion tribes, neighborhoods, consumer preferences, professions, or corporate affiliations. But these totems also exist within you. Perhaps your designer eye can’t help seeing the typical color spectrum of the city, or perhaps your musical ear is eager to block out the 5 o’clock tune that signals the end of school. The title of this book is an ode to these many social and deeply personal signifiers, which somehow help Tokyoites navigate their infinite cityscape, and it also represents our wish that you may find your own totems.

The Tokyo Totem guide has 4.5 chapters or steps. Chapter 0.5 is a very small chapter called Find Yourself: it explores the subjective quality of home making and urban reconnaissance. You need to reign in your objectivity and find your subjective compass. The next chapters are called, in consecutive order, Walk The Land, Follow the Rhythm, Choose Your City and Make Yourself at Home. The logic behind these steps is this: Before you can make yourself at home you have to know who you are. Then, to get a sense for where you are, you have to walk the land to know the land. Next, you need to discover the rhythms of time and how people inhabit them, before you can actually create your own city, and finally make yourself at home in it. Of course, when actually out there exploring, these steps occur all at once or in random order.

We hope that you enjoy this guide and find it helpful in your urban explorations. Most of all we hope that you enjoy Tokyo. Don’t be afraid to trust your own totems, and the new ones that may cross your path. Be curious, explore, and make the world your own. You will do not only yourself a favor but the rest of the world as well, because only when you start making yourself at home in this world can you start taking responsibility for it.

Edwin Gardner
& Christiaan Fruneaux







Edwin Gardner &
Christiaan Fruneaux