A while ago, I took a trip to downtown Tokyo for
some reason or other, and on the way home I happened to come through
Shinjuku Station, which, for those of you who don't know much about
this city, is one of Tokyo's largest 'hub' stations, serving the
western suburbs of this huge city. Literally millions of people pass
through it every day. The train I boarded was carrying the usual mix
of passengers, with salarymen, shoppers, and students making up the
bulk of the 'cargo', and as usual for a Tokyo train, it was a fairly
cheerless scene. You don't generally see many smiles on Tokyo trains,
even when it isn't very crowded. Although any students on board might
be chatting together noisily, nearly everybody else just sits there
staring at nothing in particular, probably thinking about nothing in
particular, just trying to pass the time until the train arrives at
their destination. I don't exclude myself from this description.
Sometimes, I might remember to take a book along when I go downtown,
but if I haven't been so thoughtful, I too just sit there with a
blank stare on my face.
This time though, I was neither reading nor
'dozing', but found myself looking around me and remembering ...
remembering back to the time ten years ago when I still lived in
Canada, but was busy preparing for my trip to Japan. For use in my
planning, I had obtained somewhere a map of Tokyo, just a simple
cheap tourist map that didn't show much more than the basic outlines
of the city. I spent uncountable hours poring over that map trying to
fathom the 'reality' that lay behind the names I read on it ... Ueno
... Ochanomizu ... Roppongi ... Shibuya ... What were these places
like? Where would I end up living? (I had no way of knowing it at the
time, but the place in which I would eventually settle, Hamura City,
even though it is part of Tokyo, is so far from the centre of town
that it would not have shown up even if my map had covered an area
three times as wide as it did ...)
To try and 'fill in the blanks' in my knowledge of
Tokyo, I read many books about Japan, and eagerly absorbed what they
had to say, referring constantly to the map, and gradually building
up a picture in my mind of what these exotic places were like.
Akihabara ... Kanda ... Aoyama ... and yes, of course
Some of the books I read were quite old-fashioned,
but I tried to take this into account while creating my mental images
of Tokyo. I certainly didn't expect to see things like rickshaws in
the Ginza, or elegant 'ladies of the night' parading through the
Yoshiwara. I knew those images from the books were gone forever ...
But just what would I see? To a dreamer from thousands of miles away,
the real city that must be 'hidden' behind the names on that map
seemed like an exotic place indeed.
And now here I was, actually riding my train
through Shinjuku itself, a trip I have made probably hundreds of
times in that ten years since those days in that far-off country,
studying that worn map. Perhaps you are thinking you can guess what I
am going to say next ... that I am going to 'confess' that Shinjuku
turned out to be not exotic at all, but just another urban jumble of
concrete, crowds, and noise. That rather than being mysterious, Japan
was 'just another place', full of McDonald's restaurants and modern
office buildings, pretty much the same as the place from which I had
come. That the reality of living in a foreign country could not
approach the magic of the dream ... Are you expecting me to say these
Well if so, then I must apologize, for I have to
disappoint you. Because the overwhelming feeling I had as I was
passing through Shinjuku station the other day, was not how mundane
it was, but how ... exotic it was! Because you see, even after nearly
ten years of living here in Japan, after passing through Shinjuku
more times than I could possibly count, even after so many days spent
here, now nearly a quarter of my life, I still haven't been able to
get over the feeling that I am living somewhere 'special', somewhere
very, very special. My friend Terry can't understand what I see here
in Japan. His overwhelming impression of this country, after three
years of living here, is that urban jumble of concrete, crowds, and
noise that I mentioned. He has had enough of it, and very soon now,
he will be heading back to Canada, where I hope he will find the
peaceful and restful living environment he is seeking. Westerners who
come to stay here in Japan for any kind of extended period do seem to
fall into one of two types: those who hate it, and those who love it.
Terry can only see the concrete Japan ... I can't see the concrete
What do I see, then? What on earth can somebody
find 'special' about a place like Shinjuku? Well, I guess I can start
to make a list, but will you understand what I am saying ...?
Hearing the bells that signify that
the train doors are about to close, I run up the last few steps
toward the platform. Too late. The doors close, and the 'pea-green'
train pulls away. But it's no problem, because two minutes later, the
next one pulls in to pick me up. It's comfortable, clean, and on
Strolling around the food floor in the basement of
a large department store, I stop to look at a booth selling 'gyoza',
small oriental-style dumplings. It's no larger than 3 meters on a
side, and in that space are stoves, refrigerators, display counters,
etc., and seven men, working elbow to elbow, moving as fast as I have
ever seen people move, snatching up small rounds of pastry, stuffing
them with the filling, and pinching them into shape. The impression
is that of seeing the inside of some kind of wonderfully crafted
watch ... all the parts of this 'machine' fit together so well ...
One of them, who obviously thinks he's pretty hot stuff (he is!),
looks up and grins at me watching in awe ...
Browsing through the stacks in a cart outside a
bookshop, I find a treasure - a book I read decades ago as a teenager
about a canoeing trip through Canada's northland ... Here it is
again, bringing back a flood of memories, on a sidewalk in Tokyo
A friend visiting from overseas has a somewhat
unusual request ... he needs information about bassoons ... No
problem. One phone call to a local friend for advice, and then, off
to Shinjuku, where we drop in at a ... bassoon shop.
Spending the day with Sadako in Tokyo, we find
ourselves in this area at lunch time. We window-shop among the
restaurants. What shall we eat? Sushi? Tonkatsu? French? Udon? Ramen?
Italian? Sandwiches? We eat at 'Healthmagic', where I have a bun
filled with 'okara', which she tells me is something left over after
making tofu ...
Is there a pattern to this? I don't think so. All
these examples are irrelevant one-by-one, but taken together into a
large whole ... I guess it's just that Shinjuku (or rather, Tokyo)
(no, rather Japan) is just the kind of place where anything and
everything can be seen or found. But of course, by 'anything and
everything', I simply mean things that I didn't see and couldn't find
back in my Canadian home. When you come down to it, 'exotic' simply
means 'different'. For me, living in Japan is an endless exotic
adventure. Even after all these years, I still get that feeling every
time I step out of my door. I'm living in Wonderland. But there is
another important part to this ...
The lady walks along a back street behind one of
Shinjuku's largest department stores. A small poster catches her eye.
She stops to inspect it and then enters the building, taking the
elevator up to the third floor. An exhibition of woodblock prints in
a 200-year old style, depicting 1200-year old poets. Carved and
printed by the man she sees standing there in the gallery, a
scraggly-bearded Englishman ... She had heard about this guy
somewhere on TV or in the papers, and always wanted to see what his
stuff looked like ...
You see, I'm not just an observer of all these
things, I too am part of it. Terry, who was unable to find a way to
participate in life here on terms that he could live with, will soon
be living in Canada again. But David, either through dumb luck, good
planning, or some combination of those, has found a way to join in.
In some ways, it has been easy for him. He is a
bit selfish, taking what he wants from this society (the grin of the
gyoza maker), and ignoring what he does not wish to see (I can't
think of any examples just at the moment ...). But he thinks that he
is making a worthwhile contribution here, and that on balance, he
gives as much to this society as he takes from it ... And what a
treat, to be living in Wonderland ...
I didn't see it while passing through Shinjuku the
other day, but have seen it any number of times before - a young
Japanese girl or boy sitting on the train, oblivious to everything
around them, head bent over a pamphlet filled with coloured
photographs. A pamphlet published by some travel company ... 'Visit
I smile at them, and wish them a very very
pleasant journey. I truly hope they can find what they are looking