You know you’re a city girl when your senses come alive amidst crowds, when your heart thumps to the beat of a commuter train, and when your brain kinda gives up on the necessity of serenity ever so often. I know I’m one. I love my cities as much as I love my mountains. And wherever I’ve lived that defies this big city template – in a quiet suburb of a hippie US city or in the heart of a mad Indian one – my heart and mind were ruled by memories of New York and London. And now, Tokyo.
(Thank you, Singapore. I got very lucky to live in a world city after years of wondering what it would feel like!).
Tokyo was an easy choice for my first solo trip in four years. It lies on the boundary of being easy and difficult – safe and well connected (one of the few in Asia), and the extra push I’d have to give myself to understand and be understood. In the most last-minute trip that I’ve ever planned in my entire life, I crammed in language lessons and a hunt for vegetarian food with a vengeance. The mad, mad subway map, now that I knew I could instinctively figure out on the tracks :)
Tokyo fit the template of a big city much like I expected it to. Sky scrapers and skylines, beautifully landscaped green spaces and history lessons tucked into museums or preserved architectural marvels. It is this juxtaposition in world cities that makes me breathless. A 500-year old restored wooden structure sitting in the middle of a garden, the edges from which you can see sharp glistening glass make its way up to the sky. It’s unnerving and exhilarating. Throw in an ice cream (in summer) and I could walk round and round this scene many times over in different parts of the same city. Wear comfortable shoes :)
The one AMAZING thing that stood out in Tokyo was how clean it was. Despite the number of people and the few public trash bins. How do they do it, I wonder?!
Since the sights and sounds in Tokyo matched the familiar Singapore template, I decided to seek out a couple of things I hadn’t initially considered closely.
My cousin lived in Tokyo for two years a decade ago, and she thought it would be fun if I could find her old house. It was renamed and didn’t show up on Google Maps, so all I had were real time directions and a hand drawn map from her on … wait for it … what’s app! As only Indians would, eh? So I poked around hip Azabu Juban and its European feeling Main Street and cobblestone pathways. Thank you Masala Sushi, I treated myself to a yummy bun from your ex-neighbourhood baker ;)
Bon is a summer tradition of honouring the dead. Once people are back in the city after spending the Bon holidays back home, Bon Odori dances continue in neighbourhood parks till the end of summer. The whole park turns into a pretty dance floor as young and old, locals and foreigners dance around a central drummer in a tower. I didn’t know enough to tell if the music was traditional or folk, but I much enjoyed just watching all of them have a grand ol’ time entertaining their dead ancestors (and maybe even themselves?!).
I decided to do something very unlike me this time – skip museums. I wasn’t in the mood to learn history, just to see it naturally in the middle of the city for free. I donated my entire museum-and-other-“attractions” budget into finding good vegetarian versions of Japanese food and it turned out to be so fulfilling that all I remember about Tokyo is the FOOD! And I’m a vegetarian (rolls eyes at myself). I have many people to thank for this gustatory tour of Tokyo – Dvibhumi, my cousin MasalaSushi, HappyCow, Simon&Martina, NeverEndingVoyage, TokyoCheapo and many other blogs (they also helped with language and figuring out the mad trains!). Ramen, sushi, curry – over and over again. Every single meal with chopsticks too! Tempura and okonomiyaki, well I’ve saved those for next time.
Because I know there will be a next time. Because there are way too many unanswered questions in my head about the post WW-2 era in that part of the world. Because the process of answering those is the pathway to learn about the Japanese sense of honour and duty. Because you know, there’s a certain Mt.Fuji that I didn’t even spot. They tell me it is a two day trek to the top at 12,000 ft. Did my heart just hear big-city and big-mountain in the same geography? Oh my ;)
An attempt at conscious travel
Halfway to the airport in Singapore, I realised I had forgotten my trusty water bottle which has become an extension of my right hand since I’m a huge water drinker. So there, one plastic water bottle casualty, but that lasted me for five days. Two ice cream cups and spoons (the sesame ice cream deserves a standalone ode). And one takeaway sandwich plastic box at my last meal because well, long wait for the flight.
Apart from that, I ate every meal at restaurants with no takeaways, and this was a first for me when I travel alone. The last one year of eating by myself at work has weaned me out of eating-alone-phobia. Yay! Also, after a long time I wasn’t on a budget airline and had a chance to refuse a lot of additional freebies and plastic on board. Got me thinking about how an airline can be more sustainable. There’s gold to find once I decide to go down that rathole, I’m sure :)
Book read on the trip: The Roads to Sata: a 2000-mile journey across Japan, by Alan Booth. Meditative reading in the middle of a mad metropolis.