Ordinary in Tokyo
Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2005. All Rights Reserved.
The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.
abstract: Although this was my first trip to Tokyo, it was not devoid of common predilections. My interest in how Japan became a model of modernization for non-European countries, had led me long ago to write a college term-paper on the educator Fukazawa Yukichi. Soon thereafter, I was captivated by the magic of Akira Kurosawa’s filmed fables. In the Eighties, it was the story of Japanese economic prowess that inspired awe. With it, not coincidentally, came a nascent appreciation for Japanese style in arts of all types. For me, the common thread in all these was the attraction of a land so distant and yet so important. Learning about Japan is, of course, a life long pursuit. This brief trip was a small step to gain some insight on how Tokyo would affect my experience as a foreign observer.
keywords: Tokyo* Tokyo Tourist*
At the bend of the third switchback of our line of travelers, a typed sign said that it would be 40 minutes to the immigration booths at the Tokyo airport. I took this personally; I was irritable. Having flown ten hours from an underdeveloped country to get here, I expected, well, more consideration from Japan. Why was it not prepared to receive us more efficiently? Where was its vaunted automation? Not even a digital sign? The fact that I did not need a visa to enter, endowed me with a sense of entitlement. I looked with an air of superiority at fellow passengers to spot those I would bypass because they needed visas. This vanity was in vain. The line did not bifurcate ahead for the likes of me. We were all treated the same: we were all ordinary.
Presently, however, another small sign caught my eye. I squinted to read it. It seemed to indicate that those who did not require a visa had to fill out a special form available at a side window. This would have meant losing my place in the line. As I despaired aloud, an English man behind me comforted me. “They don’t mean that,” he said with a half smile, thus introducing me to the subtleties of the Japanese usage of English. He explained that he had been living in Japan for some time. “But the sign says so; it says…” I began, before he interrupted me. “Are you a lawyer, a stickler on words?” he asked rhetorically, and dismissively.
I forfeited my chance at a rejoinder to him because as we moved, I had just seen yet a third sign which pointed to the immigration booth set aside for seniors. I allowed myself a smirk of relief for another source of entitlement I could now tap. “Adieu!” -I confess, I actually said that to my “young” English friend- and I changed lanes. No sooner had I moved, however, than a Japanese fellow of my vintage appeared before me. He had been directing the line which I had just left. Tersely, he notified me that where I was now standing was for seniors only. I said I knew. He asked for my identity card. When he saw the badge of my entitlement, he said, not without disdain, “I am over 65, but I work as a volunteer here.” I refused to yield my privilege as I wanted to get to my hotel fast to rest.
The buses which they euphemistically called limousines at the Narita airport were actually very comfortable. They ran remarkably on time. I audited many before mine came, alas, an hour hence, as announced. There was no dispensation for people in a hurry.
Breakfast at Tsukiji
Early in the morning, I went to Tsukiji. I was told that this was the world’s largest fish market, where in excess of 6 billion dollars worth of fish were sold every year. That information remained largely abstract, unchanged by the fact that I saw many fish in great variety in Tsukiji. The commercial transactions I could observe were few. They were retail sales and could not amount to much. Documentation was handled by middle-aged women in little booths, while men sloshed about in their rubber shoes.
The bigger show was in the back where all types of vehicles of the wholesale trade danced in a chaotic choreography. I jumped over little pushcarts, yielded to big trucks, avoided forklifts, dodged motorcycles, and skirted hundreds of round motored tanks. The cacophony of these machines’ clatters was the only noise one heard. The Japanese spoke quietly.
About nine o’clock, I followed the workers to the small eateries on the periphery of the market. I wanted to have breakfast like them, although fish in the morning was an unusual diet for me. I chose a diner and sat at a semicircular counter with the fishermen. A man who stood in the middle took our orders. I motioned that I wanted the same thing everyone else was eating. I was served a plate of rice with a brownish sauce on the top and some white shredded cabbage. The taste was unfamiliar, but I was wrong in thinking that the dish contained fish. I asked the server what it was called. He said some words which I did not understand. I asked him to write it down. Amused, he printed slowly: “Indian curry”.
Having just had a meal that I ordinarily would eat for dinner, it was appropriate to go to a show now that it was eleven in the morning. At the traditional Kabuki-za theater nearby this was not a special matinee; it was their regular show time. I had the choice of a full show which lasted four hours or a shorter version which was for two hours. The place was packed and not just by curious foreign visitors. Most customers were Japanese who were happily consuming their lunch while seeing the plays. These programs were so popular that a portrait of the main actor of the show which I saw, Oniji Otani, was plastered all over the city. The portrait was the centerpiece of a major exhibit by the famous painter Sharaku. The abstract in the brief playbill did not give me the requisite cultural background to appreciate the whole two hours of the show. I napped part of the way as did two Japanese women sitting next to me.
The curving stairway of Tokyo’s famed Spiral Building allowed me a moving perspective of nine large whimsical veils in different colors which constituted the core of the happening in the central well below. Artists and photographers mingled with the visitors in a Tomio Mohri show, described as “Nine Goddesses wishing happiness to the spaceship called ‘the Earth’”. A gallery owner from Kyoto graciously became my impromptu guide. As I listened, I feasted my eyes and imagined a source of Japan’s exquisite style in its textile.
After lunch in the Garden Court, I noticed a selection of delicate origami lined on the receptionist’s counter. I asked for the name of the artist. A young waitress was introduced to me. I told her how much I liked her art. She grinned and went behind the counter and produced a little box. Then she proceeded to put the origami pieces in the box and handed it to me. I did not know what to do. I offered to pay her. She declined.
The tour guide took us straight to a jade “museum” shop as our first stop. This brazen act of marketing was then followed by a mere drive through the sights which were promised on the tour brochure; we did not even pause. Through the windows of the bus, the landscape of Tokyo appeared as a hodgepodge of post World War Two buildings, injected with such oddities as a fake Eiffel Tower. We stopped at the portal of the mall leading to the Senso-ji temple. After some disjointed comments about the temple in the distance, the guide left us to our own devices for the next forty-five minutes. I saw foreign visitors mimicking the locals, fanning themselves with the smoke that rose from a small well of burning incense in front of the temple. I imagined the ritual was bereft of any spiritual meaning for them. On the other side of Senso-ji, two young Japanese women were being pulled in a tourist rickshaw by a handsome hulk whose animated talking I wished our guide could match. When the latter collected us, we only got some more driving with her through the traffic of Tokyo. I asked to be dropped off in Akihabara, the famed high-tech district of the city, as I wished to experience riding the Tokyo Subway afterward. She pointed out the direction to the subway station.
Such general directions, however, proved totally inadequate for me. This major station which served several suburban trains as well as subway lines was being renovated. Finding the entry platform to the line I had to take was virtually impossible for a person who did not read Japanese. I asked several people for help. Every one of them stopped to listen to my pleading, although very few could speak English. Finally, a middle-aged man came to my rescue. He lived in Tokyo, but as a manager for the Philips corporation he frequently visited Europe. The signs for the station were not clear and he spent nearly half an hour walking around with me. He talked to a station agent and a shopkeeper before we found the entry to the right platform. In the process I told him about my tour guide. He grimaced knowingly, “Unfortunately, we Japanese don’t know how to communicate with foreigners. We have been an island nation and self-contained for too long.” This made sense to me. It was not that I had been ignored; I was just not treated as special. Japanese did not make much fuss about foreign tourists. The presence of foreigners was accepted in a matter of fact way. It did not impact their life one way or another. In that ultimate sense, Tokyo seemed self-sufficient.
Tokyo’s subway, like its streets, was quite and clean. I saw no beggar, homeless, or hustler. There was no paper debris, no discarded newspapers even in the garbage bins. In the subway cars nobody read. There was no conversation. The younger passengers were glued to their hand-held devices. They were not listening, talking, or moving their fingers. They were just stirring at the silent screen.
I stepped out into the drizzle that helps keep Tokyo’s parks green. This was a good time to visit the lush grounds of the Imperial Palace. The many taxis that passed were full. The fare is expensive. Only a large middle class could support such traffic. At the entrance to an office building I noticed rows of parked umbrellas. People who came out would take them into the rain and those who entered the building would leave theirs in the pile. Somebody said I could use one too. There was no guard around. Public order required no visible guardian in Tokyo.
“The Imperial Palace is the biggest piece of property in Tokyo, but it is only for two persons in this very crowded city,” a critical European had told me that morning. Now I stood with four Japanese tourists, looking at the royal residence across the moat that separated us. Located in downtown Tokyo, it was accessible yet distant as we could not enter it. It retained the requisite mystique.
I circled the Palace on the outside and passed the neighboring Japanese Supreme Court building on the way to Tokyo’s main Shinto shrine, Yasukuni -jinja. The Japanese Prime Minister’s visits to this shrine have been called unconstitutional because it contains the remains of certain “war criminals,” so determined by American victors after World War Two. I went through its steel gates and saw a group of pilgrims posing for a picture. They had brought their own photographer who stood on a stool. I asked the custodian of the shrine for permission to take a picture. He came around and took my picture with the shrine in the background. Then he posed for me with a smile.
Allure of the Foreign
Tokyo was not immune to the influence of foreigners. There were enough of them here to have their own upscale supermarket, Kinokuiya. Here I joined a group of expatriate and Japanese shoppers who were listening to a salesclerk describe the newly-arrived Napa Valley wines. She reminded us, anecdotally, that in the boom days of the 1980s, the very first batch of the new Beaujolais from France would arrive here for Japanese consumption, in chartered Concorde planes.
The expatriates in Tokyo also have their own newspapers. On the front page of the September 10, 2005 issue of that paper, Metropolis , was the news that the Japanese automaker Lexus planned to introduce its luxury models to the Japanese market this year. Some Japanese analysts were apprehensive, the report said, because Lexus lacked the “allure” of foreign products. On the fashionable auto row of Aoyama-dori I saw on display, in the windows of chic stores, a Maserati priced at $139,000, a Bentley priced at $214,000, and a Peugeot priced at $312,000. No domestic car was on display. Across the street, Epson, a furniture store, exhorted its customers by a banner in English: “Exceed your Vision!”
Tokyo attracts Americans, judging by the large number of them I saw in my hotel. Not all of them were there for business. In the elevator that took me to the lobby, a cheerful woman said hello to me. She proceeded to tell me that this was her wedding day. Both she and the groom lived in San Francisco but had decided to get married in Tokyo because “it would be fun.” When we discovered that we were practically neighbors in our mutual hometown in the States, she said “Hey, why don’t you join the party?” Later that day I ran into another wedding party from the U.S. There was no special explanation for this coincidence, the cousin of this bride assured me. Indeed, I detected no abundance of aphrodisiac in Tokyo. The parks were lovely but empty of demonstrative lovers. On a holiday, the Autumnal Equinox, I saw many school girls in uniform . If there were any flirting Japanese women, I missed them.
The Americans were boisterous, but silent when it came to speaking Japanese. This inability to interact in a foreign language, born out of geographic insularity, seemed accentuated in the more homogenous Japanese who unlike the Americans have not allowed in immigrants from other lands. In the crowds that filled Shinjuku-dori and Omote Sando, I looked in vain for the multi ethnic collage of faces so common in America’s big cities. I only saw cos-play (costume play) –zoku girls wearing far out Western clothes to mock onlookers as much as themselves.
This article entitled Ordinary in Tokyo was published on the Website of Cultural Savvy in 2006, with the related pictures.