I’ve said this before, but this blog occasionally does take detours down paths that aren’t necessarily food-related. It’s about Japan, and is by no means comprehensive or indeed even come close to scratching the surface.
Springtime in Tokyo
For two heady, mystical weeks in the beginning of April, Japan is taken over by a national obsession that sweeps across their tiny island like a 1st-year drama student crawling across a stage in an effort to embody the plight of the working classes through abstract dance. The reason is Sakura – the arrival of the cherry blossoms, and the entire nation goes nuts when it happens.
Well… lets say more nuts, because nowhere else in the world will the sight of a girl dressed entirely as a Tim Burton-esque gothic-pink Little Bo Peep, clambering into a portaloo in six-inch heels, happen with the everyday nonchalance of a bowl of cornflakes. So the base-level of nutsness really does need to be taken with a pinch of salt.
Harajuku when the blossoms are showing.
It’s usually a warning sign when the first question people who know about this sort of thing ask you when you say you’re going to Tokyo for a couple of days is, “By yourself?” And then swallow a concerned silence for a couple of moments when you casually say, “Yes”.
I get that now. They have a point.
I’m actually a vastly stupid traveller. I have this overwhelming and stubborn belief that planning is for anal retentives, and that at the end of the day you should just arrive and work it out all from there. This can of course lead to incredible and spontaneous adventures that may or may not involve having wild holiday sex with someone in a field, but it can also mean that you wind up in a back-alley with a missing kidney and no shoes. So far I still have both my kidneys, so I’m sticking with it for the moment.
I wish I could say that I had timed it specially so that I could go and see the famous cherry blossoms of the Japanese Spring. I wish I could say that this was an emotional pilgrimage of some kind, long-planned and expertly carried out. The reality is that I’d always wanted to go to Japan, and decided that Tokyo was as good a stopover as any on my way to a wedding in Brisbane (it’s not, it’s ludicrous – but by the time I figured that out it was too late and I mostly just had to go with it). Which is how, after 20 hours of flying, and a day’s stopover in Singapore (an efficient, slick city – but one built entirely for people who are going somewhere else), I tumbled out into Tokyo’s Shinjuku train station, and immediately felt like I was getting unexpectedly fucked in the brain by a neon lemon. Because there is very little, other than actually being there, which can prepare you for the experience.
If you can, arrive during the day. Just do it. Don’t let this city of people and neon signs and pace and overwhelming amounts of everything gate-crash your senses all in one go – or you might just go mad. It needs to be doled out, bit by bit. And so, (slightly contradictorily) at least during the day there’s a semblance of normality which you can latch onto like a drowning person, which is helpful in the almost impossible process of getting adjusted.
Also, all the cliches are true, but they’re wonderful for being so. There will be a slightly pudgy dude in the train watching some sort of pornographic gameshow on his computer that honestly features a singing all-schoolgirl troupe on a set that’s either designed expressly to give you a headache or hypnotize you into thinking you’re a monkey. You will be stared at like you’re an alien-banana by the impossibly cute four-year old girl with the massive eyes and solemn expression while taking your first train ride. You will bow to the person who sells you your Starbucks coffee (because that’s all you can handle right now after traveling across a bajillion time-zones for what feels like a week), and she’ll bow right back. You will suddenly realise that all Japanese women are pigeon-toed, but they dress incredibly and enviably well. Someone will dance ballet in the middle of a shop. The logic of who wears, that now-cliched image of, a surgical mask is incomprehensible. In a group of friends, sometimes it’ll just be one, sometimes all of them but one. You’ll see a couple walking down the street holding hands, she’ll be wearing one and he won’t, or vice versa. A dude who’s temporarily lowered his to have a cigarette somehow makes sense, and probably the most difficult thing to wrap one’s head around is that there’s no social stigma attached to it. It’s like wearing a hat, or a nice scarf – just a thing that some people do and that’s that.
And yes, Japanese TV is as crazy as you think it is. For realsies.
It did strike me more than once that it might have something to do with islands and the Darwinian assertion that on an island, things get a lot weirder than they normally would (I’m pretty sure that’s a direct quote…), but I was too busy trying to wrangle my meager Japanese into a sentence that’d get me a plate of fragrant pork and noodles from a tiny basement restaurant and not a fried cricket on a stick, to work it into any form of coherent, logical thought.
Which brings me back to cherry blossoms, and the day I found out what it really means to celebrate the change of a season.
When you’ve got such a potent and singular natural expression of the change that happens as our little round rock jaunts it’s way around the sun, I guess it’s only natural that you do something about it; that you attach significance to the way in which it happens and when. Well, the Japanese have no problems with that.
I’d gone to Harajuku to see the Fruits girls and boys all dressed up and on parade, and after a day wandering down the back alleys looking at crotchless batman lingerie and posters for J-pop groups, I came out onto a main street and accidentally got myself caught into a crushing sardine-like herd of humanity – all going in a direction that was completely opposite to the one I wanted. I’ve never quite been caught up in such single-minded group of people, and even though the walkway I wanted was literally a meter away from me, it might as well have been the mythical fairy-bridge to Neverland for all I was going to get to it. So I let go and just went in the direction that everyone else was going, which is how I became part of the biggest, most mind-boggling mass-picnic I’ve ever seen. It was Harajuku Park, the sun was out, and there were more people gathered there than I’ve ever experienced before in one place: not at a giant stadium rock-concert, not at mass protest in London, not in Sandton during the opening day of the Exclusive Books sale.
Harajuku Park in early April on a Sunday is a heaving, saturated mass of glorious insanity. It’s like the whole of Tokyo under the age of 45 decided that what they were going to do that day was stage the biggest Occupy movement ever, but instead of waving dumb placards or droning “we are the 99%” from a wigwam; in their thousands and thousands, they all just got out into the sunshine, pulled up a (very specific blue, tarpaulin-like) blanket to eat, drink, play hopscotch (which when you’ve been drinking sake all day is way more fun than you’d imagine), throw frisbees and generally just have the best time ever under the largest concentration of cherry trees in the city, which is the point.
Every now and again on those nature documentaries, you’ll see footage of a vast and seemingly endless sea of fresh-minted butterflies, preparing for some impossible migration, all clinging, crowded and crammed onto every available surface for (literally) kilometers, densely whorled into clusters of bright winged life, slowly flapping their wings in ripples of adoration of the circumstances that brought them there. Now picture that, but with people, and a hip hop dance painter. Then you’ll have something close, but wholly inadequate, to describe what it’s like to be in Harajuku on a Sunday when the cherry blossoms are out.
One of the reasons I’d fostered a desire to be in Japan in general and Tokyo in particular, was because of a movie. It’s not the best reason in the world to want to go somewhere, but also not the worst (piracy, dealing in blood diamonds or buying cheap perfume are all worse…), and I’ve been particularly obsessed with Sophia Coppola’s Lost In Translation for years. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen it, and how it’s accounted for an uncomfortably vast amount of things that I do in my life and had been a major factor in being in this city in the first place.
So, naturally – there was no chance I was going to miss an opportunity to visit the Park Hyatt Tokyo where it was filmed and go and sit in that bar where Bill Murray fell in love while trying to escape the slow, banality of his life. Apart from offering one of the best views of the city (get there for sunset, you’ll cry), it inexplicably makes the heart swell with an almost inescapable sense of perspective (what Douglas Adams described as one of the most dangerous weapons in existence) and it’ll give you the ability to play out whatever rock/movie-star fantasy you’ve always secretly nurtured in grand style. Just try and not do the maths of what it just cost you to order three glasses of the Francis Ford Coppola signature shiraz, because in all likelihood if the view and sunset didn’t do it, you’ll definitely cry over that.
In the movie, Scarlett Johansson’s character is constantly finding unexpected and sometimes unsettling eddies of quiet and contemplation away from the general batshit insanity that is everyday Tokyo – and within two seconds you’ll realize that the film-makers did their research properly, because that’s exactly what it’s like. Buried in the heart of every bustling financial district will be a flowered and gentle shrine. Stumbling across a traditional Japanese wedding, all solemnity and grace, right before you’re browsing through Japanese manga-porn in a basement is just how it goes. There will be a sweet-faced kid with a ‘free hugs’ sign right next to a guy who pulls up to the busiest pedestrian intersection in the world in a Formula 1 car.
Because, you know… that stuff just happens.
Walk away from the light.
Anyone who falls into the habit of labeling an entire nation with a single characteristic swoop (Italians are lazy, the French are rude), needs to get their ass hauled to Japan almost immediately. There is absolutely no possible or meaningful way that you can do that there, because just as soon as you settle on something that you think defines everything you see, you pop around a corner into a situation that seems put there purely to give the finger to what you’ve just thought.
While in Shibuya, a throbbing Mecca to all the lit-up excess of Tokyo, and woefully failing to find a bar I’d read about and was keen to have a drink in, I blundered quite by accident into a tiny, winding street, flanked by rows of full-blossomed cherry trees, lit by the neon of various noodle bars and late-night hairdressing salons. It was everything that two blocks away was not: quiet, contained and just magical its unexpectedness.
The locals were feeling it too. A bunch of Japanese kids had gone into the local tempura joint, bought enough prawn and vegetable, plus a six-pack of beer – enough to make an evening of it – and were just sitting on a staircase as a gentle snow of blossoms and petals sifted down on the hurrying salarymen, who themselves couldn’t help but stop and take pictures on their cellphones.
It seemed to be the perfect embodiment of a city where all the things you expect are literally just the start.