A Gently Steaming Cup of Tea
A peek past the hanging curtain
A gently steaming cup of green tea rests in my cupped hands, the faint smell brushing past my face, echoing quietly in my head. I'm high over the Pacific, ensconced in an aeroplane bound for Seattle - and wishing I wasn't. The last few days have been utter magic. My sandals have logged many kilometers on Japan's crunchy gravel, droning pavement, and rustling strewn leaves. I should be sleeping, resting for my 7am arrival, but my head is overflowing with sights, thoughts, and questions; Hiroshima's revered and ignored empty dome, Kyoto's grey men and grey stones, Tokyo's bustle and markets. And the streets! Wondrous winding side streets that empty into main thoroughfares only to re-appear elsewhere, stairs leading up and down, sometimes to nowhere and sometimes to flavours and smells divine. Japan exudes a harmonious contradiction of ancient traditions and modern momentous economies. Crowds with everybody going somewhere else, yet the crowd still exists. Purposely defined spans of emptiness that are yet rich simply with being. Bullet trains that are used as would a subway, people standing in the vestibules as they wait for the next town a mere 250 kilometers away to whisk into view. Sadly, I was here primarily for work. I vowed this time to not repeat my two weeks of work in Taiwan where I had only split minutes to glance sideways. But this isn't a story of work, this is a story of a journey to the fabled far side of the world.
Japan. Somewhere on the fabled far side of the world. Part of Ancient Asia. Land of samurai, bonsai and geisha. And in late April, the land of excitedly expecting cherry blossoms to bloom any minute. I had several working days in and around Tokyo, Tachikawa and Ome to get aquainted with the basics; learning how to get onto the correct train platform (and also how to get back out on the street!), steadying my excited pulse, learning to look right and walk left, and all the while trying to absorb some Useful Phrases. And also, to look up. Most cities and countries I've seen make very little use of vertical space. When you think of what space humans occupy on earth (4 kilometer thick region on a 12,700km diameter globe - equates to less than the thickness of a human hair wrapped around a decently sized beach ball), it makes sense that our natural inclination is to process sideways. Tall buildings do exist around the world and some cities have underground subways, but most of us (5 billion) live, work and play below the spire of the tallest building on earth (as of 2006, Taipei 101 at 508 meters) and well above those subway levels. This sideways attitude accounts nicely for the urban sprawl seen so much in North America, where it is easier to build a big box store sideways than it is to build up. Tokyo, on the other hand, routinely stacks one or two highways over train tracks over city streets over subways and all meandering around multi-storey buildings. The bus I rode in from Narita airport entered Tokyo at about the 5th floor. Welcome to the land of the rising sun.
Beam me over to Tokyo station, Scotty
I have to admit, I'm not a fan of the car-dependent culture prevalent in so many regions (and growing in so many more!). I can completely understand whence it comes from: dealing with large distances, attempting to cut travel times and hassles, easily carrying large loads, staying dry. I own a car for some of those reasons, though it is parked in Vancouver and not insured on a day to day basis. I truly enjoy being in a city that emphasizes and assists pedestrian travel rather than prioritizing vehicles over people, so I was thrilled to be in a place where bikes and trains are viable, effective, and visible methods of transport. I recently saw an ad for an efficient freight train engine: one ton (half a car) moved 490 miles with one gallon of diesel. Imagine if an average car got even half of that… 125 miles on one gallon? Petroleum-based fuels are the densest energy source (well, asides our friendly neighbourhood thermonuclear bomb) easily available to mankind. I wonder what level of energy consumption and efficiency we have to find to make our current distance/speed sustainable with less dense but earth friendly energy sources? I expect I’m overly sensitive to car travel since I don’t do well with repetition (and thus commutes and only seeing yellow lines and taillights), but being on a train also doesn’t leave me with the same regret of seeing an 120-ft wide path mowed through the trees to accommodate the number of people a 12-ft wide train track can. It seems that the Western US is at an impasse – it is so easy to use a car to get places that it is difficult to convince people to use a train, never mind build new railway lines.
Tokyo’s train map is far from simple! It was very amusing navigating in a place where I can’t read anything, except the reliable English station and train names. There was a lot of watching and guessing! Where’s north, which way should that train be moving, what is the next station name – check!, why is everybody getting off and transferring to that train, which ones are express and what type of express, after 8pm keep an eye open for the women-only cars… and the list goes on. Too much fun! Everybody seems to have internet on their cell phone – I was with a group at one point where 4 people were checking 4 different possible routes to get to dinner.
Most restaurants in the western world are on street level and especially on one floor, whereas in Tokyo you could find food (you could find everything!) at any elevation and even the standard monoliths of KFC's, McDonalds, and Starbucks occupied a small square footage on two or more floors in a much larger building.
Night on the Town
My brother's girlfriend (and friend in her own right) Steph connected me with one of her friends (Hi Mark!) she met when teaching English in Japan. The result: a chess game played on subway cars and in stations as we made our way to dinner south of Tokyo with friends, some tie straightening, an impassioned discussion on technology's fate and lots of laughs. Of course, late nights make for early mornings where some things are more amusing than usual.
It seems that a lot of Japan is about saving space. Small cars, small vans, small hotel rooms, large stores scrunched into small volumes. Rough comparisons would be Boston’s North End, San Francisco’s China Town, New York’s Little Italy. But even with that comparison, those places are mostly horizontal. To be even more appropriate, stack three North Ends over each other! It’s tough to describe, but it is an efficient use of space that results in a lot of surprises and possibilities. Such as a wedding on a rooftop. The Tachikawa Palace Hotel has a 10th floor hall and reception green. The epitome of cool, as far as the kids are concerned.
Searching for headspace
Finally, the work clock strikes noon. I'm a free man, left to my own devices (mostly, aside the ever present computer riding in my backpack and strict orders to check email every day). Into Tokyo, lunch on the run at a train-side ramen house (and my first introduction to food cooked by a chef via vending machine... pay the vending machine and a man gives you a steaming bowl of noodles... hm. I probably gave many people cause for amusement with my blunders!), a quick visit with Mark, then I leave him in peace to search for my own. I finally get to envelop myself in the soothing warmth of traveling without a fixed schedule, without a fixed goal. I exist to see, to absorb, to experience. I find it interesting that one of my favoured states is very much the case of a youngster - constantly learning, and always posed on the edge of grasping that next bit of the puzzle, that next understanding that will let me say avocado or lead me down through the forest of ginger stalks to play in that burbling sound. Tokyo has many large parks tucked within the city – a benefit of growing up with attention to (the importance of) history? Harajuku station provides a hang out zone for kids in goth uniform but also lies at the entrance to Shibuya-Ku
, with its peaceful gardens and busy yet silent temple.