Pavlos (pavlos) wrote,
Pavlos
pavlos

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Koi ga arimasen

OK, OK, I'm not grumpy any more. I finally got out of the hotel and walked about Tokyo, city of truly unbelievable numbers of trains, fish roe and seaweed pasta, homeless people in blue tarpaulins, middle class mums and young couples, acres of flashing neon signs, tangles of overground cables wrapped in yellow tubes, indistinguishable great avenues, and huge grids of equally indistinguishable dingy back streets full of food and sex establishments, the former described in explicit detail by imitation dishes on display and the latter almost completely impenetrable to foreigners.

I didn't achieve either of the objectives for the outing, but it was fun to try. First objective was to get a "koi", a traditional kite in the shape of a fish that you hang outside your house. I managed to draw the concept, but the koi season has passed and they're no longer in toy shops, so I would have to buy one from a maker. I got someone to write down an address, and then received a first-hand demonstration of why it is hard to locate an address in Japan even if you are Japanese, and in fact even if you are a Japanese taxi driver. Streets are not named or numbered. Instead, the local part of the address is just three numbers. The first identifies a region of maybe 20 city blocks. The middle number identifies the particular city block, with numbers apparently assigned at random, and the last number identifies the house in the block, also with no apparent order (I believe they assign the numbers as buildings get built). Eventually, the overly polite taxi driver managed to break various one-way traffic rules and get us to what seemed to be the correct number building, but it looked very closed and more like the koi-maker's house. Wakarimasen... Anyway, one less gaijin aping this sexist custom.

Second objective was to take lots of pictures to illustrate a talk at work (we have a custom of having a seminar once a week) about "Japan" that I sort of volunteered to. Admittedly, it's a rather ambitious topic. But I had in mind to get pictures of things that characterise Japan, like trains, chunky concrete and steel buildings, Luis Vuitton bags, large numbers of people, etc. and talk about what I think these say for Japanese society. But it was too drizzly to take pictures in an organized way and anyway I was not in the mood, so instead I went to Ueno, Kinshicho, and Asakusa and, holding the camera in one hand at waist level to disguise the fact, snapped three rolls of people in the marketplaces and about the river. I don't know what's actually in the pictures until they get developed, but I hope at least some of them were aimed in the right direction and are not too blurry.

Ueno, Kinshicho, and Asakusa are old districts, the last one especially so. Or rather, almost the whole of Tokyo is built post-war but these parts seem to have have retained the structure and pace of the older city. Ueno has an incredibly busy market, but also lots of pockets of calm, a lot of this the product of desperation, like the homeless people seem very calm and not going anywhere. Asakusa is next to the Sumida river which, despite Philip Starck's ludicrous building, shows a calmer and more honest side of the city. Maybe the very long rows of homeless tents on each bank are part of this. The district seems to have a calmer pace in general, and despite its temples that attract visitors seems to be a district for the Japanese, and in fact for the local residents. There were several cars with dark windows that looked remarkably young-mafia-like, passing pictures of young wanted men posted on the Koban (police box). There was a gathering outside the very middle class Starbuck's Coffee where people were comparing their dogs of vastly different sizes. I found an incredibly popular sushi bar (it had a queue of 40 or so, despite there being no shortage of sushi bars) which was good and also taught me that "last orders" is "'ast ordah" in Japanese. There were decorative things, sometimes rather odd ones like plastic green gourd-like things, hung from lamp posts. In all it was very pleasant and relaxing to walk through, completely unlike Shibuya or Shinjuku on a Saturday evening.

The thing is, though, Tokyo will always be some sort of mystifying and sometimes pleasant outing seen only in short trips. Comparing to London, for example, I know that if I decide I like the lifestyle of Londoners so much I can always move there. Tokyo is at once part of the "West", unlike, say, Lagos, Jerusalem, or Beijing, and at the same time isolated from the west and westerners. I couldn't live here, and even if I tried it's quite obvious I would be living as a foreigner, not as a Japanese. This makes me feel strangely excluded from the culture in a "so near and yet so far" sense.

Off to pack and head for the 7AM Narita Express...

Pavlos

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