Tune in to Tokyo

Tokyo is smart. It’s positive. It’s built for the road ahead. So naturally, it makes the Detroiter in me completely queasy.

Like a lot of us here, I’m predisposed to always question if I should move or stick it out. I drink with other Detroiters at local watering holes and bemoan the fate of our state and city economy. Will it take 10 or 20 years for a turnaround? I look around my neighborhood in Midtown and wonder if I should buy or keep renting. If I buy a place, will I ever be able to sell it?

Different questions are asked in Tokyo. It’s been destroyed more than a few times. Its face has changed with war and earthquakes, its spirit challenged and on the brink of obliteration over and over again. But there’s never been a doubt as to whether it will come back or not. It just oh-so-gracefully always does. But why? How does the city keep attracting wide-eyed young people with massive dreams? How does it cater to families and children with a high quality of living? How did it become a place where you can go from moppet to mother to grandmother without ever wanting to call somewhere else home?

Here are a few answers I found on my latest trip to Japan, where I lived for six years, including two years in Tokyo. I couldn't help but think of how some of the answers could be applied to questions we are asking in Detroit. 

Greenery at bus stops

How much more simple could that be? Let residents know: Here is a nice little place you can wait before the bus gets there. And hey, there’s a map built right into the bus stop that tells you where the bus will stop, and more importantly, where it won’t. While subways and trains are the cornerstone of Tokyo transportation life, the bus system is immaculate, it’s got GAP ads, and you always know where one stops. Just look for the green.    

The corner police box

The koban (police box) thing isn’t a new conversation. But it does become an incredibly old conversation when we’re not seeing police boxes on every corner of every street on the planet. Having police easily accessible on the street 24/7 is one of the things that makes an urban megalopolis like Tokyo a safe space for people to spend money, have fun, live and work. It makes police the eyes and ears of the city center. It allows them to get to know the neighbors. Just imagine how even a few of these police boxes downtown or in Midtown could change people’s attitudes about how to spend their money and where to call home in Detroit.

Weekend pedestrian traffic

Ginza, Tokyo’s old-school shopping district, is closed to car traffic on weekends. Saturdays and Sundays, there are tables and chairs in the middle of the street where folks can hang out, have a bevvie, and chill from all their walking and shopping. Closing streets off to traffic also lightens up the lungs by giving people a fume-free space where they always have the right of way. Wouldn’t that be kind of a natural thing to start in Eastern Market on Saturdays? Close Russell Street down once a week so we can experience the smells and sights, not the chorus of idling engines stalking shoppers for that coveted space by stall 9.

Waterfront entertainment districts

Ten years ago, Odaiba Kaihin Koen, was a landfill in Tokyo Bay that was home to a few apartment buildings and one convenience store. Today, Odaiba is a massive tourist destination with luxury hotels, entertainment venues, shopping, even more housing, a television studio, restaurants galore, and, yes, a beach. It’s also the top romantic spot for Tokyoites on Christmas Eve—the most popular date night of the year in Japan. Seems like we already have this kind of setup taking shape downtown, no? Maybe it would be a good time to really think about what—besides a body of water and a few summer festivals—will actually draw people in to spend money in ways they can’t anywhere else in the state. We managed to make DTW more than just an airport, so can’t we try making the riverfront more than just a place to score elephant ears once a year?

Thriving service/hospitality industry

It’s no secret that Japanese hospitality is some of the best in the world. It’s also the hardest hospitality in the world to explain. It’s so good, you don’t really realize it’s happening at the moment it’s happening. So I’ll just have to offer you an example. After 13 hours on a plane from Japan, I walked into the immigration area at Detroit Metro and asked a smiling airline rep where I might find a pen to fill out my customs forms. “You know, I don’t know,” she told me, quite cheerfully and walked away. Now, earlier in the day, I’d witnessed an airline rep at Narita airport chase down a traveler who’d simply forgotten his lunch after filling out his customs paperwork. “You left your lunch, sir,” he beamed, bag in hand. I’m not saying we aren’t capable and friendly here. Our follow-through could use a little work, though.

The all-inclusive mega-destination

Now, this is a tougher idea to get a hold of. And honestly, some of you might shriek and start throwing food at the notion of a brand-new, kinda trendy and modern one-stop destination where tourists and residents alike can enjoy a great hotel, entertainment, shopping, food, even an art museum or two. Tokyo is full of these types of destination spots. And guess what? They are packed. New on the scene are Roppongi Hills and Tokyo Midtown. They are so totally built for spending sprees and other enjoyments that the place is all smiles. In Detroit, well yeah, we have the RenCen. But when’s the last time you actually bought something or ate there? (Unless you work there, of course.) We’ve got the land. We sure know we have the parking. So why couldn’t we conceive of a Detroit Midtown or a Foxtown Hills with retail, eats, fun and, hey, a place to stay overnight when you do? It’s not meant to crush the little guy in the little shops about town, it’s meant to help bring in more smiling, happy people who are ready to throw down for the day.

Visual proficiency

Cultural critic, writer and Tokyo fanboy, Marxy of neojaponisme.com, manages to hit the nail on the head with ease. Japan’s strengths, as he sees them, are: excellent transportation, healthy food, public civility, product diversity, and…visual proficiency. Bingo! When you look up, when you look down, in Tokyo everything makes perfect visual sense. Buildings surprise. Car design makes eyes tingle. Food is droolworthy and cute. Even signs for chiropractic clinics could make the pages of a design annual. As I look out of the 15th floor of the RenCen onto the old skyscrapers of downtown, I get the same feeling. When I have coffee at  the Rowland Cafe in the Guardian Building and look up, there it is again. But when I see these flashy-yet-uninspired casino buildings dotting our skyline, I’m just plain sad. The world’s leading architects and designers and visionaries used to see Detroit as a playground. Please, please, puh-leaze invite them back.

Good old-fashioned positivity
In Tokyo, people are having positive conversations with other people—all the freaking time. You may remember these types of chat. They’re the kind that make you feel good about where you live, who lives there with you, and what your time and effort are helping to accomplish every single day. Who knows what a little dose of communal positivity could wield. Who knows what kind of place this would become if we ditched our infamous nega-vibe and stopped blaming that nameless, faceless “them” for every single thing that goes wrong. Who knows what would happen if we built for the future and got rid of the present stream of mini-facelifts that already have a look of shaky impermanence about them.


Who knows?

Frequent flyer Jennifer Andrews is a regular contributor to Model D.


Tokyo Photographs Courtesy Jennifer Andrews

Riverwalk and Rowland Cafe Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

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