We arrived in early June, just in time for the summer heat that rolled over the two months in a heavy wave of humidity and sweat. Yes, I begin my story with the heat, because it was the one constant during our time in Tokyo. It was the kind of heat that had atheists praying out loud. The kind that bore down with such unrelenting cruelty that you felt, surely, this was not natural. Surely, this was the whim of some long-forgotten deity - perhaps Amaterasu, the Japanese sun goddess, or the Egyptian Ra, from whose tears man was born.
The heat ushered us into the cultural whirlwind that is modern Japan. Jet-lagged and awestruck, we witnessed the strange contradictions and idiosyncrasies of this foreign land.
Tokyo is pink, clunky heels, polite old men, peroxide chignons and subway sweat; “gozaimasu” amidst the silence, and the never-ending hum of a city alive.
We became accustomed to a life of convenience stores, Shibuya street glamour, 7 Eleven Matcha cookies (which ought to be exported worldwide), and - thank God - onigiri. Those seaweed-wrapped rice balls are to fast-food what Apple was to the PC in the early 2000s. Miles ahead, convenient, geniusly designed. Other than premium fast food and Japanese swag, however, there was something else ubiquitous too: the sounds.
In the routine of daily life in Tokyo, you could not ignore the sounds. About halfway into my stay, I suddenly realized that my day was distinctly marked by the familiar chorus of public officials.
On the subway, it was the station attendant's “go chooee kudesai”. At the office, it was the security guard’s “ohayo gozaimasu”repeated to every (and I mean every) passerby. His words rolled into a barely discernible “hai zamas”, a rushed chant blessing the congregants flooding through the automatic doors and into the elevator. I heard these melodies so often that they assumed the familiarity of a gesture, an offering of sorts. Would a person not tire of saying the same thing, day in and day out? There was effort in the delivery - the final syllable always stretched and dipped in an elaborate tone of respect and politeness. The words were uttered with a vigour that suggested great satisfaction in the saying of them. Each time must surely be an improvement on the last. More clarity. More verve. More omotenashi.
Omotenashi is the one Japanese concept that left me most touched. Loosely translated as “hospitality”, it manifested in every aspect of daily life. A more nuanced explanation of omotenashi is “a selfless approach to hospitality, in which a perfect balance of attentive care and unobtrusiveness is sought, in order to create an intimate environment of trust, relaxation and respect between those sharing the moment.”
Omotenashi was in the design of public toilets - automatically swinging doors, heated seats, and the sound of gushing waterfalls. Omotenashi was in the little tray placed between you and the person at the checkout counter, because to place money directly in someone’s hands would be crude. It was in the stranger who, rather than giving directions, walked with you all the way to your destination because pointing wasn’t enough. It was the Japanese tea master who welcomed us into her home for a three-hour traditional tea ceremony of such delicacy and grace that we felt like blundering giants. It was the marathon runners who quit their race to carry my bags and help me limp down Mt. Fuji when I sprained my ankle in a storm. At risk of romanticizing, these moments of omotenashi showed me hospitality in a way I have never understood it before.
As is always the case when in a foreign land, the two months taught us about both the world around us and about ourselves. I did not know I was a lover of Latino dancing! I discovered this in a tiny bar in Tokyo, during a salsa and bachata class lead by a Peruvian man whose instructions were belted out in a concatenated mix of Spanish, English and Japanese. “Migi, hidari, migi. Izquierda, derecha, izquierda. Una vez mas. You have to move your hips!”
Who would have thought that I would discover the Latino tempo in Tokyo? The life of a traveler is marked with ironies; no matter where you go, no matter how short the time, how dismal the ability to “immerse”, you come out irrevocably changed. We negotiated our way through daily life with the aid of Google Translate, the staccato “Hai” (yes) and low bows - lots of them – and in the end, each of us emerged with a tiny piece of Japan lodged within us. We will go out into the world, our identities illuminated by our brief stay with the land of the rising sun.
You can get drunk on the crowds in Tokyo; deliriously high on the neon lights and ceaseless sounds; wasted, drenched in sweat as you make your pilgrimage on the morning Metro.
Ginza line – Exit 8 9 to 6 and we’ll do it all again.
This, surely, is living!
Weaving in and out of crowds, pressing, yielding, sensing we move in a delicate dance - a ritual of strange bodies and intersecting lives.
Your footsteps are a meditation and the sea of faces a reflection of you.
Shibuya crossing; our baptism of energy cleansed of thought, identity, stripped of illusions numbed by the palpable murmur of Self meeting Self.
We emerge unscathed, reduced, resurrected.