It is said that the Japanese have a great sense of beauty, but no sense of ugliness. I pondered this as I took the airport train to Tokyo, a brief stopover on my way to New Zealand. From the window I could see a hotchpotch of houses, some elegant and well designed, others less so. There seemed to be no planning oversight, just houses built to individual taste and specification. The result was concrete blocks with rusty fire escapes, thick ugly cables running separately to each house, and garish adverts pasted to the sides of buildings. But every so often there was a glimpse of a house with a carefully tended garden, or a graceful pagoda rising above the skyline.  

Tokyo’s Parks and Gardens

It was not long before the other side of Tokyo revealed itself, the side where every effort has been made to please the eye. This is a city of parks and gardens, with sculpted landscapes of bridges, lakes and flowering plants.    

Shinjuku National Garden, Tokyo
The landscaped grounds of the Shinjuku National Garden

We walked around Ueno park at sunset, where trees and other features were festooned with coloured lights. The ornamental lake was filled with plants, sadly dormant at this time of year, but they would become a riot of colour in spring and summer. And the path was lined with illuminated lanterns, each with an individual design to light the way of passers-by.    

Japanese lanterns
The path was lined with illuminated lanterns
Illuminated Japanese lantern
Each lantern had its own individual design

Art and Food in Tokyo

In the National Museum of Modern Art we admired an eclectic selection of modern paintings, but my eye was drawn to the more traditional woodblocks and painted screens. Here were delicate pictures of birds, mountains and cherry blossom: timeless expressions of perfection.  

Japanese landscape painting
Traditional Japanese landscape
Japanese painted screen
Painted screen with cherry blossom

Then there is the food. Delicately laid out platters of sushi with flowers carved from vegetables, or plates of meat and noodles, each element of the meal carefully positioned to create an aesthetic whole. And one evening our Kirin beer arrived topped with a sculped head of granita. You don’t get that anywhere else!    

Japanese beer
The beer arrived with a sculpted head!

It may be true that Tokyo is a fast moving modern city full of cars and mismatched buildings. But you don’t have to look hard to find the careful design, both modern and traditional, that makes it a city of beauty.  

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