IN TOKYO






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






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