An Urban Planner Travels to Japan

Some of the countless Torii gates spotted across Tokyo

Throughout most of high school, in the early 2000s, I was enamored with all things involving Japanese animation (anime) and comics (manga) at a time when these things had not yet gone mainstream like they are today. I would make treks to Denver’s downtown library, taking what little they had, just to get my fix. Despite this, the country itself forever was a far off place I never expected to get to visit. And yet, I recently got back from 12 whole days exploring Tokyo, Kanazawa, Nara, Kyoto, and Osaka – at the tail end of its beloved cherry blossom season.

Kanazawa’s intact wooden architecture and bustling downtown

The trip began with five days in Tokyo. Of course, its public transit is a wonder to behold. Always on-time, never dirty, entirely accessible, and dizzying in its complexity, it is a mirage for Americans whose derelict transit systems lurch along on century-old rails. And that’s before one steps foot on the much-lauded “bullet trains” that whisk passengers across the island at 200-plus mph. Allegedly, the first such train was built to help ferry high-grade sushi from Kanazawa, on the North Sea, to Tokyo.

Kanazawa itself was a surprise, a 1600s city repeatedly destroyed by fire, most of its streets are lined with canals big and small to ensure water is always within reach. Largely spared from WW2 bombings, it has many well-kept old areas, despite also being a bustling metropolis.

Nara’s ancient, grand temples, and docile deer

Nara, Japan’s ancient capital, was chock-full of grand temples and some of the country’s oldest extant wooden architecture. The city is also run amok with docile deer, around which an entire deer cracker industry has emerged. It was amusing watching city buses and traffic navigate around flocks of deer in city streets, although the pushy deer ate my maps when I was not looking!

Not pictured: crushing crowds at every step

Kyoto was beautiful, but navigating its temples, shrines, and gardens required a constant jockeying for space with tourists the world over that was less than pleasant. With 17 UNESCO sites in one city, it seems to have become a victim of its own success – apparently city officials are considering anti-tourism measures now.

Osaka’s thrilling Dotonbury District

Capping off the whirlwind trip was several days in Osaka, a much more laid back place than the capital. Its tropical climate and a melding of cultures made for an unexpected highlight. Again the public transit was effortless and there was vibrant and exciting places to explore at every turn, at any time of the day. And while Osaka is similar in size to Chicago, its metro area is much more populous than ours. Despite this, I kept thinking how much Chicago could learn from how the Japanese do business – lessons I look forward to bringing back home.