Orchestrated Chaos: The Infinite Allure of Shibuya, Tokyo

In the depths of inner Toyko lies an intersection that may be the most iconic in the world. Shibuya Crossing is one of those places that immediately grip you with a sense of its notoriety in films and photography. When the traffic lights turn red in all directions a sort of orchestrated chaos is set in motion.

Lost In Translation, Starbucks, and an Ill-Timed Nosebleed
Photo by Michael Johnstone

Photo by Michael Johnstone

From every direction pedestrians stride out onto the street, hundreds of bodies on near-collision courses as the entire intersection is stopped every few minutes. For a brief moment in time, walkers rule the roads. Foot traffic in the area is so heavy that city planners decided the best way to deal with pedestrian crossings was to allow them to take place in every direction, all at the same time.

The intersection is one of many Tokyo landmarks featured in Sophia Copolla’s brilliant film Lost in Translation, which remains one of my favourites to this day. There was something about the film that inspired my own desire to get lost in Asia; Tokyo was my preferred destination for years, before deciding on more lucrative opportunities in Seoul, South Korea. The moment I crossed Shibuya’s intersection myself, I felt a tremendous sense of having made it to a place that years ago seemed unreachable.

Lost in Translation PosterShibuya is an embodiment of all that we in the west perceive of Japan. Bustling, fluorescent, crowded, eclectic, and gorgeous. In reality, I found much of Tokyo to be quieter than I had envisioned. A great deal of the city is almost silent. If you take a few minutes to wander down back alleys you’ll find mid-rise apartments, tiny shops, cycling children, and a quiet sense of calm. Not something you’d expect from the world’s largest megacity.

There’s a Starbucks at Shibuya Crossing that’s one of the busiest in the world. It’s almost constantly busy due to its valuable real-estate; overlooking the crossing through a wall of windows on the upper floor has become a favourite pastime of  locals and a nearly bonafide tourist attraction from those with a love of urban chaos. From the second floor window one can watch the lights turn and the subdued pandemonium begin.

By some freak coincidence of the less-than-desirable kind, only a few moments after snatching one of the coveted street-view seats I was unfortunate enough to start having a nosebleed. Which is strange, considering it had been a decade since my last. The recycled, arid environments of aircraft can have a terrible effect on one’s nasal passage. But I digress.

Hachiko the Dog
Archive photo of Hachiko the dog. (CC Image)

Archive photo of Hachiko the dog.
(CC Image)

Shibuya is also the home to a monument for a legendary canine named Hachikō. As the story goes, a professor at the University of Tokyo, Hidesaburō Ueno, had taken the dog as a pet in 1924. Hachikō would meet his master each day at the same time at Shibuya Station–until one day in 1925 when his owner did not return from the university. His master had died, but Hachikō waited.

For years, poor Hachikō kept going to Shibuya Station at the same time each day, hoping for his master to return. By 1932, many had begun to notice the dog’s continued presence at the station. After an article in the Asahi News, a Tokyo paper, the dog became famous, and commuters began bringing treats for the loyal companion. In 1935, Hachikō was found dead in Shibuya. A statue near the station now honours the loyalty and patience of Japan’s most famous dog. The statue has since become a popular meeting place. A number of films about Hachikō have been made, first in Japan, and a later American adaptation starring Richard Gere. Here’s a look at the original Japanese version:



Urban Landscapes
Photo by Michael Johnstone

Photo by Michael Johnstone

Shibuya is the perfect place to spend some time if you want to get lost in the world’s largest metropolis. It feels right, like the centre of the world. A place where things are constantly happening: where people are meeting, working, talking, shopping, living. The district is packed full of restaurants of all price ranges, coffee shops of the chain and independent variety, shopping centres, and when the sun goes down, a fair share of night clubs. If, like myself, you find yourself fascinated with city life, it’s one of the most unique areas of the modern world.

Be sure to wander down alleys. Take unexpected turns. Get lost. Because in the orchestrated chaos of Shibuya, you’re bound to find something.

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