I’ve never bored of sitting at the window looking out over the world. Landscapes gain a grandeur only tourist adverts allow you to peak at. In developed countries 70% of the world’s population live in cities these days. And they too have their attractions, even vast conurbations such as Tokyo. Flying into Rome was special a few months ago. We could clearly see the Coliseum and St Peter’s in the Vatican. Sao Paolo and Mexico City were the biggest cities I’d flown into and like Tokyo it lacks a centre, a heart and clear distinctions from the air. Yet they still impress as communal masses. I started to film Tokyo as we flew out. Then my arms got tired!
Returning to Japan was an exciting and nervous moment for me. Some of you might know the story! But equally I was nervous and excited to know if my memories had served me correct. If what I remembered was real and not overwhelmed by selective memories and nostalgia. Walking through Tokyo, a city I barely knew, if you can, was exciting. But returning to Kyoto, a golden period in a pretty fortunate life confirmed all I needed. As the snow petals fell as I waited for Scott, I watched the walkers, illuminated by a million lights, braving the cold, I’d not been fooled.
What I remembered mostly and could never grasp was the levels of culture. Everyday you could walk down the same street and see something different. You were constantly surprised. The detail and attention given by the Japanese to present wrapping is an example. It’s a trained perfection. Pride is revealed by the shock and embarrassment when such standards are not reached.
On deeper levels there is a social meaning for every action and non-action. The silences are inhabited by such value. Few foreigners understand this. Few make the effort. Most simply continue on assuming everyone agrees with their statements and actions, that they are the charismatic leader of the scene. They rarely learn much. The depth is mind-boggling. However even the Japanese can find it difficult to explain why certain actions are necessary.
A similar example can be found when reading Japanese newspapers. Japanese has three alphabets; hiragana for grammar and verbs, katakana for foreign words and kanji for nouns. There are so many Kanji (more than 10,000) you need to read through the context to understand. Most Japanese aren’t able to full read or understand their own language. Imagine the trouble for foreigners. All language is culturally-based but even if you are born into it, Japanese can be problematic. I remember Yukiko lived in the US for 4 years from the age of 7 to 11 years. Her English was excellent, if with a real American accent but her Japanese suffered and she found it difficult to keep up.
Tokyo is an entanglement of trains, roads and elevated highways. Riding into the city in a taxi feels like an episode of Grand Theft Auto as we screamed and bumped through neon-lit tunnels. The first night in Tokyo involved going to Mayu’s favourite restaurant and drinking sochu with locals. We may not have understood each other but between us we got the point across.
The next night we headed to Shibuya and had the most Japanese day imaginable. With Ponchan and Mayu and later Kenta we went to Uniglo to buy clothes, ate okonomiyaki, a Japanese pancake and at 4am Yoshinoya, Japanese fast food, drank ashasi, sang karaoke, played bowling, crossed the Shibuya junction, ate under at Under the Sea and took the first train back. I managed to shout out ‘hey isn’t that a love hotel?’ just as a couple walked out the door.
The next day I took the bullet train with a bento and stayed 3 nights in Kyoto. Everything is clean with an army of washers and polishers in attendance. Manicured fields and perfect streets sat under distant mountains. A Japanese man cracked his egg on the bench, pouring the remanents into a bowl. I was tired and slept. Later I looked out the window and there was Kyoto.
The station is magnificent. Kyoto Tower over looks it. I stayed with Liz and Meeting Scott, Liz and Yumi in Kyoto, wandering the streets and refinding myself was beautiful. I knew my way instantly. It was Kansai damashi! We found a bar with live blues, a tiny intimate venue. We picked up an American and after 3 hours of karaoke with Liz, It was 730am and we went for some food. Getting home that late was normal in Japan and now I was back in Japan.
Workers in Japanese are all Japanese. Students man the lower-end jobs in karaoke, bars, restaurants and convenience stores. There is no out-sourcing of effort. Everyone learns from the bottom up and their responsibility. The shops and restaurants rings out with practiced greetings. It’s all ritualised, cute and also slightly disturbing.
The next two nights I met Scott, my old drinking buddy from Kyoto, a guy who always made me laugh and later with Yumi for some amazing food. It was lovely to see her. After a quick trip to Seoul (more later), I returned for one last night in Tokyo followed some tayoyaki, real Japanese food. I left happy, more than happy. It was worth the nerves. I’ll know I’ll be back again and again.