I wrote this last week but I am only getting around to putting it up now. It is meant to follow this post directly.
I enjoyed a real Guiness for a little too long at Heaven’s Door in Shimokitazawa last night. The conversation with the English barman, Paul, was so quick and refreshing that I didn’t notice how long I had been sitting there. I finished my drink, Paul told me it was on the house, and I caught the Odakyu train to Shinjuku.
I only realized how late it was when I made it to the Yamanote line platform: 12:30AM. At that time, my homebound train only takes me halfway there.
In happier times I would either split a taxi with Indre or we would walk the Arakawa streetcar tracks together. This time, broke and alone, I decided I was going to follow the Yamanote line tracks all the way home.
After the last train, the tracks just north of Ikebukuro are a cross-section of Japanese nightlife. Homeless men on cardboard boxes vie for the best sleeping spots in miniature Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. I see a tall, blonde foreign girl talking with a balding subcontinental man. They are talking about Oji, the station where she lives. "That’s not far from here," the man says. They have just met. A Middle Eastern man accosts me in polite Japanese, "Excuse me, may I ask you something?" "I’m sorry," I reply. He thinks I misunderstood. There is a toylike Japanese girl dressed in pink with her two pets, a toylike poodle and a toylike boyfriend. The poodle runs and yaps and pisses. The boyfriend is leaning in, gazing at her. She is looking at her nails.
I’m lost. The train tracks intersected with a freeway a while back so I had to make a detour. I walk into a convenience store and pretend to browse violent Japanese pornography when actually I am flipping through a map of the metropolitan area. I get my bearings and head out of the store.
I have found the tracks again. It is the first time I have seen the Yamanote line after hours. I consider jumping the barbed-wire fence to walk the tracks, but decide against it. Partly because I don’t want to get caught and partly because I like the idea of following the tracks as they weave through residential areas. I want to pass through the blur that speeds by me twice every day.
I make it to the first of the four stations along my way. It’s a good thing I didn’t jump the fence because the stations are almost as busy after hours as they are during the day. Men in hardhats are inspecting the tracks in teams. In true Japanese style, there are 15 people doing the job of two: two people to walk along the tracks holding blowtorches, and 13 people holding the flashlights.
I have a lot of oportunities to walk away with people’s unlocked bikes, but I don’t. Again, part of the reason is morality, but part of the reason is the fact that I want tonight to be a pedestrian experience. I come across one unlocked bike that looks like it is about 50 years old. I touch its leather seat and spin its wheels. I sit next to it for a few minutes. This city changes so quickly.
Tokyo is a city of cities of towns. Tokyo is a world in itself, and exploring it is as rewarding as it is baffling. Vaccant lots filled with rubber and wood and glass conceal 24-hour laundromats. I see young Japansese people kissing in the streets. I pass a hundred convenience stores; about one for ever strak cat that glowers at me as I pass by.
Once again, I am glad that I stayed off the tracks – a maintenance train rumbles by me on the tracks below.
I am at the second train station now. I realize that love hotels and karaoke bars always herald the appearance of the next station, like palm trees around an oasis. Between stations, there is a surpising dearth of neon signs and gaudy architecture. I realize that 99 percent of my time in Tokyo has been spent within 1 kilometer of a train station.
Between these hubs of activity and commerse, Tokyo reveals it quieter, quirkier residential side. I see architectural anomalies, decadent three-story houses with European fascades, dreary, underground offices. There are a lot of lights on in the houses I am passing. Flickering TV sets. What are you dreaming of tonight, Tokyo?
I feel like I am following the Mississippi north to find its source. I have to make detours from time to time. The road dead-ends. I realize that the Yamanote cuts Tokyo into an inside and an outside. Inside the Yamanote loop, you are under the city’s skin.
I have not been alone once during this entire trip – there is always someone walking in fornt of me or behind me. I haven’t really been alone since coming to Tokyo. Empty streets are a rarity. When I went back to the US for a couple of days in March, I felt like I was in a deserted country.
Komagome, the station before my home station. I am almost there. I have decided that this is the way I want to spend my last four days in Tokyo. I want to be an urban camper – travelling the city’s major arteries at night with a backpack and a camera. To see what it feels like living skin-to-skin with one of planet Earth’s great cities.
This particular impasse is frustrating enough to make me jump the barbed-wire fence and walk along the steep embankment. I pause a minute, perched on top of the fence, and feel the night air. This is what Tokyo smells like. It smelled this way 15 years ago, and it smells this way tonight. The whitish-gray dust on my hands and shirt is the same that I wore as a child. It has been raining on and off. I tell myself that if it starts raining enough, I will steal someone’s umbrella.
After all, everyone in this city has more umbrella’s at home than they could ever use.
I trip and fall, the barbed wire ripping into my leg; peeling the flesh away to reveal shiny white bone underneath. I hit my head so hard that a copper taste fills my mouth and I lose conciousness.
I’m an acrobat, you know.
I do a double backflip with a full twist and land on the embankment. It is so steep that I have to swing one-armed on retaining posts to keep from sliding downhill. All of a sudden, I am hit with a feeling of recognition. It is exactly the way I knew it would be. One instant I am in a part of Tokyo that I have never seen before in my life, and the next, I am on my home turf. On foot, I have drawn a connecting line from Ikebukuro to my house.
On foot, we see a city at its highest resultion. Ladders on the sides of buldings, an out-of-business love hotel, a secret enterance to a hostess club. Men in underwear, tiny manicured gardens, college kids playing drunkenly on see-saws.
I get my bike at the station, and bike the last seven minutes home. The back way. The way I always go when I want to remember and think. The way I am never alone. I see a feline threesome, and they disperse with indignant shame. A frog has been split open by the wheel of a car. I pass a tall woman who walks nicely; I think she is Taiwanese. She is with a guy who walks normally.
Tokyo was a different city for me tonight. You know when that bitchy colleague from work surprises you in with an invitation to an all-night party for two at her place… then when you get there you just sit together on her balcony sofa, talking about life, drinking fine wines, and touching fingers until sunrise? It was like that.
Tokyo, more than any other city, can project itself along that fourth dimention of time so that it exists in all times at once. On a night like last night, I feel like I could find myself face-to-face with thirteen-year-old me who had snuck out of his room to explore. It’s nice to think about things like that from time to time. Turn corners boldly!