Tokyo: Simple Pleasures

Dream City

I’m having a strange moment here in Tokyo. It’s 6:30 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, and I’m doing calisthenics in the park with about 50 old ladies I’ve never met before. Bending, twisting, stretching. Following the cadences of a warbly 1920s piano tune that’s playing from a radio up front. I’m completely out of place. I’m completely lost, might as well face it. But while the old ladies hide their smiles and the sun eases up over the ginkgo trees, a cool wind riffles the leaves and I feel paradoxically at home.

Of course, this makes no sense. I only stumbled into this place because I couldn’t figure out how to get back to my hotel. Perhaps this sense I’m having, like I’ve dreamt the whole sequence, is the result of arriving in Tokyo having done no planning other than pre-wandering a neighbourhood of Meguro using Google Maps in satellite view. I even left a brand new GPS-enabled phone at home, opting instead to navigate Tokyo with a wrist-mounted compass bought at a dollar store.

Not my normal travel style, I assure you. I normally plan trips as if I were invading Normandy: guidebooks and memorized subway maps, extensive pre-flight restaurant analysis and time-zone charts left for my wife so she knows the optimum hours to call. But however fond I am of data complexity, I have to acknowledge that not having a clue where I am or what I’m doing is a highly simplified condition.

Simplicity. You’ve probably read about it recently. Blizzards of books and articles by people giving up shopping or winnowing their possessions down to 10. It’s not a new impulse. Simplicity has cycled in regularly over the decades. The Beats, grunge, Slow Food – all these were simplifying movements in reaction to cultural complications of the day. But in 2008, even I would have to admit we really out-complicated ourselves. What was that market crash if not a complexity avalanche: derivatives, Ponzi schemes, NINJA mortgages and credit default swaps? The new simplicity books may be “Thoreau’s Worst Nightmare,” as Mother Jones said, but the phenomenon is real. Consider the fact that Professor John Quelch of the Harvard Business School has already published “The Next Marketing Challenge: Selling to ‘Simplifiers.’”

But even after Professor Quelch has taught the entire world how to sell things to Simplifiers (which is when complexity will come back in style, mark my words), the fact will remain that the experiences we value most are those that marketers do not devise for us. The chance encounter. The serendipitous discovery. Inexplicable in terms of profit motive, these expe­riences come to us with a tinge of mystery, of destiny or fate. As a result, we connect to these experiences more personally, holding them to be more authentically our own than anything for which we merely kept the receipt. Pushing Quelch’s logic to its conclusion, it’s in that kind of experience that the most authentic simplicity is achieved – in experiences that arise in the moment, when we’re just letting life happen.

That reasoning is why I’m here, doing this crazy thing: Tokyo unplanned. I’m in Rinshinomori Park, as I’ll learn later. I’m participating in the 81-year-old morning ritual of radio taiso (radio calisthenics). But in the moment – as a crow’s shadow flickers over the square and a child’s voice sings out in the distance – I link to an experience of untrammelled simplicity, made possible only by my freedom from strategy or expectation.

Encountered as the product of a plan, the scene would be too easily explained. Encountered this way, it’s magical.

At least, that’s the theory. Turns out, Tokyo is simplicity-resistant, just like me. I make some ground rules for myself. I decide I can ask the advice of strangers. So I’ve been asking people: What’s the most beautiful spot in Tokyo? I get a few leads, but many responses are vague, as if Tokyo’s complexity overwhelmed specific memories. Someone tells me flatly, “Tokyo is the last place on earth you want to explore without a plan. You should prepare one.”

I can’t disagree. In my normal life, I’d have one. But here I’m holding out for experiences on that higher perch: my destined encounters and fated discoveries. So off I go with my non-plan. Snippets of recommendations, hazy pointers. Out through the market streets of Meguro, past the bakeries and coffee shops, the places selling underwear and flip-flops, udon and the ubiquitous curry lunch bowls. Community Muzak plays from speakers like the soundtrack from an old movie. Dozens of shops sell 1960s-era teak furniture, while women yell from under the awnings, hawking strawberries and durian. On the window of a hair salon across the way, a sign reads (in English), “A Million Happiness Is All Around You.” And I feel again the dreamy, familiar, foreshadowed connection as I walk down Meguro-dori – open to anything, in the moment – and pass a place called Dream Japan.

Dream Japan. Inside it looks like a trading floor. Guys on phones, poring over monitors. But nobody speaks enough English for me to make my question understood. What is this place? “Dream Japan,” I hear myself saying, uninflected, as if I were telling the receptionist the fact of the moment, her face a friendly blank. “Dream Japan.”

Down to the Meguro-gawa now, a narrow river in a deep concrete trough that cuts up between the trendy shopping streets west of Ebisu, passing under the black flanks of the Naka-meguro station, where the izakaya are teeming every night. “Find the source of the Meguro-gawa,” I write in my notebook as the traffic howls past. But not today. Today I am following something else, which leads me to the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, up the slopes east of the river and into tony Ebisu Garden Palace. The Westin. Aston Martins. Joël Robuchon. Tokyo is full of beauty, but the most beautiful people of all are sipping cava and eating Caprese salad on the terraces of Ebisu Garden Palace.

The exhibit at the museum today, called My Grandmothers, is by Yanagi Miwa. Photographs of young women, dressed and made up to look as they imagine they will in 50 years. More dreams. Motorbiking across the Golden Gate Bridge with a young lover. Bowing the strings of a kokyu in a seedy bar. Running an amusement park, ministering to the needs of the dying or children or nature. Erika, grizzled with artificial age, stands in blue light on her own tomb slab, pre-chiselled with the words “Fashion makes the world go around. Glamour is yours for the taking. Beauty guarantees a most elegant immortality.” Erika is being ironic, I suspect. But I’ll think of her later, following the scent of dreams still farther and finding myself in the seventh-floor lobby of the Midtown Tower. “Is this the art gallery?” I ask the white-suited attendant, who stands in the middle of an immense and seemingly empty room. Teak accents. Views of the opaque shower curtain of Tokyo sky.

“No,” she says, smiling. “This is a bank.”

But she knows why I’m here, so she shows me the d-labo: a wall-size screen and a familiar view, Google Maps in satellite view over Tokyo. And so I find myself floating across it once again. Manipulating an onscreen cursor with a massive wooden mouse wheel that sits on a pedestal in the middle of the room, popping up geocached dreams that people have entered through the d-labo website.

She translates beside me: “I dream for children to smile all over the world.” My cursor is hovering over the Midtown Tower. Right where we’re standing. It might be her dream. It might be mine. But the experience is entirely ours. Simple.

Time to eat. I have an address for a noodle place up in Shibuya. The only problem is that the train station in Shibuya processes 2.5 million people a day. You can’t see the air in Shibuya. Just people’s backs and 16-storey television screens with ads like the one for New Balance: “Love, Hate. The New Balance.” I’ve had a time out near the Hachiko statue to read my new map book, so I know that 2-10-22 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku means the 22nd building in city block 10 of the second sub-area of the Dogenzaka neighbourhood of the Shibuya district. But my resolve is slipping, and I’m really wishing I’d brought that GPS phone. Bring on the complexity of real knowledge; I’m starving here.

And lost again too. Completely, utterly. Twisting and turning and pointlessly looking at my compass in a warren of streets west of the station devoted wholly to the love hotel industry. Streets that turn me around, make me dizzy, then spit me out into the commercial abuse of Bunkamura-dori. I ask a policeman, who turns my map upside down and sideways, then directs me to a building across the street where there are no noodles, but there is a love hotel. I look back. He waves and smiles.

Back up into those crazy streets. Past hunger. Past being lost. I’m now into some permanent change of mindset, like what lost would feel like if you’d never known where you were in your life previously. I’m in a quiet street now. No traffic, no breeze. The bedlam of Shibuya tamped down, distanced. I’m standing opposite a building, older than the others. Neither a noodle shop nor a love hotel. It has a lion on the sign under the Japanese letters. And while this doesn’t reveal much, it secures my sudden and entire attention: this blank faux Tudor with the lion signage and the heavy wooden door with the handle worn smooth from use.


I go inside to find a café of a most unusual design. A waiter comes over and seats me. Whispers only. “Sumimasen, cup of tea? Arigato.” Low tables, carved pillars of dark wood, grooved flooring, antique floor heaters set at various points between the chairs, which are draped in white cloth, all facing the same way, addressing the front of the room as pews to a nave. And from the front of the room, an immense and impossibly beautiful sound, flooding out of 10-foot wooden speakers connected to a turntable. A warm sound full of all the flecks and hisses and texture of vinyl. Music.

I sit back. I sip my tea. I listen to Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony, the composer’s impressions of a New World he had encountered. I’m in my own new world, noodles long forgotten. Later I’ll get the facts straight about this place. It’s the Lion Classical Music Lounge. It’s 80 years old, founded in the 1920s, right around the time that the radio calisthenics show began. The address here is 2-19-13 Dogenzaka, and my noodle house was, all this time, just around the corner.

But for now, the moment is simple and perfect again, as if it were, in all its details, preordained. I’m still lost, yes. But here’s the thing. In the moment, I’m found.

Posted: Tuesday, Sep. 8, 2009 9:00pm