Sunday, April 4, 2010

#4: Am I Lagging?

I'm not sure yet if I have jet lag since I slept reasonably well, with only two major wakeups in the middle of the night, and got out of bed at a normal time. Time will tell.

Driving in by bus last night I noticed once again, but maybe more clearly than ever, how--despite its surface aura of sleek modernity--unattractive is the visual appeal of Tokyo, seen from the perspective of a raised highway running through its heart. Wherever you look you see gray monoliths, some small, some gigantic, but all giving the impression of sameness, even in their diversity. One glass, concrete, and steel building is wedged next to the other, with no apparent plan or sense of orderliness. And this view dominates much of the sprawling metropolis, which gives the impression of endless architecture as far as the eye can see; it makes the layout and planning of New York City, by contrast, seem a model of urban thoughtfulness. New York--by which I'm referring mainly to Manhattan--with its avenues running north and south and its streets east and west has, for the most part, a clarity of perspective that makes Tokyo proper look chaotic and overwhelming. Even the most imaginative architecture--of which the city has multiple examples--gets lost in the jumble when viewed from a slight distance.

Manhattan has, I would venture, two dominant architectural districts--midtown and the Wall Street area. Tokyo seems to have dozens. And where New York has Times Square as its principal high-tech hub of entertainment, shopping, and tourism, Tokyo has multiple and far more extensive versions of the same thing--Shinjuku, Shibuya, the Ginza, Ikebukuro, and so on, all of them centered around a major train depot.

Even the area around the suburban Kichijoji train station is such a hub. Hundreds of young people, including street performers, congregate outside. Commuters stand in long lines waiting for buses. There are department stores, banks, restaurants, a huge shopping arcade, boutiques, night clubs, dozens of taxis, bars, and on and on. Outside of Manhattan, New York's boroughs have none of this. Downtown Brooklyn near Fulton Street is a rural backwater compared to Kichijoji, which is nevertheless just one of many such suburban towns ringing the sprawling monster known as Tokyo proper.

On the other hand, if you walk about ten minutes away from the hustle and bustle of the Kichijoji train station neighborhood, you move into a more orderly suburban environment of modest and occasionally impressive houses, lined up cheek to jowl, of course, but nevertheless, quiet, well mannered, neat, and carefully placed on narrow, clean, and  eminently livable suburban streets.

At 11:00 a.m. I met Kei, his wife, Yasue, and adorable, well-behaved, and clearly intelligent six-year-old daughter at the Seikei campus gate and we joined the hundreds of people attending the cherry blossom festival. I gave Miyako a Godiva teddy bear clutching a bar of Godiva chocolate, and she seemed to like it very much, holding onto it as tightly as the animal did to its precious candy bar.

Sure enough, the campus was brilliant with cherry trees in glorious floral profusion, which brightened an otherwise overcast and chilly day. As usual at such events, there were many vendors under canvas tenting selling sake, beer, hot dogs on a stick, chocolate-covered bananas on a stick, yakisoba (fried noodles), and all sorts of other popular local foods and confections.

There were numerous games for children, like one in which the kids are given a hook attached to a paper string and asked to catch a small balloon floating in water. If the string breaks when it gets too damp, they lose. Happily, Miyako managed to hook a balloon. Another game, something like horseshoes, is wanage (ring toss), where the tykes throw small rings of twine in an attempt to encircle a cheap toy that they then win. We've all seen variations of this in the U.S. Miyako had a romp on an air mattress trampoline inside a blowup version of a genie castle inspired by Disney's Alladin movie, drove a tiny, solar-powered car around a miniature track, and put on blinders to allow a seeing-eye dog to lead her (with help from its mistress) around an obstacle course. A tea ceremony was being held outdoors at one place, a Sinatra imitator sang songs like "My Way" and "When You're Smiling" with near flawless English pronunciation and a less than flawless singing voice, and a full orchestra and chorus performed familiar tunes.

After a while, Kei and his family departed (Miyako needed a haircut before she begins first grade next week). Having left my fanny pack and money back in my apartment, I returned to retrieve it and to get the chill out of my underdressed bones.

I spent the afternoon walking about the Kichijoji Station area to become familiar again with its landmarks, shops, and facilities. The Sunday crowds were as vibrant and populous as ever. Long lines formed wherever some popular food item was being sold; young women and men flaunted the latest clothing and hair styles; others stood at crowded intersections advertising something or other and handing out flyers or free packets of tissue paper (a standard Japanese advertising device); smokers sucked tobacco at a designated outdoor smoking pen; numerous people wore masks to prevent the spread of germs; uniformed police and security staffs stood sentry wherever one looked; salesclerks stood outside stores half open to the street loudly hawking their wares; and, at one point, an odd little Buddhist procession--carrying banners announcing their connection to a flower viewing festival (hanami matsuri), and mingling a strange assortment of costumed Buddhist priests, a rolling white elephant effigy, little girls (some mere infants) in splendidly ornamented costumes with tiny dots painted over their eyes, boy scouts and cub scouts, and somber older men in formal Japanese attire of wing-vests (kataginu) and divided skirts (hakama) worn over shirts and ties--marched slowly to the music of ancient flutes and mouth organs through the ultra-hip Sunroad shopping arcade surrounded by a security detail with megaphones clearing the way, fore and aft. Meanwhile, anxious parents kept leaning into the procession to fix some piece of costuming or other on their angelic offspring.

I made a fascinating video clip of this procession. It's at It will also appear on my Facebook page. In closing, I've provided a few shots of people waiting in line for the blessing of a pastry or a crepe, or even iced tea.

In coming days, I'll add more photos of the Kichijoji experience, but for now I'll close with this shot of a somewhat shabbily dressed man I spotted standing outside a Buddhist temple on a nearly empty sidewalk just outside the perimeter of the big shopping center, offering his humble prayers. A sobering image only a few feet from the world of desire and consumption.


  1. Thanks for the pics/post. That guy standing under the 'Circus' sign on line looks very tall for a Japanese guy. Looks like a great day, aside from the overcast looking sky.

  2. Yes. He IS tall. Must be something in those crepes.