We landed in a rainy Tokyo in a daze at noon after a sleepless night on the flight from London*. I had known we’d be in good hands the minute AirFrance had pulled out edible food – a Japanese curry – and after we had watched the translated version of Inuyashiki, a story about a middle-aged Japanese salaryman who is turned into a cyborg and saves humanity.
Anyone who has done that flight from Europe or North America to Asia knows that the first 48 hours is filled with a wondrous daze of “WTF and where am I.” Part of it is the jet lag, and if you don’t sleep on the flight, you’re hit with double confusion – the smells, sights, language, and customs with the compounded effects of no sleep make you feel as if you’ve stepped in Alice’s Wonderland of Weird, Tasty and Awesome. I was born in China and yet every trip back still fills me that same initial shock for at least the first 48 hours. This would be my first time in Tokyo proper. The initial landing felt no different in that sense, and yet it was very different compared to any trip I’ve ever made to Asia before.
Despite arriving by bus to Shinjuku, a busy city center of Tokyo, the first thing I noticed was how crowded the city was and yet how impeccably polite people were. I had known before coming that Japan was a polite, rules driven society, one that loves process and the incredible attention to details. But I wasn’t prepared for just how that would function in large masses within one of the world’s largest cities. Shinjuku seemed to move in a silent rhythm of equally silent rules, people walked on the left side of the street, there was no loud or boisterous speaking or coughing, cars were nearly just as quiet with the exception of the occasional honk, a rarity for a city with the sheer size of Tokyo. No one screamed. No one shouted one another’s names. There was a sense of organized busy-ness and near apologetic interactions – people jumped out of our way even when it seemed like there was little room to jump.
The backdrop of the futuristic-looking, colorfully lit city with its tinkering toys shining out of every shop added to the wonderland feel of silence in the rainy city. I felt I had arrived via spaceship to some near future civilization, like a cleaner version of Bladerunner, and thought: “Good God what was this place like 30 years ago? When the technology was actually that much far ahead of Western society?” Each large street broke into alleyways, and each alleyway revealed corners and basements (or stories of buildings piled on high) filled with mysterious goods or billowed some delicious smelling food. You look up, or you look down, and all you can see are different floors of restaurants, shops and other interesting places to visit, making the task of exploration feel nearly impossible, as if this is a city filled with infinite weird wonders.
The next thing I noticed was the proliferation of manga, anime, and billboards filled with strangely cute yet slightly unnerving cartoons of animals and robots. Initially, I thought this was intended for children and young adults until I looked closer and realized that some of it was disturbingly violent and suggestive. I was distracted from thinking too much about this** and instead wandered to a basement ramen shop. They played jazz as the rains continued to pound the city, and I had what felt like the best bowl of ramen in my life. This feeling of “Oh, that was the best [insert food] I’ve ever had,” would continue each meal onward.
We eventually left Shinjuku and headed toward our Airbnb. We were lucky to have found a place after Japan cracked down on Airbnb licenses, and our little flat was just off the beaten road in Soshigaya (where no one spoke any English unlike in Shinjuku), which we’d come to appreciate far more as the week progressed. On the Odyaku line and beaten dead by jet lag, I fell asleep unexpectedly. When it was time for our stop, we got off and just as we neared our rental, I realized I had forgotten my Company’s beloved camera – still filled with photos from our summer – on the train.
In any other place, this would have devastated us as we would have needed to come to terms with the likely scenario of losing an expensive camera but more expensive memories. We checked in, dropped the rest of our luggage off, and ran back to the station to report the loss. Four police officers, none of whom spoke English, worked on our case as it if were a missing person’s situation. They called an English translator who translated for us and immediately resolved, “Go to the next station in 15 minutes. The camera is there for you.” We bowed and repeated, “Arigato” a dozen times and smiled and thanked them again in multiple languages (we were tired). My Company ran to the next station just a few blocks away, and there it was, perfectly saved by a passenger who likely ran off at the very next step to make sure that we’d have an easy way to retrieve our beloved travel memories. It was the most endearing, heart warming welcome to large, foreign city.
We spent the first two nights sleeping on tatami mats and futons, listening to Typhoon Jebi rip across western Japan, shaking our little room with it’s tall, large windows with the howling rain and wind. We thought of those people in Osaka and Kyoto. We warmed ourselves indoors as we fell into a deep sleep, the rain splashing across the rooftops and against our windows like waves crashing against the buff.
Visiting Japan is like peeling the layers of an onion. As I write this, I’ve been here for a little over a week, and the layers are deeper than I even realized during those first 48 hours (you’ll have to keep reading for the next set of observations). It is as if the city is the epicenter of multiple universes, the same people and society embodying a deepness of custom, process and desire. For once, the Murakami books I have read – nearly half a dozen now – make so much more sense: the wanderings into magical places, the unfinished plot lines, the interchanging of real and surreal, and the underlying feeling that nothing is what it seems yet everything somehow works, beautifully, politely, safely. I feel a person can spend a lifetime in Japan and emerge being surprised by some unforeseen adventure, like Alice through the Looking Glass.
*Protip: if you want some amazing flight deals from London to Tokyo, take the AirFrance flight that stops through Charles De Gaulle. For some unknown reason, flying from London is 1/4 the price of the same flight straight from CDG (it would be cheaper, in theory, then to take the Eurostar from Paris to London to fly to Tokyo via CDG).
**I have always been fascinated by what lies beneath the polite societal undercurrent in Japan, the one you read about in Murakami books or hear about from expats living abroad there.