Monday, December 7, 2009

A trip to Tokyo in November

There is a cocoon like sense of safety travelling in a large jetliner ten thousands of feet above the earth as the flight path traverses rugged mountains, permanent ice formations and bleak landscapes. Mid-flight, I survey a Siberian landscape, looking for signs of life and motion on a desolate, ice filled expanse of crinkled white merging into the distance, into the glare of the sun. It is a clear day, shards of sunlight filter in through the occasional half exposed windows, the outside temperatures register -50F. Inside, the aircraft exhudes a lived-in feel, seatback bins overstuffed with magazines and empty plastic cups, passengers swathed in red blankets, din of a fussing child reaching through the music on my headphones.

Landing in Japan is evocative of the mood in Lost in Translation, a cliché of a comment, but nonetheless true. There is a stillness inspite of the encircling flurry of activity—as if one is part of a video in mute mode. My feet slide over the grooved escalator floor with a scraping sound, beats from a tabla waft over the loudspeakers near the immigration area. I have done this route often: draw money at the ATM machines that accept foreign cards, pick up a bottle of water from the convenience store at the airport—holding out an open palm filled with Japanese change (from earlier trips) from which the face-mask clad store attendant picks out the amount; take the Narita express downstairs to Tokyo station, grab a cab with a white gloved driver for the last leg of the trip to my hotel, drive past the gnarly trees with windswept shapes on the grounds of the imperial palace, watching the yellow arrow snake through a network of streets on the cabbie’s GPS.

A lasting consequence of the 1964 Olympics has been that the Tokyo metro is sign posted in English. The signposting is pithy, but adequate—a small English word or two inset within the jumble of instructions in Japanese. As I make my way, from the Narita Express platform deep within the bowels of the station to the surface exits, massive crowds of passengers swish by in collective motion, heading out of an arriving train, bifurcating in different directions, then deftly bypassing another school of passengers headed in the opposite direction.

A highlight of my trips to Japan are the noodle shops. Formal Japanese meals in upscale restaurants are—of course-- delicate, elaborate, and exotic. Nowhere else, have I been offered the brilliant variety of meats as I have here: chicken sashimi, raw horse meat, dishes requiring extreme care that only specialized restaurants can provide. These are lengthy, multi-course meals perfect for a long enjoyable evening out with others. But when alone, for a quick cheap meal, there is nothing—anywhere—that beats the taste and camaraderie of eating with other fellow travelers in a hurry as in a noodle shop. As in many other places in Tokyo, noodle shops are cramped spaces with a small kitchen behind a food counter. Outside the store, on the pavement, there are coin slot machines with pictures of noodle dishes available. After accepting payment, the machine dispenses a receipt that you then present to the cook. Standing encircled by large cauldrons of hot steaming water, he conjures up your bowl in a couple of minutes. There is an efficient arrangement of bar like seating, a water dispenser within reach, and a moist cloth to dab one’s hands on. There is little disposable material—no paper napkins, no sauce packets, or straw covers. Most patrons forgo the wooden soup spoons and prefer to sip directly from the bowl instead, in-between mouthfuls of chopstick fed noodles. There is peace and contentment within, and the sounds of deep slurps with-out. This—is moksha—for me. I try to pack in as many noodle shop trips as I can, sometimes heading out at 6:30 am for a noodle breakfast.

Japan is a country with a wonderful sense of engineering, and it reminds me much of Switzerland in the attention to detail, and the “put togetherness” of components. There is an engineering orderliness where not a bolt or tubing is superfluous, readily apparent in a drive through the city, or a rail trip into a train station. It is clear there is a method for everything, an adhered to code for every public placement of an engineering or electrical structure, a dignity and pride in one’s work. For me, this is as much part of the beauty of Japan, a no-nonsense beauty of efficiency, as is Mount Fuji—whose majestic prominence we can see clearly from my hotel in Akasaka on a clear day. There are no cheap looking galvanized metal siding scattered about, utilities and pylons are indexed with numbers, no doubt tracked and kept in perfect working order, stainless steel screws, washers, bolts in a perfect harmony of placement. Yet within this sense of orderliness and pre-determined neatness, are signs of occasional entropy, like the van driver who stood by his van on a busy street on an early morning, relieving himself, as I headed out for a jog; or the trio of homeless men under the bridge in sharp contrast to the suited salarymen on their way to work on an early morning.

Tokyo itself has a magnificence of scale. Enormous buildings line the streets, behemoths seated next to one another like giant football linemen by the sidelines of an unfolding game. The city comforts you with the familiar trappings of modern life, yet keeps you at bay with the unfamiliar and exotic. Blue collar mechanics at a roadside project wear Capri length flared baggy samurai workpants but with western workboots and leather toolbelts hanging from their waist. I recognize all of the power tools in their hands and belts, indeed I may own some of them, but the flared samurai workpants are new to me.

You cannot fully appreciate the beauty of Japan unless you are an engineer at heart. From the exquisite joinery and sparse elegance of Japanese cabinetry, its incredible metallurgical blademaking techniques, the precision and cold stainless heft of its industrial machinery, to the delicate precision with which its food is presented, the entire country unfolds itself as an exercise in efficient, rational design that is at the core of the country’s basic philosophy.

1 comment:

  1. Such a nice description of Tokyo/Japan. I love your style. Keep on writing Supra.