Northeast Asia | Japan

Tokyo / Lingering Alone

the difference between seeing a place and being in a place

   And there we were. Somewhere, deep in it. Two microscopic men in mankind’s most gargantuan sprawl. My friend had flown in with bags of valuable knowledge about Japanese culture, and all I had brought was cheap curiosity. Japanese people and culture, even the food, had only ever made the faintest appearance in my life. And I seldom read up on places before going. Somehow I like my explorations naive and unburdened by background information. There is a certain unbiased and unprejudiced freedom in that.


After I had fed off of my friend's insights and Ramen tips for two days, he was knocked out by the flu. But before he crawled under the sheets to hide out from the virus, he lent me a pair of long johns to save me from the same cold destiny. So I was back to my uncharted steps of discovery. Neon-lit night glare, hectic ant-crossings, and placid Japanese cherry gardens flecking the concrete carpet didn't make for surprises and confirmed the few cliché facts I had picked up over the years. Replicas of the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower seemed oddly misplaced, on the other hand.

"I think I had expected all 35 million people to be present at every cross street at all times, 24/7/365. Alas, expectations, what had you done to this city?"

35 million lives were lived in these streets. This was no longer a concrete jungle or a sea of lights; the anthill had mushroomed into the world's vastest ocean of civilization, the Pacific of oceans, which, coincidentally, was right at Tokyo's doorstep. The sheer dimensions of the city were undeniably impressive. Yet, zoomed in with a magnifying glass, the individual neighborhoods often looked like idle countryside towns to me. Tranquility and order prevailed, where one might have expected craziness, chaos, or some polite Japanese form of anarchy.


It was a bit of an expectational letdown. I think I had expected all 35 million people to be present at every intersection at all times, 24/7/365. And more and taller skyscrapers. Somehow they were too spread out. Alas, expectations, what had you done to this city? One spot brought it all home though, satisfying my petty and demanding assumptions: TOCHO. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building became my favorite place in the city. All day long, smooth elevators shot people straight up these twin towers to the Southern and Northern observatories, where views were free. There, all my own suggestive promises were kept – city, city, city, all the way to the horizons with only one border: Mt. Fuji in the Southwest. I would just stare through the glass and breathe in all the lives and stories that unwound in that colossal Petri dish beneath, or at least in my mind.

"Everybody is so well-fed, every form of amazement is so saturated. Come, go, in, out, rush, rush."

I came back for more every day, preferably at a time that would allow for a daytime view, a sunset behind Mt. Fuji, and a night angle. I could stand there for hours, music in my ear, only changing the window occasionally.

Beautiful vistas are like life-sized TV to me and the fact that I always linger alone in these places of astonishment never seizes to baffle me. People come and go, have a quick look, move on. Everybody is keen on seeing these picture-perfect places, but nobody seems interested in actually being there, in staying in these moments. Peek, cross off the list, move on to the next aisle. Everybody is so well-fed, every form of amazement is so saturated. Come, go, in, out, rush, rush. Why not take it in a little longer, now that we came here all the way? It’s like an unwritten law: “look at it, but don’t touch it with your soul, then move along.” I sometimes have the hardest time letting go of such views. I need to remind myself that I cannot stay there forever, while I linger a little longer.

Back down in the manageable maze, I shot some ill-paid POI assignments. At least they led me around town, where the dress code was often classy, often eccentric, somewhere between black suits and off-beat Victorian-age dresses.

The normalities were the elements of surprise, while most of the perplexing cultural peculiarities felt perfectly normal. I had anticipated them. Like stumbling into what looks like a shopping center at 10am to find some sort of infantile amusement arcade inside, where smoking men play the miniature horses; or to be politely and coyly kicked out of the secretive Manga-bookstore on the next floor for reasons you can't conceive - on some level it all made sense.

Given the narrow time frame, I had covered substantial ground throughout various parts of the mega-metropolis. Yet, I only saw one homeless man in these unforgivingly cold January days. He was old and lived under a bridge near my supermarket. His set-up was a neat structure with a mattress foundation, a sleeping bag and several dirty blankets. Some of his belongings hung in a wire fence behind him; an umbrella, clothes. On my last day I went to the supermarket and stocked up on a variety of food items and drinks. I bought every item twice to leave one bag with him, but when I got to the bridge he was gone. I left his bag under the blankets, hoping he would come back and find it. In retrospect, I hope he vacated the spot for good, for some proper shelter from the icy winds.




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