I recently returned from my first trip to Tokyo, and while I imagine many would follow the well-trodden route of busily uploading glossy photos and a veritable list of ‘Top Tips’ and touristy recommendations, while I certainly indulged in a little of that on Facebook, for me, travelling to Japan for the first time was always about something else. About capturing something I came to call ‘real Japan’, about soaking in an atmosphere beyond the face-level visuals so opulently shown in countless YouTube videos and photos. In an age where it’s easy to be an armchair traveller via the path of the internet, I wanted my time in Japan to be more about a raw, transitory feeling – a poignancy almost too powerful for words. A kind of lived-in manifesto for how the true wonders of travel to a foreign country should be. When I’ve travelled in the past to Europe, I’ve always looked back fondly on what I’ve called ‘golden moments’, those nuggets of memory that stick in the mind long after the trip itself, slowly fuzzying around the edges, but warming like a gently toasting log fire on a cold winter’s day. Tokyo, for me, was about engineering these golden moments in the best manner I could – but also allowing it to creep up on me and surprise me, revelling and bathing in the simple fact of a world so different from the London I’ve lived 27 years in.
Arrival and adjusting
One thing I remained expressly conscious of when coming to Japan was that I didn’t want to fall into the trap of being another purveyor of ‘weird’ or ‘unique’ Japan. I’m firmly of the belief that no matter how far we travel, we remain bound by the common fact of our humanity and that – beyond notions of culture, visual look and feel and such like, a sleepy suburb in Japan remains much like a sleepy suburb anywhere else in the world.
And yet, for all this, there remains a simple joy in ‘spotting the difference’, as it were. And taking the train from the airport, you begin to compile a checklist of these facts – much for your own adjustment as anything else. Remembering which side of the escalator to walk on, basking in the cleanliness of absolutely *everything*, marvelling at traffic lights that don’t require you to push a button, simply *existing* in smells and sounds not found at home. In a gentle summer haze, even the greenery feels different – different species, different textures; a rubbery waxiness at odds with England’s soft, autumnal shades.
You notice the tiles, the boxiness of the buildings – an architecture ugly to some, but for me, pure wonder. Anime and Japanese films does not prepare you. Not really. To exist in a Japanese city is to be consumed by its urban aesthetic completely and wholly. The buildings enfold you in their endless similarity, but also in their endless difference. No lengthy avenues and boulevards or picture-postcard Edwardian streets. Just blocks of streets so tight you marvel at how anyone could get a car down them. Little streets that seem to go nowhere only to open up on a whole web-like complex of inhabitation. This is the real Tokyo, the world of its countless millions – where its people sleep and live and eat. The world of work and pleasure seems far away. Here, there is simply ‘living’.
Food and drink
Almost all of the money I spent in Japan went on food and drink, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. And as expensive as that might seem when compiled together, individually, Japan stands as a refreshingly cheap place to buy fantastic food – especially compared to London and its disgustingly overpriced coffee shops and sandwich boutiques. In Tokyo, food is more than simply food, it’s a way of life – from the way you grab your set-meal tickets from a dispenser at the entrance to the endless supply of free ice-cold water, topped up before you’ve barely had a chance to sip from it. The service, as if it even needs to be mentioned, is beyond impeccable. Food arrives quickly and staff are always polite. And the food itself, when it comes, is a veritable delight – both visually and in its taste. There’s something about Japanese food that makes even their equivalent of fast-food and simple homely cooking seem like a masterpiece of culinary perfection.
People eat alone at small tables, taking pleasure in a simple meal after a long, hard day of work. Daughters eat together with fathers. Friends chat in a lively, communal tone. All of life’s rich tapestry passes you buy in a simple Tokyo bento shop. Meals punctuating the turning hands of the daily clock.
Vending machines, umbrellas and bikes
In Japan, you see bikes everywhere. Sometimes it’s frustrating – they ride silently, up behind you, and on the pavement. Coming from the UK, where for anyone to ride a bike on the pavement is to be met by immediate scorn, social taboo and hatred, it can come in the shock. But in Japan, it’s the norm – leading to a tricky balancing act of clinging either as close to the wall as possible to avoid speedy riders, or somehow clinging to the omnipresent yellow ‘bumps’ that run down every pavement for blind pedestrians. Nobody rings a bell. Ever. Maybe it’s because they’re shy?
But regardless, there’s an upside to all this bicycling. And that’s the very simple pleasure of seeing bikes left every on the street, unlocked, without a care in the world. Imagine living in a society that safe – unthinkable in the UK, of course. But again, in Japan, it’s the norm. This paragon of safety, of trust, of simple public mindedness. Ditto with the vending machines – an absolute godsend in the sweltering summer days. Ice cold coffee on tap, and at the cost of less than £1. They are *everywhere* – sometimes you’ll see two right next to each-other, walk 50 yards, and then see three more. So much choice, so much simple joy in the pleasures of having a cheap, disposable drink. Readily recycled in the conveniently placed bins that always accompany every machine. If you are ever lucky enough to see a vending machine being maintenanced and refilled, it’s like a special reminder that this entire network also provides gainful employment.
But in this system of recycling and reproduction, we’re also left wondering about another ubiquity – those little plastic bags to put your umbrellas in when entering a store. When you visit Japan, you quickly get used to a very special type of rain. In the UK, when it rains, it rains short and hard – momentary downpours to catch you out and ruin your day. In Japan, the rain is omnipresent – long and soft, a gentle trickle that somehow ends up soaking you even deeper than the most powerful of UK showers. And to counter this, the umbrellas come out, a sea of mushroom like cups bobbing down every street. When you enter a store, you tear off a cheap, thin plastic bag and put your umbrella in. You do your business in the shop and then leave, chucking said bag away in the provided bin. In an age where the UK is striving to rid itself of seemingly every plastic bag, you have to wonder where this all fits in. Somewhere alongside the readily provided disposable chopsticks and wet hand-towels, we imagine.
But all this is part of the charm – and not in a ‘weird Japan’ way, that exciteable glee that infuses so many of the zany pop-culture ‘psyche!!!’ books that filled shelves in the Soft Power cool-Japan Pokemon boom of the early 00s. No, more in the gentle glow of basking in the daily accoruments of simple living. The participatory actions of a daily life so different from your own, one that beckons to you with its apparent ease just as much as it surprises with its own complex code of actions to be learned. These are the things we remember, the things we long for when we’re gone.
Atmosphere. Nostalgia. Aesthetic. It’s as simple as that.