Not all those who wander are lost: Tokyo (Very rough chapter extract from the book)
I explored my local area on foot. My hostel was in the business district near a big crossroads and I walked in all four directions both in the day and at night, as Tokyo looked so different daytime and after dark.
Usually I thought about stopping and turning around when my feet began to hurt and then always found something just after that point; something that made the walk worthwhile, so that I could say, that’s what I was walking to and turn around.
A memorial portrait gallery and a nice bench; an amazing apartment building with mosaics sculpture up the walls and over the balconies, all different pretty old tiles in the hallway and black metal letter boxes; bright lights and cool buildings; a cat cafe; the Metro station that I often went to.
My first morning I picked one direction and stuck to it, looking for a coffee place. I thought I saw one, it was actually something totally different but it looked like a coffee shop in my home town: wishful thinking.
Then I saw one, a proper coffee shop! It looked like an British cafe or tea shop, a smart old fashioned one, the kind I could imagine my posh Grandma taking me too.
They asked me things I didn’t understand, they said things I didn’t understand, but they brought me coffee, in a dear little cup and saucer, with cream and chunky lumps of brown sugar.
On my left was a woman in a dove grey kimono. On my right was a woman dressed smartly in black and white using an expensive looking black laptop. Opposite me was a little display shelf of pretty little teacups and saucers in different designs.
I counted out what I thought was the right money, feeling very clever, until I realised I had got the coins confused. Anyway, I had got coffee for the first time. Now I need a shop to get food for breakfast, I said to myself. I came to a shop and bought raisin bread and a banana. I tipped out my money and they counted it out since I obviously didn’t know the coins yet. I didn’t have to worry about doing that, being in Japan.
I kept walking. Past a Metro station. I thought, I could just get on a train, go one stop, eat, and return. Or I could do some research and go on a trip. That feeling that I could do anything, the possibilities, the sense of expansiveness. There’s nothing to be scared of.
I kept walking. I saw a ‘forest’ took my bearings, looked carefully at the buildings around me so that I would know the way back, and went up the steps and over the bridge.
I passed a bank of vending machines, there was vending machines everywhere selling drinks but this was a whole array of ones selling pot noodles and even burgers and chips.
It wasn’t a forest, it was a sports area and the grounds of The Memorial Portrait Gallery. I decided to go to the gallery but first I needed to get out of the sun, it was very hot, and eat my breakfast. I need a bench in the shade, I thought, immediately, it appeared.
I sat on the bench and got my food out. My raisin bread bun was long like a hot dog, and was already cut in half and with spread on it, so I made a kind of hot dog with my banana.
Afterwards I went to the gallery and looked at the paintings. There were only two other people there, a Japanese man and a Western tourist. I realised a few days later that I had made a faux pas wondering around in my spaghetti strap vest top; I had wrongly assumed people wore anything in Japan whereas although the shortest skirts and shorts are fine, tops are modest. Some of this is to do with sun protection, women are taught from a young age to protect themselves from the sun, sun protector sleeves are worn, like I saw for sale in Thailand, and necklines are high. And umbrellas are used in the sun as well as the rain, and people wear visors.
The loo at the gallery was very complicated and took me ages to find the flush button; I was sure I pressed the alarm by mistake. The first button I pressed was a fake flush- sound only no actual flush.
On my first day I followed a little hand drawn map to go to the Suga Shrine, the setting of a scene from a famous Anime film. There were lots of people taking pictures of the view, some rails, some steps, it was lost on me, but I was glad I was able to find it. The scene was almost colourless, black and white, warm beige, warm grey, a red bin the only color, but not cold.
I enjoyed exploring the alleys of the local area, I noticed the wires, thick cables with thinner çables bound messily around them, the side streets grey but with a beauty of their own.
I went to another coffee shop on the way back. It had a wooden bread board, tins of tea, wine glasses, tea cups; it looked like an English dresser. I drank coffee in tea cup, a Japanese man spoke to me, he said, ‘I love the UK, I lived there for four years, South Kensington.’ I practiced saying and my name is and pleased to meet you .
Thereafter I got coffee from the mini mart, it was cheaper, and I could sit outside or take back to hostel, which I preferred.
It was often raining, and surprisingly cold when it did. Most people had the same almost identical see through plastic umbrellas with white or black handles. I learned to carefully put mine in a certain place in the umbrella racks, to remember, but even so I lost one and had to buy another. I realised I’d left it and went back but it had gone, there were others the same but I didn’t want to take someone else’s, but B said afterwards that those umbrellas are all kind of shared, by necessity.
Estate agent windows were different compared to the glossy brochures in UK windows, photocopied in mainly black and white, sometimes the picture was in colour but often not, one A4 sheet with small picture or pictures, a floor plan and some writing.
One sunny morning I had a nice encounter on a bench, mine was the only dry one and an older Japanese man was looking for somewhere to sit. I moved my bag and gestured, then said good morning. Unfortunately I’d left my language notes and couldn’t remember hardly anything. We used sign language and his little bit of English. We couldn’t make ourselves understood really but it was such a nice encounter, he and I so keen to chat with each other. It’s not always up to them, it can be up to me too, sometimes.
Breakfast was probably my favourite meal of the day, maybe because it was hard won, involving as it did getting up and dressed, going outside, negotiating buying coffee and breakfast, all before, er, having coffee. On a good day, by rehearsing in the lift on the way down I’d be able to say in Japanese, Good Morning, Coffee, Please, Just as it is/no bag, (although often I’d be eating outside and need a bag to put the rubbish in to carry back…) and Thank you. You couldn’t say it was a conversation, but it was a decent attempt at a polite interaction. The sense of accomplishment I felt sitting down with my coffee and cake felt good. Coffee, you have to say hot, or they won’t know, they expect 50/50 hot or cold.
My coffee came from a machine, but some places even had hot coffee on the shelves, which surprised me the first time I touched it, hot tea and cocoa too. After a while I always had the same cake, vegetarian, I asked, as sometimes there’d be things with meat on the bakery shelf, ‘Yes, potato.’ It tasted sweet, custard infused. Custard infused potato, I promise it was a lot nicer than it sounds.
One day at the bench near me where I often ate breakfast there were baby sparrows, four or six, and mum and dad nearby. I checked the prohibition sign: no wine, no exploding snakes (actually no fireworks), no camping, no fires, no cars or bicycles, no litter, no dog fouling, no loud music. Nothing about don’t feed the birds. I let a few yellow cake crumbs fall, the baby sparrows looked, I made more, rubbing the wrapper of my cake so that tiny bits came off. I looked down, there was loads of yellow on the ground. I hope they eat it, or I shall have littered, I thought. I moved seats so they wouldn’t be afraid, and watched as they ate it all. Mum and dad came and ate at the end before they all disappeared back into the hedge.
In many ways Tokyo was the opposite of India. It was so quiet and peaceful. The buildings were grey or neutral, the clothes too; neutral, black and white, grey, taupe, pistachio; everything ordered and conventional. One day I saw lots of fire engines leave the fire station, they looked brand new, so shiny and such bright red that the scene looked almost unreal.
There were no bins but no litter either. I saw two plastic bags and an empty coke bottle on the street and saw a man drop a cigarette butt on the street (smoking in the street was prohibited); that was it. Everyone must be so well trained to carry their rubbish around with them and then take it home. People don’t eat on the move, so maybe that helps.
Apparently eating while walking down the street is a big no no, although people do eat on benches in parks and public spaces.
There was no obvious pollution. There were hardly any scooters or bikes. Even the cars seemed quiet; sometimes I would be walking down a little side street and a car would surprise me, making just a little purring noise. The taxis were boxy looking, in black or colours, orange or green.
There were lots of bicycles, vintage style with baskets or bags, one painted bright pillar-box red, one with a dog in the basket. The bicycles were often left unlocked, or if they were locked, it wasn’t with a big D lock and heavy chain padlocked onto a railing, instead just a thin bike lock like I used to use as a child, and often just around its own wheel. But more often they were simply left unlocked, including a child’s one, new looking, rose pink with wicker basket, left for days in the business district of central Tokyo untouched.
It felt safe to walk about anytime, and no male attention whatsoever. Walking about I was generally ignored, by everybody, but that didn’t mean people weren’t friendly, they just weren’t all falling over themselves, and I had to make an effort to be friendly or ask for help. Tokyo is a busy city like London, which isn’t known for being overly friendly.
Health and Safety appeared to be taken very seriously. I had seen a sign at a construction site saying ‘Safety first.’ Nearby my hostel were some road works with a temporary walkway made by coning off part of the road. In the UK, there’d be a sign saying ‘Pedestrians’ with an arrow, and that would be it. Here, people were guided off the pavement and onto the road path by a model waving man with a lit up wand. All the cones were lit up from the inside by lights and the end ones had flashing lights on top as well. There were two actual men, one at each end of the path waving wands, like truncheon sized light sabres, directing the pedestrians, plus all the many road workers. Everyone was wearing hi vis, of course, and their hi vis had lights built into the waistcoats.
People clean their hands before eating-a wipe is provided, which I thought at first was for afterwards- and use chopsticks. People wear masks. I held a full conversation with a Japanese woman staying at the hostel in the lobby with her wearing one. B told me that people are very concerned about catching colds and flu, and are expected to wear a mask if they are unwell.
A large part of the reason I went to Tokyo was to see B, a fellow writer and blogger I met on WordPress. We met out of town for our first meeting, she sent me detailed instructions about the trains. ‘It might seem a bit daunting, and Tokyo station is very large, but there are signs everywhere in English,’ she said. The lines and the times and the platforms were all just as B had said, and when I was unsure of my way in Tokyo station, which is huge, and with lines that seem divided sub lines, I asked at the office which has an English speaking tourist counter. I got stuck at one of the ticket machines, but someone came to my aid, but otherwise, it was straightforward. Trains run on time and standing at the station waiting for trains was peaceful, with just the sounds of approaching and departing trains, the announcer, and the sound of fake cheeping presumably to discourage birds. I probably look terrified, I thought, but I’m actually not.
On the first train, a crowded commuter train, I was surprised when I felt people press into me. I first thought well that wasn’t as polite as I’d expected people to be. But then when we were back in India and talking about the Tokyo Metro and the London Underground with a New Yorker, my husband said, people in London aren’t polite enough to squash into each other to let people in, we like our personal space too much. Whereas in Tokyo, people know the trains are busy and that everyone needs to get to work, so they squash up so other people can get on.
It is frowned upon to eat on the metro; the only people I saw doing this were tourists. Talking on your mobile phone or having loud conversations is also not done. In Tokyo, where people work hard and there are lots of people, the commute and travel is made as peaceful as possible.
Just as in the middle of Tokyo the buildings are designed so beautifully, and there are trees and parks and banks of green designer hedges in the middle of business areas.
With B, I travelled on the Sky train, and saw the huge and amazing buildings of the centre of Tokyo. We went to temples and saw the huge Green Buddha. We went to parks, green oases in the centre of town. At one of the parks I saw big Japanese crows, at another I saw swan paddle boats, and vending machines selling tins of emergency earthquake food and toy hamster purses. B told me that at the weekends people bring their musical instruments to practice, even full size harps, Tokyo apartments not having the space or sound proofing for at home practice. She said she even saw someone bring a basket of (presumably indoor) cats to the park.
I didn’t see this, but in the restaurant in the park where we went for a late dinner, I did see a dog in a pram. Not a dolls pram or an old cast off childs one. This was a super smart new looking pram, with a medium sized pug faced dog lying quietly in it. Two women arrived and sat at a nearby table, one had a dog in a bag, it squeezed itself out of what looked like a small tight bag. The dog in the pram sat up to look at another dog. No one (other than me) batted an eyelid. B told me it is common to see young couples walking happily together with a pram with a dog in it.
I found out from reading that tattoos are not really socially acceptable in Japan, despite my previous impressions of Japan as a great place for tattoos. Lots of bath houses do not let people with tattoos in, but others are ‘ink friendly,’ responding to demand.
B told me that outsiders’ ideas re Japan and technology is also a bit off. She pointed out how many people on the trains were reading paper books and how few using electronic readers. It was true, and wandering into a bookshop at the weekend it had been very busy. B said that at her work they use very old photocopiers and fax machines.
The reputation of Tokyo’s working hours culture though, was accurate. Employees such as teachers are expected to stay until the most senior person goes home, which could be ten pm at night. ‘They can’t have a family,’ I said, appalled. ‘Yes they do, they just don’t see them, their kids are in bed when they get home, maybe their mum lives with them and does the cooking,’ B said. People go jogging at midnight because that is their only time. B worked with one Japanese person who didn’t follow this convention but was kind of ostracised from the rest. And then there is after work drinking, particularly on a Friday night, where people say and do anything then it isn’t mentioned afterwards.
I told B about my anxiety at airport, my confusion re the loo flush; she said she still gets confused sometimes as they are always somewhere different, sometimes on the wall, sometimes as part of the control panel of options, but not particularly marked out, considering its the most essential one, and sometimes just a regular handle. She told me that brushing teeth in public is absolutely fine, everyone brushes their teeth after lunch and she sees colleagues walking about with toothbrushes in their mouths. Later in my stay I saw women brush teeth in public bathrooms after lunch.
B said that women are very shy about people hearing them urinate, it’s not okay to just let out a stream of wee, women in Japan rattle the loo roll holder or door handle; hence the privacy buttons on the toilet panel, the sound of flushing or music, not just for poos!
B corrected my pronunciation and we discussed similarities between Japanese and English. English has many different words for the same things, especially around social politeness, but even if they mean the same things if they are said wrong it sounds funny.
Like Thailand, people don’t say ‘no’ in Japan either, you hear a lot of ‘maybe,’ which can confuse foreigners as it actually means no.
Even on my first couple of days, I never thought the black and white and grey was cold, it was just very different to India; and after almost two weeks I began to see it for what it was, beautiful.
The difference between the clothes and buildings of India and Japan was like the difference between butterflies and moths. The longer I was there the more colour I began to notice and the more beauty I began to see in the buildings.
I saw a lot of circles, big circular brick designs and windows in the walls of buildings, curved balconies set on top of each other like a cut out cyclinder, and black metal spiral fire escapes.
The ascetic is not to clash with nature hence the neutral colours. Nature is revered, planted or allowed to be, clothes follow seasons, umber, maroon. I saw trailing bindweed with pink flowers making fine curtains over the side of a building, and planted walls at the Metro station.
‘Everything’s beautiful,’ B said. ‘Of course it is,’ I said, ‘A rough bit of plaster on the wall can be beautiful if you look carefully at it, and if you are a writer, you can describe something like that and make it beautiful.’
Staying put in Pushkar, happily.
Thank you very much for reading.
See you next week.