Coming from Dublin it was a shock to have the beautiful blue sky and high sun. The first day I even got sunburnt as the reality that Tokyo is on the same latitude as southern Spain sunk in. The ubiquitous cherry trees and their fleeting flitted pink blossom were momentarily taking over the wind, water, sky and earth. Their use in haikus and anime suddenly making sense as they briefly mark, with poignant majesty, the change in season. And it’s not just about the beauty of the blossom en masse on the trees but also the individual petals and their power as they snow and are caught by the wind and their contrasting ephemeral lightness as they rest on the city’s concrete. Without a doubt we could not have met Tokyo at a better time though I do wonder, with so much flora being of one variety, what other nature there is to be enjoyed. It’s clear that the cherry blossom punches above its temporary weight as during the rest of the year the Sakura symbol is found on drain covers, doors, gutters, company logos and all sorts of other urban furniture throughout the city.
An amusing/infuriating affectation seems to have developed in Tokyo whereby restaurants names, menu headers, titles of maps or event leaflets and a non descriptive words on a product or advert will be written in English, dangling the possibility of understanding, only for every useful piece of information to be written in Japanese. If I were the Ancient Mariner would say, there’s English English everywhere but not a drop to use. The extent of English spoken can obviously differ but just because a policeman/waiter is near a tourist destination does not guarantee an even basic level of English. This is fine as we need to practise our Japanese and it adds a sense of urgent necessity to learning food, shopping and directions vocab; besides you’ll always get a patient smile as you flounder in your inability to communicate – and that makes everything daijobu (OK)!
Other cultural mannerism are keeping me endlessly entertained. Whether it is the wacky adverts that use a picture of an unidentifiable foodstuff juxtaposed with a kawaii character and lolitaed big eyed female model or the elderly Japanese tourists and their zombie-speed stampede on a day trip to the Imperial Palace. There’s also the civilised queueing (sometimes on a pavement for a restaurant on a different street, if the restaurant street is too narrow) for everything (step aside Brits) – sharing with 15 million will do that, the hot towels presented before every meal (or drink) and there’s the white gloved, high-vis, lightsabre baton totting men that will bow 90º and hold their hands up in surrender if they need to gomenasai (sorry) you multiple times to stop you for 5 seconds so that a car can pass in front of you (trust me this is how you want my patience to be appealed to and appreciated! these same Moses men will also impossibly part a giggle of schoolgirls filling between their school and the playground so that you can carry on down the street uninterrupted!). This all part of what we have come to describe as a thoroughness that seems to be characteristic of Japanese actions. A runner will be in matching full running kit with all accessories, a waitress will arrange a pot of straws with OCDesque attention or fold a cloth with precise gestures and geometry before using it and a worshiper will wash, bow, clap and pray in front of a shrine with parade ground precision. And of course there are the Harajuku girls but, for me, it’s the cute elementary school boys in their school uniforms standing next to their similarly dressed sixth-form counterparts, who are making their uniform ooze their teenage manga-esque melange of angst and chillaxedness, that captures the essence of the individuality of the Japanese within their rigid social norms.
Then there’s the technology, from the vending machines every 25m apart to recorded birdsong on the underground to the neon of Shibuya and Shinjuku to the electric cargo carts at the Tsujiki Fish Market. It’s also over-consumed in an infinity of selfies, poses and photographs, patronising digital hot water controls, waterproof tvs and advice from elevators (in Japanese = erebata). There are even ticket machines at which to place your lunch order with a waitress taking the ticket from the machine to the counter 1 metre away though all pretence at sophistication in soon surrendered to the subsequent soba slurp! Finally, my own personal peeve, the electronic toilet (which come in two different types either with analogue or digital flush – I guess that some people have obviously twigged that in some cases a power cut could be very, very messy). Funny air functions and dodging chest-high water jets aside, I’m sorry but a heated toilet seat is something which I feel has jumped so far up the scale of civilisation that it has looped back round to the barbaric.
But all this aside, my overwhelming lasting first memory will be the sheer excitement of the o-hanami. The will to lay down a tarp by a river, under a blossoming cherry tree at the beginning of April at 7 o’clock on a Saturday morning and to be socialising and already slightly tiddly suggested to me that the land of the rising sun has a yugen that you must come here and experience yourself!
Go to the Tokyo section of the blog for a full list of posts!