relaxing in Tokyo warm happy

A night ago, it was the night, we found our way to Sonoko’s house on the outskirts of Shimokitazawa, station Higashi-Kitazawa. It was night because, arriving at Narrita, we had no idea where to find the pocket wifi we’d booked, having no record of the company with which we’d booked it. The first chance event: found it. Now growing problematically late, we had only Sonoko’s cryptic messages as to a door back open front and right left directions when leaving the metro station. Saw nothing but flashes of neon in Shibuya on the Sky Line then Odakyu to Higashi-Kitazawa. The open-all-hours general necessities store couldn’t work out where Sonoko meant us to go. A passing American – cashing in lotterty tickets? paying bills? – led us out into the night.

Now after 10pm. One way – right – up main street; then left down main street. He guessed we’d find the rest of our way and took himself away into the tepid drizzle of Tokyo. Second chance event: found our accommodation – Sonoko’s house. Dai-Ichi House: set back on a narrow lane from the main road, but directly on the lane, glass sliding panels… It was like Goldilocks. The front door slid open at our touch and we saw tatami mats that kind of recalled some Air BnB photos and beds laid out for the three of us…? We called out. No answer. We crept in, removing our shoes and waited for the true occupants to arrive.

Sonoko arrived later that night, maybe 11 pm. She showed us the secret bathroom, with shower on tiles and deep Japanese bath, stainless steel, fed by a gas califont, which requires twists of levers, turns of knobs, pushes of buttons and counting to ten to work. A traditional apartment? Tatami, glass paneled doors, those facing the lane patterned with paddy-field random squares and frosted, rice paper panels letting in light at the back of the single large room, broken by paper blinds, a small kitchenette stuffed with a hoarder’s collection of kitchen appurtenances and appliances – and a drip-fed coffee machine and a drip-fed iced-coffee machine.

Next day, we got up too early and had to wait for Sonoko’s promised Japanese breakfast at 9 am, making the most of the coffee machine and the califont shower, and the general peace and calm inspired by this comfortable inward-looking space. We rolled our rice balls – to much hilarity – and ate rich miso, wakame-wrapped rice and cucumber and aubergine salted pickles. Delicious.

Hitting the streets at 10.30, we made for funky town Shimokitazawa through more narrow lanes, as if Tokyo post-war was built on a medieval European model. Most of this area was shut – too funky for daylight. We promised to make it back to check out the bars and tiny eateries.

We then made, vaguely, for Sky Tree, stopping at Ueno, where we found the flea markets and walked them, investing in see-through plastic umbrellas to stop what might be the beginning of a wet season from making us too moist too constantly for the excellent warmth of the air to make us dry again. We queued at the railway station for some good sushi, prepared for us by a tall unreadable sushi chef: was he disgusted by these gai-jin who didn’t speak for offending against the etiquette of his place? was he delighted to be serving quiet gai-jin, who chatted amongst themselves like nattering animals? The language of Japan is a verbal one, almost entirely, but seems to consist in set phrases and patterns of address, a sort of call and response of formality. We are the idiots who understand none of this.

We walked the park at Ueno, under pom-pom trees and the poplars and maples, crows carking at us, their calls echoing in the mist-like rain, up to a temple, where a group of drunk Japanese men encouraged Z. to smack a big stick on a big rope against a medium-sized gong. It clattered. They laughed and said we now have good luck. Not luck enough, h0wever, for the National Gallery of Contemporary Art to let us see a single exhibition: all closed, all! And I’d missed Japan’s first Balthus retrospective – a month before. But the building was worth the visit. Very Kahn use of bricks and block volumes with sudden openings, massy and peaceful.

We found another shrine with a flame from Hiroshima, found burning after the bomb, still alive, set in a symbolic dove made of steel. The story of the flame was nice: the guy who’d found it only kept it burning out of resentment and anger – he lost his whole family at Hiroshima; over the years, the meaning of the flame changed – but to him, I wondered? Did it change for him?

We decided we’d better be better tourists and made now directly for the Sky Tree. This was brilliant. I hate heights but the ministrations of the constantly present uniformed hosts – a variety of uniforms depending on function and place in the imagery of the tower – and the decor – beautifully understated – gave it a sense of … style. It is a stupendous height, this network of pipes and the lifts rise at an amazing speed. And the view – although we could not see Mount Fuji – is literally out of this world. Back from a viewing window is set a painted screen: a 19th century painter captured exactly the same panoramic view at the time from the ground. The Tembo Gallery – more money – another lift and a change in decor to sci-fi white – like Kubrick’s space wheel in 2001 – snakes disconcertingly in a spiral further up the tower and then drops down through an internal circular passage.

This city is so happy and calm, where we expected being overwhelmed with size, speed and crowds: it is stylish and human. DSC_0002