August 28: Tokyo Time
Tokyo time has come around again. For a week or so before I travel, the prospect dominates my life. The preparation consumes me. I pace myself to live with this division of attention, I am well practiced in the phenomenon, but this year is more fraught than usual.
I think of my father talking about the see-saw between countries and cultures and the frustration of being constantly on the move yet going no-where.
I recall my grandmother packing to move us to the summer house on the beach for the season and my own determination not to live this divided life. And my other grandmother, long before I was born, lived in India where she too moved up to a summer residence in the cooler hills. So how could I hope to avoid the divide? It’s part of my history, my memories and, in spite of my protests, my personality. It’s in my DNA, the restless, reluctance of letting go, moving on.
When I was homeless I would buy pretty little things for my imaginary home and treasure them for a day before leaving them somewhere without looking back. I would wrap them up, just like we did for the summer house. It was somehow comforting.
I’m in the process of wrapping up the UK version of my artist and transferring my focus and energies on to the Japanese version.
The snag is that the Japanese version of my artist has such a fledgling identity floundering around without words, without the symbols to process and express the otherness.
Observation takes the place of conversation and I struggle to give face value the same weight and dignity as the spoken word. Finding and exposing the subtext in a culture so different is an intriguing challenge and finding my gaze is an act of patience.
I arrive, so the Google Bible declares
in typhoon season; I like heat
and humidity is fine in wide open
spaces, I cope badly with changes
of pressure; but the killer is concrete.
Radiating stored heat, transformed
from blessing under open skies
to oppressive smother of warped
atoms fighting the living tissue.
Bodies attempting to breath the breathless
atmosphere of the mammoth
heat store that is urban jungle.
The prickling irritation
of proximate concrete that
new, persistently renews,
August 29: Independent Travel
The twelve hour flight has become familiar to my body, but the details vary each time. Processing me at Heathrow in my own powered chair confused almost everybody. I revelled in the freedom and independence, whilst the assisted-travel assistants consulted the rules and regulations. I successfully negotiated myself to the door of the aircraft on my own wheels and then watched as the powerless skeleton (without batteries and without the contoured cushions that make sitting for more than fifteen minutes a reality), was rolled away to the hold.
I fantasised about having Con.Text conversations on the plane – probably a fifty-fifty mix of people who speak a European language and people who speak Japanese, but I put in my pressure equalising earplugs and resigned myself to twelve hours of engine noise. Conversation is restricted to the expected and communication is via slow words and pantomime hand waving.
This was my first attempt at bringing the skinny-wheeled Japanese wheelchair back into the country, and once the aircraft had been cleared and I had been transported to its doors via the aisle chair, I eagerly awaited our reunion. The involuntary squeal of horror that escaped my lips and the agonised: ‘That’s not my wheelchair’ was gracefully ignored by the man attached to the handlebars of a battered manual wheelchair. The dreaded ‘health and safety’ mantra darted unexpectedly from the lips of the cabin crew who took pity on me and sought to avoid the spectacle of my noisy refusal to transfer into the thief of independence that awaited me.
It is apparently hazardous to push the empty powerchair (which rolls most easily and smoothly without power), but quite, quite safe to push an empty manual chair. So health and safety dictate that I am first reunited with my independence at the baggage carousel, a process that ensures that I am supported safely through customs and immigration by my silent porter.
My support cushions seamlessly meld
into aircraft seat that awaits me.
For take off, toes dangle above floor
until we reach altitude and my life
is returned to my lap.
Hand luggage becomes
my footrest. Fred and George,
the sticks, live alongside my legs,
elbow grips in said lap,
handbag dances a tangle
between sticks and lap, juggles
for space alongside food, and drink
I must hold in my hand, there is
nowhere left that is safe, that is
my space for the next twelve hours.
I slide back the tilt of my chair
and prepare for oblivion.
From Narita airport into Tokyo by Skyliner, I wonder at the amount of new-build packed unceremoniously among the already densely packed townscapes. The colour of created geography changes subtly as the glossy turquoise-blue glaze of old roof-tiles gives way to sudden patches of modern creamy-brown. We speed past towns that flow into each other with barely room for a brief glimpse of cultivated countryside; past equally unsegregated skyscrapers, junk yards, luxury homes, abandoned tin huts, schools, tangles of power cables and shambolic dwellings all decorated and punctuated with greenery. I’m glad to be back.
August 30: Traditional Modern Kabuki
I was greeted with a gift, tickets to Kabuki in the newly finished theatre. The performance will take place at the beginning of September, I am very pleased and so curious. The old Kabuki theatre had been pulled down and the redevelopment images of the site showed a massive skyscraper office block behind a small redbrick box, a modern and efficient, if disappointing, use of the space. I had been sad not to have been able to experience this traditional Japanese event in the appropriate surroundings.
However, today the first thing to do is food shopping so we head out for Higashi-Ginza, a route that will take us past the new building.
Imagine my surprise and delight to discover this clean, white and elegant skyscraper with a very large, traditionally shaped, beautiful brand-new Kabuki theatre imposingly placed in front of it. I attempt to capture its reflection in the mirrored surface of the building opposite. There are long queues at its entrance and crowds of people outside taking photographs. Kabuki is attempting to attract a newer younger audience and there does seem to be real interest amongst young people for older traditions, including the clothes.
Mussed-up, gelled black spikes
of semi-long Japanese hair
frame the face that peers
back at him from the shiny
surface. Hands fuss and fly
seeking home for phone,
wallet, keys, tablet, modern
life between the folds
of the brand-new,
We buy our food from Ginza Mitsukoshi (Mitsukoshi is an international department store), and I ask if anyone is worried about radiation. The answer is negative; the idea of only buying fish imported from Australia has occurred, but not been implemented.
August 31: Lunch at Roppongi Hills
Day two takes me to Roppongi Hills for lunch at a Chinese restaurant and coming out of the elevator from the metro we discover that the entrance to the complex (just before the giant spider sculpture) is decorated and paved with red dots. The Mori Art Museum Gallery is hosting a tenth anniversary exhibition titled ‘All You Need Is LOVE – from Chagall to Kusama and Hatsune Miku’
The dots theme carries around the area, with activities for children and a larger than life figure of a child in a polka-dot dress swinging above our heads. And the exhibition itself is in full swing, finishing on the September 1.
There is also a poster advertising Harry Potter – the exhibition, at the Mori Art Museum and the film Wolverine making its debut at the cinema next door.
The area around the Mori Building has quite a different atmosphere from last year and a new energy. ‘Yes’, I was told, ‘there are lots of lease changes; leases last for two years and then new businesses get a chance at the space’. Interiors have been upgraded, some making powerful, universal statements with mirror surfaces, others exploring the pulling power of steps to the ambulant shopper. I make a mental note to return, not just for ‘All You Need Is LOVE’ but also to check out if wheelborne and mobility restricted people are catered for in these stepped interiors.
I get manhandled up the two steps in the narrow entrance to the Chinese restaurant and, in a small private room, we select a Viking – all you can eat in an hour for a fixed price. As we browse and tap in our order on the iPad menu, choosing varieties of Dim Sum (and similar portion-sized delicacies), I become aware of new information about ingredients, the pork content of dishes is now clearly labelled. As a vegetarian I find that so helpful as pork oil is much used in Chinese cooking. My taste buds are in for a cheerful roller coaster ride.
School holiday Tokyo
vibrant with youth and
have all the Suits
hidden? The size
too large, polished
leather shoes lost
among lazy trainers.
Pretty, pretty frills
and lace froth
over slinky jersey
parade the billows
of water-vapoured air,
the shaded fountains
of the smart Roppongi Hills.
September 1: All You Need Is Love
All You Need Is LOVE ….Mmmh maybe, but a little order in chaos would be good too.
When we returned to the Mori Art Museum next day for this exhibition there were queues for tickets snaking out along the corridor as far as the eye could see, but I had my suspicions. And yes, this queue was indeed for Harry Potter – the Exhibition; so we bypassed the many, purchased tickets for LOVE and ascended to the 52nd floor.
My happiness at avoiding the crowd was short lived, this exhibition was also packed with visitors – mostly young and mostly female milling in large slow groups. Many seemed to be students, but there were also groups of wives and mothers, some with buggies.
It was divided into 5 sections; some more chaotic than others. The Japanese/English labelling was not always helpfully placed, and the deep crowds prevented me from getting close enough to read most of the information.
Damien Hurst showed exhibit number one with a large pink heart in household gloss paint decorated with deteriorated butterflies. It was rather overshadowed by Jeff Koons’ Sacred Heart – an oversize version of a gold cellophane wrapped heart with red ribbon. In high chrome stainless steel with transparent colour coating, it was the poster piece for this exhibition.
Jostling each other for space:- sculpture, film, embroidery, photography, traditional oils, digital, mixed media, interactive voice machine, designer clothes, and more divided the gallery into a confusion of partitioned boxes, alcoves and niches.
The range of work on show seemed random, chaotic even, as I discovered Magritte, Chagall, Rodin, Hokusai, Tracy Emin, Frida Kahlo, Kusama Yayoi, Tsumura Kosuke, Lennon & Ono, Constable and many, many others, sharing space with Hatsune Miku.
If like me you’ve never heard of Hatsune Miku, I should explain that she was originally a synthetic singing voice. Now a manga-style cartoon persona featuring in over 100000 songs released worldwide, she is licensed out to various artists by her creators: Crypton Future Media. For this exhibition she performed as a tiny hologram-style display and appeared in ca. 140 moving images on iPads in a floor display beneath her performance on giant screens on three sides of the room. Hatsune Miku means first sounds of the future, and she will sing any song anyone can compose.
It was permitted to photograph Kusama Yayoi’s Love is Calling and Tsumura Kosuke’s FINAL HOME. For me these two works were among the most accessibly displayed of the exhibition, they drew me in and engaged me in contemplating love in a complex, layered and less voyeuristic manner than many of the other exhibits.
What is love? The
Sacred Heart, we enter
warily unsure, by way of
tradition and ritual
to build our focus on
A Couple in Love
and the intimacies
of two who breath as one.
One who loves and lusts
cares and shares, plays.
And breaks, we find
Love in Losing;
love in war, love
to identify Family and Love.
Pregnant with bloodline,
with family tree,
becoming history until
we reach Love Beyond,
dotted with stranger love and
the first sound of the future.
September 2: The universal appeal of mice and curry
Station access improvements mean I can now take a train around the coast and explore wider Tokyo. So today we head out east and I get seat-side view of a popular commuter belt: neat little houses with small clumps of greenery around them, interspersed with tower blocks of flats, sprawling IT businesses and occasional unexplained rusty eyesores. And these groups are repeated like flowers in a Gertrude Jekyll garden, stretching, curling around the coast accommodating roads, rail and rivers.
We pass the utterly incongruous fantasy of Disneyland Tokyo and the industrial yellow and blue cube that is Ikea. At the Disney stop our carriage is invaded by Mouse fans.
We leave the train to climb lifts and curling ramps up over roads and railway line to the mall where we are to sample Nepalese cuisine. Curry is conquering the world.
Access is great, tables are pushed around and we are made comfortable in the small restaurant whose interior is decorated to resemble a wooden hut with layers of faded, peeling paint. The place is famous for its nan bread and I choose a sesame nan with a prawn curry. The nan is impressive: fresh from the oven, massive, rich in sesame seeds and flavour; the curry an afterthought of four prawns in a small bowlful of tasty curry sauce. Diners are entertained by a large screen video of Nepalese singing and dancing with Mount Everest in the background.
On our way to eat I noticed a sign for Tokyo Hands so after the meal we take a small detour. Each store has its own personality and I am slightly disappointed to discover that this one is not quite so well equipped with basic nuts and bolts and creative stuff. It is however, full of nifty gadgets for homes, leisure and personal grooming.
With a mixture of curiosity and disbelief I am drawn to the large pet shop next door. A good 60 percent of the space is filled with dogs clothes – most being the kind of thing I might expect to see in Mothercare. The main window is devoted to stacks of small clear boxes each containing one puppy curled up asleep in a pile of wood shavings.
She stood unselfconsciously
rocking with the motion,
Minny Mouse ears protruding
from pink plastic head-hat,
snout in fake fur its black
blobby end poking out
from her forehead. Mouse dress
and feet, dangled down the back
of her neck from this monster-mouse
headgear. She waved her
three children into vacant seats
as family rode the train with
Disney bags, Disney clothes and
Disney memories of a Disney day out.
September 3: Sumida River in Autumn
I have reacquainted myself with the river that runs through this part of Tokyo. Sumida dances powerful, slow and flirtatious beneath her silver skin and I smile to see her. I am on the other side, the side I have previously admired for its green appearance. This river walk is higher and there are trees full of the electric fizz of cicadas, the harsh yet juvenile squawks of something unseen that sounds like it should be in the parrot family and the bold ‘qua’ of unknown corvids.
It’s pleasant to roll under heat-absorbing greenery, but there is also something nasty that bites or stings any exposed flesh. It is that time of year.
I have crossed the white suspension bridge and discovered statues and a garden walk with topiary trees and thoughtfully placed boulders. The garden walk is above the flood defences, I get no closer to Sumida on this side as the slope down to the riverside walk is too steep and a little uneven for my skinny-wheeled chair.
Leading away from the river, a tree lined avenue connects this area to the shops, dwellings, restaurants and office blocks mix that is so typical. Here a bicycle laden with 4 yappy poodles waits in a stand and two tiny removal vans are being loaded with furniture protected by stretchy, green quilted covers. It is strange to see office workers without jackets, but the heat and general power saving awareness has resulted in some relaxation of the dress code.
I buy supplies at the konbini (convenience store) and roll back to the river. Sumida shimmers and tiny waves rush from both concrete sides, to embrace like joyful lovers along her midline.
A steady barge with a cargo of something resembling coal or charcoal creates a frothy wake and I am reminded that although it is school holidays I have seen or heard no trace of tourist boats. The guide books say that this is not a good time of year to visit Japan. Traditionally its typhoon season, but like everywhere else on the planet, climate change is making the weather more unpredictable. People say autumn is getting hotter.
The sun, she said, sharp
hurting my skin. A sign
that autumn creeps
into the year, burns
pain into the pale,
of skin lacking its own
means of protection.
Contrast to the
in summer shorts
and western gear
and visible only
September 4: Twirling in the Intermediatheque
At 37C, but feeling hotter, the atmosphere is quite oppressive and staying in a temperature controlled environment sounds like a rather good idea. Taking the metro into Tokyo station and then strolling underground to Kitte – billed as the place to broaden your horizons on the shopping front – does mean minimum exposure to the biting heat of the sun. The underground walkways are lined with adverts – one that seems to be for washing powder consists of an oversize piece of actual white fabric sewn with buttons, to resemble a shirt-front – it flaps lazily like washing on a line.
Kitte is a playful name derived from the word for stamp: kitte, and alluding to ‘kite’ which means ‘come on over!’
This new building, JP Tower, incorporates part of the old Central Post Office with seven floors devoted to food, shopping and dining and a joint venture by the University of Tokyo and the Japan Post Co. Ltd. The ‘Intermediatheque’ (IMT) is a free to access facility ‘dedicated to interdisciplinary experimentation venturing into cultural creation of a new kind based on the fusion of every means of expression ‘.
Special exhibitions and events based on scientific research and artistic expression will run alongside the permanent exhibition as well as a comprehensive education program.
I am fascinated and entertained by skeletons of every sort, snakes and whales, birds and humans, prehistoric and comparatively modern; by gem samples, designer clothes and patterns, fossils and Curiosity Rover (NASA) photographs of Mars; by original door handles and the hands of the old post office clock.
There are photographs of the original post office construction in 1930 alongside digital images of the rebuild, finished in March this year. There are scientific instruments and stunningly beautiful ‘trees’ of rare black coral, IMT aims to cover everything and inspire everyone:
I turn my back on minke whale,
on red deer and emu. I inch bemused
from butterflies and rough diamonds;
roll my way past stone carved gods and
an old Damien Hurst style
teaching aid of cow divided,
side exposing entrails.
I glide from crystal balls, oil portraits,
cabinets of minerals
and mannequins in white
exotic tailoring, with space
to turn and twirl, I stroll to
contemplate the crocodilian
skeleton pinned climbing
the entrance wall.
September 5: Vinoly – Tokyo to Battersea
Today we stroll into Tokyo Station area, its not quite so hot – 36C that somehow feels a little easier than yesterday’s 37C.
The idea is to take a roundabout route to Tokyo International Forum – an impressive piece of architecture that I have passed many times but not ventured in to. There are exhibitions here, but today I want just to explore the creation of Raphael Vinoly (the architect whose design for the long awaited redevelopment of Battersea Power Station is predicted to be completed 2016/17).
‘With 11 stories above ground and 3 below, Tokyo’s first (1996) convention and art center is a magnificent venue embracing a glass atrium and four buildings each housing a unique hall’ the blurb tells me. In fact there are 8 conference halls (one seating 5,000), besides the exhibition hall in the basement, restaurants and shops.
Having had such good access experiences with Japanese architecture and public spaces I have high expectations.
Shaped rather like a straight banana, along one wall the glass atrium has vertical wooden slats reaching down into the basement well and up to fourth floor level. Escalators at each pointed end of the building swoop people up and down in the generous space
Wheelchair and buggy access to the well is via an elevator which is reached halfway along a corridor hidden behind the slat-wall. The ramped walkways linking spaces are labelled as too steep for wheelchairs and buggies and there are notices reminding their users that there is only this one point of entry and exit. Access to the corridor is from one end of the building only.
For the ambulant visitor this building is a lot more fun.
I do get to enjoy the magnificent flat glass roof that is underpinned by great curved steel beams which look like the underneath of a boat. But I feel snubbed by the nature and level of access afforded wheelborne visitors. Stunning as Tokyo International Forum is, sadly the Uruguay-born/Argentinian educated/American Vinoly gets a thumbs down from me.
Vinoly’s dialogue with the forces of life;
his major social intervention,
is beautiful, but, is this enough
to fulfil his stated responsibility
to elevate the public realm? Does he
truly have a sense of public space?
In valuing form over function
does he comprehend, have
any plans for spatial justice?
Why do we use public money
to create inequality of access
in buildings and public spaces
September 6: On attitudes to diversity…
The Roppongi Art Triangle is a favourite destination, but each Japan visit I also go to Roppongi Crossing to attempt a new pay-as-you-go SIM card for my Japanese phone. It’s a frustrating experience, but I persevere. I have to bring my passport. And every year it is rejected because it does not contain my address. My driving license is not acceptable.
I roll into the SoftBank (phone) shop and explain my need to a young man who listens, nods, says this sounds possible and issues me with a ticket. There is hardly a queue and I am soon at the counter of a woman who listens patiently to my request, examines my passport minutely, and then demands documentation with an address on it. I explain that Passports do not have addresses, but I have British evidence of my address.
She rejects my driving license explaining that only a passport will do. And waits, as if expecting me to produce a different passport, one that will be acceptable. Something Japanese.
I am once again forced to admit defeat. And all this for a PAYG SIM.
Later I will ask a Chinese friend to buy me the SIM card. My friend is indistinguishable from native Japanese and has never had a problem in the past, never needed ID. But then, the rules have changed since last year.
In complete contrast, I have booked a service for my skinny-wheeled chair and the engineer turns up with smile to complete a comprehensive check and service of chair, batteries and charger. He also supplies replacement for the battery cover misplaced on last years flight and all this free of charge.
Having overcome the initial reluctance to sell a chair to a foreigner, he seems very satisfied with my care of the equipment. Bows a respectful goodbye until next year.
The concept of discrimination,
like beauty, lies in the eye of the
person on the receiving end?
As visibly disabled, I get offered
equal treatment as a ‘special person’
I can choose to accept this in lieu of
equality and stretch positive
discrimination to its limits.
As gaijin, alien, stranger, I am
offered the choice of accepting
the Japanese evaluation of
people without straight black hair,
with curiously browned skin
and big, cute manga eyes
to feel ok about my place
as curiosity, or join the almost
invisible, growing band
of brown/blonde activists
to change the nation.
And yet I ask myself
where do I feel most
September 7: Yokohama old Chinatown v new Life Entertainment Mall
I’m heading out again for Yokohama – visits to Japan would not be complete without my annual pilgrimage to its Chinatown. We make a stop at Minato Mirai to check out Mark Is, the new Life Entertainment Mall. It has 30 rest and relaxation areas (for adults and children) a fruit orchard and vegetable garden on the roof with workshops and hands-on gardening experiences; a natural experiences museum and like all the new shopping malls it has art exhibition space. It also links directly to Yokohama Museum of Art, I’m very impressed.
Looking at a large egg-shaped sculpture that looks like it is made of cut and pulled-out white paper I have this sudden instinctive feeling that Japan seems to have both more Japanese and more international awareness than last year. The Japanese concept of the idea and purpose of a museum seems to be evolving at light speed!
There is also a brand new ‘groundbreaking entertainment facility tapping the latest digital technologies produced by both Sega and the BBC’.
The mall is deceptively large, and while it does have branches of large international chains, it also has lots of small local shops, some with craftspeople there apparently making things. In one craft shop I stop to admire beautiful cotton fabric in traditional Japanese patterns and colours, the cloth turns out to be from Lithuania.
The air con is good. Outside the temperature is a fraction cooler than yesterday, but at 35C with humidity at 91% it is not the most comfortable.
Resisting the temptation to stroll, we take the metro into Chinatown, its just too hot and humid to be above ground for too long.
The freedom to be spontaneous, to (train) travel without having to give ‘at least 24 hours notice’ does great things for my perception of equality. And being out and about among people who never treat me like a potential threat, eases my mind, allows me to enjoy the moment, to feel comfortable in my own skin.
When we do emerge, Yokohama Chinatown is as packed as usual, so many people that all the small pet dogs are in prams with their heads up on the same level as mine. Such a total contrast to Mark Is, this Chinatown with its 150 year history; with its links back into superstition and mystery; with the heat, the crowds and the riotous colours.
Dim Sum with a full-window-view of the ornate temple opposite, punctuates the day and later ice cream cools us down. Not that what we ate would pass any EU. regulations for ice cream. In a plastic container more like a vase, the base was filled with crushed ice, on top of that condensed milk was poured over a great heap of chopped mango and strawberries and the whole thing topped with a small scoop of mango sorbet. Somehow I ate all of it.
Browsing and shopping in the little crowded streets was fascinating, this Chinatown claims to be one of the largest in the world and has a wonderfully diverse bustle of visitors. Soon however, the crowds and the heat were just too much. Yokohama Walkabout was cut short and, sadly, we missed the worlds first exhibition of Yuka, a frozen woolly mammoth and Kolyma, an equally frozen woolly rhinoceros.
The Limited Express which takes us to and from Yokohama, is far from a smooth ride. It throws my wheelchair about rather alarmingly, but it is the fastest way to travel this route. I keep an eye on the view from the window, but there is never a point where I am sure of leaving Tokyo, or entering Yokohama. Japan, I am told, is gathering itself into just three mega cities: Nagoya, Osaka and Tokyo.
Land of the possible;
of culture impossible
to change; dreams fly
on long tethers to past
norms. As I contemplate
the fantasy of wi-fi
power; electricity by
any other name, to
vanish the jungle
of cables and poles
decorating this land
of tectonic fragility,
I wonder if Japanese
even notice the
eyesore, that was
such a surprise
the first time.
September 8: Tropical Storm, Earthquake and Underground Tunnels.
TV news was showing images of tropical weather system hitting other parts of Japan. Pictures of flooding and ruined buildings, of people battling the elements and of the clean-up, with electricity supplies being restored and people being offered emergency food parcels. More wind, rain and flooding was expected. And suddenly everything was shaking; the floor, the furniture, me. The whole building was shaking and everything in it.
I’m in a different, newer building this year, it seems to move a lot more than the old one. Drawers rattled out of cupboards, stuff was falling over, there was noise and the giant TV set was abruptly lurching backwards and forwards alarmingly.
Within minutes the TV screen showed quake details and reassurance that a tsunami was not expected to result on this occasion. The quake, on Torishima (the uninhabited BirdIsland), was reported by the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) as a 6.9.
Torishima Kinkai is a class A active volcano, mostly submerged in the Philippine Sea (the spawning ground for one of my favourite foods, the Japanese Eel).
My iPad then went a little haywire as the system got overloaded, but an hour afterwards it was difficult to find any trace of this ‘everyday’ occurrence. This is just the way things are.
It was a good opportunity to take stock, to assure myself that heavy items are adequately fixed to wall or floor and to assess which items need further anchoring to be safe.
I am aware that I do not know our evacuation point. Rolling around the area I do notice repeated signs on public open spaces warning that: ‘This is not a designated evacuation point due to the low level fire risk’.
Since I was here last, posters have been put up at the local metro station, calm and thoughtful information in English and Japanese:
Underground, I’m told, is safer;
contrary to my instincts,
my primeval heritage,
fear of burial, the smothering
under earth in turmoil.
move with the ground,
Underground is well
prepared, stay calm.’
It is so very important
to stay calm and in
in the underground
tunnels of my mind.
September 9: Making Sense of Different.
The wet weather has caught up with me. The morning was spent watching gallons of rain bucketing out of the sky and the planned sashimi in the Ginza district of Tokyo was replaced by a takeaway version. I was surprised to see the delivery in gold-decorated, black lacquered wooden bowls, with utensils, on a black wooden tray and accompanied by a stainless steel thermos flask of soup.
The food was delicious. And afterwards the now empty stuff, in the bag provided, is left down in the entrance lobby where it is collected later, or next day if it is an evening meal. Honesty and Trust feature strongly in Japanese society.
Typically the weather cleared soon after and the trip to Ginza was able to go ahead. We strolled in in reasonable comfort, it was about 30C with 90% humidity; the planned purchase of a SIM card which had somehow been overlooked, was on this day’s to-do list.
The phoneshop in Ginza is elegant. A lot of glass: a big coffee table, frosted walls, mirrors and display cases; easy chairs, magazines to read while you wait, large screen advertising and of course phones. We take a ticket, seat ourselves in (and beside) leather armchairs and browse magazines for the predicted 30 minute wait.
We are then taken through to a separate room with chairs gathered around wooden tables where the transaction will take place. And this time ID is demanded. The passport is produced, which of course reveals that the holder is gaijin, a foreigner, so the gaijin card follows. So far so good. After about half an hour of answering questions, ticking boxes and offering up cash (the Japanese credit card is rejected for this particular transaction) the deal is finally done.
Googling (my frustration at) this absurd seeming problem I discover other visitors with same, or greater, difficulty. And one person who explains that SoftBank actually sell the SIM card on what is technically a one year contract. Without Japanese documentation of a Japanese address the SIM is not available. Japanese adhere strictly to rules and regulations.
When the rest of our jobs are completed, I check out a few galleries in the vicinity, but decide that the only one that will get onto my must-see list is 21_21 Design Sight back in Roppongi. I visit it every year and have not been disappointed yet.
This year Dai Fujiwara, former Creative Director at Issey Miyake, directs his own exhibition, from June 21, entitled “Color Hunting.”
We decide to take the metro home and discover we have a longish wait of 15, maybe 20 mins. The earlier heavy rain resulted in some trains having to be cancelled and things are still just a little out of sync. it takes these extra few minutes to organise the man with the ramp at our destination station. We are kept informed by bowing, helpful (and very chatty) station staff who explain that if our destination was just a little closer they would sent a man-with-a-ramp with us, as it is they deeply regret our delay.
The strict adherence to rules is not always a blank-faced, mindless procedure.
He doesn’t look quite
Japanese, I said
indicating the stranger
about his bone structure
to his dark hair;
speaking the language
a hint of hesitation. Can you tell
where he comes from?
Curious about Japanese
attitude to accents;
The people listen,
shake their heads:
No, but he’s a half.
like innocent children
with Golly toys, unaware
that half is a strange way
to identify people.
September 10: Kabuki – the ultimate in accessible theatre?
The day for Kabuki arrived and we took the metro to Higashi-Ginza; my Kabuki experience began at the station. Getting off the train at Kabuki Plaza there are pillars of wonderful posters and folk in various degrees of finery. There are stalls with food, souvenirs and people milling about everywhere. We collected our tickets and strolled around a little before taking the elevator to ground level to enter the theatre. We were met and escorted to the counter for renting the English audio description/translation and on to our seats/space which was right next to the hanamichi (catwalk stage stretching from the main stage to the back of the auditorium) where important entrances are made and traditional poses created and held for the audience to admire.
Four single rows with 20 seats in each, on ground and first floor level, lined walls of the theatre left and right. Each row faced into the auditorium and had a long counter, with thermo cans of hot water and space to eat. Some people had ordered-in food, the red and black lacquered bento boxes with a selection of sushi. The majority of seats in the gently raked auditorium were more like those of a western theatre with no table for eating. A Kabuki play will often last four or more hours, but many people just come for one or two acts. There is also the supplementary piece which can add on another 20-30 minutes.
Today the first act lasted for two hours and then came the eating interval. Everything I had read about Kabuki warned that it was incomprehensible and boring after the first 30 minutes. Not so.
Following traditional lines and referencing other traditional forms of entertainment such as Noh, this piece was originally performed as Bunraku (puppet theatre). The New Light-Snow Story, was performed by an all male company. The majority of characters were women, some more believable than others, and this story of young love (Light-Snow being the heroine) and parental devotion was certainly moving enough for me to mind not getting the whole tale. As Bunraku the play had four acts, as Kabuki it finished with act three. It still lasted four and half hours and without the translation might have been incomprehensible, but certainly not boring.
The first act, introducing the story, contained dancing and acrobatics; the supplementary piece was narrative dance. The chobo, the chorus (one vocalist, one instrument player), became more significant as the drama progressed. Beginning hidden behind the slatted screen in the upper alcove, stage left, with description and explanations, for acts two and three they moved to the open alcove below. Increasingly, the dialogue and accompanying description/explanation bounced between the actors, the vocalist and the instrument, with a complex interplay of musical sounds, spoken words and ‘almost sung’ drawn out utterances.
Fragments of complimentary music/sounds came infrequently from (special effects) musicians – the geza – usually, but not always, visible on stage.
While the presentation was quite elaborate, utilising mawaro butal (a revolving stage) and seri (a trap door to bring dancers up from below), the complex scenery was unfussy and the painted backdrops naive in style. I enjoyed the very traditional pacing of the piece, the significant Kumadori (Kabuki make up), the impressive, elaborate costumes and the stylised sound ‘effects’ from the geza. And of course the prancing, posing and impressive entrances and exits on the hanamichi.
The tale, building slowly and formally, ended dramatically at a tragic point in the story, so the quiet postures of the final dance piece served to let the audience leave in a composed, more peaceful state.
Kabuki seems to me to be
the ultimate in accessible,
integrated audio described
every detail signalling a way
Significant colours speak
emotion, make-up and hair
spell character and intent.
Sound stylised, shorthand
to comprehension. Body-
sign language open
subtext to depth and clarity.
September 11: The Games People Play
The weekend that Tokyo got selected for the 2020 Olympic/Paralympic Games, was one of celebration. When I got here I couldn’t escape the giant posters with the ring of stylised flowers, the official Olympic logo and writ large: Tokyo Candidate City.
However, on the BBC I read that one of the factors counting against Tokyo’s selection was an apparent lack of enthusiasm among the people. I wonder where they were looking/asking?
Tokyo was eagerly hoping to host 2016, had in fact begun planning, renovating and building. I was aware of limited local objections to moving the Fishmarket from Tsukiji, but most people seemed very keen and proud to think of hosting the Olympics.
This time round there may have been a little more reserve, but no less eagerness.
And now the media is full of joyful people expressing their delight; of beautiful, groomed, celebrity athletes adding to the excitement; and of course politicians saying how inspirational this will be for business (quoting those estimates for wealth and profit that we are all familiar with), as well as an opportunity to improve the health of the nation.
Due to anticipating the good news a little earlier, Tokyo is ahead of the game. Volunteers in great numbers will be chosen soon to begin their training, the possibility of sending some to Brazil as interns for 2016 is being discussed.
Olympic fever has already begun.
Cynically I cannot help wondering if the Disability Discrimination Act, recently approved here by parliament to come into effect from 2016, was in any way connected. Japan already has positive legislation proclaiming intent to create equality and quality of life for disabled people, it has a healthy culture of respect for all people and excellent manners governing all aspects of social interaction.
As a wheelborne visitor, I rejoice in the freedom I experience in Japan. For one month of the year I do not feel like a leper, I do not feel like a burden or an inconvenience to society. I do not feel that my wheels are more visible than myself. I do not feel disabled.
So, while this new law may be greeted with ‘about time’ approval by some (western-style) commentators and activists, I would be very dismayed if Japan followed the British example of negative and patronising attitudes to disabled people.
No amount of legislation
will ever change attitudes;
will ever grow respect
in the heart of selfish.
No amount of
will ever overcome
the deviant, political
amount of equal
access will ever overcome
the hostility of a nation
bent on blaming
its ills on the very people
it grooms to be weak,
So don’t pretend
to have the answer.
Do not export disaster
of crimes against
It’s not that I think Japan has the equality/quality problem solved, more of a worry that there will be international pressure to move in unhelpful directions by some of the world’s current bullies on the moral issues front.
September 12: Why Not Live For Art?
Why Not Live For Art?
Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery. Saturday, 13 July – Sunday, 23 September, 2013.
In 2004 the Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery created an exhibition to explore collecting Art. Japanese people, more used to viewing art than owning it, were beginning to collect and the exhibition aimed to highlight and encourage the phenomenon.
Not quite ten years later the gallery revisits the idea with the treasures of nine new collectors, so I’m off to Shinjuku, via the metro, to discover Tokyo Opera City and to find out more.
The journey includes a couple of train changes and I’m glad of the assistance provided. One change requires going back up to street level and crossing a few roads and then of course there is the warren of underground tunnels…
Tokyo Opera City is a multi-story complex with a Concert Hall, Recital Rooms and an Art Gallery. There are also restaurants and shops. And a hideous statue – oops, personal taste overtaking here, but I didn’t appreciate this collection of ‘stuck together shapes’ like cardboard cut-outs, that resembled a larger than life flat-pack man daubed with grey paint.
The Art Gallery on the third and forth floors, has a permanent collection, project N (to feature and promote up-and-coming artists), plus this special exhibition, Why Not Live For Art? There is free entry for ‘persons with a disability certificate and an attendant’. The venue is well signposted and accessible.
(As far as the disability certificate goes, venues are capable of using their own judgement and initiative. Often times the fact that I am in a wheelchair is ‘certificate’ enough, but I also come up against those who work strictly by the book – and then a Japanese certificate is the only acceptable documentation.)
The nine collections, most of modern work by popular Japanese artists and emerging artists from other countries, reveal intriguing harmonies and contradictions in each of their anonymous collectors and this exhibition is a rare opportunity to see work not usually accessible to the public.
I did wish there was English information about the Japanese works, my skill with the written language is limited to identifying the three separate alphabets used in its complicated construction. The foreign works with English titles also included English information, so I had an unequal understanding of what I was looking at.
Most of the exhibition is accessible, but one piece, a screen placed on the floor, angled in and blocking a narrowing of space, defeated me. It was showing a video of the floor.
Lacking information, I found a third of the works baffling and a few unsettling. There were also funny, self explanatory, and enlightening pieces, as well as the moving and beautiful. And not one collection I would have taken home unedited.
I found myself seeking something that wasn’t there…
Perhaps I was hoping to find collections that conveyed the impression that their owners’ lives depended on them? I was disappointed to discover that ‘Why Not Live for Art?’ was more of a rhetorical question. In the catalogue it says ‘We hope this exhibition provides an opportunity to consider the possibilities of art collection that transcends mere personal collection, as well as to think about new roles that individual collectors could have in the art scene.’
A review of the 2004 exhibition suggested that it did answer the question, ‘Who buys this stuff anyway’. In 2013 the answer ‘Collectors’ is surely not enough.
I recognise names, dates
pencil, acrylic on paper.
I form opinions based
on more than just
my eye, my taste.
And then I see
Kanji and Hiragana
beyond my superficial
instinctive likes and
dislikes nothing but
squiggles of exotic.
Knowing only that
it is not Katakana.
September 13: Life in a day of……Mellow fruitfulness, autumn gold and Sky Tree white.
A warm autumn afternoon and time for food shopping. There is a well-stocked little supermarket in River City, in itself a green and pleasant place humming alongside a gentle curve of the tidal river Sumida.
Inside, I marvel at the variety of mushrooms on offer, the sheer size of the (deliciously different tasting) grapes and the large, perfectly formed apples and round golden pears. Aisles of mystery offer shapes and colours resembling no food I know. The fish sparkles so fresh I almost feel it could swim away; dead meat looks the same in every country. Bottles and packets offering no clue to their content sit alongside sachets of clearly labelled ‘cake mix’ and a plastic bubble of familiar birthday cake candles.
As I make my way around the narrow aisles clearly I’m in most shoppers’ way, yet there is no pressure to move on, to make way for the priorities of the non-disabled.
At the entrance an old man sits on the floor, struggling and moaning quietly. No-one takes any notice. I roll to help as he seems to be attempting to lift a satchel strap over his head. Freed of the strap, he indicates that I should put the satchel into his shopping trolley. As I am helping, a large and friendly Japanese lady joins in and is soon helping him up from the floor. I work together with these strangers, picking up no trace of reluctance, animosity or fear.
Soon everyone in the little supermarket is trying to find out how the man got there and if there is anyone to help him home.
There is no pity
mirrored back at me;
no fed-up sigh at
yet another hindrance
that is me. There is no
fear accusing me
of wasting ill-spent budgets
on something less
There is no anticipation
that I will run amok
Purchases complete, I choose the greenest side to roll back on and feel uncommonly relaxed, mellow even; at ease in my own skin. Shopping would normally be an ordeal back in England, and interaction with strangers would leave me feeling defensive, examining myself for whatever it is they find so worryingly unacceptable.
I dawdle, breathe-in autumn warmth and pause to commune with the river.
Along its path and looking close, but deceptively far away, Sky Tree soars into the blue. It’s newly designed colour, sky tree white, looks silver-grey in the sunlight. This visit I hope to experience the view from its highest point, to look out over Tokyo and Sumida on a clear day.
Sumida slides sensuously,
languorously under the sun
a slow and steady rhythm
with no urgency. Blue sky
shimmers, in her silver skin
small shivers of content.
Autumn hints of cherry gold
twirl to land beside her;
land that is at rest beside
the sea monster sending
only his scent and his longing
voiced in haunting calls
from lazy gulls dipping
wings, bowing to the river.
September 14: Colour Hunting – interactive.
Color-hunting, 21_21 Design Sight. Roppongi, 21 June – 6 October 2013
‘Exhibition director Dai Fujiwara invented “color-hunting,” a design method inspired by his personal research of design. The act of capturing actual colours in the natural and urban environment and reproducing them on a piece of paper by mixing watercolours on the spot is literally “hunt” for colour. Design rooted in color-hunting embraces the power to convey and spread meanings and stories of colour to the people involved in the product making process and its users while also enriching our colour environment.’
Escaping from designed colours, colour wheels and palettes, Dai Fujiwara is lucky enough to have the whole world as his hunting ground. In Africa he sought and recorded the colours of lions. He also recorded the colour of the earth they roamed and had Spanish boots created in lion colours and textures, to roam a platform with a red African earth coloured surface.
In Japan after the Great Eastern (earthquake) Disaster, he recorded the colours of sky, contemplating the fragility of Japan and indeed the world. The colours are meticulously recorded on small strips of paper. One wall of the gallery is dedicated to a long line of shades of sky.
Colour Hunting was the first interactive exhibition I’ve encountered here in Tokyo. After the introductory video (a feature of all the exhibitions I’ve seen in this Tadao Ando designed Art Space) showing the artist at work recording colours in the snow, there is a long strip of hanging white paper, ca 75 cms wide, and an elegantly designed counter with ‘square wells’ for small squares of sticky-backed coloured paper. The visitor is invited to choose one colour, to be symbolic of their personal future, and place it snugly beside the previous visitor’s square.
There are coloured cards to hold up in four different lights, an image of which, neatly divided into four separate oblongs, is reflected back at you from an iPad. The iPads, fixed to the wall at various heights, accommodate tall, small and wheelborne people.
There is a circular counter strewn with tiny multi-coloured thermometers. Visitors are invited to choose a colour, put a finger on it until their temperature registers and mark the line and the date in coloured pencil on the countertop. All low enough for me to engage with.
Another line of iPads shows a student project to give personal names to trees of different textures and colours. The aim being to illustrate the fact that, like people, trees become more interesting and important to us when we have their given name and some individually identifying facts.
There is a lot to see in this complex space, almost all of it accessible, interactive and well documented.
There is also an area especially for children where colourful images may be created on tablets automatically uploading to a website. An individual code number gives each artist access.
This is a fun and inspirational exhibition, with each detail meticulously crafted; each presentation elegant and quirky. The overall effect may not be as stunningly presented/curated as the other exhibitions I have seen here, but that is a very small quibble.
At the start I did wonder if ‘color-collecting’ might be a more suggestive term than ‘color-hunting’ (maybe because of the lions – my Japanese companions had made an inappropriate link to violence via the term Big Game Hunting), but rolling around the uniquely designed space that is 21_21, I was put in mind of the great Victorian plant hunters of the past and the title suddenly seemed just right.
timeless, without borders
indigo, reaches shades
degrees of depth
variety of strength
taken up by fine threads
measured bands of
muslin cloth to catch
the breeze. To chime
crystal balls like bell
pulls and wave, prayer flags,
to play indigo games
with the wind.
September 15: Shock (urban renewal), Outrage (foreign prejudice) and glitter boots…
An easy day, revisiting old haunts and tracing my way back along the banks of the river. It sounds easy, but in the constant renewal that is Tokyo, certain ‘landmark’ buildings along my remembered route are now flat ground awaiting redevelopment. I was aware of this, but being here, seeing the sudden open spaces, the wounds in the bare earth, actually feels rather shocking.
A lot of new roadworks mean the plentiful traffic controllers are frequently moving cones to widen my pathway through.
The weather is glorious, tourist barges are out again in full force and the streets are busy with visitors. The guide books declare October to be the absolute best time to come here and I just might believe it as this rainy September season draws to an end.
Sumida’s ribbon garden is planted with autumn colours, the regimental African Marigolds are joined by elegant sprawls of something that looks like orange cosmos – if such a plant exists – canna and giant sunflowers. Everything grows, we have had rain and now this pleasant warmth and there are six uniformed gardeners busy pulling up weeds.
Today Sumida is Goth-dark and deep;
the sun shines in a clear blue sky,
but Sumida is teenage choppy
with restless energy, ink reflecting
nothing of the boundless blue
above her. Without reflection,
without memory, she is lost,
vulnerable to the sea-monster
who eases his bulk into her bed
mingling his salt with her freshwater,
drawing her out into the vastness
of his ocean playground.
I roll to the end of the river walk and head for Higashi-Ginza to take photographs of the new Kabuki theatre. I’m hoping that there will not be the same crowds there today as when I attended a performance.
On the way there are new shops, old shops that have shrunk or grown, and shops that are just as I remembered; like the one selling chopsticks, porcelain and lacquered wooden bowls.
There is also a rash of visitors with a non-Japanese attitude to wheelborne people; they wave their arms in agitation, guard each other protectively and I can almost hear them thinking the regulation: ‘watch out, you’ll get mown down’.
Some nearby Japanese catch my eye and exchange amused looks; I’m surprised and pleased.
I once saw a young Japanese girl, clothed in French/American brands, adopting that ‘whatever’ body slouch so prevalent in western youth and started to realise how much Japanese people might loose by neglecting to find their own modern solutions and adopting western attitudes wholesale.
The temperature is a delicious 28C, but this is autumn and the young fashionistas are dressed accordingly. Little ankle boots are this seasons fashion, with thick tights or leggings and wooly hats. Long lace-up Wellingtons abound. We are not quite out of the rainy season so you can also buy a short rain jacket with matching waterproof shorts. Shop windows display winter coats and chunky knits in fabulous autumn-leaf colours, and lots of glitter; chunky gold jewellery and gold sequinned boots and shoes.
I pop into a small gallery and see prints and drawings that make me think that I too could be charging 500,000 ¥ for my work. I briefly consider the possibility of owning gold glitter boots…
Outrage is not too strong
not too wild to claim the
fear from my mind as I face
the familiar Western
into the heart of Tokyo
by gaijin. And I resolve
to ring-fence space in my mind
somewhere to quarantine
the ‘gaijin to diversity’,
the beings who carry
prejudice like the plague,
self and my sanity.
September 16: Revisiting Tsukiji and Hibiya koen – I am my Memories.
Sushi in Tsukiji (another re-visit), was very good. We followed again the old route alongside Sumida and enjoyed the autumn sun. It felt hotter than yesterday and the air was heavy and still. There seems to me to be something gentle and old fashioned about Tsukiji that I guess will disappear when the Olympic building program gets up to speed; meanwhile, I shall enjoy it while I can.
Enjoying the raw fish as I do, I take great interest in my sushi selection. This time there was sea urchin, minced tuna with a tiny raw egg on top, salmon eggs rolled in raw salmon (not seaweed), the long slice of eel, as well as the more familiar, and generous, slivers of raw fishes on small parcels of rice
There was of course, the soup, and constant replenishment of green tea.
I left the restaurant feeling very happy.
We strolled on through Ginza to Hibiya Park (which on my previous visits was unusually quiet for a public green space in Tokyo) and got a surprise.
Oktoberfest was in full swing. A vast area of tables and chairs was packed with Japanese quaffing long glasses of German and Japanese beer. Some vaguely German dance music was accompanied by hand clapping and spasmodic ‘crowd-roaring’. There was also evidence of the occasional frankfurter on white paper plates.
Oktoberfest, apparently doing the rounds of its Tokyo circuit, is certainly not confined to Oktober.
With German folk music still loud in our ears, we were greeted by some rather different ‘international’ pop-music coming from a small stage in another corner of the park. Our path through Hibiya-koen, with its variously manicured and wild greenery, eventually took us out of earshot of both. Access to the more naturalistic areas has been greatly improved by tarmac surfaces to the once muddy pathways and the wildness kept elegantly and unobtrusively under control
We sat a while facing one of the naturalistic ponds, daydreaming future hopes and reminiscing; watching the black cat who pretended sleep (with ears alert), on a small rock at its edge. Koi carp and turtles moved through the dark waters.
You are who you remember,
and what you remember.
I am the people I’ve met and loved;
the bodies I have embraced
with joy; eyes I have gazed into,
mouths that I have kissed.
I am sunlight on sleek black fur,
the lazy twist of a golden koi
in tepid water; the mindless heap
of basking turtle. I am fine raked
silver sand, cloud-clipped evergreen,
I am granite sparkling in snow;
I am mermaid and Manhattan;
Pamukkale – the cotton castle.
I am Mont Blanc, Victoria Falls
and giant bamboo forest.
I am sea urchin and wasabi,
Tosca and The Time
I am tears and laughter
and I am love.
September 17: Autumnal Influences – Colours of Cherry
Typically the day of my planned Sky Tree visit, it rains. Early morning thunder is accompanied by sheets of vertical water that obscure visibility and never quite relinquish their hold on the morning. Plus endless rolling black cloud sitting low in the sky.
By 14.00 when it really is too late, we have blue sky and sunshine and an alternative plan.
Tokyo Hands is permanently on my wish list, the one in Shinjuku having a great selection of craft and DIY stuff perfect for arts and installations. Getting to Shinjuku on the metro requires a change of line along the way and to my surprise the man-with-the-ramp had no ramp. Often the ramp is not technically necessary, but I certainly felt safer with it. Here the gaps were wide enough for the little front wheels of the chair to fall through. I was met at Shinjuku by a female member of the station staff, again with no ramp.
Shinjuku’s Times Square is being renewed and had almost disappeared under scaffolding, my route looked a little uncertain, but patience revealed ramps and elevators and good access to the Tokyo Hands store.
It does not disappoint. I could spent weeks inside if they would be happy to have an artist in residence. As it is I came away with a bag of small tools and various bits and pieces. I left wanting to take with me beautiful pieces of wood, brass and white enamelled fixings, pieces of leather, gorgeous paper, paint, more neat tools and fixings, wire and sheets of smooth and textured rubber…too much to catalogue, but at least half of the stock on seven floors of inspiration.
Outside it was already dark – the bright-lights, mega-city dark that is so invigorating; Tokyo dark that I find such fun to be out in, wheelborne, female, but safe. People safe.
Coming back on the train I do not ask for assistance, without the ramp it seems pointless. The sway of this giant snake-train through its underground lair (seven levels deep) is more obvious when it is practically empty. Tokyo trains are not always packed with bodies. I sit, people watching.
Out and about today I met three other people in wheelchairs and five ambulant people with noticeable mobility impairments. One of them almost collided with me in spite of my best avoidance tactics, his side to side sway being not easy for him to control. I have seen deaf people signing, but no obviously blind people. No guide dogs… But there are Braille signs in most lifts, and bright yellow raised lines and bumps on pavements and also in the metro. Underground they serve to indicate platform edges, routes to elevators and ticket facilities.
In 2003 a law was passed guaranteeing full access rights to Japanese trained service dogs: guide dogs, hearing and mobility dogs. Temporary ID’s for visiting service dogs may be obtained from Japan’s Guide Dog Association JGDA.
Disaster struck when I attempted to get off the train. The little wheels got jammed in the gap between platform and train. My cushions slide, so in spite of clinging to my chair, I was being tipped out in that dramatic slow motion sensation caused by fear.
And pain freezes me.
Concerned People gathered instantly. Arms reached out. Before I can pass out my chair was lifted and I was rescued onto the platform.
I sat quietly on the empty platform to recover a little and adjust my cushions. I needed to get back up to ground level and into a better state before continuing my journey.
With assistance, I would probably have been advised to board a different carriage, or maybe the driver would have been advised that this carriage needed specific positioning not to lean away from the platform.
And I probably need to learn how to ask specifically for the ramp, rather than just ‘assistance’.
Happily I could be relaxed about the final part of the journey. At my destination the platform lift for my wheelchair needs station staff to operate it so they are always forewarned and always come with a ramp.
People-watching on the train
I get opportunity to see
the sockless feet of male
followers of fashion, but
fail to spot last season’s trend
of flowered trouser. Autumn
influences everyone. People
anticipating colours of acer
and cherry turn to autumn
foods with seasonal attention.
‘Autumn Knife Fish’ awaits
my homecoming, grilled Sanma
bought-in to avoid the smoke.
The tang of this ungutted star
excites my taste-buds, draws
my thought out, away
from snake-train depths
up, closer to the sunlight.
September 18: Man-Yi and my Stroll around the Block
Sky Tree’s viewing platform cannot compete with Man-Yi, the typhoon buffeting and flooding Japan with heavy rain. Wild gusts of wind, up to 130 kph, have visible impact on trees and plants and the assorted container gardens so prolific in local streets and balconies. The forecast predicts around 30 cms of rain, with the possibility of power outages and some structural damage as the eye of the storm passes close to Tokyo.
In southern Japan there are warnings of landslides. Man-Yi’s typhoon status reduces to tropical storm as it expends crazy energy on this patient land.
Outside bicycles and plant containers are being tossed about, rainwater accumulates and the streets are covered in sodden, scattered leaves, small branches of greenery, soil and tanuki with other good-luck images from battered shrines and container gardens.
Being in considerable pain (after yesterday’s wheelchair drama), I’m not complaining about the enforced rest the weather imposes on me, but by late afternoon the storm has passed and I’m quite keen to get into some fresh air. Dosed up with painkiller, I venture out.
Almost everywhere is tidy; as if Japan somehow defies the natural evolution of order into chaos. The neat pot-garden of the tiny restaurant on the corner makes earlier observations seem like an hallucination. The row of good-luck charms has been returned to its position along the top of the A-board. Even the thick layer of sodden leaves has been reduced to a few scattered ‘wings’ of Ginkgo.
The air is almost fresh, the sky has that weird orange glow and the greenery looks incredibly vibrant; surviving blossom, bulbs and flowers gleam.
This is just a stroll around the block, so I concentrate on what is actually here in this quiet corner of Tokyo, a megacity at least 50% larger than New York. I roll on wide pavements, but the roads leading off are narrow and although they have white lines marking off walkways for pedestrians, in practice cars, bicycles and people share the space with patience and courtesy. People have precedence.
The graphics showing information about street essentials such as walking and cycling divisions, are all attractively proportioned non gender-specific representations of people/families. I wish someone would redesign the wheelchair/access logo.
The container gardens squeezed along house walls or around urban trees, are all drenched, but in good order. Packed between assorted plastic flowerpots I see two very wet looking wooden hutches and manage a glimpse of a small rough-haired guinea-pig.
‘Around the block’ takes me past several small park areas alive with the fizz of cicadas, the silent flits of some of Japan’s 200 different species of dragonfly and other less friendly life-forms.
In spite of reasonable precautions, I get bitten. Bites from the small black flies (similar to US ‘no-see-ums’) are incredibly itchy and by the time I roll indoors one part of inevitably exposed flesh has begun to swell. With four bites, possibly from two differing creatures, my chair-driving hand soon resembles a small, lop-sided balloon. Painful and spongey, this has annoying repercussions on my ability to move around. The bites on my legs itch badly and my back pain is intrusive as something mentally and physically exhausting.
Today must be the low point of my Japan Odyssey.
I have always enjoyed weather:
the stillness of snow, exhilaration
of storm, contentment of sun
and wild dance of wind.
My body might complain about
falls in temperature; soaking wet
cushions can make storms yucky; driving
wind can bowl my wheels away.
And yet the blissful peace
of summer sun inevitably grows
boring when repeated
season on season. Still, I need
my weather thrills to be
swift and varied; offering,
teasing, yet never straying
too far, too long
from golden warm,
to keep me
September 19: Quiet day by the river
Blue sky, clear with just a hint of autumn haze, greets me in the morning. Back pain and balloon hand have been with me all night. I guess this will be another quiet day. The temperatures are climbing back up into the 30’s, but the air still has an autumn feel.
For the first time since I have been here we switch off the air-con and open windows for the whole day. I watch the curtains breathing in the wind, if anything I am less mobile than yesterday. I get offered a skin patch to reduce swelling and ease pain and eagerly accept.
With a delicious sense of decongested lightness around the affected area of my back, I am able to roll to the river. The plan is to find a comfortable way into a rather good looking supermarket in River City. I say good looking because I like the bunches of flowers and posies around the entrance. I enjoy the similarity of flower arranging sensibilities between Japanese and Danish florists. I cannot pass a Japanese florist (and there are many in Tokyo), without being tempted inside.
Sometimes I think of Tokyo like a computer – there is always more than one way to get the same result. The ramp down to the level on which the shop entrance sits is a little steep. To counter any chance of slipping it is ridged; just what I don’t need – anytime, but especially now.
Entrance to the tower housing the supermarket is through the garden walkway above the river. Inside is an impressive empty space clad in striated marble in various colours, but predominantly black. A short corridor leads to a very aggressive lift and a short journey down takes me to the correct level.
The little supermarket is the most international I’ve seen here, with its spacious layout, and quantity of foreign products. The various areas are named in French and the ‘boulangerie’ has a selection of French bread. In Tokyo there are many French bakeries where the bread has an elegant Japanese twist to it. They also include a Japanese version of ‘Danish Pastry’ which is much closer to the original Viennese Bread that is sold in Denmark.
I enjoy making the connections and playing with the words. And I buy some unknown, seasonal Japanese food for its attractive strangeness.
Rolling back alongside the river, I see echoes of yesterday’s orange sky as the sun sets over her swollen waters. I cross two bridges, one of them has creative, sculptural seating each side of the bridge for the few people who wish to smoke outside (most pavements contain no-smoking signs). There is a small shrine included in one of the seating areas.
Sumida shines silver, lit with orange fire
as the sun hides behind the tower blocks
of Tokyo. Fat with tropical waters she
lurches drunkenly inches from overflow.
Playfully shifts her bulk to and fro
slapping concrete as she rolls.
Wisps of teased-out white
curl across the darkening sky,
sudden drama of wind
soon forgotten. Only Sumida
remembers Man-Yi. Only
Sumida ignores the sea
monster, swollen with power.
September 20: Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park.
The last time I went to Ueno, I was asked if I had visited the park and I disappointed with my negative reply. This visit, the Tokyo National Museum is on my wish list and TNM sits in Ueno Park.
Wearing two of the marvellously effective pain-relief patches I set out.
The Park, with its museums, international art exhibitions and zoo, is a tourist magnet; the regular train station is opposite the entrance. Unfortunately the metro exit is on to the street underneath. I cross over the road to find a lift up to the elevated walkway that slopes upward to the Park.
Ueno Koen has big open spaces and masses of maps and information in Japanese and English. The day is hot and dry, I cannot spot any of the usual vending machines, so queue up at Starbucks for a drink and to get my bearings.
TNM is a complex of five (mostly large) exhibition buildings and an education and research centre, each in a very different style. My aim for this visit is to explore ‘Important Cultural Property’, so I get my ticket (with concession) and roll into this enclosed section of the park.
I head into Honkan, the Japanese Gallery, which is up some very steep ramps.
I pass a person being pushed in a manual wheelchair. At the lift a one-armed man gets out before I can roll in and when I get out another powerchair’d person is waiting. All in all I notice four other wheelborne people and two people on crutches, helping to bust the myth that Disabled Japanese people are somehow kept out of public view.
It’s not long before I’m completely overwhelmed just to be in the presence of things I’ve read about, seen in books and studied in school. It’s an effort to be disciplined and not dart about drawn by one magical exhibit after another.
I start on floor two with the Dawn of Japanese Art, already aware that there is more here than I can take in in one day.
On this floor I finish with Kabuki and Noh and Ukiyo-e and fashion in the Edo Period. Down on floor one there is Japanese sculpture and, of particular interest, the folk culture of the indigenous Ainu and Ryukyu people’s of north and south Japan respectively.
Ainu, many of whom are blue-eyed, have DNA links to Tibet and India’s Andaman Islands and, sadly, have a history similar to that of many aboriginal people whose homeland was commandeered by ‘superior forces’.
Suddenly starving I decide to lunch at a restaurant within the ticketed area as there is no re-entry. Negotiating the ramps down feels a little precarious and one of the doormen hangs on to my chair as a safety precaution. Outside the sun shines and while it is rather late for lunch, the restaurant is still serving.
I choose sashimi and get a very delicious bowl of rice with a selection of raw fish and salmon eggs.
There is time to go back in and revisit the things that were rushed as I got hungrier!
The museum has very good exhibits showing the initial influence of China and Korea on Japanese Culture and then comparing it to what developed when Japan closed its borders and dedicated itself to Japaneseness. And there is of course the Folk Culture, with history and fascinating artefacts.
The announcement that the museum will close in 30 minutes takes me by surprise, where has the time gone…
Gathering myself up to leave I am somewhat baffled when the loudspeaker begins to play Auld Lang Syne and continues to serenade visitors out of the building. I attempt the down ramps and feel the need to hang on to the balustrade as the angle is so steep the brakes don’t really hold. The doorman comes running.
Back outside, finding the elevator that takes me from street level down to the return metro platform is not easy, but I do enjoy the sound of the ‘met-air-o’ reply, when asking directions from a local policeman.
Kosode, say kimono,
garment with small
wrist openings. The
Thing To Wear, neat.
Uchikake, the Thing
To Wear over without
Obi. And wear and throw
away. Kabuki clothes
worn twice a day twenty-
five day season. Worn
and thrown away.
Shoganai – tough luck
September 21: Ring of Fire
Wanting to check out a restaurant in ‘My Humble House’, Ginza, I take a metro exit that I’m not familiar with. When the lift doors open at street level I discover I am in a bank, which does feel a little odd. But is an efficient use of space.
‘My Humble House’ is a small glass tower of restaurants and bars. The place I wish to try is Chinese. It looks very elegant and cool, with lots of black marble, but there are steps up to the table level. On my right the 2 steps are close together. The staff offer to lift my chair, but I refuse and point to the steps on my left. Those two steps are very wide, so the chair would not need to be lifted, just angled up one step at a time. There are tables and customers on each side. The management indicate no with an international face expression of ‘shoganai’ – ‘circumstances beyond our control’ – that contains no regret (and this case doesn’t seem to be very truthful).
I try elsewhere. This time an Indian restaurant, with an equally elegant decor that has minimal hints of elaborate Indian carvings and textiles interpreted in cool calm Japanese colours. The staff move tables and chairs to offer me the largest table in the place with masses of room for the wheelchair. I choose a fish curry from the lunch selection, but wonder curiously about the God Prawns on the evening menu board.
A plate of vegetables is placed on my marble-topped table: a neat pile of golden rice, 2 battered onion rings, one cone of battered, deep fried, curried, mixed chopped-up vegetables and a hot green curry sauce. The basket with the giant nan comes next and finally a bowl of mild curry sauce with chunks of tuna.
A peek at the actual evening menu reveals a spelling mistake, for God Prawns read Goa Prawns. I enjoy the meal.
I spend some time just rolling; looking at people wearing sheepskin boots, knitted and felt hats and sometimes even woolly jumpers. The temperatures, in the top twenties, are comparatively low and I find myself adding a layer when out of direct sunlight.
The shops may be full of autumn reds and gold, but people seem to be wearing shades of grey, with highlights of black and white, real and fake furs, and lots of sheepskin. Of course there are some folk still in shorts, summer dresses and sandals, who have not yet adopted autumn mode.
I also notice quite a few older people maintaining their Japaneseness with died black hair.
Lots of shops are gearing up for Halloween, the next big party in the calendar. After that it will be Christmas season with masses of decorations and familiar tunes. I get the impression that Japanese people love to party.
In the early hours of the morning I am woken from sleep by more shaking and swaying, this building certainly does move. The quake, 5.3, hits Fukushima without warning. We are reassured that there is no additional threat. The nuclear plant at Fukushima sits in a high risk quake zone called the Ring of Fire.
Fire sharp pain burns my eye
and I realise too late, my
mistake. The wrong stuff.
Not simple eye ointment
but Crystal Veil Cool – cutting
edge hay fever prevention.
polymer with Menthol.
Similar tube, but hell
and agony for hours.
I battle my own
ring of fire
September 23: Finally – Sky Tree
Last chance this visit and the day dawns sunny, with a blue sky and a hint of haze. My visit to Sky Tree is going ahead.
We take the metro, just one change and we are soon at the SkyTree stop which is several floors above ground. It feels strange to take the elevator down to ground level.
The lower levels of Sky Tree are full of shops, restaurants, greenery and outside spaces. Up on the forth floor we get our ‘pre-booking’ tickets which inform us we can come back in approx two hours time to buy tickets.
We look around outside, decide to investigate what is available and have some food. The food hall is very crowded. Getting a table seems impossible and the queues to order are rather long. We end up with crepes, mine is chocolate and banana, and we try to be somewhere out of the way to eat them. Instantly a young food hall employee bids us follow her. She clears a reserved table and we sit to eat. The chocolate is beginning to drip from the bottom of my paper-wrapped, rolled up crepe-cone, so I’m most grateful.
Two o’clock and there is a very long queue to buy tickets. We head for it and are intercepted. There is fast-tracking for wheelborne people (while I’m on the subject, today’s count was four adults and two teenagers plus at least half a dozen other disabled people, some deaf), so without any delay we purchase tickets and are escorted to the lift.
At 634 metres, this is the tallest tower in the world and the second tallest structure.
There are viewing platforms on three floors.
The view is mesmerising. Tokyo as far as the eye can see – disappearing into a distant haze. I am struck by how much green there is and how much water. The very few straight lines are comparatively short stretches of road or rail. Tokyo looks organic, diverse and homogenous.
I spend an hour just looking. Looking at this creation containing so much life; so many hopes and dreams and put together on such a fragile portion of this amazing blue dot that we all call home.
There is a lift for wheelborne adults and children to ascend to the top platform. I’m eager for the experience, the top platform is a spiral slope climbing the final five metres, adding to the drama. Typical of Japanese ramped pathways, this one levels out frequently with small flat areas that allow me to take in the view in comfort.
I stop where the sun gleams a golden path over rooftops, sparkles on metal specs of car rooves and bounces from the rail in front of me into my face. Stop and feel very special.
Sky Tree casts a long shadow, I wonder what it is like to live under it. Once again I’m going to miss this fascinating place.
The charm and despair confuse me.
The longing to be close, just close
to the people who hold my heart
would anchor me, yet the distance
will always seek me out, draw me away,
break me apart in conflict of needing.
I whisper names, recall voices, dream
of other skin; the lure of distance
paused while I dream of forever.
Bask in the momentary embrace of love.
September 25: Returning Meditation
Like a badly fitting wig, my days have slipped. The bright and sunny Japan mornings that greeted me at five-thirty, now brood in slow British darkness until almost seven. I shiver into lunchtimes, unhungry and confused. And the balmy evening dark that I expect to drop suddenly towards six, now lingers, seeping chill reluctantly into a day that has only just found warmth. Balmy being alien to its vocabulary, dark closes coldly around me from sevenish.
Being back in British grey has yet to offer welcome.
My flight, unusually restless, sleepless even, was missing the comforting, majority presence of Japanese cabin crew. Western body language speaking of tension and tiredness. And I was scolded repeatedly for not organising my dietary requirements.
I did try before leaving England, but booking assistance (and explaining my powerchair), needs me to telephone 48 hours before the flight. The helpline does not accept any other details. I was informed that all other requirements should be made at my physical check-in (on-line check-in not being available for people needing special assistance) on the day of my flight.
And I was met at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 by a roving member of staff who volunteered to check me in at one of the DIY check-in points. That went quite smoothly until we got to my dietary requirement. The male gave up and handed me over to a female at a regular check-in point. We went through the whole procedure again with things being rather confused by the fact that my check-in form already had details on it.
It was, I was told, too late to book special diet.
But someone found food for me and, flying out, the cabin crew coped without a murmur. Checking-in for the return, I was assured that my details were already on the computer; the Japanese ground crew explaining that the fold-up nature of my powerchair meant they wouldn’t have to put it in the hold, but could carry it in the crew coat-locker. This would avoid the long wait while they retrieved it at Heathrow.
The diet details however were not carried over for the flight back. I was informed at mealtime that there was absolutely no possibility of meat and dairy-free meals.
Some time later I was offered, and accepted, an halal ‘wrap’. Heavy on wrap – with just a hint of spicy spinach and potato, and a banana.
The mid-flight snack was offered by a stewardess who was unaware of its contents and claimed to be unable to read the label in the poor aircraft light. My own eye injury made it quite impossible for me.
I was scolded again at breakfast and offered the standard choice – take it or leave it.
I felt quite uncomfortable about the atmosphere. Had the feeling that the cabin crew were doing their best, but battling some overwhelming, unseen stress. That their body language and tired faces were not singling me out for any special reaction or disapproval, but just a fact of life. And the western way is not to hide it.
My lingering memory of returning to Britain is the heap of dried-up stinking vomit in the corner of the escalator taking me to arrivals and baggage reclaim.
living here I would
have acclimatised to
the slow creeping away
of daylight; the autumn mist
and advancing cold. I would
be focused on the gentle
hints of gold, mellow fruitfulness,
seasonal texture. And I too
would be the body language
of tension and tiredness;
unable to hide the common
pain of east and west. The burden
of frightened, hurting people;
ordinary people whose joy is being
stolen away for profit, for capitalist
appetite from anyone other than strong.