No but seriously – WHERE have these past few days gone?? Time may have sped up due to a combination of new sensations and lingering jet lag… but the fact remains that here I am, spending a lazy Sunday afternoon in residential Koshigaya, ramen in my belly and a lump in my throat having just streamed this week’s Great British Bake-Off (Val oh Val! What an absolute PEACH. And yes I am keeping up with the scandal that is the move to Channel 4 and Paul Hollywood’s shameless lack of loyalty. UGH. Bring on the rival show!) ANYWAY. Back to Japan.
It’s been a dizzying week of unfamiliar sights, sounds, smells, miscommunications, wild gesticulating, triumphant moments of linguistic success (however seemingly insignificant, to me they are each great victories), writing my name backwards on about a million forms, lots of bowing and smiling, frenzied crowd-weaving… and serious amounts of cultural adjusting.
On Thursday I made my way into Tokyo for the first time. It was INSANE. Bewildering. Mesmerising. And many, many other adjectives besides. The day began in Shibuya, where I arrived with fellow teachers Sam and Luke after navigating ourselves through the perplexing nest of intertwining lines that is the Tokyo subway (I estimate that the London Underground is about one tenth its size). There we met up with Alaina, an old travel mate of mine from the Spain days who, amazingly, has been hired by the same company to do the same job as me at a different university – what are the chances?!).
The four of us proceeded to make our way over the infamous Shinjuku junction. The place is like Piccadilly Circus on crack – a massive shoal of heads and umbrellas bobbing along in a united wave. Oddly enough, though, I noticed that for all of the crowds, the place was bizarrely hushed. The effect you get is this kind of muted flurry, like watching an old VHS movie on fast-forward.
It was peeing it down with rain so we were pretty soggy, but were able to dry off over a lunch of ramen and Korean kimchi. On the subject of food, one surprising discovery is that it is actually much harder to track down vegetarian options than I had expected. Even after I had eliminated the possibility of being served actual meat (na-shi ni-ku ka? NA-SHI-KA? AHHH YA-SAI HAI HAI ARIGATOU! *much head bobbing and smiling*), chances are that the sauce or broth the food comes with will have been made with meat. Ah well… sometimes acceptance is the way to go I think. How very zen of me.
After lunch we headed over to Harajuku to take in the Meiji shrine, which houses Emperor Meiji’s deified spirit and is located in a beautiful piece of woodland, a sudden relief after the madness of the metropolis outside. The temple itself was ginormous, announced by a great central courtyard, beyond which a 10-foot drum was being banged solemnly by a young boy in white robes. As instructed on a helpful visitors’ card, Alaina and I paid tribute by dropping a small monetary offering into a box, bowing, clapping and bowing again, while two veiled ladies and a priest shuffled about and chanted ahead of us. I was unsure as to the significance of it all at the time, but have since read that in the Shinto tradition, the drum is used to call on various gods (and people’s ancestors, who can become gods) and the priest and his helpers then ask them for luck and protection, amongst other things. A very unfussy and moving thing to watch. Made me feel very calm.
This didn’t last long, however. Turning very definitely back to the material world, we made our way to Takeshika Street – home to all things neon, sugary and gloriously tacky. We weaved our way among store promoters donning fluorescent wigs and cartoon character costumes, shop vendors handing out samples of desserts so sickly-looking and smelling that to enter that section of the street was to seriously abuse your nostrils, and posses of young pig-tailed school girls screeching in E-number-fuelled glee, clutching cones of unnameable treats in their hands. The shops on Takeshika Street are crammed full of clothes, accessories, soft toys, gadgets and just about every first-world item you could conceive of (and many you probably couldn’t). The place was so apologetically consumerist that it was definitely for the best to have a good old giggle about it and get in a few selfie-stick-aided photos while making mock-surprise faces and peace signs. Disapproving would have been as pointless as demanding vegan-friendly broth at the restaurant we were in at lunch – much better to accept that it ain’t gonna happen and enjoy the ride.
We concluded our day’s roaming in Akihabara, Tokyo’s technological Shangri-La. The sun was setting by this time, so the city began to light up around us, recalling the Tokyo of all those movies featuring impossibly fast car chases and giant tower-crushing monsters. More material mayhem lay in wait here too – more gadgets, blaring screens, arcade games with ridiculous prizes up for grabs (soft toy sushi pieces. Yes, really.) Alaina and I had a go each on a grabber thing, and were both equally unsuccessful.
All in all, a day of complete sensory overload. Tokyo, and more broadly Japan as I have experienced it so far, has shown itself to be nothing if not contrasting. Ancient, silent reverence of the intangible and of nature through Shinto tradition stands shoulder to shoulder with mass manufacturing and unparalleled materialism. People are simultaneously distant and personable, going out of their way to help you while lowering their gaze just before you start to believe you are connecting. Abrasive techno noises and brittle voices are followed by sudden, blissful silences amidst the hubbub. My senses are all over the shop, truly.
Oh lord I’ve banged on about Tokyo for the whole post and don’t want to make it too much longer… but other events this week have included a training day before work begins on Tuesday (looking forward to getting stuck in now!), scoping out some beautiful local spots (accidentally walked into an arboretum and a temple today, hoorah!), and some pleasing progress on the language front. I’m thinking of it as very experiential learning – for example, I now know the word for soy sauce having got home with a bottle of the stuff only to find that it was in fact vinegar. A dictionary search and a short return journey rectified the situation.
I will leave you with a few photos from the week. News of the first week at work coming soon!
Look after yourself loves. Much love 🙂