Tokyo: Without a Plan

It seemed like a good idea when I woke up: a day spent hunting the perfect Tokyo cherry blossoms. Here was the plan, drawn up in the first seconds after waking, still in my bed at the Claska Hotel: I’d walk the Meguro-gawa upstream to its source, following the many kilometres of cherry trees that line the banks of the old canal, which links the ocean to Shinagawa and Meguro and which only disappears underground – according to my Tokyo street atlas – north of the Ikejiri-Ohashi train station.

Of course, timing is critical with cherry blossoms. So while I set out feeling confident, I know immediately after turning up onto the pedestrian boulevard that flanks the deep concrete channel where the river flows that something isn’t right. Most of the pink petals are on the ground already. And while the flurries tossed up by the breeze are pretty, they’re also sad. As if the trees, past their manic flowering, were now losing a brief extroversion they’d enjoyed, sobering and darkening, returning to the sedate and orderly shade trees they’d be throughout the summer.

“Great idea to look,” an English speaker tells me when I stop to ask where the city’s peak blossoms might be. “Only sorry, but you’re a week late.”

I’m annoyed with myself. I should have known. I’m mid-way through my experiment with an ultrasimplified mode of travel: no guidebooks, none of my normally obsessive planning. Call it experientialism, what I’m trying. It shares with existentialism a suspicion that reason does not always lead to understanding. But rejecting the isolating bad mood of existentialism, this approach is about blowing life open to opportunities and connections. Believing that we can glimpse understanding in exactly those unplanned moments when we’re just letting life happen.

I’ll acknowledge that the trip has had its moments so far. I’ve been lost more than usual, but the experiences that have floated my way – finding a geocached archive of Tokyoite dreams at the top of a Midtown bank tower or a hidden classical music café in the middle of the Shibuya love hotel district – have carried with them the sense of fate. As if, for being unplanned by either me or by a sales strategy aimed at me, they were more authentically my own. Meant to happen; meant to happen to me.

Now I’m standing opposite the pristine white smokestack spire of the Meguro Incineration Plant and wondering. Clearly, only those who planned ahead this year got to see the damn blossoms.

I carry on toward the source. It’s only two kilometres before the blue line marking the river on my map goes capillary thin, then vanishes in Ikejiri. I cut up through Meguro, past the tennis courts and designer boutiques. Up through Nakameguru, past the modelling shoots, a woman holding blue Cellophane in front of her face as the flash strobes. Just before the booming overhead crossing at Ikejiri-Ohashi station, I pass graffiti that reads “King Wylo Was Here.” And I press on, certain the source is near. But when I reach the road, the river disappears under a tangle of construction equipment and scaffolding. On the far side, only an ornamental trickle remains, idling up between the Ikejiri condos for another few blocks before expiring with an apologetic rustle under a purple hedge.

Now here’s something wholly unplanned: I head back to the hotel. To the soothing vibe of the Claska lobby, where I sit and read a magazine for awhile. The DJ is spinning “Music for a Found Harmonium.”

I regroup. I phone a friend’s Tokyo cousin whose number I’ve been carrying around. He suggests I ride the Chuo Line. Simple as that. “From the centre out into the wilds,” he says.

Here’s all I learned from the web before leaving (not planning, just checking): The Chuo Line runs west from Shinjuku station, one of the oldest JR lines in the system, out through Nakano, Koenji, then on to Kichijoji, where Inokashira Park may be found, with its lake and paddleboats and its shrine to the bitch-goddess Benzaiten, who’s apparently so jealous, it’s bad luck to enter her shrine (and the park as a whole) with a new girlfriend.

So I bump and roll westward, leaving the Shinjuku neon behind. I notice the kids getting on between Nakano and Koenji. Plaid shirts and wallets on chains, a guy with dreadlocks tied up in a tam. All heading somewhere. So I pick one of them and follow – a new waver in Converse high-tops and white-framed sunglasses lugging a guitar and an amp. He disembarks with the crowd in Kichijoji, where I lose him in the station throng.

No matter. Once in Inokashira, down past the flea market stands and the fragrant smoke of outdoor grills ready for the lunch trade, it’s hard to miss what’s going on. Japan might be the refined minimalism of teak lobbies and clean lines, but on a hot Saturday in a Tokyo park, it’s like 1,000 inner performance artists have been born at once. And then, it’s maximalism all the way.

Here’s a dude doing clog dancing and another man dancing in a skeleton suit. Artists sell pastel scribbles and sculptures made of wire and beer bottles melted into vases. There are magicians and balloon tiers and a roster of amateur musicians who cycle in and out of the performance spaces in the dusty square, just north of the lake, as lovers ply the water and ignore Benzaiten. Two bands compete during the time I hang out. There’s the leathery old-timer called Broom Duster playing country on a National guitar. Blue jeans, no shirt, cowboy hat, a mini-amp hanging around his neck blasting out his rendition of “Your Cheatin’ Heart” while some monster yakuza tattoo billboard squats nearby with his five Irish terriers all barking at once.

Then there’s the scrub band of nice-looking kids in black shirts with white painter pants who, I swear, all work at Starbucks when they’re not here playing banjo, washboard, bucket bass and kazoo. Playing the most annoying version of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” ever recorded, and, yes, they have a CD. Lots of made-up English filler words along the lines of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, Papapaaaa-yah!” But then I have to say, coming in loud from over my shoulder in the process of mangling an Elvis tune into unrecognizability, I swear I hear Broom Duster growling the words “findin’ me a pizza.”

Huge applause, both ways. And lots of laughter. This is what I notice sitting on a crowded bench halfway between the two acts with my late-afternoon snack of pork skewers and grill-charred corn, the smoke of an ancient grill in a side street making me squint and smile. Lots of people enjoying themselves and laughing.

Which makes no sense to me, at first. The scrub band is terrible. Broom Duster minus the hat and shades is somebody’s grandfather, old enough to know better. But then, my new wave kid shows up again, accompanied by a grungy-looking friend. And I suddenly get it, precisely because they don’t do what I’m hoping they’ll do. They don’t pull out the guitars and start thrashing out Talking Heads or Pearl Jam, complete with made-up words. Instead, they sit quietly in front of the scrub band, two coolsters from Koenji, cracking their Asahi tall boys and sparking up their Winstons, bobbing away to the music like they were beats in the Village Vanguard in 1952.

They’re loving it. And there’s no irony in their applause and laughter when the last song is over. Because it isn’t about being cooler than anyone else. It’s about a shared moment of peak extroversion. A manic flowering, yes, indeed. Broom Duster and the scrub band, all the artists and dancers and all the people watching too. Everyone at peak season. And sure, it won’t last. Sure, it’s disappearing, even now as the picnickers pack up, as shadows stretch and the light subdues, everything and everybody heading down toward the sedate and orderly purple tones of evening. But it’s a cycle.

I might have missed that point, even if I had seen the cherry trees at their peak. But stumbling into Inokashira by accident, I see it. The blossoms come back.

I get home late. I’m not planning it. I’m not planning anything. I just ride the train to Meguro and climb down into the street. Head for the hotel. But half a block up Meguro-dori, I recognize something. I have to stop on the sidewalk to think through exactly what it is I’m recognizing. Then it comes back. In my sketchy preparations for this trip, I’d wandered the Meguro neighbourhood in Google Maps Street View, and so, I’d crossed this intersection before and noticed a narrow alley turning downhill here. With just the suggestion of a restaurant or a bar down there, tucked in under an anonymous residential tower.

I go down and find it: the Black Lion. A little sock of a pub with tables made out of barrels and movies on in the back room. And a rare thing in Tokyo: a pub that actually is a local too, drawing the residents, Japanese and expat alike. Do I feel strangely at home? I do, indeed. And I would have, even if the owner didn’t turn out to be from Deep Cove, B.C.

So I settle into the bar for a pint and get to talking. And when I tell people what I’m doing, everyone has a suggestion. Someone suggests Namja Town. Someone else suggests the Meiji Shrine. Then someone pipes up, “Have you been out to Kichijoji?” And everybody chimes in: “Oh, yeah. You gotta check out Kichijoji.”

I don’t even have a chance to say that I’ve been there already, that I saw Tokyo blooming at its weekly peak. Because just then, another local comes in and announces, “It’s a boy!” and everybody cheers and toasts a healthy mother and baby, calling out the newborn’s name: “Kyle Kane!” So recently flowered into this world himself, with so much ahead to see and nothing planned.

I walk back to the hotel as the newspaper guys are loading up their scooters, folded papers stacked high in their baskets. And around the corner from my hotel, not 100 metres from where I woke up with my idea that morning, a single cherry tree riots with blossoms in the blue morning chill, full and white, illuminated from the inside by a lamppost around which the tree has grown. An ethereal and promising glow.

Posted: Friday, Oct. 9, 2009 9:00pm