Tokyo is the new Paris
It's simply the greatest city in the world. If you haven't been there, you need to go.
“There are only two places in the world where we can live happy: at home and in Paris.” — Ernest Hemingway
What is the greatest city on Earth? If you answered “New York City”, I wouldn’t laugh at you. As the financial hub of what’s still nominally the world’s biggest economy, it commands economic power that any other single city would have trouble rivaling, and it’s still the city of dreams for untold millions around the globe. If you answered “Shanghai”, I might purse my lips in skepticism, but if you believe that China is destined to supplant the developed democracies as the center of wealth and power, then Shanghai would admittedly be the logical choice.
But actually, the greatest city in the world is Tokyo.
I say this as I prepare to once again fly there, for the third time in eight months. Another batch of friends is going to see the city for the first time, and they asked me to show them around. I can’t say no. It’s a way to recapture a little bit of the magic of going there myself for the first time. If you’ve never been, it’s time to go.
Words can only grope clumsily at the sensation of actually being in Tokyo. I could describe to you the experience of sipping artisinal cocoa in a quiet bar in Omotesando that looks like it was run through a warming filter; of strolling through a silent park next to a shrine with cherries in bloom; of sipping cheap beer and eating greasy fried chicken in a tiny pub at midnight while a crowd of middle-aged regulars sings their favorite song; of discovering a college student’s art in a free gallery that would put many professional exhibitions to shame; of standing in a quiet grove on a carpet of flowers while brand-new skyscrapers loom just beyond the treeline; of squeezing your way through a tiny cobblestone alley hung with lanterns to eat on top of a barrel.
These were all things I did on my last trip, and they were not particularly unusual or remarkable experiences. They are the tiniest sliver of daily existence in Tokyo, which at times can feel more like floating than living. Or as the title of a novel put it in 1981, inexplicably crystalline.
Tokyo is not the same city it was in 1981, nor is it the city I first visited as a wide-eyed, slack-jawed college student two decades ago. It is a living crystal, an agglomeration onto which new objects are constantly being grafted — new buildings, new cultures, new experiences. One time I went to Tokyo in the spring, and saw ten floors of a new skyscraper going up near my friend’s house; I went back in the fall and had tea in the completed tower, immaculate and open for business.
Perhaps a chart will help:
Many great cities become museums of themselves, their lack of new development an homage to their glory days. Tokyo refuses to do this. In a country that is aging and economically stagnant, Tokyo pushes ever forward into the realm of its own possibilities.
There are many things that are amazing about Tokyo, but above all, and holding all the rest together, is this built environment. Behind and between the broad thoroughfares lined with malls and outlet stores and towering office buildings is an endless warren of narrow backstreets containing a mix of houses and restaurants and small independently owned shops. The layout looks like this:
In most cities, the retail will be mostly on the first floor, with residential space above; Tokyo has some of this, but its retail landscape is dominated by the zakkyo buildings — the iconic multi-floor, multi-tenant retail spaces with the big columns of signs on the side.
Together with old walking districts, alleyways known as yokochō, filled-in underpasses, and other densely packed urban retail spaces, the zakkyo buildings create an urban living experience like no other. In most cities, you would pick out a destination and then go there, or maybe stroll down one street lined with ground-level restaurants and shops. In Tokyo, you simply go to a neighborhood — Shibuya, Shinjuku, or any of a thousand others — and you exist there, wandering through the maze, tramping up and down the stairs of zakkyo buildings, threading your way through alleyways. The sheer density of retail creates a sort of phase transition between going places and being places. (Of course, don’t forget to stop in at your favorite spots and say hi to your friends there!)
The incredible concentration of retail does another magical thing: It allows many urban residential areas to be quiet. In New York, the ground-floor retail is dispersed throughout the city, so even if you live in the nicer neighborhoods there will usually be feet and taxis and delivery trucks tromping through. In Shibuya — Tokyo’s most iconic shopping neighborhood — you can walk ten minutes from the world’s most crowded intersection and be in a nearly silent, empty residential street. The separation of (some) residential and commercial spaces is accomplished without zoning.
How exactly this remarkable urban design came to be is a long and complicated story, and you won’t learn the answer from any single source. A great place to start is the book Emergent Tokyo, by Jorge Almazán, Joe McReynolds, and Naoki Saito, which describes many of the contingent historical factors and wise policy choices that interacted to create Tokyo as we know it today. For a briefer overview, read McReynolds (2022). Also read the famous Urban kchoze post on Japanese zoning, and Koo and Sasaki (2008) on why Japanese homes depreciate. And check out the recent Twitter thread by the urbanist San Francisco politician Bilal Mahmood.
Suffice it to say that the mix of policy and history that had to align to create Tokyo — World War 2 bombing and reconstruction, a centralized powerful bureaucracy, strong tenant protections, a strong family-owned small business sector, and various other factors — is probably not replicable anywhere outside Japan, or even in most cities in Japan. You can go to Tokyo, you can experience it, you can admire it and marvel at it, you can even learn some good lessons from it, but you cannot recreate it elsewhere.
There is only one Tokyo, like there is only one Paris.
That’s true in quantitative as well as qualitative terms; the sheer scale of Tokyo is unimaginable. With over 37 million people, it is the largest human city in existence, whether measured by “urban area” or “metropolitan area”. It is important to understand exactly what this means. The city of Tokyo proper is about half as dense as New York City — 6,169 people per square kilometer compared to 11,316. That is because the “population density” of a municipal area is counted as the number of people who sleep there, not the number of people who are there. Tokyo proper is less “dense” than New York proper because so many of the people who work and shop and hang out in Tokyo live outside the city’s statutory boundaries.
And why are so many Tokyoites able to live outside its official boundaries? Because of trains. Japan builds its cities around trains, and nowhere has as many of them as Tokyo. Here’s a map of just the central city:
And here is a map of the overall metro area, which looks like a piece of abstract art:
Trains in Tokyo come so frequently that you don’t really have to time your trips; most of the time you just show up at a station, and a train comes in a couple of minutes. For much of the day, the Yamanote loop line is almost a continuous circle of rolling stock.
Combine that incredible convenience with the fact that Japanese trains are quiet, comfortable, fast, and safe, and it’s easy to understand how so many people can commute from the suburbs into the central city and back again.
Trains are also one more reason that life in central Tokyo can feel like a dream. Any American who thinks cars are a source of freedom has never experienced the incredible feeling of liberation that comes from the Japanese train system. If you’re anywhere in the central city, you can walk a few blocks, find a station, and hop out just a few minutes from your destination, without ever worrying about traffic or accidents or where to park.
But ultimately it’s not the buildings or the trains that make a city; it’s the people. Tokyoites can be a bit more reserved than people elsewhere in Japan; the sheer size and bustle of the city necessitate a fast pace. But that’s a relative statement. Tokyo is part of Japan, and Japan is a country where store clerks will help you get where you’re going by taking out a piece of paper and drawing you a map and maybe walking half a block down the street with you. It’s also a much more socially egalitarian culture than we’re used to in the West, thanks to high inheritance taxes, copious public goods, and cultural factors too arcane to delve into right now.
In Tokyo, you can meet pretty much anybody — business execs, artists, professors, entrepreneurs, even gangsters if you want to. One great thing about a city as safe as Tokyo is that it’s not really dangerous to meet strangers. There’s a subtle sense of communality in Tokyo that exists in very few large cities. The shared spaces feel more shared.
Now, people may have told you that this undercurrent of togetherness is a product of racial and ethnic homogeneity; that Japan is a xenophobic country that keeps foreigners out; and that no matter how hard you try, Japanese people will never truly accept you. My very strong advice when talking to people who believe these things about Japan is: Please, please do not correct them. If they knew the truth they might actually go to Japan, making an already bad case of over-tourism even worse. Let them retain their illusions!
The rest of us, thankfully, know better. Japan opened itself up to immigration in the early 2010s, and the country is diversifying at a fairly rapid clip. That diversity is uneven; most of the country is still pretty homogeneous, because most of the foreigners go to Tokyo. The flip side of this is that Tokyo itself has very quickly become a truly diverse city. Here is a story that came out five years ago:
(And this 1 in 8 figure didn’t count racial minorities who are Japanese citizens, of whom there are a rapidly increasing number.)
Combine diversity with the tourism boom — which has returned with a vengeance since the end of the pandemic — and Tokyo has become a place where you hear every language of the globe spoken in the streets and shops and restaurants. In fact, if there is one thing that has gotten significantly worse about Tokyo over the last few years, it’s overcrowding due to the tourism; Tokyo is just so wonderful that everyone goes there. I can’t exactly blame them.
The immigration boom, among other things, has enriched Tokyo’s already excellent food culture immensely. The country is a culinary mecca; so many chefs have moved there that the country arguably has better Italian food than Italy itself. It has also enlivened the already world-class art, music, and fashion scenes — in my opinion, even above NYC. If you’re an artist or author or musician looking for where it’s at, in the past you would go to Paris, then to New York; now, increasingly, you will go to Tokyo. I predict that over the next two decades, trends and ideas will increasingly originate in Tokyo and spread to the rest of the world.
As for whether Japanese people themselves will accept you, the answer is that if you speak their language (which, if you live there, you absolutely should), Japanese people tend to be extremely warm, and it is not difficult to establish close friendships. Yes, if you repeatedly go around screaming racist things in people’s faces, you will eventually get what’s coming to you, but you’re not the kind of person who would do that, so you’re going to be just fine.
But to be honest, Tokyo is such a global city now that if you’re only there for a short time, you can easily get by just hanging out with the international crowd. When I went for the cherry season back in March, and wandered into random people’s picnics in the park (as one does in Tokyo), I found that many of them were AI researchers from around the globe who had come to work at Tokyo universities, and who were avidly discussing the topic of AGI risk. Some things, my friends, you simply cannot escape.
Tokyo is not the economic center of the world. It’s the financial hub of Japan, but it has not yet managed to be the financial center of Asia the way New York is for North America and London is for Europe. Hong Kong was that, and now the mantle will probably shift to Singapore Nor has Tokyo become a Silicon Valley-like hotbed of technological entrepreneurship. Instead, it has become something like what Paris was a century ago — the world’s most beautiful city, a floating place of dreams and culture and romance. The word has gotten out:
Which is not to say that Tokyo has no dark side. Like all of stagnating Japan, the city has a poverty rate that is startlingly high. Many Tokyoites live lives of quiet desperation, struggling quietly to make ends meet. The city’s boulevards glitter and its cafes are perfectly manicured, but many of its apartments are small and badly furnished. Meanwhile, those locals who do earn a decent income often have to endure far too much drudgery, in a stifling and antiquated corporate culture that leaves them little room for advancement or self-improvement. It’s wonderful to vacation in Tokyo, or to live there on an American salary; if you’re a local who’s trapped in the rat race, it’s less of an idyll.
But these are problems to be addressed at the national level. As a city, Tokyo has managed to ascend to become the world’s greatest city, even as the country around it moves sideways. It has improved itself relentlessly, outdoing itself every year in the beauty of its built environment, the efficiency of its planning, and the quality and diversity of culture and commerce.
If you have never seen this city for yourself, then there is a very deep sense in which you have not yet understood the full potential of what a human population center can become. Chances are high that you, like me, and like so many and like all of my friends who see Tokyo for the first time, will return to your home city realizing that it could be something more than it is now.