For a week I was in Japan – or was it six days? I count back on my fingers to try and piece together the chronology of a trip that even now, only a couple of weeks later, is something of a blur. It is okay, I tell myself. Just try and write it up, and you will find the through line; you will be able to chart a clear path through your notes and make sense of all the sights and sensations of those six days… but it has not worked like that, so we will go this way instead: fragments of a city to which I cannot wait to return…
On the Narita Express, taking us from the airport into Tokyo Station… a first (real) glimpse of Japan through the smudged train windows. Single family houses. Fields. Kids playing football. Big box stores on the edge of town. And then: back gardens, and plant pots piled beneath air conditioning units. A single plastic chair. The houses seem to be on top of each other, the gaps between them not more than the reach of a tall man. What makes all this Japanese? The shape of the roofs? The script on the billboards? Or simply the knowledge that out the window is a place apart from what we are used to?… expectation already colouring experience.
We have left that nameless town behind, and now the train travels along a raised embankment above barren looking fields. Smoke rises from where a man burns off the scrub. Solitary dog walkers follow their charges along raised paths. A young man manoeuvres his scooter down from the road and onto a dirt track. The colours are muted, the sky grey. Everything seems dulled, like an early spring day in Brandenburg, after the snow is melted.
And then: Tokyo Station. People, lots of people. Trying to make sense of the signage. Which way is OUT? You cannot follow the tide, as it moves in all directions at once. The next day I come back, to explore the labyrinth beneath the railway tracks, the Ramen Street of noodle restaurants behind curtains, the Character Street of shops each devoted to some kind of brightly coloured cartoon or comic… it is like walking through the imagination of a six year old hopped up on E numbers.
To escape I push aside the curtain of a restaurant and sit down. Of course I cannot read the menu. You knew that was coming. But they have pictures, and it is all going swimmingly until the lady asks me a question. I look at her, blank. She asks again. I shrug, apologetically. She repeats it, a third time. The businessman sitting next to me takes a break from slurping from his bowl. “She wants to know if you want the noodles hot, or cold,” he says with a smile. “Oh….” I reply, and tell her I want them hot. We do not speak again until he has finished his meal, a lunch on the run. “Enjoy your time in Japan,” he tells me as he leaves, and I turn back to my noodles.
At Ueno Park we walk alongside the pond, filled with reeds. On the street we had passed the Tokyo of the popular imagination, the arcade halls and love hotels, a karaoke bar and billboards flashing incomprehensible messages at the thousands of pedestrians on the street, but here all is calm. A man sits by the water and reads his newspaper, whilst a young family throw scraps to the ducks. It is winter but the sun has come out, and like in Berlin it is clear people are enjoying the unseasonable warmth when it presents itself.
But here and there, under the trees, are the signs of another Tokyo. Piles of boxes and plastic-wrapped bags, usually strapped to some kind of wheeled contraption. These are the belongings of Tokyo’s homeless, who are right now out somewhere in the city, but will return to the park after dark, when it turns from the venue for family strolls and a lunchtime rest to an open air dormitory to those left behind. People talk about Japan’s “lost decade” of economic stagnation, and these are the belongings of some of those who have borne the brunt.
I want to go for a run, so I head to the Imperial Palace, right in the centre of town. The route around the grounds is marked with a trail, five kilometres in all, in which you run with the calm water of the moat and the trees that hide the palace on one side, and eight lanes of Tokyo traffic on the other. The first couple of times I run I have the route to myself, but then on Sunday morning I realise I am joining a conveyor belt of joggers. Everyone is running anticlockwise, apart from a couple of rebels. I like to think of this as a metaphor for Japan itself, but who am I kidding? I have only been here a couple of days…
Instead I keep running, attempting to keep pace with the skinny young woman in front of me, her ponytail swish-swish-swishing in time. As we reach the top of a slight incline she slows and stops, and I realise she is running with an iPad in her hand, firmly grasped by fingers sporting technicolour nails. I smile as I pass but she ignores me, and then I am passed by a posse of schoolkids, all in a kind of gym uniform, laughing and joking with each other as they go.
With a friend I eat one of the greatest meals of my life. Down a side street in Shibuya, another restaurant behind the curtain. Here we put ourselves in the hands of the sushi master behind the counter, and over two, three hours we drink beer and eat perfectly crafted creations of fish and rice. Once we are finished I ask my friend to tell the chef how much I enjoyed it. “He is very happy to hear that,” I receive in return, and a gentle smile as he cleans his knife and I wave my thanks.
Words & Pictures: Paul Scraton