I’m in Tokyo. Again. The journey has become almost invisible. I am here or there and life has acquired a dual nature; each one has influence on the other.
I feel like the princess awakening after pricking her finger and sleeping for one hundred years. My acute longing to settle down, to be in one place, to belong, has dissolved into surreal oblivion. The divided existence of my childhood has caught up with me and is suddenly where I belong. The lifetime of intervening years belongs to a stranger.
I stressed about the flight; not the preparation, that was strangely relaxing, but the check-in is always unpleasant. I was welcomed by name, with a smile. Greeted, I dared to feel hopeful, but was promptly tossed all over the place emotionally. There was no suitable seat, my batteries could be a security risk… who knew? Phone calls were necessary, forms were produced, questions, more phone calls and the spreading of doubt.
On no account would I be allowed to take my batteries on board. They had to be crated up and travel separately in the hold. There was still no seat.
Waiting… and lectures on security – as if the thought had not crossed my mind. At no point was it accepted that I knew what I was talking about. I have done this flight a few times now. I know what I need, where I need to sit, how it all works. This particular crew had never dealt with a wheelborne passenger before.
This was not merely a check-in, this was induced trauma as I was obliged to fight for my needs.
My body slowly slid into a state of shock. I lost control of hot or cold. First flaring red with unpredictable heat, then cold – so cold I began to shake – and this initially unnoticed by me, but picked up on by the check-in team.
My temperature began to swing, settled into plummeting until the shaking magnified to become deeply obvious, yes, even to me.
Shivering with cold, spazming with stress, I felt as if something, somewhere inside me had broken.
Except, now that my temperature is back to normal, and my body no longer shivers and quakes, now I feel as if finally something has come back together. Reunited after decades of what just could have been misunderstanding.
I insisted on staying in my chair right to the door of the plane. In spite of all the doubting and clarifying at the check-in, I had to be vigilant every step of the way to keep things on track so everything travelled and arrived where it should. The same on arrival, where I also insisted on transferring from the aisle-chair to my own wheelchair at the door of the plane.
The twelve hours between never passed so quickly. I was offered real food, an identifiable fish with sticky rice, vegetable and seaweed. I smiled. Where will you put the tray, they asked, how will you manage it? I don’t know, I insisted, totally unable to stress, or feel even mild concern. Everything had changed.
The chap in the space beside me vacated his seat to eat elsewhere that I might use his table.
I sat high on my support-cushions, my hotwaterbottle was kept warm and I was wrapped in a quilt rather than the usual, useless blankets.
The hand luggage I use as footstool to prevent my legs dangling midair, was stored only at the last moment and returned to me as soon as rules and regs permitted.
I began slowly to recover as this turned into a reasonably civilized flight.
I had had my life on pause, while I waited for the flight date to come closer. I packed and attempted to muster up the usual worries about forgetting stuff, about nameless anxieties that refused to do more than unsettle me from the distance of shadows. I was almost anxious about the fact that I could muster no anxiety; bemused by an unusual sense of fun. It abandoned me at the airport, but slowly it has returned. Will it last? Will it endure beyond the next flight?
Landing on my wheels:
My early arrival meant there was plenty of time to be whisked over to Roppongi via Tsukiji (the local station lift was out of order) to see an exhibition I’d missed last time around; then lunch in a Chinese restaurant. The lift was working again for the return journey. Day one did rather disappear in amplified jet-lag.
Day two I headed for the river.
Coming back to Sumida-gawa I need to acknowledge that things have changed. I have changed. I am no longer tourist, and not just visitor.
Sumida hosts a cormorant. It dives endlessly below her shiny ripples and emerges far away with silver slivers in its beak. Sumida sits high in her bed, smells vaguely salty and clean, and swooshes excited ripples down towards the sea.
The walkway alongside Sumida shows signs of disruption. The earth has not been still, the slabs and tiles jut out from the surface, small hills and ridges have emerged. Things change.
There are still cranes on the skyline; Tokyo is eternally building, the change and the need to change is the one constant.
And the road under the bridge is constantly changing. Those particular road-works have been proceeding for maybe three years now, containers with plants have appeared to pretty-up the work area. Access to the pavement has not improved – a temporary thing.
Living at peace with the earth is never a done deal.
The gardeners are here along the river walk, hedges and bamboo have been trimmed, neat and low. And autumn marigolds planted – they sport bushy greenery, but no flowers yet. A river-boat ferries late tourists and a helicopter chugs business-like low in the sky. Benches and steps are busy with folk eating lunch, eating and watching Sumida. Today the temperature is cool enough to be out, maybe 27-28C. There is a breeze and Sumida is choppy; a second cormorant arrives but makes hasty departure as the first surfaces.
Local council workers are about too, peering into drain covers, measuring and discussing.
I power into Ginza by way of Tsukiji and set about checking that stuff is still where it should be. Of course not all of it is. Renewal takes the place of repair in Tokyo and things are always in the process of renewal.
This time it’s Mitsukoshi, my favourite department store. I need to find somewhere else to relax, change my batteries and gather my thoughts.
The Wako window is as creative as ever, with what looks like clear blue plastic hosepipe looped, woven and spiraled into various vaguely circular drapes that move slowly in the dark window. It is very difficult to photograph, acting rather more like a mirror; bringing even the most unwilling passer-by into the store frame.
I overhear an apparent American chatting to Japanese collegues: …there you would be perfectly safe…on the 30th floor, you hear me? Safe. But here? No! Should you ever get an earthquake, you’d be flat, you understand? Flat, the whole city would collapse.
I wonder what planet he really comes from…
Today is blustery under blue sky, and Marunouchi calls like some wild romantic tale; weaves enticement through my gently warped brain as it throbs its self-awareness on the periphery of everything.
The curry shop on the corner where our little side roads join a larger road with a pavement, initiates my travel with exotic aromas luring me outward, lingering in my hair as I move along the intriguing row of small businesses, tiny coffee shops, massive office blocks and conbini, that line a typical road in Tokyo. I follow the road as far as the temple complex and turn right at the junction, I’m heading for Ginza and beyond. This may be a main road, but it is lined with trees and plants looking lush, green and clean and teaming with sparrows.
Choosing the flattest, smoothest route, it’s a straight path through to Marunouchi, but it is the other side of overground rail track.
Under the quite narrow railway arch there is room for three small restaurants. The larger one has tables outside that seat maybe six people, they always seem busy.
And then it’s time to turn right into the long tree lined avenue that will lead me to Brick Square.
There is a lot of renewal happening; long stretches boarded off and men in hard hats on scaffolding. My heart skips a beat. But eventually I see the flower shop on the corner and know that all will be well.
As indeed it is. I enter the little square and it looks green, creative and welcoming. It is also a haven from the wind. I am instantly surprised by the lack of statues, but maybe there is a good reason the plinths and spaces are empty.
The museum gallery is busy, and opposite, my favourite vintage and flower shop is thriving. The guy who tends the flower bit stops to chat, we manage with few words.
I collect a chocolate ice cream cone from Sampaka and munch contentedly, surrounded by locals with their packed lunches, tourists and ladies-who-lunch sitting outside the American-Italian restaurant. All surrounded by elegant foliage.
Further along the avenue, in Marunouchi Building, there is a display of reconstructed armour, with colorful documentation of a sixteenth century battle that included Date Masamune, otherwise known as Dokuganryū – one eyed dragon. This powerful warrior is my only toehold on Japanese disability history. Loosing an eye to smallpox as a child, Date Masamune was considered an unsuitable heir to his family name and territory, but went on to carve himself an impressive reputation as a bold tactician and ruthless warrior.
The day starts dry, the forecast doesn’t mention precipitation, I head out. Sumida, smooth as glass, breathes gently under her mirror surface. The river walkway looks calm, the barnacles are about 50 cms exposed, a water level I see frequently. I’d be tempted to think normal, the heavy crusting of barnacles implies a fluctuation of 50 cms is normal.
I don’t notice any cruises on the river and the landing stage looks deserted.
The builders’ red cranes have finished their work opposite, but moved to a roof further down the river…
On this side of the riverwalk, the African marigolds are breaking into bloom and the cannas are growing big fat buds.
Plant life is benefitting from the large amounts of late rain and baking sun. DNA that was programmed to start shutting down at the end of the rainy season, is getting confused by the excellent growing conditions. Tokyo is moving towards a tropical climate.
And I’m getting absorbed by the plant life, the shapes and shades, colours and textures seem to be taking over Tokyo. Most shops seem to have plants. Regardless of what they are selling, they have creative, arty flower displays among diamonds and pearls, shoes and woolly jumpers; department stores have flowers. And actual flower shops seem to be multiplying rather like coffee shops in UK.
It almost makes up for the lack of accessible garden centre’s…
While I’m browsing Plant Plants on the fourth floor of Marunouchi Building I am unaware of the downpour outside, but as soon as I attempt to leave I change my mind. The rain is thundering down much like a waterfall. It bounces about a meter and creates a steamy chaos on the streets.
People everywhere are ducking into places of shelter.
In the huge glass lobby of the building, a jazz orchestra is practicing. I settle, together with other sheltering shoppers, to enjoy the music.
A clean and crisp sound, clear above the noise of the rain, it’s very, very good.
On a day when the qua-bird sings and the rain falls, my headache finally makes sense. We’re catching the edge of the typhoon. The air pressure might be bad, even mildly hallucinatory inside my head, but my body responds well.
My skin enjoys the warm moist air that feels so much more benevolent than the cold and dirty stuff my alter-ego struggles through in UK.
The sky sits low, concealing the tops of tall buildings, so that even when the rain does not fall, the dense wet air drenches everything.
Full of curiosity, I head for the river. Sumida rocks even higher in her bed, an elegant rose-beige reflector of the buildings anxiously surrounding her; peering at their reflections even as they check levels. Her skin is a patchwork of jungle impressions, zebra and snake, leopard and crocodile, which she ripples across her territory with confident surges. I watch mesmerised by the strong diagonal rolls, the chamaeleon skin and that incredible sensation of ancient identity.
A sudden fish breakes the surface, a slim dark stripe that jumps fifty or sixty centimetres clear. Closer to me a second fish leaps and along the far bank a cormorant skims low to the water. Fate, karma, if fish have karma.
I take my cue from the locals, we all use our umbrellas, but no raincoats. The umbrellas are virtually useless, as are the neat short wellies favoured by many. The level of humidity in the air soon soaks my clothes, but I sport my brolly with the crowd. From past experience I know that the local people are not beyond coming to express their concern or offering to share their umbrella, should I appear to be without.
I ponder the umbrella: a cheap metal pole with a clear plastic canopy available everywhere for little more than two pounds. The one item that gets abandoned on the spot when it breaks. The only item Japanese people will freely litter.
Rolling to the river I pass a homeless man temporarily living under a small footbridge. He has constructed a shelter of abandoned umbrellas; his territory given added privacy by tall tubs of Gertrude Jykell vincas.
I admired his conservatory of polygons, but having constructed it, he appeared embarrassed by its frivolous excess and returned all but one of the broken brollies to the recycling point.
For some people, homeless is a choice, a protest, a demonstration against the evils of capitalism.
Typhoons and tropical storms
The typhoon has passed, taking with it the chilly 25 degrees. Blue sky and cloud bring their own autumnal levels of cool. Today the sun shines and the morning starts at around 26C – plant life is in heaven. The brugmansia trumpets dangle through giant green leaves; are they really called the Devils Trumpets?
Like them I should get out in the sun and enjoy it. Tomorrow may rain, we do seem to be getting a lot even though the rainy season is over and the humidity levels are dropping. I just might be getting the hang of this…
My body seems to have accepted that we will periodically jump east for a month or so now and then. Unlike the twice yearly clock change – that rogue hour defies any acclimatization.
Sumida is green and glossy, waves rock languidly under her smooth surface. The qua-birds compete with a few seagulls for the favour of workers on a break with their lunch. One lucky bird gets a handful of popcorn crumbs.
There is always seating in Tokyo, it may be unconventional, but if you look you will most often find somewhere. Here the steps serve as tiered seating for a mix of white collar office workers and mums with young children.
The water level has gone down maybe 50 cms, and there are seagulls roosting silently as if they too are on a break. We contemplate the water.
Small dogs promenade with a mixed variety of owners; in spite of the strange practice of displaying puppies and kittens in tiny shop windows, people seem very fond of their pets.
The river walk has cute cartoons warning against noisey or dirty animals.
I enjoy sitting here writing my blog and as the day warms I bring my own umbrella into service as a parasol.
Wildflowers in Tokyo megacity
A cloudy sky with a breeze and a low temperature of 23C is still warm enough to enjoy. Humidity is at 90% and there is a 50% chance of rain, the concrete buildings still radiate masses of heat and the possibilities for recycling energy must be fascinating…
I’m pretty sure that when the windows and doors are closed this apartment is airtight, but there is no insulation and no overall plan for air-con ‘by design’ rather than 100% electricity.
My head has settled now that the low pressure has moved away. The local noises, this area being in the throws of an upgrade, include metal scaffolding erection and dismantling, steel frame construction, concrete deliveries, and various support vehicles as well as local traffic. And the loud speaker vans. There seems to be constant campaigning and things to vote for. Recently there have been demonstrations against government plans to change the constitution, ostensibly to allow Japanese soldiers to fight alongside the Americans. The people are suspicious, enough of them are against war of any kind that the protest is getting noticed.
The area upgrade will last several years and will be a mixed development in the traditional Tokyo style. If there are NIMBYs in Tokyo, I don’t see much evidence of overly delicate sensibilities. Anyway everything gets improved with plants. One building site I pass, already has a variety of convolvulus decorating a bit of scaffolding pipe.
There are so many pots and containers everywhere, with a variety of plants, but it’s hard to figure out where people get them from. There are quite a few buildings with jungles on balconies and roofs and all the new buildings have plants: trees, bamboo and varieties of grass are popular. The older buildings, beautified with crowded jumbles of containers, typically present aloes, spider plants, hydrangeas and maybe an azalea.
Garden Centre’s are way, way out in the sticks and off the beaten track. Although my favourite flower shops are wonderful and I adore the Japanese attention to detail, I do feel the need for something less manicured sometimes. Today I discovered a brilliant little shop specializing in Japanese wild flowers. I begin to toy with the idea of creating my own Tokyo garden.
Sunshine and flowers
Sunshine, cloud, occasional drops of rain that could just be hallucinations, the day is still pleasantly warm. My plan is to return to the wildflower shop and make small introductory purchases for the balcony. I’m looking for something indestructible like houseleeks.
And I have heard about the artistic ambitions of Loft, a curious chain of stores selling a particular lifestyle. A collaboration with artists and a 3D printer will allow Loft customers to print a mini version of themselves from a photograph.
I enjoy browsing Loft stores: this year I discovered the Scandinavian Toilet Sofa, a deeply padded toweling toilet seat. Your reaction, of course, may be quite different to mine…
Loft’s artistic ambitions extend to a variety of handmade items. Badges, crocheted crowns in primary colours, embroidered jewellery and some paintings that look a bit like they have been done with cheap school paint by 6 year olds. It all has a very western feel to it.
Health food and skincare are also part of the Loft portfolio and I leave with richly nourished hands, smelling exotic, Moroccan maybe. I see no trace of 3D printing.
The wildflower shop does not disappoint. Small unclipped, untrained, ‘uncorsetted’ specimens of Japanese wild flowers rub shoulders with a perfectly miniature, manicured realm of Japanese flora. Displayed in rough wooden trays, pots and elegant shallow dishes, spilling out from a simple wooden room to wrap around the two exposed sides of the corner building, they sing.
They sing to me about a similarity between Scandinavian and Japanese; a duality that embraces the primitive and the sophisticate without the superficial and prejudicial ambition that kills the mystery.
I leave with a new-to-me variety of houseleek, the only specimen she had. A tough plant, I’m thinking it will survive where more fragile plants have died and left a hopeful, new gardener feeling frustrated and inadequate.
My favourite Gallery…
And so I finally get around to the arts.
Leaving the apartment, I’m surprised to see the road outside closed, fenced off from traffic, with a gigantic crane taking up 50% of the road width and a good portion of its length.
Yesterday a crane had appeared and disappeared from the top of the unfinished building that in January was just a large hole in the ground. Metal grids and poles were hoist from a lorry to the top of the new 10-12 storey construction. I don’t know what today’s massive crane was for, I didn’t stop to find out. Traffic police escorted me alongside the monster and I headed for the station. The crane was gone on my return.
First stop: Designsight 21_21 at Midtown, Roppongi. The exhibition, Motion Science, features work by artists, designers and students and is a very hands-on experience of motion related effort and experience.
Rolling into a giant cave-like structure made of empty cardboard boxes I was surrounded by noise as each box reverberated with the sound of a small polystyrene ball bouncing against the inner side. Each had a tiny motor, with ball and string attached, working with rhythm to create variations in sound.
A small electric train, with a tiny, but powerful light array attached, rolled slowly through a landscape of quite ordinary things: a chess set, geometry instruments, a coffee pot, bobbins, lines of string, bulldog clips and balls, and the reflections, large on four walls, gave the impression of cities and industrial sites, of power stations and science fiction.
A full length ‘curtain’ of draped fabric, white and translucent, bent changing lines of white light into shapes that took on an ethereal life of their own as the fabric moved in a gentle breeze.
Rows of pale blue plastic bags inflated and deflated in various sequences that somehow gave the impression of a living being.
There was a vintage Mercedes car, a digitized ballet, heat/motion sensors, everything documented and explained in simple lay-mans terms; clarifying the past and introducing the future.
All simple things, but fascinating, and together with the other exhibits in Motion Science, inspirational. For me Designsight 21_21 never disappoints.
Unlike the Mori Art Museum (MAM), at Roppongi Hills, which has at times had exhibitions that felt life changing, where this time the exhibition really did fail to engage me. Dinh Q. Le’s ‘Memory For Tomorrow’ is better online than in reality.
Servicing the wheels:
Yes, rain! Intense rain. The rainy season really is supposed to be over, but typhoons are being whipped up like party meringues and thrown haphazardly in this direction.
And today my wheelchair gets serviced, so it’s a day for some alternative action.
Keeping an eye open for a lull in the rainfall, I proceed with some research and writing. I have some new projects that will benefit from ‘stewing’ a little before I settle in with Photoshop.
The lulls are almost non-existent, the engineer arrives, he was due to take the chair away, but instead services it on the spot.
I explain that the tyre valves are a bit worn out and he says I can get them replaced in any cycle shop. He lets the air out of the tyres to re-pump them and, very timely, the valves go. He no option but to replace them.
The weather does let up a bit, but by then it’s really too late to do much.
Tomorrow is not supposed to be quite as wet.
Out on the balcony for a break and, yes, fresh air, I become aware of the crane and the activity on a building a few blocks away. Scaffolding and plastic sheeting has been erected around the bottom and a crane is lifting materials onto each level. I can’t really make out what is happening but decide to take some photos and to be inspired to record local building and rebuilding of this ever evolving megacity.
I am always surprised by the number of people working where, in UK there would only be one. I find enlightenment in a newspaper. Seeing an article about an American who plans to educate Japanese businesses to look after their shareholders better financially, as befits global business communities, I read that the traditional Japanese attitude has been that jobs are for creating society and this has always had priority.
The weather seems utterly stuck in wet mode.
The high moisture content in the air means visibility is low and buildings disappear in the whiteout.
The typhoon that has just passed us by (17) was perhaps expected to leave a gentle lull in proceedings after depositing water all over the place, but typhoon 18 has powered in to dump an awful load more water over this part of Tokyo.
And while it was expected to roll north around midday leaving only a 60% chance of more rain, it seems to have settled in and that percentage has gone back up to 100.
Climate change sees an unusually high number of late typhoons. The threat of local flooding grows, as two and later three typhoons all travel close enough to cause special weather warnings.
I had intended to draw on the balcony, not as mad as it sounds as the day is warm, around 30 C, and there is not that much wind. Occasionally it does pick up and howls its way through the forest of skyscrapers, but mainly it’s gentle. We just have the rain.
With 60% humidity I could manage the drawing, but at 97 – 100% my fine detail technique with pen and ink is rather a waste…
Work is progressing on the nearby building, its a bit like watching a computer game with stuff traveling up and down the side of the building, facilitated by what seem to be (because of the distance) toy figures in hard-hats.
Weather alerts warn of flash floods and high water levels. The wind picks up, and locally people are advised to go home.
The joy of courteous ness
The weather has been unusually rainy. Two and more typhoons have had a very wet influence and now three simultaneous hurricanes in the pacific are adding to the precipitation.
I waited indoors while the worst of the downpour spent itself and the mini flash-floods had a chance to dissipate.
Then out into the warm moistness. I was aware of the air drying as blue sky slowly became visible through thinning cloud.
Having got very enthused by Japanese wild flowers, I thought I might investigate houseplants. I’ve discovered some more wonderful plant shops and it will be a pleasure to do the research.
I’m looking for something that thrives on neglect and is not too fussy about light levels. I do get rather carried away by kokedama, the Japanese hanging moss balls, and the delicate small plants trailing out of them. I try to make notes, collect names, in order to duplicate these things for my UK life, but it’s not what I was actually looking for today.
I wanted something in a pot.
Sansevieria struck me as ideal. I’ve kept them for years, under all sorts of conditions and know they are tough as old boots. I have three varieties myself and on spotting the most common variegated, sword-shaped leaf one, looked out for either of the others. The plain dark green pencil shape was there, but the mini version, my preferred option, was not and the shop assistants googled it. Uncommon said Google. I opted for the pencil leaves.
But the assistants found it hard to accept that I would settle for second best and we had long conversations before I made myself quite clear. The plant then had to be gift wrapped, then packed and finally tied securely to the back of my wheelchair with elaborate raffia weaves and knots. It took three smiling assistants to create a beautiful raffia cradle to support the pretty carrier bag and afterwards I am bowed out of the shop with many ‘thank-you’s and long farewells.
I rolled home feeling like a work of art.
The typhoon system that has been stuck over Japan seems finally to be moving on. While the morning was heavy downpour, the afternoon had dry spells and glimpses of sunshine.
My serviced chair had an outing at last!
Mindful how uncontrollable the skinny wheels can be in UK wet weather, I chose my route with care. Sometimes I think living in UK makes me over-anxious, by the time I was rolling back I’d come to the conclusion that my extreme caution was unnecessary here. The slithery road surface I’d expected never materialised. Perhaps the sheer volume of rain in Tokyo prevents it.
The skinny wheels sloshed merrily through the flooded gutters and neither road nor pavement produced that greasy slither that so unnerves me in UK.
I avoided the river, the slope down to the riverwalk being just steep enough for me to be cautious, but headed into Ginza. On the way I passed a filling station that today was not that busy, so I took a photo. There is no such thing as self-service here. Driving in cautiously from the road, customers are well looked after, then guided back into the flow of traffic, when the transaction has been completed, by garage attendants waving and shouting what sounds like ‘awligh, awligh, awligh’ continuously while the coast is clear. Silence and the driver stops immediately. Pedestrians have priority and drivers are very polite and generally careful.
Even here where the road surface might be expected to be a little slithery, I had no problems.
Tomorrow I shall be braver!
I still have a trip to make to Tokyo Hands, but this time I’m going to visit the one in Ginza. Its not as impressive as Shinjuku, but closer. And if I do get to Shinjuku there are other places I really would like to see!
Rolling on the river walk:
Sky! There is visible sky, of the blue variety. It has a few streaky clouds, but the great weight of water seems to have moved on. The Qua-birds are filling the soundscape – I hope it’s joy – land ahead!
My balcony garden looks a little windswept and forlorn.
When the urge grabbed me to take over the balcony and get a little creative with Japanese plants, I chose the hardy sort that would thrive on neglect and dry soil. Ok, so I know that no plants actually thrive on neglect – just like no artist makes good work by starving in a garret. Still, some plants are a lot tougher than others. Luckily everything has good drainage and there is currently no more rain forecast for the next week.
Sumida is brown, messy with floodwater and carries tree branches, wooden poles, various bits of wood and masses of straw. The walkway is littered with crabs, most dead in the heat; although it looks as though it has already been swept clean of the worst debris, the tiles and slabs that pave the walkway are still littered with soil and glittery black sand.
The living crabs and other small wriggly things head for the river. Pigeons stalk the territory. The water level is high, but already looks down a good 20 cms today. I’ve no idea how high it got yesterday…but there are dead crabs high on the slope leading up and away from the river.
In spite of all the debris, Sumida still has spirit; an aliveness that seems frequently missing from some of the other rivers I follow. Its really good to be out and about after all the rain.
The Qua-birds – big black Japanese corvids – patrol the pine trees at the top of the sloping sides of the lower riverwalk. There are attractive walks higher up too. To me the corvids all have area sounds – the ones in this part of Tokyo (Ginza area) shouting ‘Qua’, while the ones in Yoyogi koen shout ‘up, up’ and still others seem to warn ‘No, No’. I call them all Qua-birds.
Aftermath of the flood:
Revisiting Sumida today after the early morning earthquake, my first thought was how quickly she recovers. Already evidence of the typhoon flood is fading; the water is less brown, the straw has gone and nearly all of the wood.
On closer inspection I’m shocked by the number of bloated, dead bodies. Most of them are rats, but there are also some slightly larger animals.
The walkway is clear of crabs, though there are still dead earthworms and one live wriggley specimen, rescued to the nearby green grass.
The water level is more or less the same.
The early morning earthquake, under the sea not that far from Tokyo, certainly shook our part of the city. At 5.4 it was strong enough to rattle the whole building, which responded with an unusual twisty motion that was scarier than the normal sway. Aftershocks were mild and, well, normal.
There were large numbers of boats on the river; we saw unprecedented five-at-a-time passenger cruisers and a constant stream of personal speed boats. All loaded with sightseers. Also along the river walk were beautiful big dragonflies and orange and tan speckled butterflies.
The day itself was hot; the sun fierce and sharp from a clear blue sky.
The hot steamy weather brings out the large floppy handkerchief. It’s mainly the men, dabbing pulse points in the neck and temples, they go on to sweep the cloth over glistening foreheads like shifty characters in old movies.
Tokyo in the steam is full of languid, yawning citizens and this year the late steam is causing some sartorial confusion. The shops are sporting fur coats, oversize cashmere and massive chunky knits. The citizens know it’s time for hats and boots and a few do try. Some have gone back to wellies, but the rainy season is over (in theory) and there is no obviously seasonal rain gear available.
Fashion is on hold until this unsporting weather blip passes.
Fashion shopping may also be on hold. I was admiring the origami-like structure of an Issey Miyake garment in a shop window when an assistant came to tell me that I could go inside and look. Normally would-be customers have to acquire a ticket and, once inside, the queuing process for the privilege of paying for any chosen garment/s requires a paragraph of explanation.
Japanese people love an orderly queue. The unexpected lull in proceedings had apparently prompted my surprise invitation.
The temperature is rising around 30C and rain is puddling where it can. Tokyo is designed to cope, so flash floods are equally flashy disappearing acts. The wind is gathering too. Climate change produces the most dramatic weather divas to rattle any thoughts of true-to-form seasons.
A clear deep blue with diamond crests, Sumida pushes against the wind and tide. The raincloud has suddenly moved on; about a meter of barnacle is exposed to the strong midday sun as the water level drops and Sumida gives way to superior forces.
I sit on the walkway in a sheltered corner, with my umbrella as a parasol, surrounded by myrtle, box and African marigolds.
There are cute fluffy little clouds being chased inland and much higher, up curls and whorls of moisture making the same journey in slow motion.
I find sitting quietly writing alongside Sumida, in the muted roar of megacity Tokyo, very appealing.
I should perhaps not neglect to mention that I am also being creative in Japan. Ideas seem to flow more freely here in this apparent state of amnesty, far from menacing envelops and phone calls. Free from the daily pressure of legalism, nothing seems impossible. And the drawing of Tokyo is going well.
Excursions off the main streets into the side roads – those brilliant narrow spaces with no pavements, and masses greenery, with every available bit of soil, every conceivable container planted up – they yield great images for my collection.
Last year I focused on the often crumbling lowrise – small buildings that look no more than wood and corrugated shacks.
This year it’s the building of Tokyo. Preliminary photos look promising, sketches are a challenge I’m enjoying! It’s a long time since I attempted building site or construction drawings…
And Tokyo is not just about the highrise, yes a lot of small older buildings are disappearing, but new ones are being built. The juxtapositions are fascinating.
There is no shortage of material, Tokyo is permanently under construction. And living in an area that is being upgraded, it feels like it’s all there on a plate.
Fueling the creativity is of course the food. Freshwater, grilled Japanese eels, unagi, and sea urchin, uni, are some of my favorites. A selection of sashimi (thinly sliced raw fish) also goes down well. I do worry about radioactivity, but don’t really have any workable avoidance tactics. Fish are free agents.
Japanese fruit is also pretty special and at least you think you know where it grows…
I’m learning a lot about harmony and about living.
And more rain…
The rain continues. Yesterday we came home in a downpour, this morning woke up in a downpour and checking out the forecast, expect to be rained on for the rest of the week. Sometimes its fun to be safe and dry indoors while streams and puddles fill and refill outside.
And of course it’s not cold. Sleeveless summer dresses are still the order of the day.
I have some little bits of washing swinging on the balcony, there is no way they will dry in this high humidity, but the excess moisture will drop out.
Between the showers the sun shines, but not for long. My daily outing is confined to a trip around the block.
Finishing a street drawing and doing a little research seem good ways to spend the day. Yesterday’s visit to Odaiba, a reclaimed island in Tokyo Bay, didn’t have enough time in it to visit the Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, so checking out what I missed seemed a good way to slide it up the priority list for next time.
It’s a great destination for children too, as is the Legoland Discovery Centre, which opened on the island in 2012.
Odaiba, the island, also has a station called Odaiba and to add to the confusion, the station before (for Legoland) is called Daiba.
It’s also where you will find Tokyo Teleport station – just don’t expect too much!
I enjoy getting to Odaiba: the train ride curling up and around the Rainbow Bridge; winding through forests of skyscrapers, looking down on layers of more trains, roads, and pedestrian walkways and of course the water. The food might not be the very best, but it’s interesting (out here we seem to find what I call tourist-fusion cuisine – more aspirational than perfect); eaten out, overlooking Tokyo Bay, it still tastes good!
Yokohama, and specifically Chinatown, is always on my Japan schedule. I Metro from my local station and catch a train from Nakameguro, travelling two or three stops beyond the actual Yokohama station. From there is a short hop, skip and roll into the hustle and bustle.
It doesn’t change much, the same shops still line the streets, the same mix of local, Chinese and tourist mill about filming, eating and collecting souvenirs. There are probably more selfie-sticks this year.
My favourite restaurant is still closed; padlocked as if the owner has just taken a sabbatical. But there is no shortage of alternatives, and long, long queues to illustrate the most popular.
I notice a few more of what I call world hippie establishments; clattering with wind-chimes, cloaked in incense, and displaying a variety of course-woven cloth goods, carved wood and beadwork.
I also notice more older Americans looked dogged and determined with Norwegian rucksacks and U.S. university T-shirts.
The waterfront is a short distance away and here the locals walk their dogs – today could be white-dog-day, there are so many. It is also where the elderly come to sit. Japanese are generous with seating and still there are no empty places.
The chosen restaurant looks unimpressive on the outside, but upstairs in the little side rooms and alcoves it is beautiful, the service is good and the dim sum delicious.
The company is good too. My day feels blessed.
And while it is generally overcast, the day is warm and the sun does break through giving some golden moments and an excuse to enjoy the very attractive, large, frozen, fruity concoction sold as ice-cream.
Yoyogikouwen was the Sunday afternoon destination of choice for many and we joined them. The large park, part of a complex including a city forest and a temple, is where many ‘locals, halfs and gaijin’ come to enjoy space and being outdoors.
Loads of musicians practice there, as do actors, drama and dance groups, would-be boy-bands and lather-clad, Elvis-quiffed posers making videos of themselves.
It’s also where some people come to put the finishing touches to cosplay outfits. The adjacent street where the great display happens, is almost too crowded to move in.
There is a dog play area, so lots of dogs.
But there was also a ‘very seriously-dog’ cat on a lead and a tortoise stepping high and marching earnestly forward; it’s owner standing ready with a box of tissues to collect any tortoise poop.
There were a lot of children playing earnest games, or cycling purposefully around the track; cycling is popular in Tokyo, where car drivers are careful and courteous.
There were joggers, both earnest and bored, designer and recycled, and tired couples taking a break from carrying bags full of designer shopping.
There are fountains, flower-gardens and patches of rough grass as well as a lot of trees. The ground was littered with acorns from a variety of evergreen and deciduous Japanese oaks.
And Qua – birds (Japanese corvids) were everywhere and very noisy. I call them Qua-birds after the sound they repeat, but the ones in the park did sound more like they were urging ‘up, up’
Around the block:
Monday is my nod to housekeeping: personal stuff to keep me going, keep me in clean clothes and generally keep things ticking over. I take tea on the balcony and admire the little plants that look like they might just do well here.
Midday the sky is clear blue and the sun way too bitingly fierce to sit out in. The days are generally cooler, but still blissful. Nighttime temperature was down to 23C and I was cold sleeping with the doors open; cold enough to need a blanket in the small hours.
I take a roll around the block, checking out the local building development. Here is a hive of activity, building and rebuilding Tokyo.
I have watched the area to the right of this traditional building slowly become ripe for development. The wood and corrugated little homes have become empty and been demolished with surprising care. The wood is recycled.
The new high rise dwellings will command a view over Sumida and the existing riverbank defences are being reinforced/upgraded in tandem with improved ground drainage. Climate change means flooding is as much of a threat as earthquakes.
Developers are given financial incentives to address the problem of ground drainage and while the new buildings do have impressive credentials on paper, I’m not sure how the area as a whole will cope if Sumida overflows – it does look like there will massive gaps in the improved defences…
Rain, wind and typhoons have certainly impacted on my stay.
I’ve started making a list of things that will get left until next time. Feeling more at ease with this strange life, I almost feel that the parts of this divided lifestyle add up to more than I would expect of the whole.
And this feeling of ease is exciting.
This day was warm, with a breeze. There were clouds, but also patches of warm sun. It seemed like a good day to visit Hibiya Park.
I loved the sound of Hibiya the first time I heard it announced on the metro, but when I went to the station there I was disappointed by the clumsy platform-lift access. And the first time I attempted Hibiya Park the access there too was disappointing – a muddy path. Several visits have been thwarted by downpours.
I have persevered. I’m still not a fan of the station, but the park access has improved. I like it because has a Japanese patch of manicured nature (as well as the tennis courts and some municipal park planting).
On my way, the amount of building and rebuilding, upgrading and improving reminds me that this modern megacity always has one eye on the future. At Tsukiji, Hongan-ji, the Jodo ShinshuBuddhist temple has scaffolding and cranes interrupting its form and peace. Notices about comfort seem to be the equivalent of Health and Safety…
Luckily the sun was still shining when I got to Hibiya.
Sitting under a tree watching the heron watching fish, I heard a soft whistling. An elderly man on a bicycle was approaching. The heron looked up immediately and flew over to a flat rock on the other side of the pond, disturbing the basking turtles in the process.
The heron waited patiently while the man dismounted and positioned himself close to the edge of the pond near the heron. The man had a paper bag with some small food items he threw one at a time into the water. The heron waded to reach them. At the same time orange torpedoes began to swirl in the water. The giant carp were also getting involved. Overhead a small number of Qua- birds assembled.
When the heron began to loose interest, the man threw the rest of the contents of his paper bag onto the ground and cycled away.
The heron remained perfectly still in the water.
The corvids swooped on the food, flew into an overhanging tree, ate and the flew away. The heron remained still. The turtles approached for anything that had fallen from the tree and the massive carp began circling closer and closer to the immobile heron.
Suddenly a small fish kept into the air, the heron pounced, the carp arched out of the water; the hole scene was a miniature feeding frenzy, on a mini-frantic scale. And it looked like a scene of planned and intelligent cooperation.
Detour to Asakusa:
The small platform-lift that carries my chair up and down the two flights of steps to the train platform, broke as I was sitting in it. Luckily it had not actually started the journey down and I was able to roll off. Rolling to a station a couple of stops away I got to see some unfamiliar Tokyo and still managed to get to Asakusa.
Chuo – city within the megacity – is criss-crossed hourly by cement-mixer lorries; and cranes punctuate the horizon with regularity.
Asakusa is in the opposite direction to my more familiar destinations.
It is always very packed with tourists, but there is something charming about the place, and I enjoy my visits there.
There is a Sushi bar that I can access, they always try to find room for me and I look forward to visiting it. The counter is low and customers sit on real, moveable chairs. Each place-set has a tap with hot water to make green tea – matcha – the green powder, soy, ginger, mugs, chopsticks, everything you need. The food is made to order as well, so you can always eat the freshest ingredients.
Approach to the temple from the station is via long ‘lanes’ of tiny souvenir shops and booths; the favoured sushi bar is in a covered walkway at right angles to this. Here is more like a market where they also sell goods that attract local custom.
I checked-out the famous temple and of course the souvenir shops which generally contain a mix of gorgeous and awful.
In the time I have been visiting Japan, Asakusa shops have become more focused on the tourist market. Even the one stubborn supplier of traditional accessories to kimono and parts of traditional clothing, now also stock cute items for tourists and have small English explanation notices. I always go in and somehow manoever the chair around the very small, very crowded space, but I seem to be totally invisible to the owners/staff. Once I got stuck, unable to roll back or forward, but they studiously ignored me and another customer helped me out.
This time I accidentally nudged a small display box and it began to tip over. Fearful that it might fall, I stopped. A passing Japanese man saw what was happening and came into the shop to my assistance. No one in the shop acknowledged it.
It’s an odd feeling.
The rain is back. Typhoon 20 is making its presence known. Today I discovered that my mac and umbrella are not actually waterproof. But my Japanese wheelchair is.
Unlike its English counterpart which needs a plastic cover over the joystick and control panel whenever it rains, the Yamaha powered its way along, coping well with the flash flooding.
I got soaked to the skin, quite literally, but the chair was fine.
I took my favourite route along the river walk and from a distance Sumida had a placid, icy smoothness; I got a distinct and ominous impression, a sense of waiting. Up close she was a pointillist impression of a river carrying seagulls and ducks. This was the first time I’d observed ducks.
Following the path round a bend in the river, there is more wildlife; it doesn’t tend to make itself visible on this section of walkway.
Tokyo has been build to cope with a certain amount of water, but the changing climate is threatening to overwhelm the megacity. A lot of Tokyo is below sea level, and only one district has defenses that will cope with the volume of water that might get dumped on it in one of the guerrilla storms that are becoming more common.
I’ve previously made comment about the heat that gets generated and trapped by the vast amounts of concrete that compose modern Tokyo. This same heat is responsible for the storms, creating a catch 22 situation where the tall towers are also potential life savers during any flooding that ensues.
My favourite patches of lowrise, the wood and corrugated buildings, are under threat.
Thunderstorms are another phenomenon affected by the proliferation of concrete towers contributing to Tokyo climate change.
Where I lived in Denmark a thunderstorm could often get trapped in the bay and circle around for 12 and more hours. Here the ones I’ve experienced have mainly been brief; though today’s early morning lightening flashes and thunderclaps probably lasted around 3 hours. I get the feeling that it’s all heading one way – towards the extreme.
We also had a tsunami warning at 3 am. Not massive, but more water and due to impact along the coast between 5 and 8 am.
Tokyo is trialling an early warning system – aiming to give citizens a ten minute flood warning – not much but enough for many to claim refuge in a tall building, even if it’s not enough time to get home, (or home is not high enough).
Guerrilla storms don’t (currently) last long and people do duck into the nearest space for shelter. The gutters, deep v-shapes painful and hard to negotiate in a wheelchair, overflow with water, but so far the area I live in has coped. We are very near one of Tokyo’s many rivers, on land reclaimed during the Edo period (which ended in the late 1860s), and have already had our first alert, one step down from a possible evacuation warning.
Checking out Sumida’s water level later, I see it is lowish. The tide is coming in, yet she is still deceptively placid with that smooth glassy glow. The sun makes various attempts to penetrate the low cloud.
Everywhere is wet and there is that strong herby-green smell I associate with Turkey – where I was first acutely aware of it.
I pause to make some notes, by the clipped myrtle bushes heavily laden with sweet white flowers. Japanese joggers and power-walkers occasionally burst into loud song as their phone entertains their promenade; a Caucasian guy with bleached blond hair and orange highlights scuffs by in a sloppy cross between a race-walk and a jog, his hands hanging limply in front of him like broken marionettes. His eyes are closed and he’s obviously somewhere else.
The scuffing irritates me and the smell of myrtle is overwhelming so I move on.
Sunshine, temperatures rising to 29C with mostly clear blue sky and there is a cool breeze, but it’s not having much effect.
The idea of leaving hovers, attempts to loom ominously, but I keep it under control. Mostly.
Vague panic sweeps over my initial waking, encroaches on quiet moments, as I suppress the facts.
I do my best to ignore the proliferation of airport friendly buses that are suddenly prominent. I aim to manage the weekend without reference to next week’s unavoidable departure.
We head out to the coast, to Toyo Sealife Centre, not that we aim to view the Sealife (a lot of which has, I understand, been lost and no one is clear about why); no we just want to see the sea, experience some wide green spaces and have fun.
We make it to the top floor of the big glass observation box which looks out over sea, the giant wheel, Tokyo Disney, and trees with Skytree in the background. We explore a little and discover a man who has brought his two cats with him. They are free to roam, but stay very close to him, looking incredibly chilled out – even for cats.
It actually proves too fierce in the sun and we decide to head further out to Lalaport for lunch.
We have the Himalyan Curry which is one of the stranger meals I have eaten. Coconut nan bread, which, on this occasion, was so stuffed with sweet desiccated coconut that it all kept spilling out, was eaten with a bowl of mild curry soup with four prawns in it (one more than last time!)
It did taste like a curried pudding and I really don’t understand how I enjoyed it. Generally browsing while being entertained by groups of Hawaian dancers, completed our Lalaport experience and suddenly it seemed time to go home.
At the station I attempted to refuse getting on the train, but was persuaded to allow myself to get pushed into an already crowded carriage. This was my very first experience of a Japanese crowded train. It was not good.
I sat with my arms around my head for protection from bags and backpacks and narrowly avoided being sat on, squashed and generally bashed.
The train rocked violently several times when changing tracks and the announcement, warning standing people to beware and hold on to something, tended to come after the event.
We were so many that holding on was impossible anyway.
It was so good to get home.
Picnic by the beach, delicious sushi, sunshine, sea stretching calm and blue into the distance and a little UV protection tent; what more could I ask for?
A beautiful day, with everybody warm, relaxed and happy, there really was nothing else to wish for and we all enjoyed it to the full. And it will be a wonderful memory to treasure back in the cold, damp of English gloom.
The return looms. But then my journey back here is already being planned. Christmas and New Year will be celebrated in Tokyo again this year.
This weekend is part of silver week – the second best string of linked public holiday days – and there is a gaming festival in the area. I was not aware of it until the train ride home yesterday, but today we plan our travel not to coincide with its opening and closing. We share train carriages with cosplay characters making a late start and we come home just before the festival finishes.
I often read comments about the apparent lack of visibly disabled people in Japanese public spaces. I can’t say that it’s true of the areas I inhabit. During this festival I shared train carriages with at least two and three other wheelborne people each journey.
I probably saw at least 10 or 12 visibly disabled people on each of the 2 days; more than I would see in UK unless it was an occasion specifically targeting disabled people.
Personally I really hated the crowded train, my first experience of it in many months of exploring Tokyo (and a few other Japanese destinations), but other disabled travellers were taking it in their ‘stride’ – probably not an appropriate term for wheelborne travellers. With foreknowledge and a little planning it was easy to avoid a repeat.
Temporary farewell to Ginza
The last whole day of this session dawns clear with a lot of announcements by the qua-birds. And by clear, I mean without the dense low cloud covering that accompanies visiting typhoons and other storm fronts.
Clear up to ‘normal’ levels of sky! Up there, there is a golden glow and some thin streaky layers of cloud under the blue. A good sign.
Ginza will be the day’s destination. I have some last minute shopping to take care of!
This includes some powdered Japanese tea, to keep me going on my UK holiday – I have decided that life consists of a Japanese holiday and a UK holiday. It helps to have a positive mental attitude.
The roll into Ginza is always interesting there are so many different ways to get there. I pass places I’ve not managed to revisit this time, including the very green building with lots of interesting planting in high-rise gardens – where they sell Danish cakes that (like the English versions) have a local influence. But these are good! Next time…
We have spicy Korean food for lunch, including a portion of Kimchi (and I have Natto for my evening meal – how much healthier can you get?)
We walk back with a detour through Marunouchi. It being silver week everything is rather crowded, but I still enjoy the atmosphere.
D-day. Departure day.
Aside from the emotional upheaval of leaving there is also the airport-farce ritual to endure.
As usual the rules have upended yet again. The horrifically dangerous notion of putting a wheelchair battery in my suitcase is now a perfectly acceptable, indeed the recommended option. I am lectured about the security risk. A lecture that contradicts safety advice on the website as well as the lecture I got on the outward journey (about the dangers of dry-cell wheelchair batteries in a suitcase).
I don’t believe it, but I seem to have no choice.
On all previous trips my batteries have travelled with me on-board. This airline is horrified by the risk (what risk?).
The chair is measured yet again, at the London end they used inches, so the chair needs to be re-measured in centimetres. And again, the waiting, the repetitions, the casting of doubt; the building anxiety.
All this in the mad-frantic-ignorance that aims to win the fight over terrorism.
I would prefer to get angry, but my emotions let me down.
My airport assistance guy has a tearful wreck to steer through customs and security. He does well. Haneda feels like a small provincial airport, it has one little duty free shop and in a mad attempt to alter my negative mind-set, I decide on some retail therapy. Nuts.
The waiting area is peaceful and he settles me with my luggage in one of the priority seats. I’m rather early, everything went so smoothly on the train journey here, so there will be a long wait. He promises to return later to guard my luggage while I visit the rest room.
So here I sit writing my blog, watching the other passengers and the aircraft taxiing outside the glass walls of the departure lounge. Waiting for the clock to click the seconds away.
An attempt was made to get me to transfer to an airport chair. I resisted. My support cushions are designed not just to support me, but to function in my chair. I have explained this more than once.
When it was time to board I wheeled to within a couple of meters of the aircraft door before, astonishingly, a further attempt was made to get me to transfer for the final metre. I declined, forcefully insisting that I would only make the one transfer to the aisle chair. I was told that the wheels could be taken off – as if somehow that would be beneficial. I felt like Alice in Wonderland. What on earth would be beneficial about a wheel-less wheelchair?
I had to repeat over and over that I needed to sit on my support cushions before they were taken from my chair to my aircraft seat while I was wheeled into place in the aisle-chair.
On sitting I explained that my carry-on bag was in leu of a footstool (the support cushions left my feet dangling). I was told not to fasten my seat belt until this had been ok’d with the captain. Dear god this was getting beyond Wonderland – I wasn’t asking to have it in place during take-off or landing, so what was their problem?
Having permission to use my bag as a footstool, I settled in.
The meal, the same rice, fish and sea-weed as the outward journey was served – this time cold and unappetizing. I was asked to choose from a menu of cake and jelly for my next meal. I declined. As a vegetarian I don’t eat jelly unless it comes guaranteed meat-free. The cabin crew member appeared to think my query about the probability of the gelatine being made with pig-skin was not worth answering.
I was then told to go to the lavatory as they would be dimming the lights and taking away my crutches.
I totally lost it. I swore and shouted and generally had a tantrum. The captain was consulted, resulting in an apology.
Luckily the plane was almost empty. The smattering of business suits remained stoically unaware. I was allowed to keep my crutches. And use the facilities when it suited me.
Someone rustled up a small salad and three tiny pieces of fruit for the second meal, which was better than cake and jelly.
I rather got the impression that the aircrew had become scared of me. It helped. I stopped feeling weepy and got angry.