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August 15, 2022

A Weekend in Tokyo

By Phillip Donnelly



Tokyo -- why hadn't I gone before? Over 33 million people call it home and I had no idea why. I'd been meaning to go there for years, but somehow the land of the rising sun was still darkness to me. It was time to dip my toe in the largest city on Earth.

On the journey to Hong Kong airport, I thought about my early memories of Japan. Whenever I go anywhere new, I like to travel through my preconceptions first. Television in the 70s and 80s painted a very strange picture of Japan. As a child of the 70s, I remember Shogun and its samurai warriors. In the 80s, there was Tenko and its female prisoners of war. Before that, endless WW II films, like Bridge over the River Kwai, which invariably painted the Japanese as sadistic monsters. By the eighties, this kind of portrait had disappeared, but even shows like Clive James on Television mocked Japanese TV shows like Endurance and its comic sadomasochism. Behind it all, the waking nightmare of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Why was the west's portrayal of Japan so negative? Fear, perhaps. Japan's military aggression was thwarted in the Second World War, but in the eighties, its economic strength scared the west. Japanese companies were becoming dominant in more and more hi-tech industries. Its corporations, giant and inscrutable, seemed to be taking over the world. The West feared Japan and television fed that fear.

Had I nothing else to go on? The ashes of Godzilla, the music of Ryuichi Sakamoto, a novel by Murakami. Was that it? I'd also taught some expatriate students, and they seemed very nice, but I had to conclude that I knew pretty much nothing about Japan, which is a good place to start. There are none so blind as those who think they know what they're looking at.

The itch to visit must have been growing inside me, wriggling around that part of the unconscious where desires begin. One morning I woke up and knew that the time to go was now. So, I put clothes on the desire and dressed it as a plan.

First, I checked my academic year plan and scanned for available holiday slots. Our lives are built this way now. Assembled into chunks of work and non-work. I found a small chunk of non-work time, and then hunted for an expeditious trip with Expedia. It took a whole morning, and then some, but there are so many false bargains on the internet that you have to take your time. The last stage, perhaps the most difficult one, was to cobble together some shekels. With a little creative accounting of the family budget, and a bit of robbing Peter to pay Paul, I made the money appear out of thin air. Quantum economics.

The stage, as they say, was set. Two weeks later, I appeared on it. Dressed in black, yawning my way through Hong Kong's airport, I was ready to enter another metal bird. I hoped its metal wasn't as fatigued as mine. I still get an adrenalin kick from travelling but it takes longer and longer to kick in.

The journey would be a long one, I knew. To save money, I was flying via Beijing. This would be a bit like flying from London to New York via Morocco. There was no two ways about it. For the first half of the flight, I would be going out of my way, and for the second half, I would be going the wrong way.

To take my mind off it, I studied the people in the check-in queue bound for Beijing. It's getting harder to spot Mainland Chinese. Gone are the garish ill-fitting suits of ten years ago; gone are the travel groups of fifty, corralled by tour guides with battery-powered mini-megaphones.

Beijing people are still very different compared to their Hong Kong cousins, though. They're a foot taller for one, and much broader across the shoulders, and the belly, and their heads are a lot bigger, both physically and psychologically. Beijing is at the centre of the world's superpower-in-waiting. I suppose you have to expect a little strutting.

I tried not to let it bother me. There will always be peacocks and they will always want to spread their fans. The trick is to ignore them. I also tried to ignore the dragon breath of the passenger beside me on the first flight, and his persistent throat clearing noises. There still seems to be a great deal of pleasure to be had in moving phlegm around the throat and making as much noise as possible while doing so. On the second flight, an octogenarian couple spend hours warbling phlegm and spitting globules of it into a plastic bag.

No-one else seemed to be mind, or even notice, so I tried not to notice too. I think I would be a great deal happier if I stopped noticing things that annoy me.

I managed to read and underline a guidebook (on Tokyo, not on phlegm), and tried to figure out what we were going to see. I wished I had more time. A week would be nice. A month would be nicer. But time and money were tight, so three nights and two full days would have to do.

At the end of the first flight, the pilot told us that we were beginning our descent. I looked out the window and saw a brown blanket of smog. It stretched as far as the eye could see. Somewhere under it, Beijing choked. The WHO recently stated that living in cities like Beijing can take four to five years off your life. And looking at it from the air, I wouldn't be surprised if they had said that life expectancy in Beijing was now five years in total. The plane fell further and the smog grew nearer. Soon we were in it, surrounded by brown. I saw shadows forming in its bottom. Indeterminate blobs. They moulded themselves into skyscrapers, again and yet again. Beneath them, just swirling brown. Then came normal buildings, and then roads, and then all the rest of the city. Visibility in Hades must be something similar.

It was ten years since I was last in Beijing but I don't remember it being that bad then. Mind you, I'd come from places likes Chengdu and Xian, with their smoke stacks and black rain, so perhaps it had always looked rather Stygian.

Events left me little time to ponder. We had taken off from Hong Kong nearly an hour late, and were only scheduled to have about an hour to transfer for the flight to Tokyo. I'd given up hope of making the connection, but Air China officials kept telling us to hurry up, so hurry up we did. Or as much as you can hurry up when people keep trying to slow you down. My passport was checked four times, with the attention to detail you normally only find in a stamp collector. Other men in black were only interested in my boarding card, which was stamped and re-stamped. Even though I was only transferring, I still had to go through another baggage security check, and the partial undressing that now entails. Off comes the jacket and the belt, keys and tablet are stashed in a bag. Etc, etc. And all the while, the clock was ticking.

Beijing airport, like the city itself, is huge. Shiny, powerful, confident and keen to show that the future belongs to it. My only concern was the immediate future and my progression to Gate 52E. I ran like the wind, if your impression of the wind is a grey haired man in his forties who runs like a girl. I weaved in and out of the masses, muttering obscenities at all who stood in my way. I barged to the front of some queue or other and pleaded with some blond foreigners to let me go first because my plane was about to board. They agreed, with some reluctance, and after thanking them profusely, I found that I was in the wrong queue, so I ran some more. Muppet-like, frantic.

After turning a corner which I thought would be the last, I saw eternity. A stretch of airport at least a kilometre long lay before me. And in my mind, starved of oxygen and high on Beijing smog, I saw it stretch out in front of me. I swear it moved. There was even a sound of stretching.

I stopped running and made a loud braying sound. At that moment, speeding to my aid, came one of those battery powered airport cars that always look faintly embarrassed to find themselves indoors. The driver stopped beside us and said "Get in. Take a seat. No problem. Tokyo, yes?"

I was so happy it didn't even occur to me to correct his grammar. He carried us off into the distance, like a knight in shining armour. Except that knights don't solicit bribes. He told us that the service was not free, which rather surprised me. When I asked him how much this was going to cost, he said "tip ah, tip ah." My wife pointed out that we weren't carrying any Yuen, but he told us that he would accept any internationally convertible currency, but had a preference for US dollars, or to use his own words "All money good. America dollars?"

I was so overjoyed not to miss my flight that I was about to give him the first bill in my wallet, and I fingered a 1000 Yen note, but then I thought again, and wondered why I should bribe someone 75 Euro for doing their job. I don't demand bribes from my students when they ask me complicated grammar questions. So I put the Yen note back in my wallet and went with dollars instead, Hong Kong dollars -- 40 of them, or about 4 euro. He didn't complain, but what could he do? Drive me back to customs and charge me with not paying bribes?

The plane landed, we disembarked, and Tokyo airport showed me one of the shiniest toilets I've ever seen. Passport control was hi-tech, except for the low-tech glitch of most of the pens not working. The winding queue was also very much of the twentieth century. It meant a long wait behind a gaggle of teenage Russian girls, who used the wait to connect their tablets to the web, so they could Facebook their cyber-friends and update their current location. Occasionally one of them looked up to communicate with one of their actual friends in the old fashioned way -- through a speech act.

Eventually I got to the front of the queue. My fingerprint was scanned and my photo was taken. Japan now has a permanent record of my identity. It will probably exist longer than I do. Maybe it will last forever. Future generations may wonder who this tired scowler was. Or maybe they won't.

Minutes later, a polite official in customs asked us some questions and searched our bags in a perfunctory manner. It was true what they said -- Japan is different. Even the customs officials are polite.

I bought a train ticket to Tokyo Station. To my surprise, the train took an hour and a half. Just how big is this city, I wondered? In an hour and a half, you can cross from one side of Ireland to the other. I passed the time studying locals as they got on and off the train. It was late on Saturday night, so the carriage smelt of alcohol and people kept nodding off, but apart from this, it was hard to tell they were drunk. There was no hint of violence or danger, no edginess to the drunkenness.

The train itself was very eighties, both in decor and in its swaying jagged motion. The Tokyo metro system left the same impression on me. It was clean, it was fast, it was efficient, but it was 20th century. Even the ticket machines felt peculiarly old-fashioned. They were touch screens, but there were also plenty of buttons to click on the side of the screen. Everything felt faintly robotic.

In Tokyo Station the pace speeded up. It was full of revellers rushing for the last train home. I saw carriages filled to bursting with swaying drunks. Hurtling towards them, I saw men so drunk that they had adopted ping pong motion, unable to maintain the same direction for more than a few seconds at a time. And yet, somehow, they managed not to collide with anything or anyone. An old man was inches away from falling on top of me, but at the last second, he turned around and changed direction.

We had planned to grab a bite to eat downtown before getting a taxi to the hotel, but there was surprisingly little open. Downtown is the business district and when business stops, people go elsewhere. I wondered where all the drunks had come from, but couldn't bring myself to ask them.

We made half-hearted forays into side streets, but everything looked closed or about to close, except for clubs of questionable repute, with well dressed bouncers dispensing business cards. In desperation, we had French fries in MacDonald's, which is never an exotic experience. A taxi brought us to our hotel, which turned out not to be our hotel, but our actual hotel, the Hotel Fresa, was just around the corner.

The check-in staff bowed and smiled and looked to be extraordinarily nervous about speaking English, even though they must do so on a daily basis. Every time I saw them, they bowed and smiled, and pretty soon, I was doing likewise. I went through a month's worth of smiles in Tokyo in two days.

The room was small but not claustrophobic. I studied the toilet and tried to figure out how to make it flush. This would happen to me a lot in Tokyo. There are lots of buttons to press. Some are bidet settings, which can be set to anything from gentle spray to super strong jet stream. Other buttons indicated a variety of ways of cleaning the toilet itself. Many buttons remained a mystery to me, as I was afraid to press any of them. I discovered that sitting on the toilet initiated a minor flush, and after prolonged investigation, I found the flush handle, which was more of a knob really. It too could also be adjusted to a variety of power levels, according to the strength of flush required. Its maximum setting would dislodge a rhino turd, I'd say.

Even public toilets come equipped with an array of buttons for the inquisitive programmer, and the only major difference in all of them is where to find the thing that actually makes the toilet flush. Some are motion sensitive, some floor operated, some are knobs and some are handles, but all of them are hard to find. And of course, all of the toilets are spotlessly clean.

After a night in bed, spent in fitful dreams, we went downstairs and had breakfast. I had breakfast Set A and my wife had Set B. In spite of these differences, we somehow stay together. We headed down into metro Kayabasho, bought a day pass, and counted the stops to Ueno.

Tokyo's oldest park, Ueno-koen, also contains many of the city's best museums. On Sunday, it was full of families and tottering children. When faced with all these happy families, and they do look happy, it's easy to forget that Japan has one of the lowest birth rates in the world. That, combined with having the world's longest longevity rate, means that Japan's population is aging faster than anywhere else. This bodes ill for the future, with an ever-decreasing base or working age people paying the pensions and health expenses of an ever-increasing number of pensioners. Some believe that the economic stagnation and deflation that has plagued Japan since the end of eighties has its roots in these demographic changes. Europe and America may experience something similar very soon.

In the parks of Tokyo, you don't really notice this aging population. Part of the reason could be how incredible well the Japanese age. It's very hard to tell how old a Japanese person is; and even when they are obviously old, they are still very very fit. They move in a lithe and agile way. Their bodies don't creak the way Western bodies do.

Wondering if I could exchange my own body for a Japanese one, I entered the Tokyo National Museum. The buildings themselves feel like works of art, and were built just after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, in grand European style, by an emperor who wanted to impress, and to enlighten the Japanese about the outside world. The American fleet had kicked in the door, and Japan had to end its splendid isolation and look outwards. These buildings were one of the windows.

Inside the main building, which itself is an interesting combination of Japanese and western architectural styles, there are a lot of Buddha statues, vases, ceramics, kimonos and national treasures from the dawn of Japanese history until the end of the Edo period in 1868.

There's also a great deal of samurai swords and paraphernalia from the shotgunate period. The irony is that Ueno Hill, not far from the museum, was the last stand of the Tokugawa, the place where 2000 diehard samurai were mowed down by the machine guns of the new imperial army. The feudal period in Europe was already something to be mocked even by the time of Cervantes, but it petered out, whereas in Japan, it came to an abrupt end, on a hill in Ueno Park. The past was blown away, as Japan leapfrogged into the present and claimed the future.

After lunch, we went to the Metropolitan Museum, which at that time was showing an exhibition of Turner, on loan from the Tate Gallery in London. The exhibition began by pointing out that Turner was Britain's most famous painter, and it felt like half of Japan had turned up to see what all the fuss was about. The crowd move slowly, in a perfect queue, following the wall of the museum to patiently stare at the paintings and sketches, in silent contemplation.

Unable to blend in, I stood behind the crowd, and tried to appreciate the top of the Turner paintings. Not far into the exhibition, I remembered that Turner had never really done anything for me, so I lowered my gaze and studied the Japanese studying the paintings instead.

"Where there is beauty, one must gaze," my grandmother used to say, and the Japanese must be the most beautiful race in the world. In these politically correct times, statements like this are taboo, but I stand by it. There is something about the angularity of a Japanese face that is almost sublime. Their noses are just the right size and shape, their cheekbones just the right height, their mouths and chin in such perfect proportion. There is an intelligent aspect to their eyes. Even their hair looks suave. Their bodies are almost sculpted. They carry their endomorph frames in such a way as to never look small or weak. They are, it seems to me, as near to physical perfection as it's possible to get.

Their electric plugs, however, are a different matter. Two narrow prongs -- more like blunt blades than prongs -- were useless to me. I needed a power adaptor, and soon. All my electronic appliances were dying. I'd left mine at home, which is where my adaptors generally find themselves when I travel.

After leaving the museum, we wandered about in search of one. I followed the crowd and ended up in a street market, called Ameya-yokocho. Crowds thronged the narrow streets and I began to feel that cold sweat I often get when in the presence of too many people in too small an environment. The deeper I went into the market, the thicker the crowd became. Anywhere else it would have been unbearable, but in Tokyo, it wasn't that bad. I noticed that even though we were packed like the proverbial sardines, the Japanese were somehow managing to maintain a level of personal space. It was minimal, centimetres deep, but no-one was bumping into anyone, or rubbing up against each other, or digging their elbows into each other. This was that most rare of things -- a well-behaved crowd. I saw something similar in the metro. Personal space is maintained whenever it is humanly possible. These were my kind of people. I never did find the power adaptor though, and had to make do with a phone charger of some kind, but I didn't mind. I'd found a country that knew how to behave in a crowd.

By now I'd been on my feet since early morning, and my feet were sick of me. They dragged me back to the hotel room, threw the rest of me on the bed, and sent me to sleep. An hour or two later, I showed them who was boss, and stood on them again, demanding they carry me about all night.

We went to Roppongi, Tokyo's night life district. My guidebook, Lonely Planet, describes Roppongi Crossing at night as "like entering the world of Blade Runner or Star Wars, where throngs of the galaxy's most unscrupulous citizens gather to engage in a host of unsavoury activities under the sizzling neon lights." So, it was with more than a little apprehension that I climbed the metro steps and prepared for this alterwelt. I wore my scariest face and adopted my most streetwise gait, lest any disreputable types marked me out as easy pickings. Under the blue 'M' metro sign, I looked left and right and tried to look as much like Bladerunner's Deckard as possible. If there were any replicants out there, I wanted to look ready for them.

My first reaction was to wonder if I was in the right place. There isn't even the faintest hint of danger in Roppongi. It would be hard to find a street corner in Dublin that is less dangerous. Perhaps there was a skirt that was a little too high, a businessman who was a little too drunk, an odd goth here and there, but nothing a la Bladerunner. True, there were some dubious-looking massage parlours, and some black guys on street corners, zooming in on groups of men and inviting them to 'special' clubs. But it was all very very tame. Vice there may be, but Miami Vice it is not.

Feeling a bit peckish, we hunted for a restaurant, which for a pair of strict vegetarians, is never easy. I half-heartedly looked at the menus in Japanese restaurants, but there was nothing but flesh of one form or another. Japanese food is a complete loss for vegetarians. The only dish I've ever found is glutinous rice wrapped in seaweed, with ginger and wasabi for taste. I can't say it tasted bad, but I can't say it tasted good either.

Knowing the fight to be a lost cause, I resigned myself to eating in some chain or other. TGI Friday was the first one to present itself. The waiter tried to be helpful, so when we told him we didn't eat meat, he smiled and suggested we had some chicken. We told him we didn't eat that either, so he suggested fish. Looking ever more nervous, he went on to recommend shrimp and swordfish. Confused by our shaking heads, he retreated to consult with his superior and returned smiling. The solution was to order items that were part of other dishes and to build a vegetarian meal that way. He flicked through the menu and pointed at these delectables. We could have French fries, mashed potato and a bowl of guacamole. We left unsatisfied, with a great deal of nodding, bowing and awkward laughter.

It was the same story in the Hard Rock Cafe, and a dozen other menus we looked at failed to offer a single meat-free dish. In the end, we had to settle for another Margherita -- our second pizza of the day.

We drowned our sorrows in a jazz bar, amid the smell of smoke and the frills and thrills of jazz classics. You know you're getting old when you start to like jazz and you begin to object to people smoking in bars. Affably drunk, suitably mellowed, stinking of cigar smoke, we headed home.

Monday morning began with a buzz -- the buzz of the alarm clock. I checked inside my head and found that I wasn't hung over, which is always a good way to start the day.

In the mood for spicing things up at breakfast, I plumped for Dish B for breakfast, and after playing with the shower controls for a while, headed into Tokyo again.

We went to the Moro Modern Art Museum, in the posh part of Roppongi, Roppongi Hills. Just above the museum, on the 52nd floor, the Tokyo City View offers a good panorama of central Tokyo -- or it would have done, but on the day we went, clouds severely limited visibility. But I could still see that Tokyo is a lot less high-rise than I had expected it to be. Unhindered by geographical barriers, like the mountains of Hong Kong, it has sprawled outwards, leaving the city itself surprisingly free of super scrapers. Being able to see Tokyo Bay also helps to limit the city's size, psychologically. It is the largest city in the world, but it has an end point.

On the 50th and 51st floor, we saw the Roppongi Crossing Out of Doubt exhibition, which aims to explore the angst Japan is experiencing following the earthquake and Tsunami of 2011, and the continuing threat posed by the Fukushima Power Plant meltdown. The exhibits were thought-provoking, in a disturbing way. Mushroom clouds brood over dystopias. The power of the atoms takes on sinister forms. Short films distort the Tokyo cityscape. They grab you and make you feel like you've entered the mind of a madman, or that you're seeing the jagged coast of your own mind as it really is, scrubbed clean of the illusion of consciousness. Some of the exhibits disturb through simplicity, such as a white plastic chair in an entirely black room, or framed flags made of coloured sand, which on closer inspection turn out to be ants' nests, which busy themselves hollowing out tunnels as you watch.

On the metro afterwards, I looked again at the calm, placid fames of the Japanese, and thought I saw something dark behind the eyes. Behind Japan's stability and harmony, perhaps there lurks a sense of deep instability. The economic miracle of the post war years is over. As Japan declines, the Chinese dragon is waking. Nuclear power is looking more like a curse than a blessing; and beneath all of this, under the very earth itself, you never know when the next earthquake is coming, or when the next tsunami will come crashing in, washing everything all away.

Distracted by doom, I failed to plan my journey properly. Thankfully, some Japanese commuters helped us navigate our way from the normal metro to the TOEI metro, and then to the Yurikamome monorail, which would bring us to Tokyo Bay.

The monorail snakes its way though skyscrapers, moving up and down like a roller coaster, before zipping over the Rainbow Bridge. Everything is chrome and shining glass, both inside and out. Like a child, I sat at the very front of the driverless train, slack jawed and awed; and feeling very much like I was hurtling towards the future, the future I dreamed of as a child, fed on Star Trek and Flash Gordon.

The kicker is that, when you get off the train, you realize that you're just in an upscale shopping mall. That was what Star Trek never told you -- the future is a shopping mall. As night fell, we went for a walk outside, near a very incongruous Statue of Liberty replica, and admired the Rainbow Bridge, which looks a lot like Brooklyn Bridge.

It got colder and we went inside. Although it was only the beginning of November, Christmas songs were playing on every floor and I noticed a few plastic reindeer stalking the corridors. We shuffled around the Mall for a while and worked our way up to a Mexican restaurant on the top floor. I ate what the chef imagined to be Mexican food, but to me tasted more like an onion sandwich.

We headed back to Roppongi and drank in a bar called The Pink Cow, which my guidebook praised as a haven for the avant garde. The problem with the avant garde is that they've always left before I get there. The bar had pleasant enough beer, I suppose, and some passable art on the walls, but it also had the incessant drone of the American owner, who lectured a bunch of expat cronies about her marketing strategies and the need to define her target audience. I paid, left and headed back to the hotel.

The following morning I said goodbye to Japan at Haneda Airport. A different airport to the one I had arrived in (Narita), thanks to the cheapness of my ticket. You get there via another monorail, so you get to see a little bit more of Tokyo, and that can't be a bad thing.

I didn't want to go, and as soon as the plane took off, I wanted to go back. When it landed in Beijing, I really wanted to go back. And go back I will. Maybe only for a few more days, but hopefully for longer. Weeks maybe, or even months. Years perhaps. I didn't understand Japan, but I could happily spend lifetimes there defining my ignorance.

Article © Phillip Donnelly. All rights reserved.
Published on 2013-12-02
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