(from the series Chasing Sakura)
Due to the back-and-forth nature of our trip, we had two days in Tokyo before we were to leave it. We’d be back in the weeks to come but we craved a taste. All those images fed through film and TV: the clamour of night-time arcades; dress-up karaoke booths; clusters of skyscrapers; neon lights pinging off cabs and rivers. How do you begin to absorb a city of Tokyo’s scale in mere hours?
From the safety of a window in Shibuya train station we watched the infamous scramble crossing below. All at once, the lights turn green for pedestrians in every direction. The streams of bodies clash and mix and eventually dissipate, like the lines of the Union flag exploding. I could take this, no big deal. If there’s one thing I pride myself on, it’s my adaptability. The fact that I was dropping off and startling myself awake every twenty seconds was mere biology — jet lag is jet lag. But I’d just been given a paper crane by an elderly stranger and I was damned if I’d be defeated by a crossing.
Thankfully, we didn’t attempt the Scramble that day. For now, our friends would take us for a simple stroll around a park of black pines and stone bridges over a lake. I watched a man feed a duck. I’d eaten taiyaki, a pastry shaped like a fish but stuffed with red bean paste — umami more than sweet to my sugar-coated palette. (It tends to be the case with desserts beyond the geography of my people, Greeks and Middle-Easterners for whom syrup is a beverage.) Being a glutton, I use local sweets as a way of sampling the national psyche. Taiyaki told me the Japanese were subtle, restrained despite a certain playfulness.
Husband and I faced a challenge: we had to find our way through Shinjuku station, one of the largest and busiest in Tokyo, to collect our three-week Japan Rail passes from the travel office. On our own. Bodies poured into the concrete concourse from every angle, moving in all directions, an indoor version of the Scramble. In our concern not to be tourists holding everyone up (we were Londoners, with an intolerance of tourists) we sped along towards anything. Like sharks, we just had to keep moving. My eyes darted around for English words on signs above, on columns, underfoot, anywhere they might be, my feet never stopping for a second. Somehow, we made it to the right desk. Within minutes the rail passes were in our hands.
‘If you lose this,’ the smiling lady at the travel desk said, ‘it can’t be replaced.’
‘And if it’s stolen?’
‘You have to buy a new one.’ Smile.
We’d spent hundred of pounds on these bits of laminated paper, which you can only pre-book from abroad as a tourist. For a brief visit to Tokyo or a couple of other cities, a rail pass is totally unnecessary. But we were going to be crossing three islands, covering over a dozen cities, and relying on the reach and speed of bullet trains (Shinkansen) multiple times over our four-week stay. Our losing a rail pass would’ve been like Frodo losing the ring. The moment I found out this was a precious talisman, I began a mental countdown of the number of days I was still responsible for it.
We travelled to Ueno, heading for the Tokyo National Museum. At a café by the park, I used totally incorrect Japanese and potentially devastating finger-pointing to order two lattes.
‘Panda latte?’ the woman behind the counter asked.
I said yes, hoping for the best. Soon, I was carrying a tray bearing two lattes with panda faces made of chocolate powder. My first successful transaction in Japan, done.
When I sat down, it dawned on me: weren’t pandas more of a Chinese motif? Had we already made a faux-pas? The panda-themed gift shop across from the café suggested the theme had something to do with Ueno Zoo and its special inhabitant. A relief. I bought a clear plastic umbrella, both because it was extremely cheap and yet another slice of Japanese culture I was apparently all too eager to appropriate.
We arrived at the museum. That’s where I beheld a sight I would declare the most ingenious of all concepts, and just another notch in the post that was Japanese logic: an umbrella locker system. You insert your clear plastic friend into one of the numbered holders in a rack, lock it, and take the key with you. We were in the land of geniuses.
There’s an admirable trait that runs through Japanese life: if something can be improved, then it must be improved (women’s rights appear to be an exception to this rule). Only the night before, I’d gawped as Akiko made our beds. Attachments on the duvet cover threaded through loops on the duvet itself, ensuring it stays in place for the duvet to hold its shape. And here we were, troglodyte Westerners, squirming under lumpy duvets, ignorant of a more orderly existence. Now here was a car park but for umbrellas. Of course, I was only made aware of it by a polite security guard after barging in with my lightly drizzled new purchase like the barbarian I was.
The museum is what you might expect: a fine overview of the arts, crafts and traditions of Japan. You move through rooms of black-lacquer boxes and writing sets, armour and swords, to a chamber whose function appears to be solely for rest. A window looks out onto a terrace, lake and perfect garden. An old-school Bakelite telephone sits ominously perched on a plinth, casting shadows against the textured wallpaper. Over the next couple of hours, we took in theatre masks and costumes; kimonos; ceramics; intricate painted sculptures of dragons; paper screens. Most breathtaking of all were the unrolled scrolls of Buddhist texts, mostly extracts from the Lotus Sutra, which were kept under glass. Gold lettering on indigo paper, sprinkled with flecks that glinted as you moved along them.
Though filled with enough wonders to make your ancestors spasm with envy, most museums in Japan are strangely lacking in guidance. You get almost no explanation of the items on display, or their place in a wider context — not even in Japanese, as far as we could tell. But one of the messages that rang clear through the Tokyo National Museum is that, for a long time, Japanese art struggled to be seen as relevant or worthy to the West. While our forebears made art to be hung on walls or placed on plinths for sociopolitical critique, the Japanese decorated fabrics, crockery, or the very walls themselves. Beauty for the mere sake of it. Their art was a part of life, ours was an entity apart from it. I’d never made this connection until we beheld some Japanese oil paintings, on canvases in frames, like something we’d see at our own National Gallery. They almost appeared to succumb to Western snobbery. Japan’s idealisation of Western — particularly American — culture would poke through our entire honeymoon. Like carp in a pond, it could be seen even when it wasn’t breaking the surface.
Being vegetarian and therefore a nightmare to travel with, I’d downloaded the Happy Cow app so as to filter out anywhere that served vegetables in meat juice with a prawn garnish. Through and west of Ueno Onshi Park, we slipped via portal to another Tokyo, one before World War II. Non-skyscraper homes sat squat and white on street corners. Bicycles ferried middle-aged men in shirtsleeves and elderly women in floral-print jackets. There were tiled roofs and round windows, shrubbery, pine trees shading wooden staircases. Vending machines carrying iced coffee or cigarettes lined up against red-brick walls. In these neighbourhoods, electricity runs above ground. You walk beneath a network of cables and wires, half-expecting a gangster’s moll to invite you to a casino. ‘The council keeps threatening to hide the cables underground,’ Rob had told us. ‘If they do, I’m going to officially lodge a complaint.’ I’m with him.
We reached Tofu Room Dy’s. It sits nestled in one of these streets, with a window to catch anyone’s eye. Not for Dy’s the more common sight of plastic food ‘samples’; instead, it’s a Peanuts tableau. Snoopy mugs and clocks on a shelf. Snoopy parachuting down towards a Snoopy portrait in a frame. Snoopy stuck with suckers on the pane, reminding onlookers to KEEP SMILING.
Though neither the waitress or chef spoke much English, they did that incredibly polite Japanese thing of making us feel terrible by apologising for it. I insisted, ironically in English, that it’s we who should have learned theirs. Already feeling an idiot, I used my phrasebook to explain my fussy eating habits, but the women were on it. After a few minutes’ wait, the waitress brought out a plate of some of the most delicious non-meat foods I’ve ever had.
I remembered a parable learned from a storyteller friend, and its central message: As you are is as you’ll find it. If I approached Japan with open arms, she would return the gesture.
Soul and funk vinyl sleeves adorned the walls; Diana Ross, Kool and the Gang. All our lives we’d been told how conformist the Japanese are, but here were these two women in their kooky, characterful establishment.
A thought entered my head, and refused to budge: this country was cripplingly bombed by the Americans, within living memory. How did they choose — how were they able — to return that violence with so much love? And why was I so bothered by it, when I’m normally so We Are The World myself? I like melting pots, scrambles. I love Peanuts.
We left the restaurant with thanks and courteous bows, and headed for a textiles shop my husband had set his sights on. We passed a delivery van, parked outside a small apartment block. The driver loaded a bike with Amazon parcels, and adjusted his baseball cap.
This post originally appeared on Litro Online under my regular column, Chasing Sakura. This is a new edit.