Tokyo makes me question some of my assumptions, my likes and dislikes. At home, I’d avoid malls and railway concourses as impersonal, artificial; here, where the smog is often so heavy that people go about in masks, malls are clean, controlled spaces. Often we choose this second city, stacked storey upon storey or in mazes underground, over the streets and the open air. At home, with our Anglo anxieties about authenticity and appropriation, I look askance at any business that adopts the style of another culture too cheerily, as both cheesy and suspect, like a restaurant in a food court. Here, different cultures are a dress-up box for people and businesses to rummage in, guilt-free; you might see a shop selling British business attire, all ties and vests and dark wood panelling, next to a perfect replica of a Vietnamese alley or a Spanish cervecería, next to a shop selling pictures of cats superimposed on The Scream and Girl with a Pearl Earring and other canonical works of Western art, and the variety, the sheer visual density, is dazzling. Here, style is not the essence of a culture but its external, and the Japanese show respect for their borrowings with the exactness with which they reproduce them. Here I find myself responding to the artificial and the inauthentic, to spaces intended to sell things. I find myself genuinely moved in department store food halls, like Dorothy overwhelmed by the warehouse of treasures in Return to Oz. It makes me question my categories.

For a city of fourteen million people, Tokyo is surprisingly serene. Partly it’s how densely the city is built – the buildings soak up the sound, so that a block or two back from the main roads there is almost perfect quiet, only the people of the neighbourhood going about their business. Partly it’s the Japanese genius for compartmentalisation, so that by concentrating on a small plot of garden, or stepping through the curtains at the entrance to a restaurant, the urban vastness seems to disappear. Everywhere we pass small gardens created in the space available – pots in a line along a narrow kerb, or sudden splashes of orange and yellow on someone’s wall. In a place where it’s impossible to comprehend the whole, there’s a special pleasure in the details. They’re a reminder that cities are about people; they help you get your bearings. I expected a hyper-modern city, precise grids and glass towers, but Tokyo is more like London than Hong Kong. There are towers, of course, but the bulk of the neighbourhood buildings are on a more human scale, and the local streets are wonderfully wayward, twisting and dividing like tendrils. It’s a terrific place to be a pedestrian. You don’t often see cars away from the main roads; the subway reaches everywhere and to own a car you must first have a place to park it (not a given). The city’s quiet sense of activity (and the host of good shops we’ve found in backstreets) comes from this steady, companionable flow of people on foot and on bicycle. It’s how most people get around. Australian cities seem like half-measures by comparison, yoked to the car, wilful refusals to think through the possibilities of many people living together. (The Australians here stick out like cockatoos, large and squawking and white.)

The only thing missing is nature. The trees lining the streets are pruned so tightly that they’re more sculpture than plant, telegraph poles with a garnish of leaves. The only birds here in any numbers are the jungle crows picking through the trash in Yoyogi Park. (They’re wonderful, obnoxious creatures, whether hulking their powerful shoulders at passing humans or flying past with improbably large scraps of food in their beaks.) Some days are cleaner than others, but the smog is a constant, a taste in your mouth and a layer of grime to wash off at day’s end. My snot has taken on a perverse fascination, like an especially disgusting species of amphibian. When we looked down on the city from Mount Mitake, ninety minutes away, the buildings seemed etched into the white mass of pollution, like a frieze. By our second week here, we were leaving the city every second day in search of something that did not feel manmade: the strong clean wind from the bay in Yokohama, the circling hawks and the hills crowded with trees in Kamakura, the mountains around Mitake. Nature and space are such a central part of the Australian experience; here they’re rare enough that they’re powerful in a different way. In front of the Imperial Palace, facing the business district of Marunouchi, there’s a huge expanse of gravel, then a small forest of those checked, sculptural trees, and then, in the background, the modern towers of the business district. From that perspective, the buildings seem like a natural outgrowth of the landscape, another kind of forest.

Tokyo constantly raises these questions of what is natural and what is artificial. By necessity in a city that was largely destroyed twice in the last century, once by the Great Kantō earthquake in 1923 and then again by American bombing in WWII, many of its monuments are modern rebuilds, history in replica. Part of the impression made by something like the Daibatsu – an enormous Buddha dating from the thirteenth century – in Kamakura is precisely its age, the fact that it’s survived in the same spot for almost a millennium, through tsunamis and earthquakes that destroyed everything around it. The Buddha’s serene expression has been tested, and he has not been moved. But the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo and its approaches through a series of enormous wooden gates is equally impressive, and it was rebuilt in the 1950s. It is not the particular building that counts – that particular collection of wood and stone and copper – but rather how well it expresses its tradition. The living traditions here – whether Buddhist or Shinto – do not get stuck in old landmarks but carry on in the present tense, in new iterations. In a similar way, a restaurant can reproduce an old aesthetic of timber and lanterns while opposite a Lawson convenience store sheds its blank fluorescent light on the alley. Both buildings are contemporary; both are authentic examples of Japanese life. The essence of this city is multiplicity. It makes me a little nervous about Kyoto, our next stop, the old seat of the emperor and the centre of traditional Japanese culture. I wonder if it will reflect the openness of a culture that welcomed influences from Korea and China – Buddhism, Confucianism, writing and much else – and much later sent emissaries abroad to bring back the best the world had to offer. Will it have something of the dynamism of Tokyo, sparked by the coexistence of so many traditions, the old and the new? Or will it be a sort of open-air museum, its exhibits’ main claim on our attention simply that they are old? In Tokyo I’ve learned to love the replica.