Monday, February 20, 2006

I'm in Tokyo, and it's raining, and I love it! It's been a long day but I want to try and collect my first impressions of Japan before I get too caught up in them.

The rain...I haven't seen rain for four months and it's blissful. It's not some romantic, warm downpour. It's just drizzly, cold rain, but after living in what is close to being a desert, I don't care what sort of rain it is. The air feels clean, I feel clean. Like I've been stuck in a dry, dusty house for a third of a year and I've finally found the room with the power shower. The air is fresh and not suffused with the outpourings of the smoke-stacks dotted around Beijing. Here, there's a crisp smell of ozone in its place. My fingernails are not instantly blackened as soon as I get outside...instead, my hands are wet...and clean.

Anyway, enough of my British obsessions. I arrived here at Narita airport coming from Beijing airport (incidentally, I feel a lot of bad comparisons coming on which will leave Beijing in a bad light! I'm loving Beijing, it's just that it seems that so many things which are get on so many peoples nerves about life out there are non-existent here). Beijing airport is's tiring and the queues which weave chaotically in and out of one another are organically designed to cause maximum confusion. Having risen this morning at 5.30, my flight was then delayed by a little over two hours. Fine, don't mind...I got here in the end. Unfortunately, these days I'm a little scared of flying. I used to love it and I still enjoy it but I made the mistake on a San Francisco to London flight of consuming way too much coffee before hand and ended up having a horribly jumpy trip where I was tense for the full nine hours. That has sort of stayed with me so I still find flying a bit daunting (despite the obvious safety babble that everyone, including probably myself, spouts). I happen to be friends with an ex flight attendant for exactly this trip so I spent most of the time chatting to the NWA air stewardesses which made the short trip somewhat more fun. I also had all the leg room a lanky chap such as myself could want, in the emergency exit seat.

So, we arrived at the airport on a damp, grey, miserable day and I walked through the airport beaming like it was the first day of the summer holidays. Everything works...that's it, it just works. I was in the arrivals lounge within 15 minutes of leaving the plane, including all the various disembarkation faff and bag search.

With ease, I then boarded the bullet train which left as the digits on the clock changed from 4 to 5. 45 minutes later we arrived as promptly as we'd set off but in between, the journey was wonderful. It's strange to see houses again. Nobody I know in Beijing lives in a house, they're all in monotone, utilitarian, monoconcept apartment blocks. Dotted around the paddy fields are immaculately kept classical Japanese design houses, many decorated with solar paneling, many with their own closely cropped allotments where fruit and veg were growing healthily. Getting into the suburbs of the city, the houses because a dense sprawling mass of side-streets and alleyways full of neon and steel with the occasional burst of natural colour from an orange tree with its contrasting hues jumping out from between the buildings.
This feels like ordered chaos, compared to Beijing's chaotic chaos.

Helping someone with their bags, I got a thank you, a meeting of eyes and a genuine smile. I've tried the same trick in Beijing and been greeted by a wary stare or a suspicious turn of the back. Politeness seems to shine through everywhere from the polite immigration officials (Something I had previously put down as an oxymoron) to the shop keepers who bow and greet you as you enter the shop and smile kindly and bow as you leave.

One of the postdocs from Ochanomizu University met me at the station and we took another train towards my hotel. A friendly chat and some orientation before arriving and leaving me to get settled was the perfect greeting for one having traveled for many hours and feeling a little fazed, if euphoric from the rain.

I am however at sea again in one major respect. It makes me realise how relaxed I am with the basics of Chinese that I suddenly feel linguistically paralysed again. I know hello, thank you and goodbye which is a start but far from ideal. I recognise a few of the characters but of course the pronunciation is very different, so I am once again reduced to a somewhat muted status. I did at least manage dinner in a local restaurant where I sampled a salad of baby eel (I presume, and seem to remember that these have a special name in English), miso soup, wanton type snackettes and some good sticky rice. There was something amazing about sitting in a spotless restaurant in Japan, sipping miso soup as the rain pelts down outside.

There seems to be something else about Japan that immediately hits me. It's to do with the neatness, the cleanliness, the order of everything, the purposefulness by which people move and talk, eat and cook. Order and neatness aren't quite the right words for it but I shall think about it more over the next few days. There's something instantly relaxing compared to the shouting and barging, the dirt and mess in Beijing, all of which incidentally give Beijing some of its genuine character. A Beijing restaurant full of people shouting in all directions, slurping their noodles digging into wonderful dishes here, there and everywhere can be a lot of fun but coming out here, the contrast is like a sudden wave of soothing relaxation. I have to say, I didn't expect this at all. I expected Tokyo to be just as hectic as Beijing and with my limited knowledge I may be setting myself up for a rude awakening as I explore more but these are my first impressions.

Perhaps another thing that has made Tokyo feel far more welcoming is that I've built up a picture of it, mainly from reading Murakami novels. The last of which (Kafka on the shore) I'm seconds away from finishing. I was slightly worried that this illusion was going to be shattered by seeing Tokyo for real but so far, it fits my picture like a glove.

Anyway, a little past eight in the evening on day one. It's going to be a tiring trip I've not doubt. There's lots of work to do, many new people to meet and probably lots of interesting new challenges to tackle, but I guess that's what all this was about when I set out on Jonstraveladventures.



Anonymous said...

Dear boy, a little eel is an "elver". Glad you're enjoying the Tokyo experience. Try the metro in the rush hour for that "we're all together" feeling

Luca said...

Hey Jon,
have fun in Tokyo. And I hope you're going to have time to post tons of pictures!

Unknown said...

Elvers - that's the bunny. Thanks.

I have to admit to being somewhat daunted by the metro on first inspection. Compared to Beijing's three lines, this is another world. Will give it a go ASAP though.

Luca, I'll do my best. Not sure at the moment how many hours of daylight I'll get out of the office but hopefully at least the weekend should be freeish.