Tokyo at three miles an hour

On my way home from church today I read a BBC article about a journalist who is going to spend the next seven years walking from the Rift Valley to Tierra del Fuego, following in the steps of the first humans as they spread from Africa across the globe. You can read the whole article here: Of course, it’s a huge undertaking, with some parts fraught with danger, and he will have a lot of support even if he is largely walking alone or with local guides. What struck me, what stuck in my mind, was the idea that our brains have evolved to absorb information at 3mph / 5kph, or the average walking speed. Now, I am no scientist, so I can’t say if this is correct, but the concept appeals to me, because this is how I like to soak up the sights and sounds of Tokyo.

I have already written a number of posts about walking in Tokyo. Although this is a huge city with an enormous population, one of the 21st century’s megacities, Tokyo is really not so big and much of is it easily walkable; it’s largely flat, it’s not hard to find a roadside map and if you are map-challeneged like me you can always ask someone. There are three kinds of walks I enjoy; following railway lines, walking around neighbourhoods and pilgrimage routes.

Over ten years ago, I got the idea, I don’t remember from where, that I would like to walk around the Yamanote line in one day. The Yamanote line is the overground loop line around Tokyo. It is 34.5km long and carries over three and a half million passengers on an average day. There are twenty-nine stations and a full loop takes approximately one hour. Anyway, I was taken with the idea of an urban hike and luckily for me it also appealed to a friend who agreed to do it with me. It took fourteen hours (including breaks) and is probably the topic for a post all of its own, but it was that mammoth trek which confirmed for me that the best way to see the city was on foot. That day, when the cherry blossoms were in full bloom, is still clear in my mind, even over a decade later. Three years ago we repeated the walk, on the last day of the year; we shaved a couple of hours off our previous time and counted off each station as the remaining hours of the year ticked away. Same blisters though.

Even before that walk, I had enjoyed exploring different areas of Tokyo, Yokohama and Kamakura; there are a number of guidebooks available. Yanaka became a favourite, but wherever I walked I always discovered something ; a century-old rice cracker shop, where the third and fourth generations of a family were working; a shop selling a skin-whitening treatment made from nightingale droppings; traditional Japanese houses, modern architecture, and the occasional Swiss chalet. So much of Tokyo is small neighbourhoods, with local parks and shrines and temples tucked in with everything else.

The pilgrimages are a relatively new discovery for me. I did the Yamate route for the first time only a few years ago, but am excited to find a new way to explore. I have only done two out of the twenty-four so far, but I intend to do more.

After we completed that first Yamanote line walk we returned a few weeks later, armed with coffee from a nearby Starbucks (not nearly as easy to find as it is today) and did a victory lap. Our fourteen-hour marathon was condensed into a one-hour swoop around the city. That, too, is a fascinating view of the changing cityscape, and an easy way to give a visitor a brief idea of all that Tokyo is. Nothing can compare, though, to just walking and looking, feeling your feet on the ground, knowing that you are just a tiny part of a vast city. Whether you are in Tokyo or elsewhere, it is a rewarding way to spend an hour or more. Slow down, take in the world at three miles an hour. Sometimes, you can see more by doing less. You can go further by traveling a shorter distance. Even in a big city, finding the places that appeal to the senses, that take root then resonate in memory no matter how much time has passed; this is how I have nibbled Tokyo bit by bit, and have found ‘my’ Tokyo, the one that reflects all the reasons I have made it home for so long.



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