Landing in Tokyo after a 14-hour flight, having had less than 20 hours sleep the previous week, pain tugging at my shoulder and adrenaline jangling like keys in my stomach, wasn’t quite the winning entrance I had in mind at the start of my two-week prize tour with GaijinPot and Japan Airlines’ Japan Explorer Pass.
This place had other plans for me.
Dazed and confused, headed to collect my bags, the escalator gave me my first experience of culture shock; an automated voice warning me that there was danger ahead. “Why is a staircase talking to me?” – the kind of question I would regularly find myself asking of the different robotic beings that rule the city.
You cannot feel alone in Tokyo. Sound is everywhere: voice recordings in and outside trains, toilets, the beep-beep at stops, huge visual and vocal commercials on buildings, crowds, gigs in the street, cars, laughter, trains, the slurping of noodle soups, the ka-ching of machines, people loudly greeting whenever you enter or leave somewhere.
At the exit from the airport, my mind focused on the fact that I was really, finally in Japan.
Starting with that point I became aware and tried to collect and stack all the details I found: materials, light, texture, smell – I wanted it all at once.
Merry go round and round again
The supposed-to-be-a subway route to the hotel turned out to be a mix of underground and overground that offered a few early glimpses of the city’s enigmatic skyline. Over the next few days I became aware that this is a typical feature: the thin line between something that begins and ends, entrances and exits, insides and outsides weaving into one another. I often struggled to find the entrance to a subway line as it was disguised as part of a store, an underground nook, or a corridor.
Public space is not a clear geometrical shape, like a square or piazzetta as back in Europe, but rather a 3D line that takes you below and then above, across and then through various levels of buildings onto the street. Everything is movement. Continuous flow. Tokyo is a city where space expands and unfolds as if you’re looking through a wide-angle lens. Each time you twist or turn, you get another perspective. You’re somewhere standing there too, in and out of focus.
No beat like a Tokyo beat
And then, there’s places like Yoyogi Park. Searching for the Meiji shrine on my second day, I found a place that I suddenly realized I needed; it was like falling into a real-life snow globe. I watched people enjoy Tai-chi, yoga, jogging, biking, singing – all in the same, still moment.
That day, I had the chance to see a Kabuki play at the Tokyo National Theater. The actors’ geometrical moves, the cropped sounds, the emphatic make-up lines and masks were like an origami of colour and balance that told another story separate from the traditional plotline.
I spent my first evening in historical Asakusa tumbling further and further in love with the chopped up narrow streets low-lit with lanterns and rocked by the breeze of slow bicycles passing by. It felt as if I was the intruder in an old-fashioned Japanese film.
The rest of my time in Tokyo continued as a projected movie reel; a motion picture of colors, sounds and textures.
Scenes unfolded where I was headed through sacred trees tied with ropes, past vivid blue hortensia, my hand sliding along a smooth bamboo handrail, feet climbing the stone steps in the garden of the Hotel Chinzanso towards a bare room laid with tatami mats. The soundtrack; washed whispers of kimonos moving along the ground accompanying the deliberate movements of a traditional tea ceremony, silent gestures decomposed into thousands of tiny fractures like glass. Or, I saw myself breathless and dizzy in Shinjuku’s Kabukicho entertainment district, my heartbeat pounding loud, trying to make out patterns in the neon and noise and stumbling upon refuge in a literal hole-in-the-wall in Golden Gai.
My first time in Tokyo pushed and pulled in so many different directions. But it didn’t lack feeling. With all the roam and the pulse in it, the city is a huge vacuum of energy, movement, rituals, subtlety and occasional nostalgia.
Cut scene and I’m back in the airport headed to the next part of my adventure on the tropical island of Amami Oshima. See you there.