The sprawling, unthinkably vast city of Tokyo is really more akin to a network of smaller, interconnected cities. Shibuya, Shinjuku, Itabashi, Ikebukuro, Azabu, and many more that could all stand as towns in their own right are connected by a gleaming and stunningly efficient network of trains and subways. It is both magnificent and magnificently isolating. It is easy to feel small and alone, a single ant surrounded by a concrete jungle of Amazonian proportions waiting to swallow up lone passersby in endless shouts and careening cars. Beautifully sterile glass and concrete behemoths loom large on every side, dissected by shimmering rivers of asphalt. There are canals and trees, sure, but nature feels far-flung from the glowing billboards, shining like miniature suns, that dot Shinjuku. Shibuya and Harajuku scream consumerism as shop after appealing shop lure in wide-eyed customers. You would never guess that right around the corner lies the enormous Meiji Shrine and the equally sprawling Yoyogi Park, offering a soft patch of grass for the weary traveler to rest upon. Shady trees spread their branches wide, welcoming one and all to relax in their shade. A group of young men shout joyously as they kick a soccer ball in their own version of the World Cup. Enormous ravens, larger than my cat, squawk in the distance but for once their cries are reassuring in a fashion far from their midnight shrieks of “nevermore.” As I take a deep breath, my lungs notice the strange absence of exhaust, fumes from the subway, or even the smell of food that pervades my neighborhood. Nothing but trees and tranquility. Although I think of myself largely as a city girl at heart, sometimes nothing beats the sun on my face and a breeze in my hair. Water trickles somewhere in the distance and a bird whistles its tune overhead, seemingly unaware of the bustling metropolis mere minutes from its tranquil home.
Across from Yoyogi Park is the elegant and intricate Meiji Shrine, originally completed in the early 1920s and dedicated to Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōken. Tourists snapping photos stand alongside praying Shinto worshippers come to pay their respects. The enormous, elaborately carved temple compound hums with the noise of not only spectators, but the reverberations of a ceremonial drum as a wedding party marches solemnly into the temple for the marriage ceremony, the men in suits and the women in traditional kimonos. Though I am not a particularly religious person, I can’t help but be overcome with a great sense of spiritual peace. Joyous and reverent, the shrine and its beautiful grounds are a reminder that whatever your beliefs, we are put here to live for something larger than ourselves. The sweet air perfumed by incense and the thousands of trees that surround the area bring life. It is the same air that Emperor Meiji breathed and the same air that our great-grandchildren will breathe. The ultimate combination of old and new, Japan serves as a reminder that progress does not have to trump tradition, but rather that the two can thrive side-by-side. From my seat near Meiji Shrine, I can see a skyscraper glinting in the sun. I take another deep breath and remind myself that there is no rush to return to that frantic world. Just sit back and smell the incense.