My life 4.6

Christmas - and I'm Stuck in Tokyo!



Here I was in Tokyo, a week before Christmas. More than that, five days before my birthday! I had finished my business, and was waiting for a seat on a flight home. “Fully booked!” They told me.

 I wandered into downtown Tokyo – the Ginza. The big stores were all celebrating Christmas; they were, unusually, full of small children. As you entered, two girls in pink uniforms bowed deeply. At the foot of the escalator, more pink girls wiped the handrail with a cloth as it sped by, and bowed. Outside, there was much laughter along the streets, some of which were closed off so the crowds of pedestrians could walk easily. Inside, in the children’s departments, it was pandemonium - and not just from the children!

 The Japanese have a simple sense of humour.

 Once, in a station, a huge crowd was giggling and laughing at mechanical frilled lizards that were scuttling across an enormous model landscape.

 In the department store, a fascinated crowd surrounded a display. I sidled up. The toilet bowl had a Perspex cover. As I watched, a stainless steel probe slowly emerged from the back, moving horizontally. It stopped, and a jet of water suddenly shot up, drumming against the Perspex. Howls of appreciation!

 I had seen a similar toilet at the NEC factory in Yokohama. As I sat on it I saw that a small paper notice on the back of the door was stained with water. I puzzled why.

When I’d finished, I noticed that as well as the temperature controls for the heated seat, there were other buttons. I pressed one, and a fan whirred, blowing warm air round and out of the bowl. I stood up quick. Hmm! I pressed another button, and a small stainless steel probe emerged. Fascinated, I stood there as a jet of water shot past me, across the cubicle and hit the paper notice spot on. I wasn’t the first it seemed! Later I dared try it properly, sitting down. It worked quite well. 



The first time I walked alone in Tokyo, I came to the famous pedestrian crossing near Ginza. It is a large crossroads, with wide crossings marked across the mouth of each of the four roads, and a further two crossing diagonally over the centre, corner to corner. Lining up, waiting for the traffic to stop, I was shoulder to shoulder with other people, rows of others lined up behind us. I gazed at the wall of people on the other side. It was impossible! Yet when the signal came, each small army walked toward the other, like pikemen in an ancient war. I paced myself with the rest – I didn’t know what would happen. The two fronts closed on each other, closer, closer. And then it was over, we were passing through each other like ghosts. It was simple. I did not try to think, just walked steadily, in unison with my companions (for now they were my battle-hardened allies). Glancing around, I saw the same thing happening on all the other crossings.

 This is one of the true secrets of being Japanese – the skill of not bumping into each other. In the ever-crowded pedestrian areas, the only people who ever collided with me, or stalled in front of me wondering which side to pass, were westerners. This skill is tied to the other Japanese core behaviour – keep moving! No Japanese ever stopped in front of me to think of something, pull up their sock or to gaze in some window. They obeyed strict traffic rules, pulling out of the traffic to one side, finding a niche, or turning down an empty side street to do whatever they wanted to. This is a true skill.

 As a westerner, if you stopped in a public place – a station, say, within a short time, an English-speaker would pop up at your elbow and endeavour to help you - even conducting you to the ticket office, translating for you and helping you with the change, leading you to the platform and bidding you farewell. I once decided to find my own way to a seaside town I had glimpsed from the bullet train. I found it on the map. The suburban train lines had very few ‘Roman’ signs, so I had to learn the ideograms for my destination, and follow signs on the trains and platforms, changing trains at one point. My main concentration was avoiding being helped. I did not achieve that in Tokyo, but managed to keep moving and not look at a map too obviously for the rest of the journey. I was probably also helped by the lack of English speakers outside the city.  I finally got to the beach! It was a long walk. On the way back, I saw a bus stop. While trying to puzzle out the destinations on a small notice (I was looking for the sign for ‘station’) a bus screeched to a halt. The driver motioned me on. I tried to say I didn’t know where I was going, holding my hands out and shrugging. He just motioned me in more emphatically. There was no one else on the bus, which drove straight to the station and stopped. The driver turned round and looked at me. I got off. I offered him some money, but he just shrugged and smiled. I smiled. We never spoke. He knew where I was going. I was a “gaijin” in a seaside town– where else would I be going?


So here I was in the basement of one of the large department stores. I loved it here. Two basement floors of food! The women behind the counters called out as if in a market place. Things were being baked and cooked freshly for sale. I never tired of tasting samples offered by the nodding, smiling women in their white aprons and caps. One spotted me as I passed and called directly to me. The crowd around her smiled and giggled. She thought she had me. I went over. She was pushing jellyfish through a cutter, turning it into spaghetti-like strings. She put some in a small bowl, sprinkled it with soy, and offered it, a cheeky grin on her face. I suppose she thought I’d refuse. I took the dish, to polite gasps, and slurped up some of the jellyfish with the help of the chopsticks she handed me. The crowd went silent. I wiped my mouth, smiled and said “Oishii” in my best accent. (It means:- Delicious!). The crowd laughed, and a few clapped. The woman and I smiled at each other, and I went on my way. Of course, she hadn’t guessed I’d had it before (it’s a bit like crunchy spaghetti).

 When I got back to my hotel, I found I had a flight. Great! It meant going back via Hong Kong, which lengthened the journey, but as the only seat my Company could find from there was first-class on Cathay Pacific, I didn’t mind too much!  Much as I loved Japan, it was nice to be going home. But I knew I’d be back.


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