I don't know that I've ever gone through a day in Tokyo here in this blog. Sometimes I wake up and think, "maybe I'll head over to Ueno," or "it'd be great to do some people-watching in Omotesando". Then I remember I'm 5000 miles away. I'm kind of curious, thinking now from a lounge chair here in Kansas, if I can recreate for myself the environments of Tokyo again.
I lived most of my time in Japan in a four room, traditional style apartment in the far north of Tokyo. I've decided to set my story in early June, just as it is now here in Kansas. It would be warm; the sunlight coming through the frosted-glass windows heat the tatami (a type of reed) floors, so that there is a natural perfume at the end of the day. In the morning, though, the apartment would smell like coffee, rice and natto, my usual breakfast back when I could easily find it.
I open my window, that same frosted-glass window that spans the face of my "living room". This room is "four and a half tatami", meaning it is 80 square feet; rather small, or cozy. It is a pleasant room in the summers when I can look out over the local area: my building is one of the tallest in the neighborhood at three stories, so I can see one of the nearby temples, the park a couple of blocks away, even the Yamada Denki electronics store far off on Nikko Kaido road. And even further away is the Joban line train and, next to it, the highway lining the Arakawa river. Not a lot of green: the concrete goes on forever.
It is overcast, like so many days in Tokyo. On a clear day, you can see Mt. Fuji from the roof of my building, but today the view doesn't make that much of an impression. I spend the morning on the computer; my computer is on top of the kotatsu set up for summer (since I don't need the insulation of a blanket, this means it is now just a table), just before the window. I'm sitting on the floor.
My ritual before work, when I was working for Kikkoman, was to grab my clothes, hanging to dry on a line on the balcony outside the sliding doors of my bedroom, iron them, then stuff them in a backpack for the commute. Yeah, it kind of defeated the purpose of ironing, but I at least had to go through the motions. I then put a sealed container with home-made red curry in a separate pocket and loaded up my hydration bag. I take a quick look at the pot containing bitter melon seedlings I just bought that weekend: they won't take off until mid-July, but they are a pleasant, vigorous green.
I then take my biking clothes to the bathroom. The bathroom and the toilet are separate, with my tiny, crappy washing machine between the two. I take a shower in the bathroom, while the bathtub, a fantastic machine that can automatically prepare water that will cover you from neck to toes with water the perfect temperature as you sit cross-legged, sits unused. I don't use it much in summer, though there are the occasional cool nights even in early summer when a warm bath is the perfect end to the day.
At one point I put my bicycle in one of the closets that lined every room: monstrous caverns that increase the size of the apartment almost a whole time over. I had a folding bike, and so could easily fold it up and stuff it away behind the thin sliding doors of one of these closets. However, I soon tired of carrying the 25-lb bundle of gears and oil up two flights, so I just left it down with my tank bike and the tanks of my neighbors.
So I put on my bicycle shoes at the door, in the tiny entranceway about half a foot below the floors of the kitchen and the rest of the house. I shoulder my bag full of clothes and lunch, don my helmet and gloves, and push open the heavy metal door. I clack on cleats down the flimsy steps of this concrete building that has been grandfathered out of earthquake proofing. I try not to think about what the big one might do some night to this flimsy structure.
My landlady turns to me when I reach the bottom of the stairs. She bows rapidly a few times, her face crinkled in that smile that makes me, would make anyone, feel like everything is right in the world and that I am somehow involved in creating or maintaining that rightness. She says "ohayo gozaimasu, ii tenki desu ne!" (Good morning, great weather, huh?) It's past morning, (I work at 2 and leave at 12:30), but I say good morning as well. "O dekake desu ka?" Always the same question "are you going out?" "Hai, shigoto e ittekimasu". Yes, I'm headed to work. "Itterashai!" she bends a couple of more times in slight bows: "come back soon" or "have a good trip".
I put on my helmet, push the folding bike out of the bike garage, clip my shoes in, and head out. Some of the younger children are playing in the quiet alleyway that connects my apartment to the nearby streets. The little girls all say "good evening, Eigojin!" in a mix of incorrect English and incorrect Japanese ("Eigojin" means "person from the English language"). The boys are too cool or too nervous to say anything. I wave and correct them: "Hello," or "good afternoon", and then I ride off.
The small, winding alleyway opens quickly onto a much larger street that has no name. I pass an ume, Japanese apricot tree. In late February the ume signals the beginning of spring with its dark red buds and pink flowers, but now its twisted figure is covered lightly in green. A purple maple overhangs a gate between cinder-block walls.
The larger road ends at the train tracks to the west. The Tobu line Nishi Arai station is a fifteen minute walk from my house; the trains all stop there, headed north to Saitama or Tochigi, or south to Kita Senju, Ueno, Ginza in downtown Tokyo. But I'm biking my way south, so I'll just ride the underground walkway over to the other side of the tracks.
On the other side I exit the tunnel and come around to another street that I'll take south to the river. I see a mother and her small boy astride a bike next to the fence surrounding the train tracks. Mom is sitting in the bicycle seat, holding the front wheel straight while the boy, sitting in the basket on that front wheel, watches the tracks intently to the north. When one of the beautiful orange rapid trains squeaks around the bend, the little boy slowly raises an uncoordinated hand and coos; mom leans over to coo into his ear and look excitedly at the marvel. The boy is rapt in the contemplation of magic.
I sigh and head to the road. Japanese drivers are courteous, but that doesn't make the prospect of traveling alongside half-ton steel and plastic goblins huffing and puffing their black breath any more charming. I ride on the left side with them past the Mexican restaurant, past the brand-new mega mall, past the indoor tennis gym, and past warehouse after warehouse, tiny industrial facility after facility.
I reach the highway. There is no entrance here, thankfully, but the elevated road rises high above the levee on this side of the river. There are plastic panels on the side of the road to muffle the sound, but you can still hear the wind being pushed aside by eager metal.
But now begins the most pleasant part of my commute: the Arakawa riverside park trail. On either side of the river there are roads, car-width but inaccessible to the monsters. Just pedestrians and bicycles, and in the middle of the day, even these are few.
I cross Nishiaraibashi (so named because it is a bridge (bashi) and leads to my city, Nishiarai). The wind along the Arakawa usually rushes south in the afternoon and north at night; today it is indeed running south, the direction I'm going, so I can get up to 20-25 miles an hour. I pass by baseball diamond after baseball diamond: empty now, but later in the day young boys will be chanting their Japanese version of "swang battuh" on every one of the 15-20 fields that line this section of the riverside.
It's cleared a bit, and the river is glinting in the sun. Unlike the Sumida, the grand and sluggish river that has been allowed to cut through the eastern side of central Tokyo, the Arakawa slides along at a young pace in its path from north to east, and finally down to meet the Sumida at Tokyo Bay. It is about a football-field wide. A single waterskier glides by behind a speed boat, against the river's flow.
Despite a few too many happoshus the night before, I'm feeling energetic. The wind always raises my spirits, and I'm cruising along, careful to give the few tank-riding ojiisans (grandpas) plenty of room as they weave along.
It's about 6 miles to the tennis courts and the end of the river path. Here I face again the reserved madness of Tokyo streets for the final leg to Hibiya park, where I'll have lunch and change before work. The street that crosses the river here, connecting Kasai to Tokyo, doesn't really have a name, like most streets in Japan. Unlike many streets in Tokyo, though, it is straight, and it is wide. My best option for a quick ride into the heart of the city.
Eastern Tokyo has become a bit like many crappy American cities, with huge mall after huge mall, all offering the same stuff. I know just off this street, though, that there's a little store off a little alleyway that offers a rich supply of Southeast Asian ingredients; take a right here and there's a tiny shrine: not an ancient shrine, because everything was pretty much destroyed here by the firebombs of WWII, but quaint none the less. Tokyo, is an ugly, modern city, but it holds magic in the most unexpected places.
But what can I say about riding on the street with 4 lanes of traffic? It sucks. I survive one more time, crossing the Sumida and entering the true center of Tokyo. My office is 3 blocks from the moat of the imperial palace; before the Emperor established his home here, the Shogun controlled Edo (old Tokyo) and eastern Japan from behind same moat for 400 years. Basho, the poet that invented haiku, lived on the eastern bank of the Sumida for many years; on the western side of that river is the Nihonbashi, the point from which all distances were once measured.
Once across the river, the peak height of the skyscrapers climbs. Tokyo is mostly low-rise, but downtown the giants huddle together and it feels like a big city. Here I pass under the shinkansen, the bullet train, making its way from Ueno station to the north down to Osaka, Hiroshima, and Fukuoka. It's old now, but it will always be a symbol of Japan's late 20th century ascendancy.
Finally I reach Hibiya. It's a simple park, with nothing to really recommend it beyond its restfulness between the powermongering in Kasumigaseki and moneymaking in Shinbashi. I came here every day for two years, ate my lunch while watching old folks play tennis, and I loved it.
After lunch I change into my partially pressed shirt and pants, Mr. Rogers from bike shoes to oxfords, and tease a half-windsor out of my tie. All in a free but clean bathroom stall in the park. I saunter by bike to the nearest conbini (convenience store), buy a refrigerated Starbucks coffee drink, lock up my bike, and saunter on foot to work.