It was the first time in about eight years that I set foot in the Big Mikan, and it certainly is a different world after a decade in Tottori. When I returned this past Monday, it immediately hit me how much oxygen the air here has, and how few people there are on the sidewalks.
My wife and I decided to spend the weekend there on the pretext of seeing Millais's Ophelia and the Tokyo City Philharmonic as well as some friends we hadn't seen in years, and as a result I finally have something with which to infect this blog that hasn't been said many times before by more articulate people and that practically beg readers to say, 'Yes, but...' by having neither the space nor time to tell the whole story.
Well, we arrived to a greeting of copious snowfall (for Tokyo) and an incredibly poor public transportation system (so I thought). The subways appeared to have been built on the assumption that population levels would never exceed those of 1950, and the escalators simply dump you out into an immobile mass of humanity. You stagger against the movement of the last few steps because there is simply nowhere to stand. Only later did I find out, from a friend attempting to travel from Saitama to meet us, that tracks had been removed from service because of a fire, and service was suspended from his and the Gunma area. More than five thousand people had to stay on the trains through the night.
I will say that the subway system is not easy to understand. On our way to the concert we got on the wrong train thrice because in Tokyo 'local' doesn't necessarily mean a train stops at every station, and asking fellow passengers doesn't always yield correct information because it's impossible even for people who live there to memorise the entire system. It's just too convoluted. You figure out how to get where you want to go, and ignore the rest. Just as how shut out a great deal of the environment in order so survive. My wife first remarked that you have to dull yourself to live in a big city like that. The place is a constant assault on the senses, from the ubiquitous television screens, constant rumbling of PA systems and goods and services hocking, and everywhere people, people, people.
One nice thing about the overcrowding for me was that in tandem with the overall greater number of humans was that Tokyo people necessarily come in contact with a greater number of non-Japanese, and from that experience they seemed to be used to us. For the first two days, everyone treated me like a normal person, and only on the third day did a cashier in one restaurant try to talk pidgin English to me, but even she gave it up when she realised my Japanese was better than her English. Most people seem to have grasped the fact that most people who live here do in fact speak Japanese--and are human--in spite of what is shown on the idiot box.
Some things, though, were just plain odd. After carrying an empty coffee cup for the better part of an hour through a street lined with outdoor stands and nary a trash bin in sight, I asked the cashier in one store to throw away my cup when we made a purchase, and she refused. She said it cost them money to throw away trash, and though I offered to tack on an extra two or three yen to cover their loss, she still refused. I had never heard of such a thing, but Tokyo people are apparently notorious for their coldness and lack of concern.
Another thing that made a particularly strong impression on me is how difficult it is to make a living. There is very little space, and most people don't seem able to keep up with the cost of living. Two of my friends who are company men are constantly sleep-deprived because they are expected to drink with their coworkers each night before going home.
It's a trade-off. The 'countryside', so called, where we live, may be provincial and culturally bankrupt, but it has fresh air, good tap water, and elbow room. Now I've replenished myself with art and classical music, I'll be all right without more city for another year at least; but it would be nice if I didn't have to go so long without seeing those friends again.