this was my first trip to Tokyo, it was not devoid of common predilections. My interest in how Japan
became a model of modernization for non-European countries, had led me
long ago to write a college term-paper on the educator Fukazawa Yukichi.
Soon thereafter, I was captivated by the magic of Akira Kurosawa’s
filmed fables. In the Eighties, it was the story of Japanese economic
prowess that inspired awe. With it, not coincidentally, came a nascent
appreciation for Japanese style in arts of all types. For me, the common
thread in all these was the attraction of a land so distant and yet so
important. Learning about
is, of course, a life long pursuit. This brief trip was a small step to
gain some insight on how Tokyo
would affect my experience as a foreign observer.
At the bend of
the third switchback of our line of travelers, a typed
sign said that it would be 40 minutes to the immigration
booths at the
airport. I took this personally; I was irritable. Having
flown ten hours from an underdeveloped country to get
here, I expected, well, more consideration from
. Why was it not prepared to receive us more
efficiently? Where was its vaunted automation?
Not even a
digital sign? The fact that I did not need a visa to enter,
endowed me with a sense of entitlement. I looked with an air of
superiority at fellow passengers to spot those I would bypass
because they needed visas. This vanity was in vain. The
line did not bifurcate ahead for the likes of me. We were all
treated the same: we were all ordinary.
Presently, however, another small sign caught my eye. I squinted
to read it. It seemed to indicate that those who did not require
a visa had to fill out a special form available at a side
window. This would have meant losing my place in the line. As I
despaired aloud, an English man behind me comforted me. “They
don’t mean that,” he said with a half smile, thus
introducing me to the subtleties of the Japanese usage of
English. He explained that he had been living in
for some time. “But the sign says so; it says...” I began,
before he interrupted me. “Are you a lawyer, a stickler on
words?” he asked rhetorically, and dismissively.
I forfeited my chance at a rejoinder to him because as we moved,
I had just seen yet a third sign which pointed to the
immigration booth set aside for seniors. I allowed myself a
smirk of relief for another source of entitlement I could now
tap. “Adieu!” -I confess, I actually said that to my
“young” English friend- and I changed lanes. No sooner had I
moved, however, than a Japanese fellow of my vintage appeared
before me. He had been directing the line which I had just left.
Tersely, he notified me that where I was now standing was for
seniors only. I said I knew. He asked for my identity card. When
he saw the badge of my entitlement, he said, not without
disdain, “I am over 65, but I work as a volunteer here.”I refused to yield my privilege as I wanted to get to my
hotel fast to rest.
The buses which they euphemistically called limousines at
the Narita airport were actually very comfortable. They ran
remarkably on time. I audited many before mine came, alas, an
hour hence, as announced. There was no dispensation for people
in a hurry.
Early in the morning, I went to Tsukiji. I was told that this was
the world’s largest fish market, where in excess of 6 billion dollars
worth of fish were sold every year. That information remained largely
abstract, unchanged by the fact that I saw many fish in great variety in
Tsukiji. The commercial transactions I could observe were few.
They were retail sales and could not amount to much. Documentation was
handled by middle-aged women in little booths, while men sloshed about
in their rubber shoes.
The bigger show was in the
back where all types of vehicles of the wholesale trade danced in a
chaotic choreography. I jumped over little pushcarts, yielded to big
trucks, avoided forklifts, dodged motorcycles, and skirted hundreds of
round motored tanks. The cacophony of these machines’ clatters was the
only noise one heard. The Japanese spoke quietly.
About , I followed the workers to the small eateries on the periphery of the
market. I wanted to have breakfast like them, although fish in the
morning was an unusual diet for me. I chose a diner and sat at a
semicircular counter with the fishermen. A man who stood in the middle
took our orders. I motioned that I wanted the same thing everyone else
I was served a plate of rice with a brownish sauce on the
top and some white shredded cabbage. The taste was unfamiliar, but I was
wrong in thinking that the dish contained fish. I asked the server what
it was called. He said some words which I did not understand. I asked
him to write it down. Amused, he printed slowly: “Indian curry”.
Having just had a meal that I ordinarily would eat for dinner, it was
appropriate to go to a show now that it was eleven in the morning. At the
traditional Kabuki-za theater nearby this was not a special
matinee; it was their regular show time.I had the choice of a full show which lasted four hours or a
shorter version which was for two hours. The place was packed and not just
by curious foreign visitors. Most customers were Japanese who were happily
consuming their lunch while seeing the plays. These programs were so
popular that a portrait of the main actor of the show which I saw,
Oniji Otani, was plastered all over the city. The portrait was the
centerpiece of a major exhibit by the famous painter Sharaku. The
abstract in the brief playbill did not give me the requisite cultural
background to appreciate the whole two hours of the show. I napped part of
the way as did two Japanese women sitting next to me.
stairway of Tokyo’s famed Spiral
Buildingallowed me a moving perspective of nine large whimsical veils
in different colors which constituted the core of the happening in
the central well below.
photographers mingled with the visitors in a Tomio
Mohri show, described as “Nine Goddesses wishing happiness to the
spaceship called ‘the Earth’”. A gallery owner from
graciously became my impromptu guide. As I listened, I feasted
my eyes and imagined a source of Japan’s exquisite style in its textile.
After lunch in the Garden Court
, I noticed a selection of delicate origami lined on the
receptionist’s counter. I asked for the name of the artist. A
young waitress was introduced to me. I told her how much I liked
her art. She grinned and went behind the counter and produced a
little box. Then she proceeded to put the origami pieces in the
box and handed it to me. I did not know what to do. I offered to
pay her. She declined.