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Impressions of a Tokyo return

June 6, 2009
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I recently spent just over a week in Tokyo, my first time there in over a year. The first thing I noticed was how gray and colorless it was. Everything. Buildings, people, sky. And crowded. I have a keen eye for detail, as you can tell. But yes, unbearably, undeniably, inhumanely crowded. Organized chaos. It’s so easy just to sit back on the train and marvel at the landscape of the city. A to-scale Legoland. Impossible to relax, in spite of the world-class hospitality, food and bathing. After a few days, my wife and I are both complaining of tired, sore muscles. From what? Maybe too much commuting on public transportation. Too many cramped spaces. Freedom to engage in bizarre behaviors, like trying to fly a kite in the park on a day with no wind, and having the greatest time doing it. That’s the Japanese sense of – what? Absurdity? Whimsicality? Innocence? It is not something we have a precise word for. Graceful failure is getting closer to it. Returning to these concepts and sensations brought a certain amount of pleasure. Sitting in an onsen in Hakone and observing the irregularities of the pool. The way the gentle undulations of the steaming water interact with the asymmetrical patterns of the stone floor, warping and refracting the lines in an steady and unpredictable rhythm. I feel in this moment like I’ve had some kind of deeper insight into the Japanese mind, though my description of it fails to convey the depth. It is as though the way of thinking is expressed through this pool, this moment of stillness and movement. No straight lines. No linear thoughts. Natural. Cyclic. Twisted. I make sure to exit the bath before I steam my brain completely. Tokyo is a kind of giant machine that picks you up and carries you along. Volition optional. Numerous discussions of life-in-Japan versus life-not-in-Japan with friends. Cultural differences. Too easy. The reasons I left are validated, fully. But the appeal remains as well. The everyday encounters with entertaining oddity. Obsession, or fetishization of detail is another concept that strikes me again. But the details are never anchored to what we would consider the “proper” context. At times, this bothers me. At other times, it amuses, or inspires. I watch a morning news program where people spend half an hour discussing in meticulous detail whether or not you should take an umbrella with you when there is a 30% chance of rain (banal, but at least less sordid than what shows on the news in America). I wonder if my view of these sudden, jarring anomalies has anything in common with how a Japanese person would view them. Most often, not. I remember when I still lived in Tokyo I once met a visiting journalist who used to live there. Now he was based out of New York, but made occasional visits. He told me that being in Tokyo is much better when you visit from abroad than when you live there. I completely agree. It’s good to know the ins and outs of the city, but even better knowing you can leave.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Mason permalink
    October 12, 2009 1:25 pm

    Hey P,

    Found you Blog. I always tell people that Japan is a great place to visit, a tough place to live.


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