This Place for Bowing
Who was gently blowing on the nape of my neck?
Train in Tokyo
The Yamonote line was crowded. Salary men on the way to bars; school-girls on the way to crammer schools, young housewives fretting over bags of lingerie bought in the vague hope of ensnaring their husbands; a young baby gurgling happy in her sling whilst her mother, beautiful as a wood-block print, in an exquisite kimono chatted discreetly into her cell phone. The gentle breath on the back of my neck was ghost-like and gave me goose bumps. I tried to turn around to identify the source but the train was commuter-jammed. The soft blowing was almost supernatural and left me feeling eerily that someone had just walked across my grave. Tokyo always makes me feel this way, like I am just a small part of something much bigger and my passage through its teeming streets, choked video game arcades and neon-lit restaurants is oh-so transient, not quite real or meaningful. I pushed through the rush-hour hordes, trying to leave the train.
To float aimlessly across the great urban sprawl that is Tokyo is to immerse oneself in the sublime. On the surface the city is a neon-womb of ambition, greed and consumerism. It’s a land of forty-two inch plasma screen televisions, mammoth billboards pumping out the latest JPop hits and computers so small and so powerful that even a techno-phobe would drool. However, dig deeper. Go beyond the smiling corporate hospitality, the bowing office ladies, the in-car entertainment systems that wouldn’t be out of place in a London concert hall, and a different Japan awaits.
Strip away the faï¿½ade of respectability and the exquisite manners and you find a nation of xenophobic, selfish, conceited brats. It’s the bar-owner owner who refuses to serve you because you are foreign; the cute girl with pig-tails who refuses to answer your question (in Japanese) about the destination of the train because everyone knows foreigners can’t really speak Japanese, even if you do; it’s the CEO who sits in a crumbling office block and files his accounts with the help of a wooden abacus whilst leering at his harem of Office Ladies, and the school-boys who stop and stare on the street and yell, ‘hey foreigner,’ at you, then run off smirking. It’s the chain-smoking, pixellated-porn-loving, school-girl-panty buying, binge drinking, comic-book reading, toilet-slipper wearing, inefficient-working-practises capital of weird. Bizarre is a suburb of Tokyo and on a clear day, from the Tokyo Tower, you can see the foothills of Disturbingly Strange. I find myself questioning everything: is this real or is this what they want me to see?
And yet, just to confuse me even more, and make me wonder what is really real and what is a facsimile of real life, there are the deeply rewarding and intense friendships that I have nurtured with some Japanese people. People who remember that seven years ago I liked a particularly obscure flavour of candy, and who will spend the day looking for a bag of it so that when I visit their home I am reassured that they remember who I am. These are the same people who think nothing of spending a king’s ransom on lunch for me just so I can lean back, pat my stomach and feel genuinely content; people who give up their lives when I am in town to make sure that though I am alone, I am never lonely; people who send me letters which say things like: “Please come back soon and catalyse our joy,” or, “I think longingly about your son, I miss his body-heat.”
Tokyo City Sights
Then, there is the shop keeper who despite not speaking English and not believing I speak Japanese always greets me like an old friend and almost makes me believe that my ten dollar purchase is a work of art and not just more tourist tat, and who puts by certain pieces for my collection just in case I am in town. And this all feels as solid as the delicate tissue paper that she wraps my purchases in. Blink and it might not be real. Japan, like childhood ghosts, seems to exist only in your peripheral vision.
And as I wander from noodle stall to pachinko parlour to love hotel to sleazy, dingy bar full of puffy faced workers whose dreams seem never to encroach onto their normal day-to-day lives, I try to understand. Yet no matter how much I study Japanese, read their writers, follow their music, politics and sport I never fully feel at home. You may visit this land, but don’t get too comfortable. Spectre-like, you pass through the metropolis absorbing its sights, sounds and smells but the metropolis, in return, never embraces you. Tokyo is a cruel mistress.
I finally forced my way off the train and stood gasping for fresh air on the platform. I stood under a sign which read “this place for bowing” and watched the train depart. It clanked down the track emitting a cacophony of sputnik-like beeps. I turned and headed towards the exit. I could still feel a gentle breeze on the back of my neck. But perhaps, like Tokyo, it was all in my mind.
About the Author
Philip Blazdell has been travelling for the last fifteen years and would like to stop now, thank you very much. His travels began when he followed a girl in nice purple pyjamas to Istanbul and got into all kinds of trouble with her parents. Despite marriage proposals in Las Vegas, arrests in Germany, and lust in the dust in more than one third-world shit hole, he has never looked back. Well, not that much really.
Philip currently divides his time between his home in Middle England, SFO International Airport and some grotty little town in the Netherlands that is best not spoken about in polite company. He constantly worries about using the word ‘awesome’ too much whilst in the USA and dreams of a day when he can go a whole day without resorting to Diet Coke. His greatest ambition is to raise his son to be a much better person than himself and to see Liverpool string a run of wins together. At least one of those, he believes, is possible. He can be contacted, when not bouncing around the world at 32,000 ft: nihon_news at yahoo dot com and his own personal homepage, www.philipblazdell.com, is updated daily.