It’s been a long time, and yet, upon my return to the wonderfully busy city of Tokyo after many decades, I have found the city as enchanting as the day I left, if not more so. Like Hong Kong, Tokyo is packed with people and activity, with pedestrians crisscrossing each other with the grace and precision of professional ballerinas. I had read some recent travel articles describing the city as a monument to organized chaos, and perhaps that is an apt initial description of what a traveler encounters when taking the first foray into its busy streets. But once you get the hang of the city, you will just marvel at how precise and organized everything is. Even the seemingly intractable metro system is easy to navigate and quite logical in its layout. The smooth and on-time rides to anywhere in the city is something that people back home can only dream about.
But what makes Tokyo so special above everything else is the diversity of its neighborhoods. From classy, elegant Ginza to rowdy, loud Akihabara, the vibrant neighborhood scenes are a marvelous study in contrasts. Need more excitement, then head on to Shibuya with its world-famous intersection crossing and incredible array of restaurants. Camera and tech shopping? Then it is Shinjuku you want to visit, with the imposing Yodobashi mega store right outside the metro station and Bic Camera not far down the street. Not sure if there is such a thing as a technology center of the earth, but if there is, it surely has to be right here in Tokyo.
And then there is the more quiet, sedate part of Tokyo. Strolling along the Imperial Gardens and the forest grounds surrounding the Meiji Shrine in Shibuya you would be forgiven for thinking that you were in another world, a sudden feeling of solitude taking over your senses. This shifting landscape character, and the gentleness of its everyday people, are what make Tokyo such a wonderful city. Drumbeats followed by poetry. Like the silk in its famous kimonos, the city flows in a constant, rhythmic movement that is both captivating and disarming. A city not to be missed in a lifetime.
As the pilot announced our descent to the Hong Kong airport, images of an exotic, long-lost world kept creeping into my mind. I kept thinking of 1841 and the first Opium Wars that led to the British acquisition of Hong Kong under the 1842 Treaty of Nanking as if it were yesterday. I guess some part of me wanted to walk back into that world to witness the chaotic, yet exciting period of discovery and adventure in history. It is as if Hong Kong (at least for me) made more sense by looking backwards than looking forward. Unjustly as it may sound, it was the city’s past that fascinated me more than its future. This feeling didn’t last long, for as soon as I debarked the aircraft and came face-to-face with Hong Kong’s slick, shiny airport and its modern airport express train, a new, futuristic concept of the city entered my consciousness. Maybe it was the city’s crowded streets full of hastily moving people, or maybe the incredible heaven-reaching architecture surrounding Victoria Harbor that refocused my attention to the future. Not sure. But one thing is undeniable the moment you set foot in Hong Kong: that this is a vibrant, energetic city being driven into the 21st Century by an eager, youth-centered population bent on making its mark on the world stage. The city’s energy could be felt everywhere, and it was quite contagious.
But to say that Hong Kong has moved on from its past would be overstating the fact. Along with its shinny new high-rise buildings, a myriad of traditional, old-world markets line its narrow streets and alleyways. This is specially the case on Hong Kong Island and the Central sector of the city, where you will walk past a majestic, modern building just to come face-to-face with a street restaurant that does all its cooking right there on a street kitchen. Venture to either side of the longest electric escalator in the world, the Central Mid-Levels staircase, and you will soon find yourself a century back in time amidst butcher shops and street vendors selling everything from Mao’s little red book to elaborate jade jewelry. And when crossing the imposing Victoria Harbor to visit the famous Tsim Sha Tsui district (and Bruce Lee’s famous statute along the Avenue of Stars), you will have your choice of either riding the ultra-modern city metro system or the historic Star Ferry across the bay. Old and new, side-by-side, against a backdrop that you will not find anywhere else in the world. As I boarded the plane for my return trip to America, I realized that Hong Kong had showed me that the future only makes sense in relation to the past. As the city wrestles with its place in the world in a new century, it seems to find its safe footing in that long-gone colonial past. Like an alchemist, it continues to blend its many potions in the hope that something new and exciting results from its many efforts. If you ask me, I think that this old alchemist is up to something great.