August 25: Tokyo first class
You’d think I’d be used to it by now, but times change and flying gets more stressful as the world grows steadily more bizarre. Checking in with my wheelchair became a strange Groundhog-type scenario. Three times at different points I was required to give the same information about my chair, far more detailed info than in previous years, and even then I was stopped before actually boarding, and required to give wheelchair details that had somehow been missed.
Checking in I was given a ‘better’ seat, but special assistance then appeared to forget about me in the designated waiting area. Consequently I was the last passenger to board; usually wheelborne people get loaded-up first. I was getting seriously anxious. The flight was being delayed.
The better seat had an airbag in the seat-belt which would consequently not fit around me plus my support cushions. I was quite stressed by then. Mike, the inboard manager, took an instant decision to move me to first class. I travelled in my own little cubicle.
I take warm clothes and a hot water bottle when I fly, usually I’m freezing. On this plane I was comfortably warm – good preparation for Tokyo where the forecast was for thirty degrees of warmth the morning I arrived.
Cabin crew are always very helpful, but first class crew really do go the extra mile. Mike came and apologised for the seating ‘malfunction’ and assured me that no-one had taken the real thickness of my cushions into account, it was certainly not because I was too large. Sitting very comfortably in first class with real, edible food, I didn’t really think the apology was necessary.
We are two hundred and eighty odd souls on board,
just living our lives in the sky for twelve hours.
Not thinking about disappearing or being
blown apart we are taking a northerly route
to Japan. I’m warm and comfortable and I
have slept. I have an aisle-seatbed with view, I’ve
eaten barbecued tiger prawns and blueberry
hotcakes. I have reason to ponder privilege.
And more reasons to think about equality.
August 26: Greeting Tokyo
A smooth landing and fast, easy entry into the land of the rising sun, sees me speeding in a Skyliner train into Tokyo from Narita airport. The journey is familiar.
Japan’s created geography can change as speedily as that traumatised by the natural phenomena that occur in this part of the world, yet certain things remain. The perfect rectangles of cultivated land, and the jungle effects of foresting trees dwarfed by bamboo – all tangled together with rampant vines, these things repeat between pockets of densely built-up areas that grow ever larger and closer together as we near the giant sprawl of Tokyo.
Scattered like dice across a gaming table, the equality of chance appears to dictate the position of these dwellings clinging to the surface of frequently inhospitable landscapes.
And I return to thinking about equality, something that might seem so clearly definable to Western thinking; I return to thoughts about its quality, it’s values and it’s visible, knowable face.
I’m wondering how loud a NIMBY could afford to shout, here where this equality seems so much less of an issue; where other values dominate and confuse western sensibilities.
I arrive with all the bias of a pro-Japanese visitor, the one with the little body of experience and the growing gaijin knowledge. I arrive with a mixture of trepidation and comfortable relief.
Brown girl in the wind; I run
on fast wheels to see Sumida
and never has she looked so
brown, a rich russet, rusty
river, chop-dancing in a
cooling breeze, glinting in the
eyes of gulls. Glass castles of
the eager children of men
reflect on her brownness
as their shadows bounce in her
lap. Sumida hurries land
to the sea. Torrential rain,
sliding everyday lives from
their roots, gathering smallest
details, histories and hopes
with a wild energy that
does not last, leaves only the
brown earth to river’s embrace
and Sumida flees, eager
to be free of the burden.
Brown river washing the land;
brown girl in the wind.
August 27: seeing diversity
Approaching the Tokyo apartment, I’d made a joke about the familiar British look of the very patched up road outside. Next morning it was gone – the road that is. There was merely a river of rubble.
The workmen looked very concerned when they saw me looking to exit the main entrance of the building for a day out, but we assured them I could leave the other way – through the bicycle storage area. It has one steep step which, with help, is just possible to negotiate.
In the early evening when we returned, one side of the road was re-surfaced, the other was almost finished; there was just one last metre to finish off. I was suitably impressed.
The day out was to Lalaport to check out some new eateries for a small celebration meal.
Judging by the promotional posters, Japanese Metro is already gearing up for the 2020 Olympics. Our local station has a poster of a red-robed Santa wearing Japanese Geta (a sort of blend of flip-flop and clog), carrying a fan and asking: ‘Where are the fireworks?’ under the slogan ‘Here to serve everybody.’
In Lalaport we ended up in the Italian restaurant with a very Japanese version of Italian food. These eateries are part of a small development of 24 new shops; every year there are new buildings with new versions of the shopping experience. I noticed a large sign, in English, proudly proclaiming that the Indian restaurant uses Japanese curry rice.
Some of the restaurants had queues outside. The Italian one had a long queue of mostly young Japanese people of clearly diverse ethnic origins.
There were a lot of wheelchairs there. Some of them occupied by elderly or disabled people. Some were neatly folded and parked. The parked chairs, unlike the many bicycles, were not padlocked, but I noticed that some had bright attractive colours and I had a flash of chair envy.
Suddenly Japan is peopled by many races;
my inner eye opens to details I never
observed before; the small, swathed ladies who scurry
under summer parasols are culturally,
racially different to the frilly manga doll
whose mobile phone is almost not – the bulk of charms
the size of a small cat swinging. And the guys in
shorts and foot-form sandals; I notice the textures
of hair, shades of skin, shapes of faces and angles
of eyes. I realise I have seen them all before
in ukiyo-e, the woodblock prints, without quite
appreciating the subtleties of this form
of communication; seduced by the myth of
us and gaijin. But in truth, the Japanese are
August 28: Tsukiji, kabuki and giraffes
It’s the biting season, hot and humid with the electric fizz of cicadas interfering with my tinnitus. I make a second foray to the river – passing a gigantic hole in the ground where a new building will shortly enhance the space. The earth is a rich dark brown, almost black in places; the river itself is less red-brown, more grey today.
I decide to roll on into Tsukiji, the Tokyo fish market, and maybe further to reacquaint myself with the new Kabuki theatre and Wako – surely the most boring department store in the land, yet boasting some of the most creative shop windows.
I pass another wheelborne person on the way. I also get addressed by several Japanese men who separately enquire how I am and if I need assistance. Maybe I look lost; actually I’m feeling right at home on this familiar route.
Subtle changes in the area around the Tsukiji fish market remind me that the inner market is set to move; the Olympics being the catalyst that will set this much debated happening in motion. I notice that the area is going slowly up-market – in keeping with its surroundings: designer shops and the theatre.
The new Kabuki-za has settled in well; it is very similar to the old one, a designated Tangible Cultural Property, which it replaced last year. Replaced because the old theatre was worn out (possibly unsafe in an earthquake) and did not offer barrier-free access. I can find no translated information about the performance, but judging from the posters this is a much darker piece than the one I saw last year.
I roll on into Ginza and the Wako window. It is ‘peopled’ by very large black and gold giraffes; their hoofed legs are black at the bottom and stand out in the gold space. Their bodies are out of sight, but their gold decorated necks dip down into the window space so that their heads are also visible.
It’s hard to tell, but they may be made of card or paper…
It starts to rain and I begin my return journey. At the next road crossing a Japanese man holds his umbrella over me and attempts a conversation. I insist I am ok in the rain, but he persists. Happily he is ready to say goodbye just before we get to the river and it is then I discover my camera is missing. I had it in my lap after photographing the giraffes, it will have slid off and I was a little too stressed to notice.
The quirky little inaccessible mysteries
are disappearing. Steps up, steps down, levelled out
in favour of smooth, modern marble; and beaded curtains
gone for sliding doors. Tiny spaces suddenly wider.
Tsukiji begins to mirror Ginza, and the prices
surely follow. The accessible environment has
glass and marble homogeneity, succumbs to
market values, commercial viability. The
magic of early morning sushi will be just beyond
reach when Tsukiji market moves to clean marble halls
out on an island with no history. The atmosphere
of life changes to make way for new people, for new
ways to be Japanese. For new ways to be tourist.
August 29: Identity crisis?
Waiting for the guys to come and service my wheelchair, I watched the tail-end of a TV programme that had a sweet sounding Japanese female cooing about the laying and hatching of insect eggs and the emergence of new life. It was followed by a male voice talking the science of stars in the night sky.
A young female appeared on screen with a sketch pad, followed by a mature male who explained the sky to her and allowed her to look through his giant telescope while she marvelled and cooed in surprise and delight.
This short segment was followed by an adorable young female in an apron and spectacles being educated, by a grandfatherly figure, about pollination and the growing, ripening and harvesting of food.
The important thing here I was told, was that the voice of the older generation should be heard.
The TV screen rocks ominously while I wait.
My wheelchair has been making a clicking noise when the wheel turns. The engineer assures me this is caused by the age of the seat (I’ve had this chair for two years) and I find myself nodding gratefully in spite of logic, thanking him in a softer, higher pitch of voice to the one I would normally use, and generally acting like ‘normal’ person.
Who am I?
I give the chair a trial run; I click slowly until I build up speed and click faster. No one seems to notice, even the birds don’t seem to care. There are a lot of birds in Tokyo. Busy flocks of sparrows, corvids, gulls and pigeons abound on the streets while in the green spaces more exotic birds thrive. It took my local birds a while to realise how unthreatening wheelborne people can be; these birds already seem to know.
I roll back wondering just how long I can cope with the clicking. I consider bringing back the engineer, but decide to wait. He is moving to a different area and I have already been introduced to the man who will service my chair next year. He speaks a little English. It seems as if everyone close enough to Ginza (where the Olympic village will be situated), is happy to be practicing their English already.
Who do I think I am
if my ancestors are
so quietly, culturally
invisible – as normal
as possible? Who do I
think I am if being
unnoticed is who I was?
Is being normal more
important than being
me? Who do I think I am
when there is only
Very Important Person
and nobody. Who do
I think I am when times change
and half the world is busy
working on their fifteen
minutes of fame? And it’s
entirely possible that
in fifteen minutes
everybody will be
famous. Who do I think
I am when men and women
are happy to co-exist
on different planets?
August 30: Conversing in English
Making the best sense I can of the little bits of Tokyo I am becoming familiar with is a gradual thing. Nothing is static, nothing is set in stone. And the Japanese strangers who converse with me may have their own agenda. More Japanese than ever are making the attempt. Notices and instructions in English are increasing, I put this all down to preparations for the Olympics – it’s a prestige thing.
A conversation about culture leads into talking fairy tales. How do children get introduced to the culture that will shape their lives? The Japanese birth rate is falling, the government are doing their best to reverse the trend, but it seems to me that the commercial world is working harder. Babies are being promoted as utterly adorable and their electronic, brightly coloured plastic toys are awash with sugary-sweet jingles.
Japanese children’s stories, so I’m told, are cute and uplifting, these days there is nothing like little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel. Japanese childhood is cute, creative and full of positive reinforcement – right up to the moment when an institution steps in and regimentation takes over.
There is tremendous institutional pressure not be be different. Historically not standing out, not being or doing different, meant being invisible and being invisible was safe – possibly. Belief in the power of normal invisible has cultural and superstitious weight behind it.
Once they are finished with school, a very high percentage of young people are rebelling; refusing to step on the treadmill of tradition, choosing not to marry or have children and refusing to be invisible.
Visible appears to replace equal – it being so much more desirable than equality. The fight is for the right to diversity.
I’m reminded of Vincent Van Gogh: ‘Normality is a paved road, easy to walk, but no flowers grow on it.’
Today flowers on the path will not be beheaded by samurai swords, but by diminishing public disapproval.
There appear to be more exotic young people than ever, peopling even the most reserved and conservative areas – exotic in new and exciting, but still very identifiably Japanese ways.
I’ve been here only a short while,
yet already I hear people
bemoan the harshness of the work
ethic; the undesirable
fifty and sixty hour weeks;
the faceless monotony of
existence. Accepting this as
a personal burden, the choice
to be responsible, but not
expecting the new generation
to make the same sacrifices;
lacking the energy to mould,
or to batter the youth into
submission. Who would want the right
to that kind of equality? Who
would not choose a different path?
The fight, the silent opting out
protest of youth, is for the right
to be different, to be
individual. There is no
great appetite for community
or family when the cost is
identity. Equality just
confuses the issue.
August 31: Toranomon – Tiger’s Gate
Today’s outing to Roppongi is to see a display of 60 variations on what looks to me like a cartoon cat; a blue blob with whiskers who can go anywhere through a magic door. I’m optimistically reminded of the 100 or so artist decorated figures I discovered in the skyscraper Marunouchi Building on a previous visit.
When we get there, the Roppongi Hills figures have gone, but there is a lot of promotional material for a Gaudi exhibition at the Mori Gallery – an outing for next week.
A snap decision sees us returning to the metro to go back one stop. The man-with-the-ramp has fun here (only once have I been assisted by a woman-with-a-ramp, it is usually a man), because we are only travelling one stop he gets to come with me. At Kamiyacho station there is also a man-with-a-ramp waiting for me; after some initial animosity, my ramp man breaks the ice, gives way and the two of them exchange bows.
There is a brand new shopping centre here, another Mori building; more glass, marble and steel and some artwork. Universe 29 is a black and silver piece in stainless steel by Zhan Wang; Untying Space, flowing rivers of black on white glass walls by Sun K Kwak, interprets the flow of people coming in and out of this building with its 30 floors of offices, apartments and a hotel.
At the six entrances to the office floors another set of site specific works by Toru Kamiya consist of acrylic sheets each painted in a graduating colour relating to gemstones that reflect the jewel colours found locally.
As yet the space is strangely devoid of shops, but awash with places to eat. There is a flower shop (I have a weakness for Japanese flower shops), and a bookshop. Many Japanese people read books on the metro – books in anonymous covers; the fashion for phone games seems to be waining.
The 52 story complex building is more like a complex of buildings. There is a beautiful open air garden on the second level, some orange coloured ‘mountains’ for small children to play on, and a half-level higher there is a romantic moon balcony garden.
Moon and space themes seem to be fashionable right now.
And to celebrate the opening, this new building boasts two of the cartoon blobs: Doraemon and his new business-cat relative, Toranomon (a similar shape, but white with ears; the new building’s mascot uses a time machine rather than a magic door). Toranomon, also the name of the building, means Tiger’s Gate and was the name of the southernmost gate of Edo Castle.
I’m less than impressed with Doraemon, having seen him in the plastic, but he’s very popular in Japan.
I’m even less impressed by the brand new platform lift that requires the user to call for assistance and then takes forever to travel down a very short flight of steps. But it does look good.
Independent access requires going outside, but only a very short distance.
The ‘go anywhere door’ is where to hide
from life. The ‘go anywhere door’ is for
a peter-pan style cartoon escape, for
manga and anime, for ninja and
cosplay and even for cute little maids
without cafés; the ‘go anywhere door’
is the door to the centre of your own
personal universe; somewhere safe from
the undesirable past, but also
a pause from the unappealing future.
‘Go anywhere door’ is the illusion
of going nowhere, but leaving its mark
on gene-culture-coevolution. One
person can alone, inhabit the world.
September 1: Robots, reality and fantasy architecture.
Every year the Aoyama Gakuin University (AGU) holds an open 2 day event for young people – starting from three to seven year olds and introducing them to creative fun, games and technology. It’s maybe the second best such event in Japan so I’m off to check it out.
At the station it’s easy to figure out which way to go, there is a steady stream of children and young people heading down the road; I follow.
AGU was founded by American Methodists in 1949 and there is a statue of John Wesley at the main entrance opposite the United Nations University in Shibuya.
It’s not immediately clear where the level access is, but a steward leads me to a way in without steps. There is an elevator and loads of small children with parents or carers and quite a few young teens too. There are lots of young people stewarding the event.
In the first room there is a colourful, giant model rocket created by a 3D doodle pen; there are tiny shapes too, in display cases and a quiet table where slightly older children are making their own 3D models; it might be the only quiet area in the place.
There are so many things to explore: robots to programme, computers to build, iPads to get creative with, quirky little games to build and play.
I was offered lots of literature, all in Japanese and on explaining that I don’t read the language was smiled at sweetly and told,’but you can like us on Facebook’
There are hundreds of happy, well behaved children. The university canteen is open for lunches and I share a table with a bright and confident, wheelborne little girl.
AGU is very close to Omotesando and after lunch I roll around and explore. There are some very creative pieces of architecture in Omotesando: ‘there is hardly a world famous architect who hasn’t built something here’ to quote pingmag.jp. The Japanese Nursing Association (Kisho Kurokawa Architects) and Hugo Boss (Japanese architect Norihiko Dan) buildings pause me in my tracks. Omotesando Hills, designed by Tadeo Ando is creative blend of new recycled, rebuilt and impressive structures.
And at tea time there is a new cupcake shop to check out. On the way I pass two of the famous, very slow moving, Japanese queues; the first, snaking down the street, is for access to a tiny shop (up two short flights of steps), selling popcorn; the second is for the current it-food, Hawaiian-style hamburgers.
There are a lot of posters for the Tokyo Vogue Big Night Out – here on September 6th, as if anyone needed more encouragement for shopping.
I keep an eye open for the little modern atmospheric cafe where I previously enjoyed twig tea, but it has gone. In its place a pub-style bar selling Guinness has expanded into the space next door.
Is it just my state of mind, or is
architecture being influenced
by a cartoonish style of thinking?
Becoming a parody of its
former self, when not stamped out by rote.
In the race to be noticed, famous
for fifteen, is it really fit for
purpose? Or just too far from truth?
Doodle pen designs for big boys toys;
a threeD version of virtual
becomes a collection of wardrobes;
virtual doors to a parallel
treadmill where shopping becomes as much
of an obligation as work for
the conscientious citizen.
Or am I merely projecting my
own escape from the reality
into the accessible and non
judgemental haven that is my own
personal view of Tokyo.
September 2: Wordplay, Lovers and bridal Pomeranians.
Prompted by Doraemon, the cartoon figure, and memories of a previous exhibition, I revisit Marunouchi and discover in Marunouchi Building a one day event which confuses me somewhat. It’s a fashion show (the only event information in English, but this description might mean anything) sponsored by Eye Coffret Cafe, which seems to be a contact lens retailer. The lenses are described as ‘base make’, possibly a link to make-up and foundation, because they have a natural brown iris edge around the rim of the lens. Make-up for eyeballs.
The fashion show is unremarkable.
Marunouchi Building is close to Brick Square, a courtyard garden area with seating and changing pieces of sculpture. It’s one of my favourite spots in Tokyo. There are high rise buildings on two sides, low old fashioned ones on the other two. The high rise has garden-greened walls and the place is wonderfully peaceful, with little paths through the garden, a bubble fountain and lots of seating. This time there is a gold coloured Bernard Meadows modernist sculpture looking vaguely anatomical, called Lovers and a Tomihisa Handa piece in pink granite that looks just a little like an oversize chair seat planted on edge in the greenery.
Brick Square also hosts my favourite shop, called Pass the Baton, it sells recycled goods – from ancient toys to vintage clothes and household items, plus exquisite plants; tiny bonsai, baby plants in creative small containers, and small trees.
Marunouchi’s wide tree lined avenues host outdoor sculpture too, but this year’s offering looks to me rather like badly drawn fantasy images of people cut out of corrugated cardboard, with maybe a nod to Picasso. Tokyo has something for everyone.
I cannot tell where Marunouchi becomes Ginza, but late lunch was sushi in Ginza; a beautiful leaf shaped plate in autumn colours with a selection of fresh raw fish – the usual suspects plus sea urchin, crab and cooked eel. The wasabi was fresh and hot and the picked ginger quite fiery; good sushi.
Complimentary dessert was a green tea blancmange with a red bean topping and a tiny star of fresh whipped cream.
At the weekends the main through-roads in Ginza become pedestrian and the atmosphere changes completely. There is a noticeable increase in the number of small dogs being perambulated – I use the word deliberately because many of them do have their own prams.
Often coordinated with the owner’s accessories, but sometimes just over-the-top outrageous, these prams do also get used as shopping trollies and are a lot easier to cope with on a busy street than the sort dragging behind their English owners.
This weekend I saw a ‘bridal’ dog pram; white with white lace and copious frills and finished off with bouquets of white silk flowers, the pram was accompanied by a similarly accessorised Pomeranian dog and a nondescript owner.
Eye Coffret Cafe, not somewhere
for refreshment, just a place to
enhance your irises. Fascination
with foreign words stops at the sound,
but much as I roll the words round
in my mouth, the attraction eludes
me who likes to have fun with words.
Deuxieme classe, rope picnic,
names that do not conjure images
of quality clothes, if you know
what I mean. And chilli salad
beauty salon, much as I try
does not speak to me of fiery
beauty; proving that I cannot
think a Japanese thought and am
loaded with my own word burdens
links and trains of associations,
but just when I think this is all
a joke, I stumble upon some
truly witty wordplay that leaves
a smile on my face, a sense of
connection like a shared secret.
September 3: Tokyo Hands and many wheelborne
Tokyo Hands is today’s main attraction. The best one I know is in Shinjuku, home of Tokyo’s metropolitan government and boasting the busiest station in the world. We need to change train lines to get there and decide to do that at Tokyo station.
Last time I was there, access from one line to another at Tokyo station was through a non-public series of underground warrens. Things have improved, but it’s quite some distance and there was still a short non-public area to be escorted through; on the way I noticed some leaking roof – earthquake damage.
The Shinjuku Tokyo Hands – the famous lifestyle store, shares a building with a department store which has a massive floor full of fabrics, yarns, buttons and other fascinating haberdashery. We estimate my hours spent in this store combo has revealed only about one tenth of its delights so far.
The building sits in Times Square – across the road from the station. There are many people milling about as we cross the large open spaces and bridge into the building which we enter on the second floor.
And I loose count of the number of wheelborne people I meet during this day.
One thing I did notice, getting off the train, my ramp man was my ramp man and nothing would distract him. A woman was waiting to get on and her ramp man was not in position, but she was not allowed to use my ramp which was whisked away and locked in its cupboard (the ramps are neat, lightweight and foldable). Rules are rules and station staff, mindful of safety, usually stick rigidly to them; this includes set procedures with accompanying hand gestures.
Impatient, she did a wheelie onto the train.
This particular Tokyo Hands is 8 floors of everything. I guess it’s possible to acquire most of the stuff online, but I get great delight in seeing, touching and weighing my choices. And also inspiration for projects from fabulous stumble-upon items; today’s quest is for hardware and haberdashery.
Lunch, on the 12th floor of the building, offers a choice between Japanese or foreign. Our first choice has a long and patient queue sitting outside. We opt for second choice Tai. The large restaurant has indoor seating, part-covered balcony seating and a wide open viewing balcony for a stroll and view over this part of Tokyo with it’s many skyscrapers. On a good day you can see Fuji-San from Tokyo, but the weather has been overcast, hot and humid since I arrived. We eat outside, I choose mixed seafood (which includes crab and cuttlefish) with rice and Tai curry sauce, prawn fritters with salad and mango lassi. Japanese Tai food is differently aromatic, fruity and delicious.
When I am finally dragged out of the store with a bagful of treasures we take the train back to Tokyo station, but decide to walk home from there instead of taking the metro, because the wheelchair route in and through the station complex takes almost as long as walking home; add in the extra time it takes ramp man to get me onto the train plus the actual journey time and we gain ten whole minutes, plus greenery and fresh air.
What, I wonder does this tell me about
a Tokyo view of life? Where I have
difficulty finding fabric, here there
are miles of it. When I need hardware with
character I struggle to find recycled
access, here there is Tokyo Hands. Back
home there is online or the nightmare of
London travel. For all it’s size and the
density of people, Tokyo seems
a more relaxed, people place; where life is
nudging office spaces in creative
intrusion. People see just what they are
ready to see. I am ready to see
somewhere accessible and creative;
find life here a paradox of patterns
and rules alongside freedoms and choices,
crowded and empty, noisy and peaceful,
and always somewhere to sit, the welcome
of somewhere to eat, food of inspiration.
September 4: Rain, more rain, but not a washout.
Today we have a weather warning for heavy rain, flooding and thunder. The day is cold at 24 degrees and I haul out warmer clothes.
An attempt to roll outdoors is abandoned when the slick surface and rivers of water make rolling hazardous. The umbrella seeps rain, my raincoat seeps rain, I arrive back in need of comfort food and drink. I get both in a bowl. A strangely nutty brown thick Chinese treat, thicker than drink, thinner than cake, hot and eaten with a spoon.
Outside it rains, inside I ponder the green and colourful backstreets of Tokyo. The variegated liriope are blossoming purple and all sorts of small plants are joining in the colour chorus. Greenery that was looking tired and brown is perking up or flattening to the ground. The excavations for new buildings are a quagmire of brown squelch.
The little tin shacks that are part of the demolition, gape empty of contents, flapping tarpaulins into the rain.
Dotted between new high rises there are these occasional wood and tin constructions. They look dark and abandoned except for the riot of well tended greenery in a variety of decaying plastic containers outside. I have wondered if they were lock-ups or even tiny businesses, but little ancient men and women have been observed entering and exiting. The conclusion is that they own these places, live in them and don’t want to move. The developers can wait. There is always something, somewhere, to develop.
The day is not a complete washout. Today is the day I got my camera back. It was handed in to a neighbourhood policeman. There are many small police offices along the streets; our local one has, among others, a charming fellow who gets regular visitors who stroll by for a chat.
Although I reported the camera missing at the main police station, procedure required that I visit the local office to fill out forms and the delay was because I felt I needed a translator.
Once the forms were completed, a phone call ascertained that a camera sounding like mine had indeed been handed in. To collect it I should go to the main local office; again I was happiest with an interpreter – not wanting to fall foul of a technicality.
Today it rains, there is no wind, just
pearls of white water cascading from
the sky, rushing to Sumida’s side
where she lays tossing and turning
under a pointillist blanket of
black pock-marks. Rushing and skipping
steps and slopes, water gathers and pools,
rivers it’s own way to Sumida’s side;
Sumida, who heaves and swells with
the burden of water. Wild water
cascading rain-chains, spouting from pipes,
easing, seeping, trickling, torrenting
waterfalls, ruffling Sumida’s
heaving blanket; children rushing
home to their heavy, pregnant mother.
September 5: ‘Takehiko Inoue interprets Gaudi’s Universe’
The versatile interior space of the Mori Museum Arts Centre Galleries on the 53rd floor of the 54 story Mori Tower in Roppongi, was designed by the architect Richard Gluckman. On my first visit I found the title ‘museum’ confusing, as it does not exhibit a permanent collection but rather temporary exhibitions of works by contemporary artists. I have come to look forward to the exhibitions I catch here, and make peace with ones I will miss.
The current exhibition ‘Takehiko Inoue interprets Gaudi’s Universe’ surprised me as the finale of a year-long celebration of 400 years of ‘Japan in Spain, Spain in Japan’
And I wonder if Gaudi had any Japanese influences…
The exhibition opened with a short introductory film that, cutting from one brief image to the next, left my dizzy; it was a relief to pause while the camera traveled up in the lift.
From the moment I first saw pictures of Casa Batllo I was enthralled with Gaudi’s work and a subsequent visit to Gaudi’s Barcelona did not disappoint. How strange to be rising in the Casa Batllo lift here in a Tokyo art gallery.
Gluckman`s interior was remodeled, curvaceous and reminiscent of Gaudi’s architecture. Several of the rooms had octagonal floor tiles, one in a kind of heavy-duty chipboard, another in a reproduction of embossed tiles Gaudi had made for one of his projects. One of the elliptical archways installed for this exhibition cut light into a triangle whose points exactly lined up with the walls. Light projected wriggling mosaic fish and tiles onto green octagonal-tiled floor. I felt Gaudi would have approved.
And maybe he would have been intrigued by the black spaces and the controlled artificial lighting.
Takehiko Inoue, a manga artist famous for the cartoon Slam Dunk, had spent time living and working around the works of Gaudi to create this exhibition. I wish I knew more, but as on previous occasions here and in every other gallery I’ve visited, information about Japanese artists is only given in Japanese. All of the information and descriptions of Gaudi and his artwork appear in both Japanese and English. Even online this info is only in Japanese and ‘the page is too large to translate.’
Seeing Gaudi through Takehiko Inoue’s eyes was both familiar and strange. My memories of Barcelona were renewed and refreshed through the drawings of this manga artist whose work referenced western art, cartoons and naive as well as traditional Japanese and manga.
Gaudi through the eyes of Takehiko
surprises me. Mori gallery converts
corners to curves, square openings to
elliptical arches; mosaic fish
swim on octagonal tiles of ocean
green floor; Casa Batllo emerges
before my eyes. Replication chairs to
try out, handles to grasp, hooks to curl
fingers around; a captured triangle
of light that would surely delight Antoni,
but what would he make of his imagined
life, the day he could not walk, disabled
and travelled without the use of his legs,
on the back of his mother; what would he
think of this one-sided close encounter?
How would he feel about this monochrome
close-up attention to details, maybe
costing the scale of his life’s work and the
glorious, colourful, bigger picture.
How would he react to this tower
enclosing his dreams, closer to heaven
yet denying its own capacity
to make magic with light and the view?
September 6: On map reading, access and whiskey for the soul.
A last minute change saw me at Ichigaya station with a fallen through plan. Ten minutes away is the infamous Yasukuni Shrine and I decided to go there.
The shrine is a memorial to the two and half million people: both Japanese and foreigners, men, women and children, who, over more than a hundred years, have given their lives in the service of the Emperor. It gets about five million visitors a year.
I need to cross a river, it’s banks are incredibly steep and it is the greenest river I’ve ever seen. It might be the river that supplies the moat around the Imperial Palace.
There are a lot of police and security guards around. The area seems full of universities and industry. The roads are steep and uneven and the ten minutes takes forever.
A steep dropped curb makes going in a challenge, this somehow seems appropriate. There is a war museum ‘entrance building’ on my left; I skip it. I can hear traditional Japanese drumming and head in that direction. Fenced off from public view, but with gaps in the screening, there is a small stage in a woodland clearing. It must be a permanent place, it looks weather worn; it has lighting and seating. On stage a troupe of black-clad dancers make dramatic symbolic gestures with black flags of fabric. Suddenly two warriors waving swords leap into their midst. After some rather indecisive prancing one challenges the other, but he makes a mistake in the dance and there is a brief pause before the drumming and the action continues. At the end of the scene, the director makes a comment and suddenly everyone is giggling out loud. I am taken completely by surprise. It seems so unJapanese, and so out of character with the place and the performance.
Unlike other temples and shrines I have visited, this one has a very different, solemn atmosphere and is very uncommercial.
There is a queue at the actual shrine and such silence that the traditional hand claps ring out dramatically; a very serious, intense place.
I watch while a young man approaches the short flight of steps. He bows, alights, bows again, extracts what looks like a can of beer from his pack and places it ceremoniously on a table on one side of the central altar, bows and repeats the action on the other side with another can. I doubt my eyesight, but then he extracts what looks like a bottle of whiskey and places it ceremoniously with the first can; centres himself standing stiffly to attention before making the three customary hand claps, bowing and retreating.
I recall visiting a place that made card and paper necessities (cars, furniture and more), gifts for honouring dead souls.
I look around for the ‘cleansing’ facility, it’s obvious by its apparent absence that I have approached the shrine from the wrong direction.
There is a very long avenue lined with large stone lanterns and following it I come across the place where hands and mouth are cleansed before approaching the shrine. Two young girls are busy washing both.
Midway down the avenue is a tall plinth with a statue of a traditionally dressed Japanese male. In English and Japanese a plaque explains that this deceased Minister of War was murdered by Samurai in the 19th century, as a protest against his efforts to westernise the Japanese military.
I come away with something to think about. There may indeed be Japanese war criminals tried, condemned by courts of law, ‘buried’ here, but I can also understand that this place itself is about so much more.
Looking at the map (there seem to be plenty of public maps in a Tokyo), it appears that my train journey might have been a mistake. It was complicated – with a change of trains and three or four ups and downs on platform lifts, plus elevators; I think I can roll back. I have the battery capacity, so it just depends on the state of the ‘pavement’
I’m following main roads so there are pavements and tree-lined walkways. I am occasionally hindered by tree roots, steep slopes and cambers that twirl my chair in spirals towards the busy road or sharp drop to the river which is now on my left (well fenced).
I am reassured to catch glimpses of the granite boulders (high above the opposite riverbank) that line the moat of the Imperial Palace and I follow the river into Hibiya.
By the time I get to Ginza it’s dusk and I’m hungry. I stop for food and a break.
Famous for its vegetables, the place
looks like somewhere in a back-street market,
but sits on the twelfth floor. The staff are not
typical, being oddly polite-yet-
familiar, but helpful; the sort of
service that disappears from Tsukiji. I
choose a fish dish and bowl of steamed veggies
after a long ‘conversation’ with a
waiter who kneels helpfully by my side.
A short wait later, another waiter
tells me the steamed veg come on a bed of
pork. I reselect; this time a salad
followed by minced raw fish and rice. I wait.
The salad, on ice, with anchovy and
miso dips, is good. Raw, minced fish better.
I roll home in the dark, enjoying the
warm evening and the Tokyo lights.
Thoughts of things past, of understanding;
bring to mind the Danish king who exhumed
his dead parents in order to baptise
them, give them the chance to join him in
eternity. Warm and well fed, I ponder
the deeds of the dead, and indeed,
of our former selves, of the concept
of reconciliation; the burden
September 7: Same Procedure as Last Time
At my local Tokyo metro station I flick my Passmo plastic on the screen to get through the wider accessible gate and catch the eye of the guy in the info booth. I wait, carefully out of the way of streaming commuters, while the ramp man does his checks. He unpacks the ancient-looking platform lift that will transport me down the two flights of steps. He has stopped panicking when I reverse in, but still demands ‘braki oni’ when he forgets our unspoken agreement to just watch me do it.
He controls the platform with a handset and usually a second person directs traffic safely around the operation. A high-pitched bleeper also warns of the hazard. The procedure always happens slowly and carefully. People in general are advised against rushing.
On the train platform there is a designated place to wait. This time I’m given a whole mass of mostly incomprehensible information as the train halts; there are two wheelborne people on board and my ramp man will also be their ramp man, so he is putting me in the picture.
The usual white-gloved hand signal to the train driver, indicating that a wheelborne needs access, is unnecessary this time as the driver is aware of his own wheelborne passengers alighting here.
I wait in just the right place while the two people are wheeled off and ramp man is obviously delighted that things are going so smoothly. Safe and efficient management of people movement is very important in Japan.
At a nearby road works I am regularly escorted around the hazard (which is well fenced off) by a man with a red flag. At each end of the coned and fenced off area are men with white flags – in case traffic needs to be directed.
The station ramps are strictly for wheelborne people. They are normally whisked away before people with baby carriages might be tempted to use them, occasionally the staff do turn a blind eye. Staff will assist by lifting baby carriages up flights of steps or over larger gaps, but only if they are empty of baby.
The platform lift makes no exceptions. I watched a man on crutches struggle up the two flights of steps while the lift travelled slowly up behind him.
Health and Safety rules the world.
On the metro I notice shoes. Gone are
last year’s, or was it the one before, black
and chestnut-brown winkle-pickers in too
large sizes curled from the ends of business
men’s toes. Gents shoes this year are a black and
round-nosed, moccasin style, smaller. Also,
on the street, shoes lined up outside a new
konbini – convenience store, before
it opens, one last check in stockinged feet.
Nursery-school entrance little lockers
with shelf for parent shoes and one for child
shoes and careful newspaper on floor for
guest shoes. Ladies shoes are modernising:
flats and high, impossible heels in bright
doll colours. Geta with kimono and
divided-toe socks regaining ground as
no more unlikely than teetering
Tokyo in catwalk stilettos.
September 8: 21_21 Tokyo, Image-Makers
21_21 DesignSight is another of my favourite Tokyo places. The exhibitions in this gallery are always something special. Image-Makers is no exception; featuring work by Jean-Paul Goude, Jun Miyake, Robert Wilson, David Lynch, Noritaka Takehana and Photographer Hal, Image-Makers is directed by Helene Kelmachter.
Grace Jones and Bjork feature on the poster and in the works of Jean-Paul Goude together with drawings and kinetic sculptures.
As you enter the first exhibition space you are greeted with lithographs by David Lynch and a 7 minute video portrait by Robert Wilson, of the back view of Princess Grace of Monaco clad in a long, sleeveless black dress. She stands perfectly still and the fascination is in the changing lighting effect playing with her wedding ring, the back-slit in the dress, her upper arm and the outline of her face.
On her right hand side is a window to the floor below which frames another video, this time of a Briard dog (on a loop) with its large, very pink tongue hanging out. It too is almost perfectly still. The fascination here is in the juxtaposition. Robert Wilson’s high definition portraits recur throughout the space, almost playing with Tadeo Ando’s architecture. On the lower floor, Boris the porcupine, sitting in a star filled universe to the tune of Daisy, Daisy is a whole new perspective on the animal.
In a long corridor the face of Gao Xinglian, the writer, mirrors in the rough polished concrete walls; the words ‘Solitute is a necessary condition of liberty’ – quoting Hemmingway, but in French, appear and disappear across it.
Jean-Paul Goude’s mesmerising and slightly unsettling kinetic sculptures, Two Waltzing Automotons and Spinning Automoton, fill the main space accompanied by the compelling music of Jun Miyake. His Contructivist Maternity Dress travels the floor along one long wall and a multi screen video installation on the opposite wall features a train and stations with adverts in a Paris subway. Photographs and drawings interpreting his muses add depth and humour.
French Correction plays with the whole image making process with body prosthetics and a video interview from a talk-show reveals how a short ‘less attractive’ male transforms into a ‘more attractive’ one with the illusion of height.
And in the next room Photographer Hal’s large colourful abstract images are actually vacuum packed couples with a collection of musical instruments, bicycles and shoes. On closer inspection, the apparently attractive first impression becomes deeply troubling. Hal has just 10 seconds to take these photographs.
Noritaka Tatehana’s hand-made, heel-less shoes challenge the notions of gravity and balance. If you are a size 38 or 42 you can try some on and attempt to walk about on a pair of black platforms that are shaped for stiletto heels, except that the heels are not there.
French Correction remodels the human body
humorously; Morphological Improvements
reassemble cut-out images – drawing
attention to the way the body is both
projected and perceived. Kinetic theatre
confined to preconceived patterns of lines
and circles accentuates my freedom
of expression balanced on the edges
of my nightmares and dreams; on my childhood
memories or the subconscious hinting
of déjà vu somewhere in a past presence.
Was I whirling on a carousel doomed
through a childhood told to me by my
culturally disconnected mother;
was I even then trapped by inevitable
wheels in order to become the me I
imagine? Was I flying not falling
between the coconut matting and the
secretive, slithery fear of strange bed;
that puffed-up pink, obnoxious eiderdown?
The music holds me in a space where my
memories hover between and between.
September 9: Image making, image watching in Ginza
Image Makers set me thinking…
Is it true that you are what you wear? That your appearance is who you aspire to be?
We try to express our personality and individuality by presenting ourselves in clothes we make choices and conscious decisions about; following fashion, following brands and following celebrities – ‘I shop, therefore I am’
I personally find that my clothes level me out. They cut off those ‘Grace Jones’ dramatic moments and blurr over the black dog days by reflecting someone more together and less damaged; someone quieter and not at all outrageous.
In England I often wonder who buys the clothes on offer and where they wear them. Here in Ginza the shops are full of stripy clothes, but hardly a soul on the streets wears stripes.
I do notice more Japanese men on the streets in daytime in less formal, to the point of casual clothes – either the dress code has been dramatically relaxed (power saving with the atomic meltdown it was) or there are more men without jobs. And in previous years there were increasing numbers of young men in traditional Japanese costume. This year I have not seen one, but have noticed many in various takes on interpretations of manga style.
For young women the doll costume is still popular, the kimono too; I suspect the elegance of the kimono is having an effect on the way the doll costume develops. This year it looks a little less western, as if Japanese designers and wearers of western-style clothes are interpreting them with degrees of sophistication; looking at how foreigners have interpreted Japanese style and taken it back for consideration: refining and reinterpreting.
Like the traditional Danish wooden-soled clog, the Japanese Geta has also been modernised with a flexi sole, changing the way the wearer moves in traditional clothes, making the person less easy to spot on a crowded street, although wearing a kimono still means some restricted leg movement.
In previous years I’ve noticed whole sections on department shop floors devoted to Japanese women’s formal wear. A black dress and buttoned-up jacket ensemble that I never saw worn. This year I have seen many small groups of women wearing the black dress alone, with pearls or with a colourful jacket, or maybe the unbuttoned jacket. Has it migrated from private to street usage? Yet the space it occupies on the Ginza department shop floor has shrunk dramatically.
Is shopping one step ahead or steps behind? Who are the image makers, us or them? And what is it we are all trying to say?
I have a friend called Jane and Jane
is spotable in a crowd. Her
hip-short jacket in navy print
lapel-less linen, or beige, has
a gentle lived-in look always
with the toning scarf and trousers.
And the expression on her face
is Jane. Jane the optimistic.
Jane the positive; Jane who lives
a life that’s not quite real, as if
her choices were removed at some
defining stage in younger life.
I come to recognise with time
the Japanese Jane swathed in beige,
in hat, gloves and trousers, often
on a bicycle, or scurrying,
and like a dam bursting full
of words, full of Jane intensity,
with bird-sharp gaze and short, softly
permed Japanese hair. Jane is a
mothering, people-pleasing person
who will, disconcertingly,
never mirror your body language;
never quite escaping the solitude
behind the artwork that is Jane.
September 10: Rainbow Bridge, Venus Fort and Tokyo Beach.
Walking to Shiodome station from home was a first; we would normally take the metro to Ginza and have a shorter walk, so we made the mistake of being on the wrong side of the road. There are steps and even an escalator, but no wheelchair access to the bridges that cross the multi layered dual carriageway. In this district life, including the train station, happens from the second floor up, so we backtracked to find an elevator.
The plan was to cross the Rainbow Bridge to Odaiba, have some lunch, do a little shopping and check out Tokyo beach – as long as the weather held.
It was warm, occasionally when the sky cleared the sun was incredibly intense, so we stayed in skyscraper shade most of the way.
The driverless train and staff-less station nevertheless had a ramp person ready when I got to the waiting train. Travellers were moved out of the way and the designated seat folded up to make space for me. I had the window space for the journey over the water as the train spiralled round the huge circular bridge to gain height. The views are spectacular.
There is a beachside walkway from Odaiba to Daiba, or up a level, the same journey can be made with easy access to shops and malls. There are restaurants on both routes. A multi carriageway road separates this from serious shopping at Venus Fort and Divers City.
Venus Fort’s main shopping floor is a strange experience. There is no natural light, the vast area has a false nighttime sky projected on a domed ceiling and is laid out around various courtyards – Fountain Square being the most notable. On this floor is advertised designer outlet shopping.
On the lower floor there is stuff for the home and dog accessory shopping. Dogs are very much in evidence. Dog couples and dog families (mum and pup) are carried around in dog prams or human arms.
Opposite the place where we choose our mid afternoon ice cream, there is a dog restaurant with a menu displayed outside.
Tokyo beach is almost empty. I sit on the edge of the boardwalk and get sand trickled on my toes. Just metres from the hustle and bustle it feels peaceful and I relax in the warmth of a gently overcast day.
Night darkness happens relatively fast around six o’clock when Tokyo lights up in earnest. The bay begins to fill with colourful river cruisers as their journey pauses here for the highlight of the tour: dinner in Tokyo bay.
We take ours beachside; seafood risotto from an Australian restaurant. Sitting warm, well-fed in the reflected sparkle of lights: Rainbow Bridge, Tokyo tower, various creatively lit skyscrapers and a forest of brightly lit restaurant-boats, it would be easy to dream that all was right with the world.
The multi-layered life requires so much being
in the right place or life happens over my head;
no amount of French Correction steps me up, or
down without the boxy shoe, giant-stepping floors
alone or marching, men of York style up and down,
marching on the spot to raise us all up, up where we
belong; up and way over a ground soon to be
covered in transport, the stuff of our existence.
And gravity the only threat to equality
pins me down grabs my wheels, drags me, spins me lower;
the air I breath no supporter of a roller
as gravity trickles me down like water
while I strive for the upper levels, would live with
head in the clouds, would be an acrobat if not
for gravity. And the gravity of your
perceptions, pinning me to life’s plug-hole.
September 11: Rain, climate change and dengue fever.
The rain held off until the evening when it torrented down and the forecast thunder arrived. In the morning the streets were full of blossoming plants, it felt a bit like being in Africa .
I saw blossom I’d never seen in Tokyo before and exotics like Cannas, that I’ve only ever seen here in rather tired leaf, now green and gorgeous with giant red and orange blossom. Big purple flowers of Morning Glory scrambled over everything. Masses of purple and white spiked liriope and small tulip-ish blossom flowered along the pathways, in beds, pots, containers and crannies among flourishing greenery.
I’ve avoided the Japanese gardens and parks this year, the biting is bad. Mosquitoes are flourishing and parts of Tokyo’s biggest, most popular park – Yoyogikouen are closed.
In long sleeves and covered legs, I meandered back and forth across various river bridges and watched Sumida change her personality like an actress. From green to brownish, to grey; from white-topped choppy, to smooth, to slithery heaving, she changed her personality with each curve of her concrete banks.
Tourists boats frothed and chopped at the water, the smaller yellow and black versions made less commotion than the great grey Star Trek style water invaders.
Gulls and cormorants kept watch on the situation. The gulls curious, the cormorants lazily reptilian, basking with open wings or settled with their heads tucked down, their long necks almost disappearing.
Rain came and went, teasing from solitary splashes to momentary downpours, interspersed with sunshine.
The pathway, in places, was a little difficult, the amount of drainage required by flash flooding is not always compatible with wheelborne travel. Passing people often offered assistance.
Lunch in an Italian restaurant was spaghetti with fresh Japanese shellfish. While basil is common here, I feel it’s understated use is very noticeable in Japanese versions of Italian food. Likewise olive oil; the preferred oil is quite flavourless which can be a little disconcerting in Italian or Spanish style dishes.
In the warm, moist moments when
the breeze dies, the rain pauses,
the mosquito seeks blood, seeks
human skin to pierce, to pass
dengue fever along its
life-path inside the body.
Bitten, I itch, bitten I
loose my appetite for food.
Nauseous, I question my
symptoms. Everyday pain blurs
abound; swatting and squashing
the in actions. Rare outbreaks
demand reaction; public
raising of dengue spreading.
Bare skin is bad and insect
repellent the scent of choice.
Yoyogikouen is closed.
September 12: Tokyo: megalopolis of city-villages.
I’ve been on a photographic hunt for the little tin and wooden buildings that are disappearing from Tokyo. Today I watched the demolition of one. It was on top of another one story building and made mostly of wood and just streets away from the busy carriageways that contain everything bar strictly local traffic.
The site is being cleared for development and I had already noticed that one such building had gone from this particular patch.
I pause to watch. The buildings appear to be demolished with some care and respect. There are machines on site, but two men are in the tiny dwelling, taking things apart. A third man with a hose pipe washes down the wood which is stacked separately. Everything gets moved carefully.
Each side of the site modern buildings rise to the sky, with a higgledy-piggledy disregard for the homogenous. The little buildings are clumped together here where there is also a low traditional style Japanese building, well maintained – maybe in brick, with an amazing large, for Tokyo, walled garden. Not that I can see inside…
Often there seems to be just one of the ancient wooden dwellings with quite a big footprint – a valuable asset.
The new building may be offices, shops or dwellings, or a combination. Some of the remaining wood and tin buildings are homes, but some might (also) be restaurants for clued-up locals. They are never accessible.
The owners of the original buildings may be offered homes in the new developments, but there appears to be no pressure on them to move.
The demolition sites around here are well fenced and coned and, if work is in progress, traffic around them is managed by teams of uniformed men, usually with flags.
There is a constant programme of renewal and replacement that extends to culturally important buildings being rebuilt in modern materials as technology improves. Slotting tall narrow buildings into small gaps is a practiced art and neighbouring walls are never used. Earthquake safety demands cutting edge technology for those spectacular skyscrapers that do have bridging elements way up in the sky.
It’s easy to get mesmerised by the stunning modern architecture, but I’m really drawn to the remnants of the old. The evidence of another way of life. My collection of pictures grows; widens it’s scope to include other small mansions clinging on to plots of land in this crowded Mega-city.
The vastness of Tokyo contains city
villages, nudging each other, unsure
of boundaries, beginnings or ends;
each with an identity to maintain,
character to cherish, each with its own
people and contrasts of scale. Everywhere
vast and tiny co-exist, from person
to population, from mini-bonsai
to massive bamboo forest. From small stone
to Fuji-San, Tokyo embraces all
with considered calm, controlled peacefulness,
learned behaviours that teach people to live
in awe, not fear of the living changing world.
September 13: Tokyo Disney celebrates Halloween.
I’m not a Disney person so I’ve never minded being the only person in my world who’d never tried a Disneyland, anywhere. Today that changed when we decided to check out this very popular Tokyo destination.
The weather forecast predicted rain, people muttered, ‘typhoon season’ but the day looked ok; the metro to Tokyo Disney takes about 15 minutes from the centre of Tokyo.
Actually it was a toss up between Disneyland and Disney-sea, Disneyland being the same the world over, but Disney-sea is unique to Tokyo.
My first Disney experience was to be the traditional one. Arriving at the Disney station I am met by a female ramp-person (and there is more than one), so much for tradition.
Of course it was crowded, but not impossibly so. If I was still counting wheelborne people I would have lost count of the number of little and large, children and adults rolling (being rolled) around the space having fun.
And Disney is well geared up to cope. A special pass guaranteeing me assistance (together with the three people I was with) was issued once we were inside and it worked a treat. The wheelchair spaces were plentiful and the four of us were always able to sit together when watching the special effects performances. And there was special access to accessible rides.
Queues for popular rides were long and, when the clouds melted away, uncomfortably hot. Queues for popcorn (soy sauce and butter, salt, caramel or Jalapeño and cheese) were also long. Ice lolly queues were shorter and food queues extremely long, but well managed, with plenty of help available and special assistance for wheelborne people. There were no queues for the loos.
It was a noisy day with non-stop Disney music, with announcements, and the sound of human voices playing havoc with my tinnitus. It was a fun day, with much Disney waving and cheerfulness and of course all the colourful costumes. Late in the day more long queues could be seen forming at the massive entranceway for evening passes and rows of cute dolls in polka dot miniskirts chatted, giggled and texted the wait.
At first sight, I had thought there were an awful lot of Disney cast, but soon realised that the wonderful princesses in blonde wigs and turquoise crystal gowns, the ducks with Donald heads and fat white bottoms with little tails, the ghostbusters, pirates, Snow whites and Minnie Mouses were all guests. While Mickey Mouse did indeed make appearances, the multitude of costumed guests quite outshone the staff and I felt distinctly underdressed for the occasion.
Towards evening a very dark cloud appeared to settle over Disneyland; we watched lightening bolts and heard thunder in the distance. Rain was descending on Tokyo Centre and the outbound train service was partly suspended, but our journey home was uneventful (apart from the female ramp-person) and rain-free.
A long queue of Disney characters snaked along the marked-out
line, ready to film, record, their session with the mouse;
chatter and laughter releasing the formality
of everyday life. Later, seated along the roadway
to await the parade, for an hour, in the heat, was a
fun thing, part of the day. Plastic popcorn container filled;
strawberry breadstick – lightsaber energy weapon – charged;
ducks and princesses, raccoons and mice await the parade.
A pumpkin parade: Halloween comes early – is
celebrated long, as a Mickey thing. Missing the point
but creating a whole new non sense; requiring only
faith in the mouse, the costume, timeout from reality.
September 14: On missing Unlimited 2014
Today the ocean seems to be falling out of the sky. Wheeling out is ill advised.
Having blogged my distress at missing Unlimited 2014, I have tried to follow what I can from Tokyo, which of course means Disability Arts Online blogs and reviews. Today is a good day for catching up, sorting my growing collection of photos and doing some rather neglected drawing.
I have really enjoyed the video blogs from Colin and Tony and from Sue Austin ( Dao: 10th September 2014)
The added atmosphere of Sue’s busy Southbank interior and the guy’s windy corner, brought the missed experience closer. And their spoken words conveyed so much more; gave access to a more intimate expression of what the pieces had meant to them.
I do hope we get more like that.
As a wheelborne rail traveller from the south of England, the Southbank is one of the more easily accessible London destinations – if you don’t take the expense into account; but Tokyo has proved to be a more accessible, more affordable place to get around in.
Like a pleat in time the link, the contrast and similarities between ‘my’ London and ‘my’ Tokyo get lined up close to each other for appreciation and respect.
In Tokyo I can miss the sense of community with other disabled people, and have come to think of that as a British thing. I’ve not sensed it in any other country, which of course could just be the foreigner-thing; but, people watching, I’ve particularly not noticed it among Japanese disabled people who, when not alone (rare) are relating only (like everyone else), to the people they know, the apparent-normals who accompany them.
I’m reminded of the English doctor who, years ago, told me not to associate with disabled people as it would only reinforce my own disability and be bad for my mental health; but this is a misleading mental leap which only illustrates the difficulty I have in shaking off the negativity of life in England.
In London I miss the freedom; the universal organisation that attempts to make life equally easy for everyone. And of course the courtesy that allows me to be out and about without seeing and feeling public distaste at my presence.
I really believe that Disability Arts need to come out from under: assuming our equality, presuming our talent, more positive statements – less questioning, less reacting to the obnoxious attitude of some miserable specimens of ‘human’ life.
That’s why I’m sad to have missed Unlimited 2014.
The sun shone briefly facilitating
my escape from aircon and indoor lights,
I rolled to Sumida, bowed my respect
like any assistant entering or
leaving the shop floor; the gently angled
gaijin bow that works on wheels, engaged me
with the river. Swollen with rain and sea
tidal Sumida preoccupied with
her own rolling, balances a small barge
ferrying rubbish, supports the huge wake
as the waves, cresting white, break on her banks
reaching for the edge of the concrete
bed with an eagerness to spill over,
to lap at my feet and run through the spokes
of my wheels. All of Sumida’s faces,
all of her personalities, are one
in this bold concentration of water.
September 15: Distractions on my way to the Imperial Palace.
The day after the torrential downpour dawns with blue skies and sunshine. Tempting fate I plan to head in the direction of the Imperial Palace to find the National Museum of Modern Art.
On all previous attempts it has rained and I’ve turned back because it has been serious rain, rather like that we’ve experienced recently…
Today the sky is clear and the temperature comfortably in the high twenties.
Heading out I take a small detour – spotting a wonderful small building for my photo collection. And manoeuvring into place to get a better shot I see another tucked behind it. One thing leads to another and I get a bit lost, but there are enough familiar landmarks, or should I say skymarks to find my way down to the river. The familiar Sumida.
The level has gone down around 40 cms, but there are still waves. I pause in the sun enjoying the warmth and the smell of the sea. A loud intrusion on the water proves to be a small speedboat with two guys pushing it as fast as it will go. Riding the turbulence of its wake another male in black, with Japanese pony-tale, standing on a bucking water scooter, laughs and shouts his way down the river. He looks like a martial arts cartoon and I feel like I’m in a comic book.
Progress towards the Imperial Palace gardens is slow, there are a lot of people about and I enjoy people-watching. For a while I roll behind a group of nattering young men in pin-stripe trousers, white short-sleeved shirts, scuffing along in black slip-on shoes that from the front look like the regular dress-code item.
I stop for wonderful chocolate ice cream at Sampaka, the famous Spanish chocolate purveyors and then head over the road for the long approach to the gardens.
Only to discover a gang of men in environment suits digging up plants and turning over stones. Large notices warn of the danger of mosquitoes. Out of curiosity I try the entrance further down and find coned-off areas and more large illustrations of mosquitoes with warning notices.
I’ve been bitten enough and I don’t want to temp fate, or dengue fever, so I turn back. Again.
I sit awhile in the dappled shade of the tiny Marunouchi Brick Square and watch artists sketch it’s attractive greenery, statues and the display outside Pass the Baton, where vintage Louis Vuitton vies with the battered toy pony, a small, delicate tree and some old cookware.
Henry Moore’s sitting woman catches the sun and gleams.
I love the warmth of Japan in summer and autumn,
the added bonus of heat to ease the live-with pain;
a blessing to maximise the freedoms of access;
to melt away the walls of restriction, the walls of
an English disease that threatens my life and my health
with an unfair share of austerity; designed to
induce conformity, passivity, designed to
ignore the individual into non-existence.
Disease of a tired, exhausted, dead-end nation
attempting to cut off (costly?) diversity?
And I swop it for earthquake, typhoon and the dengue
mosquito threats. I swop it for living now; for the
joy in the present moments of life, one life; all life.
September 16: On walking wheels in Ginza…
A visit or so ago I discovered the most sparkly wheelchair on display on the designer floor of a Tokyo department store. I attempted to enquire about this diamanté encrusted spectacle, but could find no-one able to tell me more. I kept an eye on the space.
The chair disappeared for a while, but now it’s back together with the words ‘walking chair’ – I’m thinking about that…
Not one day goes by without seeing someone with a visible disability out on the streets, being normal – people in walking chairs, people on crutches or with sticks. Wobbly people, people with white sticks and people with oxygen bottles.
I saw a man with one arm – the empty sleeve of his shirt folded in a bold origami statement across his chest.
Some cynically English part of me wonders if this ‘display of disabled’ is also part of the early preparation for Tokyo’s Olympic Triumph. I cannot imagine that these souls on streets will be pushed back in their boxes, returned to some pre-enlightenment stage when the eye of the world looks elsewhere. The English experience is not one to emulate (or easy to forget).
It could, of course, just be that my eyes are adjusting. This proliferation of diversity may always have been here and me – too mesmerised by the unfamiliar to notice.
Traces of Tokyo’s preparations are everywhere, Olympic and Paralympic alike. I cannot help but feel that there is something more universal, more consistent and wholesome, about the changes that are being envisioned and put into practice already.
The new signs for designated ‘courtesy seats’ on the metro are not the dreaded stick-people, or cute cartoons, but an abstract black and white design that looks to me more like an opening blossom.
Some creative interpretations of said ‘stick-person’ make me laugh, but also give me seeds of hope for the future.
Hope that Japanese people have enough faith in their own values not to get phased by comparisons or bamboozled by missionaries of so called equal rights.
Hope for a bright future on walking wheels.
It seems I’m not the only one
to notice. In tandem with the
proliferation of printed
notices for English speakers,
and disabled ones at that, we
disabled people are out in
Tokyo; rolling, dragging our
limbs and oxygen bottles; here,
wobbling our way through; visible,
out making good use of the Braille
buttons in lifts; filling up the
wheelchair spaces and courtesy
seating. Tokyo may be packed, but
the considered, deliberate
pace of life allows for greater
comfort in diversity. A
greater sense of identity.
Tokyo 2020 buzzes
already and surely here, there
will be no sick media, no
political animals who
undo, who rip apart, turn back
time on civilization.
September 17: Playing with words and rolling the terminal roof in Yokohama.
Yokohama is also a familiar destination, the annual visit to its Chinatown being a regular enticement. Sadly this year our favourite dim sum restaurant has closed. Friends choosing the alternative venue are carnivores and simply don’t understand eating without meat. But one of them has spent time in a wheelchair and has an understanding of access requirements.
Shopping for strange Chinese goods is part of the deal, browsing the two main, crowded streets, is fascinating and as usual the weather is sunny and warm. And since I didn’t get much to eat at lunchtime there is plenty of room for one of the massive fruit and ice Chinese versions of ice-cream. After that we make our way towards the harbour and Yokohama’s International Port Terminal.
Rolling it’s creatively angled roof, ‘paddling’ my feet in its forbidden grass and taking in the view, it is also possible to enjoy the atmosphere of the concert happening in the vast hanger-like hall beneath me.
This ferry terminal, built on an existing pier, juts out into the sea and people lie about on the roof that is also a floor, sunbathing in the warm sea breeze.
It is also a poplar venue for regular concerts and festivals.
There are always visible people in wheelchairs in Yokohama and there are other disabled people too. On the terminal roof/floor a group of guys are running. They are paired up, half of them, being blind or with impaired vision, are joined by wrist-tapes to seeing partners.
We follow the coastline around to the large shopping centre to buy bread in one of the Japanese international bread shops where the food on offer seems to me to be an edible interpretation of the scrambled international words used freely for business names, goods and slogans on t-shirts.
I recognised the one that the Danes call Viennese Bread, the English call Danish Pastry and the Japanese call French Bread and wonder what it’s called in Vienna.
I choose a Japanese Tea bread, made with Japanese green tea (and looking much like a green rock cake) and a potato cake which looks like a Danish pastry filled with diced sweet potato.
The potato cake later proves to be a slight disappointment; unlike some purple potato ice-cream which was delicious.
As for t-shirt slogans, I fantasise about writing a book based entirely on the sentences on offer.
‘One OK Rock. It’s a mighty long fall at Yokohama Stadium’, proves to be a promo slogan for a One OK Rock concert over two days (13 and 14 September 2014) at the arena where they have previously had sell-out concert for 24,000 fans.
Other slogans are plucked from very thin air.
As a child I swore carefully, knowing
that naughty sounds in one language were not
at all bad in another. Knowing that
words carry the baggage of the hearing;
the listening brain marries ideas
according to its own personal paths
of experience. I experienced
glee in the manipulation of sound
incomprehensible to anyone
without my own unique circumstances;
in the pleating and folding of phrases
to create audible origami;
in cutting and pasting sound in my brain
for a language requiring the skills of
multicultural imagination; and I
requiring no more than creative
understanding and reciprocal glee,
enjoyed the best form of communication.
September 18: Kasairinkaikoen
Kasairinkaikoen is the train station before Disneyland; Kasai Rinkai is a large park on the coast with access to the sea, containing Tokyo Sea Life, a great glass observation platform, a Ferris wheel, picnic areas, restaurants and some great places to sit and relax.
Tokyo Sea Life, today’s destination, is on three levels. The top one is circular with an offset glass observation /information dome. This circle is almost surrounded by an infinity pool that blends visually into the sea, or more confusingly, into the treetops on the land side.
Mist-fountains around its outer edge are visually intriguing and cooling in the hot sun (mist fans and fountains are very popular when the temperature rises).
Down on the bottom level it is dark, crowded and extremely noisy. Everything is wheelchair accessible and the Japanese visitors are helpful in making space for people using them. Some of the Asian visitors are not so polite.
There are quite a lot of fish, some quite fascinating, but the noise, the smell and the crowd freaks me out. Some of the aquariums extend right up to the middle floor, where there are some quite big fish. The larger aquariums appear to be metal and glass with no environmental enhancement for the occupants.
I’ve never felt quite easy about aquariums and their captives. I am happy to sit out in the sun and enjoy the sea views.
My concerns are put temporarily aside to focus on the peace and beauty of the area.
We eat lunch indoors, but there is also an outdoor eating area.
I choose the bento box and get a card with a beautiful image of a Tuna on the outside and a diagram of its edible parts inside. The last straw to make me feel uneasy about eating fish here.
Afterwards we relax outside enjoying the sea from a decked terrace with giant white sails providing patches of shade; we stroll through the gardens and the picnic areas and beside a rocky coastline with lots of small pools. There are picnickers with picnic blankets and small ‘day-trip’ tents, children playing and people flying kites and remote control planes.
Thoughtful wheelchair-pathways, smooth for easy rolling, follow the very bumpy paving and I have hopes of making my way into the large glass observation area on the second floor of the glass building. Unfortunately the smooth path stops too many metres before the entrance and my body is not up to the judders of using the textured surface.
Nevertheless there are peeks into woods, glimpses of ‘natural’ countryside and views out over the sea,
Sticking with the rocky coastline we watch a glorious sunset before making our way past a lit-up row of outdoor shopping and eating-out tents, on our lazy way back to the station.
Here is less than manicured, the grass seed
heads wave knee-high in a warming sea breeze;
the pine trees bend obligingly bonsai
without looking overly tended, neat
but not tame. Rough hewn granite slabs blend path
to coast, seamless as infinity
pools blend man-made to wild water.
Wildflower meadow blossoms head-high orange
attraction for unknown flying objects.
Tiny streams curl through juxtapositions
of pebbles and green growing shapes both large
and perfectly miniature, a feast
for the eye and something deeply inside;
some kind of universal treasure.
September 19: Roppongi musings
Another revisit, this time to the little restaurant in Roppongi that sells sushi and sashimi to make my mouth water.
I have a bowl of rice with a selection of raw fish on top, not the most expensive item on the menu, but one that allows me to dream. And have I mentioned the wasabi? I would eat like this regularly.
This is my first midday visit and the atmosphere is a little more subdued. At the next table I hear a Swede talking about working for the government, saying he has never had such a short, relaxed, working week. He simply cannot be talking about Tokyo!
Roppongi has a lot of foreign workers, mostly American, who flock together trying to sound Japanese-savvy.
The restaurant is reached via a patched and uneven pavement and the side streets dip sharply downhill; not the most accessible for my skinny-wheeled Japanese chair. I wonder how much my impression of accessibility has to do with not actually living here, not needing to do regular stuff like working, meeting up with ambulant people or accessing healthcare.
Whilst in Roppongi I check out Roppongi Hills. This tower of offices, shops and restaurants is coloured by foreigners’ taste for ‘ordinary Japanese’ and packed with designer items and weirdly inessential nic-nacs. Some of the shops were closed for refurbishing last year, so I’m keen to see the latest incarnation.
I’m not that impressed. The shop with the wide, accessible entrance where everything happens a level up, reached only via a short and ‘impressive’ flight of marble steps, remains totally inaccessible. The rest appear almost unchanged.
Passing the SoftBank store I notice that queues for ordering iPhone 6 have calmed down. There is one of the robots I saw previously (at the open day at Aoyama Gakuin University), greeting customers at the door. An American is attempting to interact with it.
There are two flower shops to check out in this area. Windmills are the current fad; hand-held or larger. The small ones decorate pot plants, the larger ones remind me of my to-scale Danish flagpole, being a metre or two high. They are all brightly coloured in complex wind-catching designs from abstract to 3D insect. I imagine taking one on the plane.
Rewind: I imagine transporting my home here, my own little patch between skyscrapers.
Looking creatively at my mobility needs
I do frequently imagine a mobile home could
be the happy response to frustration. I’d follow
the sun, and travel the circuit of my heart, from
East and South to West and North, with flippant detours;
packing my home in my pocket for trains, boats and planes.
Don’t know when I’ll be back again, and babe, don’t let me go.
There is a nomad in whatever passes for my soul;
the restlessness of the river, the tidal to-ing and
fro-ing of Sumida, with love and warmth pulling at me
like a moon; from one recognition to another
and returning, always returning, heartsick with longing.
September 20: Housebound in Tokyo
My temperamentally clicking wheelchair has been whisked away and I sit frustrated watching the day pass by. It seemed like a good idea at the time – to get it properly checked out here by the maintenance guys at Yamaha.
But the sun shines, the river calls, Tokyo hums gentle enticement. My chair is promised back by 10.00 tomorrow, batteries fully charged and ready to roll.
Confined without my wheelchair, I need purpose to my day and I plan to draw.
The photographing of low-rise Tokyo dwellings has inspired sketches of some of them and opened up the possibility of exhibiting here if I can make finished drawings.
Opening my sketch pad, the sofa begins to shake, the building shudders and the TV starts angling its way out of the unit. For more than a minute a powerful earthquake disrupts Tokyo. Initial reports suggest a 4.5 magnitude, but I’m not sure how close.
The drawing begins to take shape and before lunch I check on the state of the earth; reports now suggest it was a 5.6 quake centred northeast of Tokyo, with reassurances of no expected tsunami, but recommended alertness for any powerful aftershocks. This district of Tokyo being reportedly more shaken than some others according to the twitter-sphere.
I wonder what it is like to have lived all of your life on this ‘disabled’ part of the globe. To have nowhere to escape to, at least in theory, when slow inevitability catches up and threatens your hopes and dreams.
The drawing goes quite well and I manage to manoeuvre myself onto the balcony to have lunch outside. Sunshine and Tokyo-fresh air – I just need to ignore Tokyo noise as the city, in constant renewal, is a perpetual building site. I also have to ignore the possibility of more quake, stuck out on the balcony might not be the best place to be. Fortunately any aftershocks are mild enough not to notice. I make good progress with the pen and ink.
Tweeting disdain for the chatter
surrounding the latest earthquake;
barely noticing shuddering
buildings, the effort, still tweeted;
the westerner attempts to match
Japanese calm, attempts without
the same level of knowledge, of
lifetime moment by moment fact,
like temporary disabled
people are suddenly experts
on wheelchairs, access and mental
health. But the gaijin has always
a way out, an alternative
to cultivating respect and
September 22: Doing daily life in Tsukiji and Ginza
Travelling with a smallish suitcase, mostly full of stuff to keep my body ticking over, and gifts, there is not much room for clothes. I get very fed-up with wearing the same stuff over and over. Today seemed just the day for a ladies lunch and for checking out some local fashion.
We try a couple of sushi restaurants in Tsukiji, but they don’t want me.
The first says yes and then no, all smiles and welcoming body language, but saying my wheelchair will be inconvenient. The second has a very sharp turn coming out of the lift and no accessible loo, so it might be best another day.
In ambulant company I travel roads I have not yet explored, find slopes to roll across that feel perilously steep and threaten to swirl my chair out into a busy road; meet dropped curbs that have neglected to drop; uneven surfaces that deny my skinny wheels sufficient grip. Much like home…
We pass a large modern glass and marble-floored building that always looks empty and although it has a sign saying café, there is only one small table, parked in front of one of the many plate glass windows, and only occasionally is there anyone sitting at it.
There is also a very missable sign saying sushi restaurant.
In the deserted atrium ( where does the coffee come from?) there are more signs for maybe a library and offices on higher floors. The restaurant is down a level and there is a good slope that levels out to a corridor with loos (including accessible).
The restaurant proves to be an artificially aged version of the small restaurants at street level.
I am welcomed, we settle ourselves and order sets rather than individual selections. There is green tea and my set comes with soup and a sweet of green ice cream.
The sushi is fresh and very tasty.
Afterwards we head for a building that has a lot of small franchises under one roof, so there will be a variety of brands.
I could fit on Japanese clothes, but would need to be careful of the style (and I’m not a large person). Shoe sizes stop at 38, so I might just fit a generous sized brand – if I was lucky. When I first came to Japan I was struck by the fussy, clumpiness of shoes, but this year there is a good variety of simple elegant styles. I start to feel very large and lumpy.
I also feel that if I went home, cut up my wardrobe and stuck my clothes back together in random ways, I’d be right in fashion. It would make a change!
Needing my clothes to front-fasten, I do ordinarily find it difficult to find interesting stuff that doesn’t pull over the head. There do seem more choices here.
Historically, wrap around clothes featured prominently, so maybe there is not such a one dimensional focus on ‘pull-over-the-head’ garments.
It occurs to me that colour schemes in Japan are all geared up for black hair and Japanese complexions. There is something very attractive about their en masse presentation, but even if I found a good fit, I would probably find it more difficult to wear these clothes well.
When did diversity become commercial suicide,
rhetorical; of course austerity has something to
do with it. The abrupt slide into communistic
poverty driven by market forces wired for
self perpetuation, shaping a monoculture by
their escalating need for profit. The dirty word of
diversity, erased from our minds in the mindless
content of a brainwashed majority who still
believe that they’ve never had life so good.
September 23: Marunouchi Brick Square with British architecture, Spanish chocolate, American pizza, Swiss-French art.
The British architect Josiah Condor designed the 1894 western-style building that houses Mitsubishi Ichigokan on two sides of Marunouchi Brick Square. I’ve admired the red brick and cast concrete structure from the outside and decided it was time to find out what this Tokyo museum had to offer.
The current exhibition: ‘Fire under the ice’ by Felix Vallotton was either going to be ok or dreadful. Famous for his capacity to produce the great and the awful, the Swiss Vallotton has reportedly just one work in public ownership in UK.
The building itself was fascinating inside, if a little confusing. Vallotton’s black and white woodcuts displayed well in one ‘dining room red’ painted gallery, but reacted badly with a back and white chequered floor in another. His horrendous oil-painted nudes in shades of beige rooms looked even worse. His dislike and mistrust of women shouted from the walls.
I wondered how anyone could imagine there was any fire under his obvious ice. I felt very cold and deeply sad making my way away from this disappointment.
The museum has a permanent Toulouse Lautrec collection and some wonderful original prints, by artists like Aubrey Beardsley, for sale in its shop. It’s quite big with lots of gallery spaces on several floors, but most of them, apart from a small exhibition of monochrome Chinese porcelain, were devoted to Vallotton.
I’d had lunch in Marunouchi’s Californian Italian restaurant A16 and the strange experience of a Japanese interpretation of an American Italian pizza. I sat opposite the Henry Moore seated woman, and close to a work by Cuban sculptor Agustin Cardenas.
The restaurant has had good reviews from American visitors, but after a large, chewy and dry bread disk lightly pasted with a hint of processed tomato, a few parings of garlic, a light sprinkle of chopped olives and some hot chilli oil, I’m not convinced.
And I still don’t think Japanese chefs understand the nuances of olive oil.
After Vallotton I headed to Sampaka for a Spanish peppered hot chocolate to warm me through. It was rich and satisfying and did a lot to cheer me up.
Will Japan loose its mystery in
a universal, multi-cultural
equality, or will this capital-
driven ecology peter out
before it overflows Tokyo
completely? The tourist rules. Hai
for just as long as the oil lasts;
or we invent some other way
of driving the market onwards and
outwards. Some other measure of
success, before nature takes revenge.
Or blows humanity mindlessly
out of the water, the star spangled
galaxy, that might just be unique.
September 24: Lee Mingwei and His Relations.
I’m lucky to be able to do two Mori Arts Centre Exhibitions this visit. Opened on Saturday 20th September, Lee Mingwei and His Relations, is an interactive exhibition introducing projects from the last 20 years by this artist known for his participatory art.
Take Part, Make Art he invites the public; the exhibition also aims to unfold the relationship between himself and artists from different times and different places including Hakuin, D.T. Suzuki, John Cage, Yves Klien and Ozawa Tsuyoshi.
The exhibition aims to prompt the audience to explore how we connect to the world; not just friends and family but also community and socio-political relationships. And to think about our relationship with nature and with history.
There were some less accessible aspects, like work in table-type cabinets, or on the floor (a large piece in progress viewed from a platform), and I did feel a little left out. The floor piece, an interpretation in sand of Picasso’s Guernica, only made sense on the level because I know the work being interpreted. Halfway through the exhibition visitors will be invited to complete the work by walking on it.
Some elegant wood and opaque white plastic booths, each one step up and with instructions to remove your shoes, invited people to write letters on thick white paper and put them in matching envelopes either to be posted to the addressee (seal the envelop) or read by other visitors (leave the envelop open). The artist suggested unsaid thank-you-s or apologies.
Someone offered to fetch paper and pencil for me so I wrote the artist, explaining that I’d have enjoyed this bit more with independent access, but did enjoy the unexpected conversation.
A waving line of brightly coloured Gerbera invited people to take a flower, but only on condition that they took a different route home and gave the flower to a stranger met on the way.
An irresistible offer; I chose a strong orange colour. Came home via a coffee shop with a surprisingly good caramel pudding frappuccino, got waved to, smiled at and photographed by complete strangers. Rising up in the platform lift at the station, I attracted a lot of attention and set about an impromptu performance.
The Gerbera which I’d been invited to keep watered via a small plastic bag with water tied around its stem was all set for its own adventure.
Am I thinking too much, trying
too hard to comprehend Japan
and it’s people? The normally
art-lover, blossomed into an
hosted by plain-clothes museum
staff. Taking over the sitting
room installation with friendly
chatter; in impromptu party
style, making it hard to draw a line
between artist, facilitator,
and other people just like me.
September 25: Leaving
On the metro, on the first part of my journey back to Narita airport, an elderly Japanese man showed an uncommon interest in my wheelchair; not that he spoke to me or met my eye. His gaze seemed fixated on the lower part of the chair. At Ueno, where I change for the Skyliner, he collared my ramp man and gave him instructions. The ramp man then proceeded to start altering the position of the little stabilising wheels at the back of my chair.
I was horrified. It took loud squeals of protest to halt this unwelcome activity. I don’t mind the fact that my whereabouts are always known and that I need to repeatedly reassure station staff that my way of doing things works for me, but this intrusion was offensive. It reminded me of the time in England when an official corrected my spelling of my own name.
My custom-made wheelchair cushions always have my name on the covers and the covers I was using on that day had a spelling mistake, but it took a while to convince the officious male that the spelling on the cushion was wrong.
I was met at the airport by an English-speaking young man alerted by Skyliner staff, he escorted me through to the wheelchair assistance woman who remembered me from my arrival. I had an hour to wait in the priority waiting zone and while I was there a young woman staff member told me they would need time to load my chair and I should transfer to an airport chair.
Not wanting to make an extra transfer, not knowing if my cushions would fit and not wanting to loose my powered mobility, I refused. She didn’t seem to mind.
On board I was greeted with courtesy by a designated access person and told to let staff know if there was anything they could do to make my journey easier. So I was not expecting things to evolve as they did.
I had warned the Greeter that I would need my hotwater-bottle filling and refilling, and he had replied ‘just say when, any of the crew will be happy to help you’.
I did and started the journey clutching a warm hotwater-bottle, but 6 hours into the flight the heat was gone; the cabin was cold, my pain levels were rising and I actually felt quite unwell.
Requests for a hotwater-bottle refill were ignored. The staff looking after the section I was in were Japanese, maybe they didn’t understand the concept. I have on other flights had to explain how hot water bottles work. I tried something else…
Requests for more blankets were eventually met with one extra blanket passed down the aisle by a rushed crew-member passing on the other side of the plane; I managed to get a third one from another passenger – a young chap who scorned the idea of a blanket on his knees. My capacity to generate heat or regulate body temperature is limited.
My request for hot drinks instead of the served-up cold ones was also ignored as were my complaints about being too cold.
Twelve hours and thirty minutes in a plane is no fun; six of those hours spent shivering and thirsty, with a painful throat, were absolutely miserable.
Sitting in my allocated seventeen point five
British inches, with my extra legroom, maybe
thirty-three; my legs just supported by my flight bag
due to the added seat-height bestowed by my custom
engineered cushion, I contemplate this less than
terminal space; compare my twenty-two of upper
class generosity spilling into six foot six
of bed room should I be so capable of lying
flat. I compare the restriction on legs somewhat
used to the fact; on arms that suffer their own version
of claustrophobic despair on encountering
restrictions and begin to calculate the value
of paying eleven times the price for what is clearly
not eleven, not even five times the lessening
of discomfort. What price attitude and service?
September 28: Arriving…
First class out, disgraceful class back.
I did get apologies: one from cabin crew who had forgotten my requests, one from the Greeter for not keeping an eye on my welfare (on my journey back from Tokyo). But I was in too much pain to value them.
My wheelchair arrived at the cabin door, together with an assistant to manage my crutches and the bags of wheelchair paraphernalia.
I was then escorted to a waiting area very full of resigned Indian women in flowing saris waiting for airport wheelchairs. And left there.
I waited patiently for a while, but nothing was happening. I was actually feeling too unwell to hang about and managed to find a supervisor to ask why I’d been abandoned. She could think of no good reason. She put my crutches and bag under the next Heathrow chair that came in and instructed the pusher to let me wheel alongside her when she escorted the next Indianne through passport control.
Passport control was simply out of control. The queues were horrendous. And my smiling, escorting assistant moaning all the time about having to transport 2 people with different flight numbers.
I then got handed over to a porter who would transport my suitcase (when we found it) through customs. The carousel had been needed for the next flight so 901 bags were in heaps around the place.
The porter and I were then reunited with the Indianne so that he could also take her bags through customs.
Customs officials were preoccupied standing over scattered suitcase contents strewn over the floor.
Level one of the car park was closed and the queue for the lifts was unsafe for wheelchair users due to the frantic jostle of backpacks and trollies by unthinking people.
And carpark pickup was temporarily closed (originally due to too many cars unable to move, but things had improved a little). I was left shivering in the cold while my taxi driver argued to be allowed to pick me up.
I had arrived at Heathrow a good half an hour early, but left several hours late.
England has that familiar dusty green
and greyness that not so much welcomes the
wanderer but seeks cat-like, to ignore the
flagrant act of desertion. Busy; lacking
the organisation, and indeed the charm,
of the officious, or, of the more laid-back
nations, she also lacks the energy of
youth. I feel as if I’ve accidentally
rolled into a retirement shelter where the
staff have been absent for weeks. And the gentle
old folks fluster, disempowered by the thought
that they have truly, already done enough.
The green edges slowly into an autumn
shaded brown with discarded leaves that pile
in gutters to be wept over by cold rain;
skeletons bending empty-handed into
the lost farewell of a sad-mannered grey sky.