Independent reporting on human rights, environmental and conflict issues

Good Morning Tokyo

© Anne Holmes

Ohayo, Nippon. You are the favored contender in the competition with India for the country with the most contradictions. Your taxis have doors that open automatically, your toilets wash and dry your parts, your 7 elevens sell iPods, and your cars talk, but I can’t find an ATM that takes my cash card, I can’t pay for my train ticket with a credit card, and I can’t buy a cell phone that works anywhere outside the archipelago of your volcanic territories. I’m miffed. It used to be that you could find anything under the sun in Tokyo with the exception of one thing: homeless people. Now the embankments of your rivers are dotted with makeshift housing, tents, and laundry drying in the wind. Old men brush their teeth in the parks. You can hear the sad shuffle of their unemployed feet as you walk by with your head down. It’s a sign of the times.

Within the first hour of my arrival, Masa, Yumiko’s brother-in-law, asked me “do you know what the interest rate in Japan is?”…”Zero.” Then he laughed. Terrible things are funny in Japan. I once told my friend Yumiko that the woman who was taking care of my grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s disease, was beating her, and she nearly fell on the floor laughing. Japanese people quite commonly make a note of things you’d rather pretend don’t exist. They will come right up to you and point to the big zit on your nose and say “nikibi!” Yumi’s mother asked me if I cut my own hair the other day, and when I told her, yes, she said, “I can tell.” I know already not to be slighted. It just strikes me as rather peculiar coming from a people who are renowned for their complex and extensive book of social mores, and for how easily they are offended but how rarely they will tell you. Another contradiction ticked.

I finally made it to the land of the rising sun (and heated toilet seats), my original destination, the country with the highest life expectancy, and, the highest rate of suicide. I wondered if the latter contributes to the former statistic when I rode the subway lines in the evening and watched the passengers all nod off, their heads bobbing like fresh corpses on a conveyor belt. I wondered if their dreams are made of manga, if the men really buy dirty women’s underwear from vending machines, if the hierarchical structure of the Japanese corporation carries over into the enterprise of their private lives…what do they see in the morning when they stand in front of the mirror? Do they notice themselves?

I’m dreaming my Tokyo dream now. I see an endless lattice-like configuration. It’s the machine we all belong to, and no one questions its authority, not even me. I’m lost in it but I’m not alone. We’re all lost. I’m in silence amid the turbulence of city life. It’s passing me by. I can’t hear. I can’t smell. I can only see people moving in shafts of grey and washed-out blues. I stand amid a rushing crowd and catch a falling feather, and no one notices, nor that it’s made of gold. Maybe I can fly. Maybe I can hear the collective breath of millions of people inside the darkness of my mind. Am I really here? If I scream will someone wakeup? I’m standing still now. Everyone is flying past me, and when the last person is erased from the pages of my dream, there is a man standing across the street. He is waiting. He is dressed in an elegant sap green suit with a bone-colored silk tie. He looks contented. He sees me and he smiles. It’s Tochigi San.

I have to admit, I’m one of the luckiest people I know. I have friends in Japan, and one of them is Yumiko, whose father happens to be one of the most generous, gracious and honest men I have ever met. My first day in Tokyo, Tochigi San took me on a full scale, whirlwind tour of the city, which I imagined only a diplomat could brag about. I met him at the Ueno metro station and we went for lunch in a typical Tokyo tempura restaurant. He sat across from me and watched intently as I took my first bite. I felt nervous. “Perfect,” he said. “Sorry?” “Your chopsticks. Perfect.” He handed me a pile of maps and tourist information on Tokyo and showed me the route we were to take for the day. After lunch, we went to Ueno Park for a walk to the National Museum. It was Monday and it was closed, but he wanted to show me where it was so I would have no trouble finding it the next day. Then we took a taxi to Asukasa, the old city, to visit a temple. “Please, if you want to look in the shops….” “Ah, arigato, but that won’t be necessary.” Anyway, I knew he had the day planned on a tight schedule. I could tell by the way he inconspicuously checked his watch, and by the pace at which he walked.

When I was done having a look at the temple, he took me on a boat ride down the main river, from where he pointed out all the homeless people, something I had not expected, as it has often been noted that the Japanese like to pretend their country is perfect. The scenery along the river seemed like an endless landscape of towers, most of which struck me as rather communist in appearance, though there were certainly some fine examples of modern architecture which stood out, more for their intelligent design and utilitarian qualities than their aesthetic, however. When we got off the boat, we took a brisk walk to Tokyo Tower where we met his friend, Kawawa, and I was given a ticket to go to the top by myself. I gazed out in awe at the massive expanse of Tokyo, a rare blend of skyscrapers, ancient temples, and parks. I couldn’t help calling to mind Amelie Notomb’s habit, as recounted in Stupeur et Tremblements, of staring down from the 41st floor of her office building and doing what she called “throwing herself into the void,” a sort of mock suicide to pass the time as she waited for the elevator.

When I returned to the surface of the earth, I found Tochigi San and Kawawa San sitting on a bench, smiling like little boys, apparently from the delicious ice cream they enjoyed while I made a visit to the sky. We went for a quick jaunt to the royal palace, and then on to Ginza, the 5th Avenue of Tokyo, for a fancy sushi dinner. We were ushered into a dimly lit annexed room with low tables over sunken pits, and everything was ordered for me. First a round of beer, then the sake arrived. Plate after plate of sushi and sashimi came, so beautifully presented I was afraid to eat it. We all got drunk on sake and I felt like a Geisha entertaining two Japanese businessmen, listening to them roar with approving laughter at my meager attempts at Japanese. Yumi’s father wanted to stuff me to the brim and kept ordering food even though I had long since said I was full, and there was still plenty of sashimi. “Would you eat some fried fish?” “Oh arigato, I’m, I’m not hungry anymore. Thank you.” But he wouldn’t take no for an answer.

He seemed almost more delighted to be treating me to this day of sightseeing and culinary indulgence than I was to be living the dream, which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy myself in the least. It’s only that Tochigi San seems to embody the ultimate form of Japanese hospitality. Not once did I ever have to ask for something. Not once did I even have an opportunity to offer to pay for anything. Kawawa San and Tochigi San entertained me with conversation as if I were a cultural emissary from their most admired country. I can’t remember a time when I was more honored as a guest anywhere, ever. To make matters even more surreal, Tochigi San informed me that he had made a reservation for me for the following weekend for 5 days at a luxury hotel in the mountains of Tochigi prefecture, his native country, at a hot spring resort. “My present for you, for take care of my daughter.” I didn’t know what to say. What can one do in Japan besides bow and utter the few courteous words I know…”Domo arigato…domo arigato”?

Five years ago, Yumiko came to Chicago to study English. She answered an ad I had placed looking for a roommate and came to live with me for 9 months, just enough time to give birth to my Japanese obsession. She could hardly speak a word of English, but I found her manner delightful. I spent a lot of time with her, sometimes helping her with her English lessons, taking her out with me, but mostly, sharing music and observing with ever-growing fascination, her way of doing things. I think Yumi is strange, even by Japanese standards, and back then I deemed her an original, a rare find, and I adored her instantly. She hasn’t changed, she’s still from another planet, and my time with her in Japan so far has been full of surprises.

My first impressions of Tokyo were not at all what I expected. I imagined a city something like New York, full of hustle and bustle everywhere, never a quiet moment, flashing lights abounding, outrageous fashion, grit and glitz holding hands. But instead, I found something I cannot quite wrap my head around. About 127 million people are packed into the approximate square mileage of California, that’s roughly half the population of the United States, and on any given day, some 25 million of them are in Tokyo. But for the most part, the streets were quiet, the parks were peaceful, and the people were dressed in chic, conservative, business attire. It seemed at times, almost like an abandoned city. I don’t think I ever heard anyone even honk their horn, and the streets were so clean it looked as though someone had scrubbed them with a toothbrush. It was only in the trendy shopping neighborhoods of Rappongi and Shibuya that I got doused in the unmistakable fashion and velocity of Tokyo.

I spent the rest of the week walking among the many gardens in Tokyo and visiting the silent, nearly empty, museums that boast some of the finest works of art on the planet. I could feel a sort of tranquility set in as I walked the halls of the National Museum, listening to the sound of my heels on the floor and staring endlessly at so many of the paintings and sculptures I had fallen in love with in my art history books. Nevertheless, there is the pulse, the beat, which, though you may not hear it, though you may not feel it charging, injecting, pumps energy at the speed of light. I was so stressed out after one week in Tokyo that I had three consecutive days of migraines.

Yumiko actually lives in Chiba, a neighboring city about 15 minutes by Shinkansen (fast train) from Tokyo, to which she travels daily for work. She launched her own record label, Trident Style, about four years ago and has an office in Ueno. She’s only 25. In a bizarre twist of fate, she sent me to stay with one of her employees in his apartment in Tokyo proper for two days while she entertained the CEO of her parent company. She told me that Kandai had an apartment in town that he never used, she didn’t know why, she said, and I could stay there for two nights. My own flat in Tokyo! It sounded too good to be true.

I met Kandai at the office in the evening and he took me for a sushi dinner at a traditional sake bar. On our way there, I asked him why he didn’t stay in his apartment. “Heeeeeaa? I stay there,” said he. “Ah so,” said I. “But Yumi told me you didn’t.” “Ah, this is kind of Japanese joke.” I could already sense we don’t have the same sense of humor. “Don’t worry, there are 2 beds.” I didn’t have much choice, but in the end, despite my discomfort with the situation, for there were not two beds, but rather one bed and a very narrow, very uncomfortable plastic couch, which we took turns (not) sleeping on, anyway, it was definitely an insider’s look into what the average 20-something employee lives like in Tokyo.

Kandai works 7 days a week, but he loves his job, he does. Trident Style is a small company that promotes European artists, mostly very young females, who sing pop tunes in English. It is his dream to make a hit CD and if all goes according to plan, it may very well happen for them all this summer. On our way to his place, Kandai asked me if I would like to go to the convenience shop, to which I replied yes, because I sensed this was not a question, but rather he was telling me that I wanted to go there, right? He pointed to a 7 eleven and said, “Please wait here, I have to clean. Please wait. So sorry.”

Kandai’s apartment is more like a pod, actually. It’s one room, big enough for a bed, a television and a couch. There is a kitchenette to your left as you enter and on your right is the bathroom, which is about the size of an airplane toilette. I slid open the door and found only a sink, and just enough space to stand and have a shower. “Sorry, where is the toilet, please?” Kandai grabbed the sink and pulled it toward him. It swiveled around and revealed a toilet beneath it, and under the sink was the toilet paper dispenser so as to prevent it from getting wet when you take a shower. The apartment was in complete mayhem. I figured “clean” meant, “hide my porno,” when I looked around. There was hardly a place to put my feet, dirty clothes everywhere, and it smelled like he had been smoking in it without ever opening the window for the last 3 years, which, he has. It was such a stark contrast to the red carpet I had been walking on all week, I had to laugh at the absurdity of it.

When I returned to Yumiko’s condo, she informed me that I was being banished. “My Daddy wants to know how long you will stay in Japan, because he says you have to find another place to live on June 3rd,” which I think translates to something like: my boyfriend wants to come stay with me and I am too embarrassed to tell you that I want some privacy, so let’s just pretend it’s my father’s decree. But Tochigi San came to the rescue as always. He has a friend in Ashikaga, who happens to have an empty apartment there, who will let me stay there if I paint a portrait of him. So it looks like after I go luxuriate in a hotspring resort in the mountains for five days, I will be employed as a portrait artist in a small town in Tochigi prefecture where the oldest university still stands and the speed of Tokyo is far, far away.

Addendum: No one told me it was going to be freezing and rainy in Tokyo so I had to go shopping for a sweater. I purchased one from a store called Swordfish. Attached was a card which read:

Cool People with / The sence of / Mismatch who can / Enjoy mixed taste / And stylish joke / We wish those people / To select our / SWORDFISH.

That’s on-line Japanese English dictionaries for you.


One Response to “Good Morning Tokyo”

  1. Can’t wait till your next blog!

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