Eighteen months. That’s how long it’s been since these photos were taken. Too long ago, to be honest. I’d much rather be back here now, staring out the Shinkansen window at the blazing countryside, seeing the face Japan takes for late Spring. Looking at the photos, I couldn’t help but be transported back to the days we strolled through these streets. It was my first glimpse of real Fall/Winter, and the proverbial autumn leaves never failed to capture me.
These were taken in December of 2014, on a family trip. There were 12 of us, including parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Each of us with varying tastes, preferences, and interests. But all of us unanimously in agreement that we’ve been spellbound by this fascinating, enigmatic, and sometimes downright eccentric country.
Looking out at the frost-covered fields that early morning, I was struck with the feeling of desolation. It wasn’t just that it’s empty, or quiet. There was a feeling of weight, the kind you feel in places where people keep their heads down and their mouths shut as they go about their businesses from day to day. It didn’t feel like the silence that wrapped Manila in the early morning because people were still asleep; instead it felt more like silence by choice, sullen and hardy.
I couldn’t help but think of Haruki Murakami’s novels, of Yukio Mishima’s, Natsuo Kirino’s, and other Japanese stories I’ve lived in. Whatever theme they had, whatever genre they were, they all had an underlying mood and an unmistakable Japanese atmosphere. Riding through the countryside and eventually exploring Tokyo’s streets, I finally understood why – and how – all these books came to be this way. It was a curious feeling. In a way it was like Japan’s spirit was settling down upon me.
Since it was pretty early and I’m no morning person, not to mention the lull of the train as it cruised through the countryside, it was only a matter of time before I was fast asleep. Thankfully, the Japanese spirits were kind enough to wake me just as we were passing Fujiyama. Seeing it from a distance made it even more majestic to me, with the countryside sprawled right before it. The iconic snow-capped peak was such a sight. Being able to see it with my own eyes, however far away, was pretty satisfying.
The train station was a blur. Businessmen in tailored suits and leather shoulder bags, middle-aged women in frumpy skirts and sweaters dragging luggage of different sizes, groups of school kids in uniform with quirky backpacks all whizzed back and forth in a whirlwind. Everyone seemed to be in a mad rush. The place sounded like a beehive, only louder and more urgent.
It was surprisingly more quiet in the streets when we left the station. It was so quiet, despite it being busy, that we actually paused to take notice. “Oh my, it’s like no one else is talking apart from us!” my aunt had noted. Sadly, I don’t have good photos because my fingers were freezing and I kept my hands buried in my pockets most of the time. I know, bad photographer!
We didn’t have much of an itinerary for Tokyo because we were only there for a day (we were based in Osaka). We set off to see the Tokyo Tower and let the rest come as it would. Our stroll led us to the Zojo-ji Temple. Since I did no research beforehand (such a traveler, I am!), I didn’t really know the temple’s significance until now that I read a bit about it. Turns out that this is was the Tokogawas’ main temple during their reign and that several of the Tokugawa shoguns are buried here. How cool is that? I’m always a fan of reaching back in time to connect with fragments of the past. Unfortunately, since I didn’t know this at the time, I wasn’t able to see the actual memorials. The grounds were still really pretty though, and we made wishes and read our fortunes and knotted them to the prayer wall.
The thick, red foliage was an assault to the eyes coming from gray stretches of pavement. A rock pathway led off from the sidewalk into this small park right across Tokyo Tower. Once again Japanese aesthetic wowed me. The park was clearly landscaped, yet it felt so natural and free-flowing. Nothing felt constricted or artificial. And the trees, in varying shades of gold to rust, were glorious against the sunlight. There was also a little stream emitting the faintest of sounds, just enough to be a soothing whisper. We had the park to ourselves, and the peace and quiet seemed unreal considering it was in the heart of one of the most bustling cities in the world.
At the edge of the park loomed Tokyo Tower, another local icon. There was no line when we went so after paying JPY1600 for tickets to the Main and Special Observatories, we headed straight to the elevators and made our way up. Those up for a challenge could take the 600-step stairs to the Main Observatory.
I didn’t realize how vast Tokyo was until I saw it from up there. It stretched on as far as the eye can see. Skyscrapers sat side by side with medium-rise buildings, creating a dynamic and textured panorama. I imagined all the little people sitting at desks in the miniaturized towers and wondered what they were doing that day. Were they talking to each other, or were their heads just bowed down to computers as they persevered with work? Were they just like the lonely protagonists in all the Japanese books I’d read or were they more like the perky anime characters I watched as a teenager? The sweeping views made me wonder about the collective thoughts of such a large city, and made me wonder about the perspectives of each individual contained in those buildings. Suffice it to say, there was something about such a stunning view that made me wish I could go back down there in the depths of the city to see, to know it better.
This trip was also the first time I saw a fully-functional, working robot. It was the cutest thing! Unfortunately I wasn’t able to interact with it because it was on its way back to its charging station where it apologized to the guests and took a nap.
That afternoon we made our way to Shibuya to see the famous crossing and do some shopping. It was amusing standing there with the crowd waiting for the pedestrian lights to turn green so we could spill onto the road all at once in a massive human wave. Somehow despite all the iconic shots of this crossing, it was that Mariah Carey music video that kept popping in my head. I don’t know why, either.
We left before dark so I didn’t really get the full effect of neon lights, but strolling through the busy narrow streets still gave me a full taste of the area. I always enjoy people-watching and pursuing thoughts of sonder when the most seemingly remarkable and the most ordinary humans pass in front of me. There was something about Japan, Tokyo especially, that made this a little more stimulating. Maybe it’s the uniqueness? Maybe it’s the atmosphere or the culture? Or maybe it’s simply because I’ve been fascinated by this country ever since I was 10, and finally seeing it for myself just set my mind ablaze.