My interest in Japan owes much to one of my favourite authors, Haruki Murakami.
Whilst in Tokyo, I had hoped to identify some of the locations he describes. I thought I might perhaps even gain a glimpse into the psyche of the Japanese men who form the bulk of his protagonists: forgettable loners, quietly plodding through life and barely leaving an imprint. It had seemed a strange universal character to choose, but after only a few days in the city I could understand why they provided him with such rich potential. It’s a place dedicated to solo living: the tiny apartments, the individual seats at ramen bars, the anonymity of the packed subway car. Like no other city I had visited, Tokyo invited people to disappear, even when living a life surrounded by other human beings.
But another common trope in Murakami’s works is the chance encounter. His plots hang upon life-changing moments which spring from uninspiring situations and throw together the most ordinary of people with life’s more outlandish citizens.
I had experienced the former theme. On my final night, I was to encounter the latter.
The day began at Meiji Shrine; a forest-clad temple in the city centre, and popular spot for weddings. David had recommended I visit on Sunday morning to try and catch some ladies in kimono. I sauntered over assuming I would be the only foreigner around; a well-informed smug traveller in her voyeuristic element.
Of course in practice, the entire area was heaving with tourists forming circles around the wedding guests and adorable kids in miniature traditional clothing, snapping photos, making wishes, buying souvenirs, and generally getting in the way. The weddings were practically on wheels; I only hung around for an hour and witnessed at least three parties make their way through the central courtyard.
Happily it gave plenty of opportunities to join the other snap-happy tourists, and most guests were more than happy to parade their offspring in front of the assembled cameras. One family even forcibly threw me into the photo with their increasingly emotional toddler; I’m not sure I enhanced the shot but nonetheless didn’t exactly fight them off.
Everywhere I looked, there were beautifully-dressed women and ridiculously cute children.
Even whilst set upon by hoards of tourists, the majestic trees, elegant buildings, and open courtyard made for a remarkably tranquil setting.
But eventually I had my fill and trotted off to nearby Yoyogi Park: another Josy tip, which accompanied a promise of Elvis impersonators, the perfect foil to lines of dainty ladies on wooden clogs.
Sadly the impersonators were having a beer break when I arrived but it was nice to see the King’s famous posture being maintained at all times.
I wandered through the park in the hope that I might stumble across some more active Elvises but sadly all I encountered were picnicing families and school groups playing badminton. How disappointingly wholesome.
Hungry and willing to head further afield for food, I set my course for Asakusa, on the other side of the city. This otherwise uninspiring suburb boasted a restaurant specialising in a personal favourite: okonomiyaki.
What is okonomiyaki, I hear you ask? Well . . . it’s a bit like an omelette and a pancake had a delicious baby and then smothered it with Japanese mayonnaise. (If you’re inspired but stuck in London, then I recommend seeking it out at Abeno).
This particular restaurant was a traditional sit-on-the-floor joint, with bamboo mats scattered around large hot plates. A bowl of the chosen okomiyaki is brought in its raw to the customer, whose job it is to dump it on the hot plate, watch it like a hawk, flip it over, drizzle on some condiments, and rapturously dig in.
It was a world away from my previous night’s high-tech sushi, yet both restaurants seemed exquisitely and unquestioningly Japanese.
That weekend happened to be Tori no Ichi; a riotous festival celebrating the day of the rooster, and I had planned to spend my evening visiting the helpfully central participating shrine in Shinjuku. However, moments before heading to the metro, I discovered that in fact I was already – accidentally – moments away from Otori Jinja: a shrine hosting the city’s largest and most famous celebrations. There was literally no reason for me to have been in Asakusa beyond okonomiyaki and Tori no Ichi; by pure coincidence, I had managed to combine the two.
Just fifteen minutes’ walk up the road, the celebrations began. Lanterns were strung along the main street, and cooking smells enticed passing stragglers. I entered the throng; the only solo westerner around. All of the side streets had been shut down for the event and were lined with a mouthwatering array of food stalls.
The cold weather, happily flushed faces and extensive varieties of food on sticks were unavoidably reminiscent of Guy Fawkes Night, albeit without the burning human effigy.
I plunged into the crowd, ducking in and out of family groups and people bearing gigantic, ornate “rakes”. These are sold by vendors in the temple and are the focus of the festival. Intended to “rake in money”, they range from the size of a fist to ten feet tall and everywhere in between, a wooden or plastic garden rake completely smothered with tinsel, cartoon characters, fake branches, wheat, balloons, feathers, glitter, cherry blossom, you name it. As the crowd slid gently towards the temple, successful visitors marched in the opposite direction with their prizes held triumphantly aloft.
I was happy to peruse the food stalls and set myself the heroic quest to eat as much as I could possibly manage. You’ll be happy to know that I did very well and was the winner of the eating competition with myself.
Eventually I was pulled towards the temple’s entrance by the force of the crowd. Inside, I immediately encountered a man buying a rake from a vendor near the entrance. He pulled me into the little group of people and gestured that I should follow along. I had absolutely no idea what was happening as the vendor started clapping and shouting in a rhythm which everyone except me seemed to know off by heart. I did my very best to join in, failed miserably, and was given a hearty clap on the back and beaming smile nonetheless.
The temple was lined on every single side by rake vendors bearing products piled from floor to ceiling in a riotous mass of precariously-balanced colour. Each stall differed in the most infinitesimal way but worshippers seemed to know precisely where they were headed. I was pulled this way and that by the undulating crowd, hauled into various performances, and eventually realised that the same clapping, chanting rhythm was employed whenever somebody purchased a decorated rake; and that presumably the more people involved, the better.
The laughter, the bells, the clapping, the colours; the sugary almond biscuits; the waft of incense mingling with barbecued fish. I moved through the revellers with a grin plastered across my face, basking in the serendipity of having visited Tokyo at precisely the right time, and then stumbling across the perfect location to experience it. Luck was most definitely on my side.
Still, you can never have too much of it. Despite having restrained myself from all unnecessary purchases so far on the trip, I decided it would be tantamount to heresy if I failed to depart without my own money-rake; not least one promising good fortune for the year ahead. I sourced a gaudy, shiny, and most importantly postable option and gleefully allowed myself to be surrounded by chanting passers-by as I completed my transaction.
In the centre of the temple, lanterns hung from every beam and the crowd surged forward to hang on the lucky bells. I stood watching at the side, until I was dragged into one of the queues by a watching temple worker, who pushed me to the front and demonstrated that I should ring the bell and throw a coin underneath. I hauled on the rope with gusto before melting back into the crowd to bask in the upbeat cacophony.
Later I was to discover that the queue snaked out of the temple, into the street, and up another block, and I had decried my heritage by unintentionally joining at the very front, thus skipping a minimum 30-minute wait. I’m sorry, Japan. I’m sorry, Britain. I let everybody down.
Eventually my feet began to ache and my throat cried out for liquid refreshment. I navigated my way out of the temple and back to the food stalls, looking for somewhere to rest. On one street corner, groups of people with glasses of beer and sake sat chatting around trestle tables topped with plates of unidentifiable snacks. I peered over some heads to try and read the menu, hoping to learn whether I could just buy a bottle of water.
A voice next to me piped up: “hello!” A cackle of laughter. “Hellloooooooo!” It was two couples – one younger, one middle-aged – and they were frantically gesturing at me to sit down with them. They pulled up a stool and unequivocally insisted I join them. In ten seconds I was holding a full glass of sake and giggling away with my new-found friends as we attempted to communicate with futility but great enthusiasm.
The older man – small, wiry, with a beanie hat and laughter lines – only spoke a handful of English sentences. His favourite was to describe himself as a “crazy cat” which he did repeatedly, with wide-eyed gurning, to guffaws of laughter from the others. Mostly with the aid of the younger woman, we managed to get through basic introductions, why I was in Tokyo, who was the man on my phone (it’s Peter!), where I was headed to next, did I like Japan. Everyone got increasingly tipsy.
By the time the bottle of sake had been polished off, the younger couple had decided that their main goal in life was to get me some proper sushi. The older woman had gone from mildly tipsy to word-slurringly wasted and Crazy Cat was having a whale of a time living up to his reputation as the class clown. As the younger man paid (my offer to contribute flatly denied), the older one disappeared, only to return with a gigantic box. It turned out to be some kind of enormous, cartoon-adorned, over-packaged, heavy plastic drawing kit for seven-year-old girls, and he had bought it from a nearby stall; a present for me.
He’d also purchased a pink plastic toy which looked like something found behind the curtain in Ann Summers but transpired to be a multicoloured flashing light which spun to the electronic stylings of “The Vengaboys Are Coming”. This, too, was a gift, although its main purpose was to be switched on continuously and swung around his head whilst everyone collapsed in tears of laughter, though none more so than Crazy Cat himself.
We headed away from the beer stall and back into the throng. The younger man had gallantly taken hold of the plastic bag containing the unfeasibly cumbersome box and was dragging it through the crowd, whilst Crazy Cat determinedly led the way to a spice stall where he made the vendor whip up a traditional pepper mix, insisted on paying, and presented it to me with exaggerated solemnity and insistence upon a kiss on his cheek.
Finally, we escaped back to the main road and out of the Tori no Ichi madness.
Sushi beckoned . . . although where precisely, nobody seemed to know. By now it was gone 10pm on a Sunday night and everywhere was shut. We wandered up and down the main road, tried to hail a taxi, but couldn’t find any which would take five people. Crazy Cat headed with gusto down an obscure side street, waving the pink plastic torch, and our increasingly bedraggled party meandered through an empty covered shopping mall, a silent residential area, and past several tiny, promising, but shortly-closing restaurants.
Eventually we arrived on a bland main street, where shone the lights of a conveyor belt sushi joint. This, it transpired, was the end of the line. We trooped in; the only patrons at the Japanese equivalent of a Little Chef.
The chefs, who had been on the verge of packing up, were promptly brought out of hiding. Crazy Cat roundly rejected all of the sad options meandering along the conveyor belt, insisting on fresh batches and eyeing each one critically before allowing it to be tasted. Every plate was placed in front of me; the second piece shared between the others only after I had savoured and swallowed the first, my reactions carefully monitored by eight anxious eyes. It was certainly better than that which I had eaten the previous day, and huge relief showed on their faces each time I made it through another bite, as if I were participating in the sushi Olympics.
I’d explained that we had sushi in London – only not very good – but it had fallen on deaf ears and they were convinced this was my first time eating raw fish. So in the interests of maintaining civil international relations, I played along and we all emerged from the meal feeling satisfied with our respective contributions; although my hunger was undoubtedly more sated than theirs.
Finally ejected by the restaurant at midnight, we lurched towards the train station. The older woman, who spoke no English whatsoever, had been quaffing beer whilst I focussed on the sushi, and was by now completely plastered. She leant on me as we ambled down the street, stroked my arm and mumbled the same few sentences over and over again. I was pretty sure I knew what she was saying, since she’d mentioned it earlier with a briefly translation from one of the others: she was worried for me. I had cheerfully gone along with this group of strangers so readily, without knowing anything about them, and she feared that I would do the same with someone else who would transpire to be considerably less friendly than they were. She had a point, of course. I had tried to allay her fears by agreeing that such behaviour was perhaps foolish but I could tell they were harmless and “had a good feeling” about them, but now it was just the two of us and she was clearly no less concerned. We stumbled along, she incessantly telling me in Japanese to be careful, and perhaps a whole other string of personal admissions that I couldn’t possibly translate. I responded in English, telling her not to worry, and that she was a good person, and deserved to be happier than she occasionally appeared. She seemed troubled, and the words poured forth; I wondered whether she was laying bare her soul to someone who couldn’t possibly judge her. The language barrier didn’t even had a hairline crack, our soothing was unintelligible, and although I was completely sober, we propped each other up all the way back.
At the station, Crazy Cat waved the torch around his head once more before thrusting it into my hands and insisting on a final kiss on the cheek. His wife clasped my hand with unexpected pressure, looked me in the eye, whispered something else I’ll never know, and then pushed me towards the barriers. The last thing I saw was the pair of them standing in the very bright ticket hall, looking rather small; he waving with comic exaggeration; she stooped, eyes downcast.
With many miles to cover and just minutes to spare, the younger couple and I boarded the final train of the night. I tried to ascertain how the four of them knew one another. “We met once before” said the man. “And today we sat together”.
“So . . . you don’t really . . . know each other?!” I asked, with complete incredulity.
They laughed awkwardly. No, indeed, they didn’t. They were friends of friends – passing acquaintances – who had been placed on the same table minutes before I wandered into their midst.
On the train back we discussed American film directors, and two stops before mine, they handed me back my strangely-gotten gains and waved goodbye. “See you one day”, they said, stepped out the doors, and disappeared from view.
At 1am I arrived back at my apartment and wondered whether the entire evening had been some sort of hallucination. Much like a film when the protagonist thinks “was that a dream?” and then discovers a tell-tale feather or unexpected shoe or surrogate child, I knew it all to be true because I was still in baffled possession of this:
And was equally conflicted about what to do with this:
So the next morning, I packed up all of my stuff and left my bonkers gifts on the bed, with a pleading note for the AirBNB owners that they donate them to a deserving child who would make more use of them than I.
Pack shouldered, I headed off for a morning at a seaside park built on reclaimed land, and then I went to the airport, wondering what would possibly happen upon my inevitable return to Tokyo, and whether I’d been irrevocably changed by four days in this convoluted, perplexing city.
If Murakami taught me anything, it’s that stories don’t end when you close the book.