He Said/She Said: Tokyo Turns Off

He Said/She Said: Tokyo Turns Off

After watching the extraordinary Symphony of Lights we headed north to Tokyo, where the spectacle of lights is unsurpassed.  “Like Times Square times ten,” many people had said.  When we arrived though, the city was dark.

The skyscrapers of Tokyo without lights.


I was completely disappointed, probably more than at any point in the trip.  I didn’t even want to take a picture, though I now realize how unique it would have been.  I sulked like a child and just wanted go to bed.  It was the end of our last day in Tokyo and we had made the trip out to see the Ginza lights, apparently the stores, lighted billboards and displays made Ginza bright as day, brighter than Times Square in New York City.  There were no such lights, the stores were closed, ads dark and streets deserted.

I had previously noticed that the skyscrapers of Tokyo lacked lumination at night, they all were immense black silhouettes.  Without the red lights to warn aircraft, the buildings would be invisible in the dark night sky.  I was surprised, I expected hustle-and-bustle, bright lights and loud noise throughout Tokyo.  Instead I saw crowds of thousands of people making less noise than the wind through the trees.  The silence, lack of haste and darkness at night surprised me.  I was led to believe this was how Tokyo was, quiet, but then I was explained what had happened.

Obviously I knew of the devastating earthquake and tsunami.  I knew of the resulting nuclear disaster that is still unfolding.  I just hadn’t connected those events to what I was experiencing: Tokyo on mute.  The lights had been turned off to conserve energy.

What happened was a true calamity…and this was the most prepared and capable country to deal with it.  Yet no matter how prepared they were, how many contingency plans they made, the reality was worse than anyone would plan for.  This happened and everyone in Tokyo knows, it is not a matter of if, but when their big earthquake will come.  They are overdue for the “big one” of their own.

I felt selfish wishing for the lights.  I felt even worse at how let down I was considering what had happened.  Japan will never know exactly how many people died, with entire families being swept to sea, yet I wanted a spectacle of lights.  I knew it was unreasonable, I knew that this is better for the environment as a whole…does anyone really argue that lighting up Ginza helps the environment?  No matter, sometimes expectations overpower reasonableness.


When I visited Tokyo in 2006 one of the highlights of my trip were the bright lights of Ginza.  Not only did Ginza fulfill my expectations for Tokyo as an advanced metropolis, but it made for great eye candy.  So when I went back to Japan this time around I was excited to see the Times Square on steroids light show as well as enjoy the hustle and bustle of one of the biggest cities in the world.  I had talked up Tokyo so much to thinkCHUA he also couldn’t wait for the lights and the crowds.

However, once I arrived in Tokyo I instantly found it quieter, calmer and much less crowded than I remember.  In short it lacked the WOW factor I had loved about it just five years earlier.  It was still impressive with lightening fast trains, streets so clean you could eat off of them and futuristic toilets, but the city was more placid.  I understand that we arrived just three short months after the earthquake and tsunami, but somehow I expected that Tokyo would still be operating at full speed.

The biggest shock came when we went to Ginza to see the famously garish lights only to find that the entire area was eerily dark and almost silent.  Since the tsunami they had turned the lights off in Ginza indefinitely.  I was momentarily disappointed, but having seen the lights before I knew it was for the better that they had been turned off.  I felt awful for having talked up the lights to thinkCHUA, who was devastated that the lights famed to be ten times brighter than Times Square were not on.

Formerly brighter than Times Square, Ginza is now dark.

I immediately thought of how much better the no-lights-Ginza was for the environment and can only imagine how much precious energy it saves keeping them off.  In fact I started to feel guilty about being so excited to see the lights in the first place. Most of all seeing the lights off in Ginza was an impressive show of Japan’s ability to take action in the face of adversity.  Rolling blackouts and limited use of even personal electronics makes me feel confident that Japan will once again retain their WOW factor for future generations of wide-eyed visitors.

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About the Author

thinkCHUA: Photographing and documenting the world on a 3 year round-the-world trip to help future travelers discover new places, travel longer and enjoy the world's great experiences.

About the Author
thinkCHUA: Photographing and documenting the world on a 3 year round-the-world trip to help future travelers discover new places, travel longer and enjoy the world's great experiences.


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