Tokyo: Eastern Promises

In travel, while you don’t want to rush, moments of real speed can be exhilarating. I mean those times during a trip when you can feel the globe rotating under your feet, the landscape transforming before your eyes. Liftoff out of Vancouver, on a trans-Pacific flight, is particularly evocative of this sen­sation for me. The ground melts away behind, the scenery blurring and morphing. The sea opens up under the wheels, and there is a sudden sense of transference, of life moving from the known to the possible. And when the landing gear folds home, with that light but comforting thud, a point is sealed: We’re all in transit, in physical suspension, mid-teleportation. When the flight is over – I feel this every time, with a sudden and intense certainty – a new world of unpredictable possibilities will begin to make itself known.

In Tokyo for the past week, that peculiar sense of transference I associate with liftoff has seemed to follow me moment by moment through each day. I’ve been in the city without any agenda, living the moment, testing out an idea I’d had about “experientialist” travel. As a direct result, events and encounters have hit me with surprising energy. Each person I’ve met, each scene I’ve stumbled upon – by being unplanned, by seeming fated – has offered that glimpse of the possible. And so, Tokyo seems to have absorbed me into its rhythms more surely than would have been possible if I’d tried to impose any rhythm of my own.

I’m taking a fast train to Kamakura as I have this thought, enjoying that familiar liftoff feeling, the sense of what might be possible in this ancient town with its famous 11-metre, 120-tonne statue of Amida Buddha. The landscape is blurring, the globe seeming to spin under my seat. I’m on my way to meet a man named Lipton, who I met by accident a few days ago and who offered to show me around his seaside town, less than an hour outside Tokyo. Getting on board the train in Shinagawa, flowing with the vortex of bodies into the station, it occurred to me how Tokyo’s transit system itself contributes to the feeling of being absorbed into rhythms beyond your control. With its ongoing rush of millions of bodies, the trains here often feel less like a linear mechanical system and more like a quantum one, a series of black holes sucking people out of one reality and releasing them some distance away in the midst of another.

A word of caution, however. If you release yourself into this system, it can have unpredictable results.

Lipton is a Japanese studies professor, so I get some history as we cross the market streets and boulevards. Kamakura was the seat of Japanese government for almost 150 years, starting in the late 12th century. When rival warlords took fortress Kamakura in 1333, the ruling family committed suicide en masse, as did a large number of the residents.

But the Great Buddha at the Kotoku-in shrine remains, having survived the sack of Kamakura, having withstood the tsunami that swept away the shrine itself in the 15th century, having endured even being portrayed in the 1956 film Around the World in 80 Days as resident in Yokohama. The Buddha sits, resonating a sacred suspension of time. And people still gather in the hundreds in his mystical ambit, their hopes and cameras raised.

Still, Lipton does not want to linger here, clearly having some other site in mind to show me. So off we go again, up the Daibutsu Pass and into the hills this time, into a forest and along a trail that winds up the flanks of Genjiyama. Thirty minutes to the summit and over, as the town and the seaside sink and disappear behind us. Over the brow of the hill and down a steep roadway on the far side. I begin to assume that the trip is over, but halfway down, Lipton waves me to stop and indicates a doorway I would have missed entirely if I’d been on my own. A tunnel opening in the rock face, a long passageway greened over with moss and shining with the mountain’s interior waters.

It takes us into a hidden valley, open to the sky above but surrounded entirely by high cliffs topped with trees. Water spouts over ferns and roots and splashes into pools. There are various buildings here, long racks of prayers written on snips of paper and wooden paddles, hanging and spinning and wind-chiming in the low breeze. And off to one side, the Zeniarai Benten Shrine, which disappears into the cliff under a rock overhang.

I enter to the sound of water and low voices, ladles dipping and clinking. People gathered in groups, money shifting from hand to hand. Bills and coins. There is something sacred here too, suggested in the low light, the gestures and routines. But a sharp difference to the Great Buddha at Kotoku-in. No suspension of time here, but, instead, a pressing in. Currency giving emblem to an urgent present.

Then the nickel drops. Finally, I think I get it. Water and money. People come here to wash their money, to anoint it with sacred water. So that it will grow, and prosper, and multiply.

I head back into the city. I have dinner planned with a friend I met the other night in Meguro, watching the Chelsea-Arsenal FA cup tie in the wee hours at Seamus O’hara’s on Meguro-dori. I know, I know. But I wasn’t sleeping anyway. She lived in Okinawa when she was a girl. She was raised in Kyoto, now works in fashion in Tokyo and is a Chelsea supporter. Go figure. When Didier Drogba scored the winning goal, getting on toward 3 a.m. Tokyo time, we both stood and yelled and high-fived, and the crowd still gathered there at that hour: airline pilots, students, an Italian guy who’d just returned from circumnavigating the world in a 26-foot sailboat. They all looked at us like we were nuts. Then the signal flickered and the TV went out. And everybody who wasn’t watching the game yelled, “Godzilla! Godzilla!” until the television eventually came back on.

Mika was her name. She told me it meant beautiful grass.

We go for Okinawan food at an izakaya called Komahachi, in Meguro. Goya chample, a bitter vegetable served with egg and bacon. Umi budoh, strands of seaweed with tiny bulbs that pop in your mouth, a saline hint of the sea. Mimigar, chewy pig’s ears sliced thin and served with a sweet hot mustard. And cold sake from Kochi, overpoured into short glasses and allowed to spill into a small saucer. Mika, who’d long ago gone to school in my hometown of Vancouver and loved it there, talks about memories. “Life is busy,” she says. “Your memories of something that changed you get smaller and smaller as time passes. But then you meet someone and you’re transported back, and the memories become full again.”


She was right, I realized, even though I was only just then making my memories of Tokyo. But when I told her about my day in Kamakura, about the Great Buddha and the Zeniarai Benten Shrine where people wash their money, she laughed at my telling of it because I was missing a crucial detail. People wash their money, sure. They dry it and carry it away in their pockets. But if they want it to multiply, if they want it to come back to them and change their lives, they have to spend it. We took a moment to think about that together, sipping Kochi sake. You have to let the money go into the quantum machinery of fate and the economy, let it lift off into its own moment of transference, without plan or expectation.

I walk back to my hotel in the dark. Past the storefront of Dream Japan, whose business I’ve been unable to determine, not by asking at my hotel, not by asking Mika or anyone else. Not even by going inside and asking at the front desk. Dream Japan. What is Dream Japan? The whole time thinking the dream was a particular Japanese thing.

Now I’m standing outside the store on Meguro-dori. I’m reading the same name a different way, like an imperative statement: Dream Japan. And that leads me to consider a different but fast-approaching moment of transference. The sea giving way. The landscape blurring, the world seeming to roll under my seat. The landing gear unfolding with that comforting shudder. And then, an instant in which we go from flying to not flying. Contact. Touchdown.

Dream Japan. Well, exactly. When I get home, that’s exactly what I’ll be doing.  

Posted: Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2009 10:00pm