Impressions of Tokyo

Posted: May 24, 2013 in Popular Culture et al
Tags: , , , , , , ,

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I am what you might call a reluctant traveller.

Having traversed much of the known world, finally emigrating to the Antipodes almost on a whim, I never really expected to become so, but I have morphed, in that awful era in our lives euphemistically termed “middle age” (which should more accurately, of course, be characterised as “think like a 25 year old, while carting around a body that appears increasingly to be yearning to be 75”) into something akin to a homebody.

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I harbour my securities like guilty pleasures, and shamefacedly admit that I now avariciously guard my creature comforts – a chair whose vagaries I understand, knowing where to find a clean shirt, and the reliable, comforting unchanging view of trees with their attendant squawking wattle birds from my living room.

Where once I slept standing up on a train from Biarritz to Ventimiglia overnight – not to mention using a camping gas outfit to make tea at 2am, to the great amusement of the French on the train, who, preconceptions of the British gloriously confirmed, offered to keep an eye open down the carriage for the Controlleur who would not have appreciated our culinary madness – now I find I worry overmuch about the thread count on the sheets on a bed which must never be less than king size, and preferably of a hotel chain’s special design to waft me off to uninterrupted sleep in seconds or less.

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Unreliable air conditioning can throw me into a frenzy of self pity, where once I slept on the metal luggage racks of stations in 100 degree heat, grateful just for the chance of some shut eye, and contented myself with dreams of the blue, cool Mediterranean just waiting to be plunged into the next day, or the day after that, depending on when the Italian train service, grown reassuringly less efficient since Mussolini, planned to deliver us to her welcome watery embrace.

Sometimes, though, without warning, the wanderlust of old rears its head, whether or not I generate said rearing spontaneously or whether, as in this case, Mrs Wellthisiswhatithink fixes one with a beady eye and insists “It is time you had a holiday.” Which translates, of course, as “It is time I had a holiday, a real one, with planes and ice tea and weird food and more planes, and some trains, and museums and hotels and cathedrals and such, and if you’re not coming I am bloody going anyway …” and even your most habitual homebody, Dear Reader, knows that he has been given his marching orders.

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Which is how, making the most of the opportunity to break the interminably long trip to Europe, your dutiful correspondent finds himself exploring Tokyo for the first time, and perhaps equally surprisingly finds himself entranced by the experience.

I have loved the last 36 hours. Most of all, I must commend the people we have encountered. It is a cultural stereotype, of course, to mention the famed courtesy of Asian people in general and Japanese people in particular, but it is famed for a reason. Everyone is unfailingly pleasant and cheerful, especially when confronted with the embarrassing but oh-so-typical fact that the entire gamut of our Japanese runs to Good morning, Thank you, and Two Beers Please. A worried expression brings forth immediate bowing, smiling, giggling and pointing at maps and up and down streets, and increasingly, frantic tapping on Google maps on the ubiquitous smart phones. Teenagers here are no different to teenagers anywhere, entirely without guile: when a tiny commuter bus passes us the girls in the back in their sailor uniforms point and giggle at the big white devil on the sidewalk. (In China they have actually asked to poke me in the belly to see if it’s hard or soft. Awkward.) Here I greet their amused curiosity with a solemn bow to the waist, and then a smile. They wave and shout enthusiastically, full of good humour. What I didn’t expect was for the rest of the bus full of company men to join in as well. In one silly incident the barriers of age, culture and history vanish as if they never existed.

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Our hotel room is laughably small. If swinging a cat, one would have to first quarter the cat, and retract one’s arms. But it is spotlessly clean and perfectly comfortable, so long as you don’t mind the fact that the entire bathroom, vanity and bath area would challenge a small hobbit to turn around, and that there is nowhere to store ones bags except on the only available floor space in the bedroom, which makes moving from the bed, once on it, practically impossible. It is so small that the only acceptable response is to laugh readily and often, which is the reaction we chose, and to drink a little too much of the very tolerable whisky we bought from the supermarket next door for ten bucks a bottle.

We have chosen to stay, deliberately, in an older part of Tokyo, away from the brightest of the bright lights, although we will probably employ the awesomely efficient metro system to go glance at those sometime. Instead, we are wandering around a rabbit warren of homes, tiny restaurants and small workshops, fascinated by the scenes around every corner.

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What is very obvious is that every property, virtually, post-dates 1945. It is easy to forget that Tokyo suffered more complete damage than even Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the result of a series of night bomber raids using incendiaries that was born as much of a desire to punish the Japanese as it had any strategic military purpose. That such a vast city has reinvented itself is a testament to the remarkable, stoic attitude of the Japanese and their adherence to notions of nationhood and authority. They just, in short, got on with it, rebuilding the city and their lives with a series of American style city grids that are easy to navigate, impeccably clean, and endlessly intriguing.

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When jotting down impressions I am always reminded at how capacious is my capacity to be fascinated by ephemera, and how impressionistic my attitudes are. When I should be observing the commercial pulse of a city or seeking insights into its people, I fix, instead, on wondering why we have no coins at home with little holes in them – they are just so adorably cute – and how the notion first arose to put plastic models of food outside restaurants, even high class ones, to attract customers from the streets. From there is but a small step to buying some of those little plastic models in a shop which sells nothing but plastic models of food. By the time I am done, I have spent more than our actual food cost us at dinner last night.

Ah, the food. If you are yet to discover the sublime raw fish and sweet, vinegared rice of a sushi and sashimi bar, then you are missing one of the most mouth-wateringly perfect concoctions of humankind.

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In a fine example of the ubiquitous sushi bars that dot every street, last night we ate our body weight in miraculously massaged morsels of at least four different cuts of tuna, salmon, roe, mackerel, seaweed-encased prawns and pastes made of fish and various vegetables, such as viciously hot peppers, washed down with ice cold beer and many smiles from the artists behind the glass bar.

We ploughed on for hours as if fearing we would never eat again, each dish a little miracle of balance, taste and form. When we left – rolled out would be more accurate – the cheery smiles and nods of the chefs and the waiting staff communicated better than any language that they valued our appreciation of their talents and their cuisine. We had taken on board enough Omega 3 to float a battleship. No wonder everyone in Japan lives to be 110.

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So. Dear Reader, it is time to browse the shops and stalls that line the ancient streets beside the re-built Sensouji Temple, originally built to honour the Goddess Kannon in the 1600s, but demolished one night by B-52s, and since painstakingly rebuilt and restored to its former glory. It is a place of ethereal peace and beauty. Even the inevitable souvenir hawkers, fortune tellers and fast food stalls conduct themselves with restraint. In fact, on the busiest street no one shouts, the traffic cruises sedately, sirens appear to be banned, and the traffic lights play classical music to you while you wait to cross. Cyclists share the footpaths with pedestrians and never collide and neither side in this complex equation hurls obscenities. Ridiculous, amusing sculptures adorn the buildings, and on one there is a sign that actually exhorts you to smile, because life is wonderful.

It’s all very classy.

Last night, we chatted for a while to a young German tourist who had already visited Japan ten times. She said she just kept getting drawn back. After a day and a half, I am well and truly bitten by the bug as well. I may just have to get off that couch more often. A scary, but rather wonderful discovery.

And yes, our room has a wash your arse toilet. And no, I am not going to talk about it.

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Comments
  1. Yolly, you’ve hit a 3 run home run with me with this post recounting the experiences you and your wife had in Tokyo’s Asakusa district, my favorite place to visit. Great food, great people, so much to see, so many shops along Nakamise Street, the nearby Sumida River Park, and, these days, right across the river, the Tokyo Sky Tree. Kind of spoils you forever, doesn’t it?

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  2. Paul Brixey says:

    Steve, you’ve brought back many memories for me as I used to go there a few times a year with work and it always fascinated me. I thought I knew Asakusa well until I took a wrong turn once and stood in fear when I realised I couldn’t communicate with anyone.

    There are so many simple but memorable things to mention but only seen in Japan. I recall being on the tube one day and a jolt made a row of schoolgirls tumble like dominoes. I had to smile but their manners ensured they kept their composure.

    I also remember a night sat on the floor in a japanese restaurant whilst the Ops Director made his way through a list if sakes in an attempt to get this gajin paralytic. A great evening.

    Have you tried the puffer fish yet?

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    • Good to hear from you Paul and glad to have brought back happy memories for you. I will be avoiding the fugu, thank you!

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      • Paul Brixey says:

        I did as it was the same Ops guy teasing the Brit. I renember phoning my son and saying itwas ok as we both had it only to be told it would have been two different fish. To be honest it was like eating cockles. Lips went a bit numb if I remember.

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  3. Colin says:

    i will probably never have the opportunity to visit Tokyo… i feel like i too had a little excursion.. beautifully done..

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  4. Richard Ember says:

    Bloody Hell…….an article I actually enjoyed!! 🙂 I agree with Colin; you really do get a whiff of Tokyo. Great.

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