Tokyo was odd but not for the reasons I had expected.
Yes, you can see some people walking around in kimonos. We ordered sushi
via a touch screen menu that swiftly appeared in front of us on a motorized
shelf without the sight of a person. We encountered toilets with more
buttons than an iPhone. There was a cafe full of pampered cats. And yes,
there are cutesy cartoon characters on everything, everywhere, always.
However, these experiences were few and far between the reality of the
place. For a holiday, it was hard work. Fascinating but hard.
It was sweaty and hot. We entered shops just to get cool sometimes and
then we'd forget the heat. We'd leave and be flooded with heat. It felt
like entering an English shop in winter, where just inside the entrance
you have hot blasts of air to welcome you in, except in Japan, that heat
smothered you when you left the shop and it refused to relent. I began
carrying a handkerchief, endearingly titled 'the sweat rag', just for
all the sweating I was doing. I started to use it more when I saw the
locals doing the same. They even sold little square towels in the omnipresent
convenience stores it's so bad.
An alphabet not based on the Roman one played havoc with me. In the absence
of English words (not that I'm complaining, it's Japan), language was
reduced to photos and context. This can of lemonade? Nope, it's a 6% alcoholic
something...should've seen that, it was near the beers. This single packaged
egg with a photo of hard boiled egg on the front? Just a raw egg. Guess
I couldn’t read the tiny ’serving suggestion’ text.
Shouldn’t have cracked that into my pot noodles.
It was simultaneously relaxing to not be able to read everything coming
at me but also a constant ache trying to decipher directions and menus,
as if my mind was always multiplying two uncomfortable numbers together
for an answer. Some restaurants had English menus, which made things easier,
in all their heavily laminated, red comic sans glory. We quickly got by
with the use of key phrases like ’kore o kudosai’ (I would
like this), ’sumi masen’ (excuse me, although I’m told
it literally translates to something along the lines of ’forgive
me for existing’) and ’wakarimasen’ (I don’t understand).
For the restaurants that didn't have an ’eigo menyou’ or explicit
photos, we ran away before even touching our hot, neat towels.
So to me, yes, Japan is still weird. There's no single big thing that
I can point at to sum my feelings up with. It was the conglomeration of
tiny things that built the picture. The fact they have virtually no public
bins but the streets are immaculately clean. The cars and bikes that legally
go through a traffic light crossing when it’s red, as long as no
pedestrians are in the way, whilst people will religiously wait at even
the smallest of crossings in the middle of the night, the streets devoid
of vehicles, only crossing when they’re allowed. The thin ply of
all tissues and toilet paper everywhere we went. The lack of places to
sit out in public. The constant micro-nods between anyone for the smallest
of reasons. The chain reaction of bellows from shop staff welcoming you
to a store, even if some of the bellows are coming from staff that didn‘t
see you come in. The mind-numbingly endless amount of manga that, at least
to my eyes, look like it’s all been drawn by three or four different
artists for all the stylistic range it possesses, not in fact the thousands
upon thousands of artists. The mystifying address system that seemed to
follow no pattern and the vertical stacking of wildly different shops
making it difficult to find anywhere the first time.
There are beautiful things of course, fantastic things, to be seen and
found. The plethora of familiar types of food, like crisps or chocolates,
with strange flavours. The red blinking lights across Shinjuku viewed
from on high. The green parks providing a respite from the neon metropolis.
The incredible restaurant service that often made us wish we could tip
the waiting staff if it wasn’t an insult. The clockwork subway system,
that would give you the reason for any lateness on a little screen inside
the train car. The yakitori (BBQ chicken on skewers) that was as much
delicious as it was cheap. The lure of a delicately balanced prize in
a novel claw-machine. Discovering vast labyrinths of stores three floors
underground. Being served ice-cream in hollowed out loaves of bread. Catching
a baseball game and forgetting what country we were in. The incredible
sense of safety wherever we went allowed us to be free to explore and
walk as far as our meaty feet could muster.
I want to explore Europe more, Australia, North America and South America,
whilst Africa and Asia either intimidate me or don’t interest me
enough yet. I don’t feel I want to revisit Japan anytime soon*,
even if it’s because we went for too long or that we didn’t
bother venturing too far from the capital. Three weeks was maybe a week
too much but we agreed it was good not to rush ourselves and make the
holiday some sort of exercise in efficiency. I won’t be looking
for a solo show in Tokyo as I felt the street art scene was lacking from
what I could see.
It’s good to be home and I look forward to fresh painting, fresh
experimentation and fresh challenges. The much needed holiday has recharged
me and helped me understand what I love. That’s enough talking for
now. Time to do a thing.
*I wrote all this week or two after we got back from Tokyo but these days, I'd absolutely love to go back. It almost feels like a cop out to want to head there so soon but I loved the vibe.
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Posted 5th March, 2014