Tokyo became a megacity by reinventing itself

Walk through Japan’s energetic urban heart and see a vibrant, creative culture that bounced back from war and natural disaster.

Pedestrians, shoppers, and people-watchers stroll on Chuo-dori in Ginza, one of Tokyo’s busiest destinations. Cars travel on the street during weekdays, but on weekend afternoons a one-mile strip is closed to traffic and becomes a promenade. Cafés, high-end boutiques, and street performers attract local residents and visitors.

Early on a cold June morning, I stood in darkness near the west bank of Tokyo’s Sumida River, watching tourists pull on bright nylon vests. They were green and glaring yellow, the sort of thing you’d wear in a pickup soccer game, as though the 70 shivering visitors from South Africa, China, Malaysia, Spain, and Russia had traveled all that way to chase balls along the gritty waterfront.

It was an hour or two before dawn, and we were actually suiting up for a tour of Tsukiji Shijo, which at the time was the largest fish market in the world. Tsukiji was a labyrinth of warehouses, freezers, loading docks, auction blocks, and vendor stalls, and it had fed the city for nearly a century. It had also become—to the dismay of some who worked there—an attraction, promoted in countless articles and cable cooking shows.

When I visited last year, though, the historic market was nearing the end of its run. The breezy stalls and cracked cobblestone floors lured tourists seeking authenticity, but in hypermodern Tokyo such things were officially seen as an unsanitary part of the unruly past. By autumn Tsukiji would close, its vendors moving from the heart of the city to a new, bland-looking facility to the southeast.

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