On the street of Shinjuku Tokyo:
More street scenes in Tokyo:
And a respite just off the street:
The streets of Tokyo are crowded. Bicyclers, walkers, shoppers, tourists, police, and traffic directors all converge onto the sidewalks in astounding numbers. More people on the sidewalks of Tokyo than in London on a busy, sunny summer afternoon. Watching out for bicyclists proved to be most challenging for me; second nature to residents, however. We saw no collisions during our 16 days in Japan, and we heard only one car horn in those days.
Of note on the streets and in the shops and restaurants of Tokyo – all of Japan that we visited, actually – is the politeness of the Japanese people. While I can’t say we were greeted with warmth, our questions were answered with kindness, directions were given with consideration and care to ensure we understood, and none of my attempts at speaking the language were laughed at. Apparently, my request for a glass of water, please, was understood well enough that no one asked me to repeat myself. Sincere patience with tourists was evident at all the sites we visited.
The trains of Japan are crowded. But it is such a pleasure to travel by train throughout the country that if I were a resident, I would not own a car. The trains are comfortable, impressively efficient and dependable, and clean! Even morning rush hour on the Tokyo trains (couldn’t be avoided) are not as stressful as some of the bus rides I have had in Seattle during mid-day. Packed together with just breathing room between each person, all passengers were quiet – no loud conversations on a phone or person-to-person. Many people slept, some slept while standing up (impressive!), and when a passenger deep in the crowd needed to disembark a group of people moved aside in one motion so that the passenger was able to leave the train quickly. Nicely choreographed from years of practice.
Most impressive and memorable was the contrast between city and garden. Step off the busy street and into a garden – be it large and historic or small and part of a neighborhood shrine – and the feeling is of entering the past. The quiet is immediate and gentle; the air filled with soft fragrance and smooth breeze; muted color and subtle shadow fill the space. Close your eyes for a moment, and the world is as it once was – a garden.
Jet lag and its best friend sleep deprivation finally moved out yesterday evening after 3 very long, peculiar nights, and I was happy to see them go. I drifted off to sleep to the sounds of rain on the deck and the quiet burbling of a table-top fountain. This small fountain is outside on a corner shelf of our metal deck cover; it runs throughout the year and creates a peacefully consistent background harmony to spring and summer birdsong, and autumn windstorms. This fountain has been in various places on the backyard deck for over ten years, and I miss it when I’m away from home. The bowl that holds the water is filled with small polished stones and crystals that my daughter collected over many years at visitor’s centers from various national parks. The stones have maintained their sheen over the years and make an interesting and colorful platform onto which water from the fountain falls. It’s a nice family heirloom; unusual I suppose, but appropriate for us.
Sleeping peacefully – no dreams that I remember – when I was awakened by an odd sound coming from the deck. This should be listened to, I thought. Something was disrupting the water flow from the fountain. Then it stopped. It started up again, and then sounded like the water shot onto the deck. Silence. Normal water flow, then a loud thump – that’s a rock hitting the deck, I thought. I also thought I just want to go back to sleep! Silence. Another thump. @#*$**%!!, I thought. More water shooting onto the deck. Ok, I thought. Someone is messing around with the fountain. My spouse, who can sleep through neighborhood explosions and earthquakes, made a muffled sound but didn’t wake. I got out of bed – at 4:21 a.m. – turned on the porch light, pulled back the shade, and looked towards the fountain.
There sat a little raccoon, playing with the water, pushing the rocks around and out of the bowl, and having the time of his little life. At 4:21 a.m. in the dark, early morning. Very early morning. I knocked on the window twice and he (or she) looked around with the perplexed, curious look that only babies can give, then resumed play. And there was no doubt in my mind that the little one was playing. One little paw was placed on the fountain to stop the water and water would shoot up and out of the fountain. Then it dug down into the bowl through the stones and a couple more landed on the deck. Oh cute, I thought. The little guy just discovered the universal game of ‘drop something from the highchair’. Then more water play. If a raccoon can look happy, this little critter did. This went on for fully 7 minutes, which I confirmed by my dependable clock and growing irritation. I wanted to go back to bed and debated opening the door to shoo it away but decided that where a baby raccoon plays, a mom is nearby. And Mrs. Mom Raccoon is more inclined to do me harm than I to the little one.
Well, as all babies do, this one soon lost interest in the fountain. It climbed down from the shelf and waddled away, mom following close by. Once they were safely out of the back yard, I opened the door, went outside, turned off the fountain, came back inside, and went back to bed. I tried to remain irritated but the whole incident was so funny that I fell back to sleep while laughing.
But, if it happens again tonight, someone’s going to need a time out.
My small family has some big traditions – some based upon the seasons, some based in life changes, and a few based on simply having fun. Among the most enjoyable of these traditions is watching animated movies and shorts, and many of those movies came from the genius of Studio Ghibli. If you know My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, or Howl’s Moving Castle, you know the quality of work that the studio has produced over many years. Not all of the movies from this studio are appropriate for children, of course, but of those that are no other film studio can match them for creativity, memorable characters, and beauty. When my daughter was younger, many Studio Ghibli movies played a large role in her interest in Japan.
Studio Ghibli has a museum in Mitaka, Japan, which my spouse and I had wanted to visit during this trip. Due to many unexpected situations, we were too late in obtaining tickets to the museum and had resigned ourselves to taking pictures of the building. Sometimes, that’s all you can do. Today was the one free day we had for this visit and we debated whether we wanted to go. It was a quick debate, and shortly, we were standing in front of the intriguing building and beautiful grounds watching people enter. As we were getting ready to leave, one of the young guides approached us and offered to help us (we looked lost, I assumed). I told him we didn’t have tickets and just wanted to see the building, and that we had to leave Japan later in the week and would not be have time to return. He directed us to the full-size Totoro and said to take as many pictures as we wanted. We spent about 10 minutes there and had turned to leave when the same guide approached again – but this time with a piece of paper in his hand. He said, “Take this to that store across the street and they will let you buy tickets for the museum.” I wasn’t sure about the offer at first but realized that if we were being scammed, it was his job on the line. So, we crossed the street, entered the store, handed the clerk the piece of paper, and he took two tickets out of a safe behind the counter. I looked at the tickets and then looked at him. The clerk smiled, and soon we were in the museum – no waiting in line, no fighting the crowds, no scheduling months in advance.
I won’t spoil your visit by giving you the details of this charming, creative, and original museum. But I will say it surpassed my imagination and expectations, and not by magic. Persistence, dedication to excellence, compelling storytelling, memorable characters, and the most beautiful animation you will ever see all work together to make movies far superior to anything magic could produce.
As our time inside came to an end and we left the grounds, we turned back and saw the long curving line of people waiting to enter the museum – people of all ages. And there stood Totoro, watching over each and every one.
Back in Tokyo for our last 4 nights in this beautiful country. We took the Bullet Train from Kyoto to Tokyo, then a commuter (rapid) train to the neighborhood of our hotel – Kichijoji. The Bullet Train is a dream of efficiency, speed, comfort, and oh-so-easy travel – but that also defines the entire transportation system of Japan from our experience. (The U.S.A. is behind the times to an embarrassing degree.) All of our travel has deposited us where we needed to be and when we needed to be there. This country embodies the definition of dependability. Not one train, bus, cab, or meal has been late or cancelled. The Japanese people respect and honor time.
After a short rest in our room, we hit the streets. This being a Sunday evening, logic would indicate a quiet street scene. No so! This town is vibrant, active, very crowded, and fun. Here in Kichijoji we encountered our first busker in Japan. The tools of his trade are electric piano, kazoo (!), violin, and kick-drum. We missed most of his set but were lucky enough to hear his rendition of Danny Boy – no dirge, this. Smiles and laughter, dancing, little kids running around in unintentionally rhythmic circles, – he worked his audience well and we were happy to contribute to his future.
The shops in this area offer much more than the usual, high-end items as seen in other neighborhoods of Tokyo. Here we see many hand-made and unique items not seen elsewhere, and this has been one of the few shopping experiences I have enjoyed. We encountered no other westerners this evening and received a few double-takes, but we have been treated well and my attempts at speaking the language have been received with enthusiastic nods. They are polite and patient, these folks!
The realization that our time in Japan is coming to an end brings so many different emotions – we’ve only seen our daughter twice (but that changes as of tomorrow!), I wish I had studied the written language before coming (that takes years), and I wish I was a better gardener (that takes a lifetime). I have always required time to process experiences – both negative or positive – and this trip, which has been wonderful, will be worked over in my mind for years to come. But this home-body who also loves to travel can say with certainty – this is a country I will return to. And be very happy to do so.
Walk through a garden hundreds of years old upon stones worn smooth as bone. Eyelash softness of cherry blossoms brush the air free of dust and settle among the stones. Hundreds of years of rain, storm, and sun push a grandfather pine away from his chosen place but he responds with the stubbornness of time. He remains in place – contorted and bent and still.
How did the builder of this garden imagine his creation? Did he imagine that countless souls would walk through his garden over hundreds of years? Did he imagine that his garden would bring peace to those in need or solace to those alone? Would it bring envy? Would he have hoped that the stones laid in his time would be walked upon by millions of visitors, each with their own sense of time and place? Did he build a garden for history, or for the singular glory of his clan?
It is humbling to know that what is done at one time ripples through future times. A young tree planted on one day is admired and loved thousands of days later. On stones laid hundreds of years before walks each person wrapped in specific time. We can imagine, but we cannot know. We can walk through a garden as young as today or as old as yesterday and we can imagine, but we cannot know.
Cherry blossoms fall after only days in full bloom. We walk through an ancient garden once and feel the passage of time like warm sunlight shaded by a cloud.
Only time remains.