I’m an artist planning to visit Tokyo in April, in my wheelchair. I use images and words to explore, through my Disabled Gaze, relationships, social positioning and the psychological impact of the unseen exclusion (for example when steps or platforms are used as a metaphor)
I also work with other disabled artists and am currently preparing Phase 2 of Testing the Edges (Phase 1 being an action research project funded by Arts Council England, exploring and documenting what disparate groups of disabled artists might have in common and who the audience might be for their work).
Phase 2 uses the research conclusions and resulting questions to explore and document possibilities for integration of disabled and non-disabled people in creating and presenting an interactive performance piece. It will also research possibility of the informed audience and issues around the economic viability of Disability Arts.
Not speaking Japanese, but wanting to be able to access Disability Arts in Tokyo, I am attempting to find places to visit and possibly people to contact
Breaking. The word has become familiar to me. I see it every day; I don’t always notice it, but have a subconscious awareness that it is there. It has acquired an association with the brownish-orange colour and the marching line of alphabetic ants that accompany it – somewhere between the menu-bar and the headline article on the BBC News website that is my homepage.
Breaking; the significance of the word has never attacked me before. Breaking News: it is good to know what’s going on in the world and so instantly. Except that this news is personal. This breaking is the earthquake in Japan and the tsunami warning. It affects Tokyo where I have a loved one.
SP lives and works in the Japanese capital, he has been there four years and is familiar with life there. The implications of Breaking… hit hard; the horrendous possibilities of this particular Breaking… tear into me, sending my mind into turmoil.
The email that pings in from Tokyo reassures me that he is safe. His workplace is shaken, but not broken. The workforce has been sent home, transport is not working but SP lives close enough to his work to make this possible. His home appears safe. I would speak to him, but he keeps breaking up. Reception around the work building is poor.
Earthquakes, tsunami and the unseen threat of radiation; we may not be in the aftermath yet, but jargon is slipping into my conversation.
“Brown-outs” are a big concern. Japan relies heavily on nuclear power and being without electricity is already a problem. Power to communicate; power to produce, store and prepare food and water; power to rescue, to repair and rebuild; power is key to survival and recovery.
I reflect on my earlier use of “meltdown” to describe something that happens to me. I acknowledge that my own personal “meltdown” bears no relationship to the one that is possibly threatening Japan. It is hard to take in the enormity. I cannot immediately relate to the death tolls, the reports of injury.
How soon can Japanese power production return to necessary levels? Japan and indeed the commercial world depends on it. And how accessible will this crippled be Tokyo for a wheelchair user?
SP tells me that the streets of Tokyo are quieter than normal, but there are still restaurants open and food is available. His phone needs charging; the food in his freezer needs eating, and he is conserving his supplies of bottled water and non-perishable food.
As this day progresses further quakes are being reported, images of flooding and fires dominate the media; images of destruction, warnings of mud-slides and unstable buildings; whole villages and towns wiped away, all these things speak of horror and heartbreak.
I recall when you laid
inside me; when your heartbeat
changed me forever. And I
watch the child weeping; the father
searching; pictures of a missing wife.
In the small details are the
points of access that compel me
to engage painfully with
hurt beyond imagining
from somewhere the earth does not move
and my house is still where it should be.
Incredibly this continues. The earth still shakes, the threat is still there of both quake and tsunami, but it is all overshadowed by the nuclear disaster. Are we in danger of losing sight of the main priority?
SP believes that the nuclear threat, whilst serious, is being over-hyped by the media. His life continues as normal apart from the continued earthquakes. No-one is saying what might happen if the four reactors have to be abandoned. I am unknowing and it is scary.
So much can happen in two weeks, and my trip could still be possible. Going against the flow, I wonder about continuing my preparations to fly to Narita Airport. It seems surreal.
Friends and loved ones advise against going and I become aware of some of the pressures being laid on folk who live and work in the Japanese capital.
Its hard to tear myself away from the constant stream of “live” Breaking…news.
I’m packed and ready to go. I’ve read up on radiation levels, checked out the frequency and strength of the earthquakes and received supplies of dark, exotic chocolate from concerned friends.
I’m worrying that my plans will be unworkable and find that keeping an open mind gives access to all kinds of anxieties. Disaster aside, having to be this flexible has elements of excitement. I am encouraged by the Japanese strength of mind and business as usual attitude.There are days, though, when all the planning and pacing necessary to make my life function weigh impossibly heavily on me.
I still hope to visit the Hasedera Temple at Kamakura. The big attraction is the large number of Jizo statues. These small stone images, protectors of travellers and children, are said to provide comfort and support especially to women who have lost children through miscarriage or abortion.
I have my own artworks grown out of questions provoked by my miscarriages and the common reactions of kindly friends: ponderings on where disability begins.
I had originally hoped to use them to illustrate my Tokyo preparations, but with the disaster they felt too provocative and painful.
Maybe they will yet resonate.
April 2: Arriving at Narita Airport
Nine-fifteen, we are early, and I sit waiting as ambulant folk walk off the plane. My wheelchair arrives and then I too make my way out onto Japanese territory. Lots of bowing, helpful people assist my passage through the airport terminal. I am met, greeted and handed over. SP and I take an unfamiliar train journey back to his flat in Tokyo. For him, after the earthquake and tsunami, so much has changed, for me it is all new, exciting and filled with trepidation. Everywhere is clean, calm and warm.
The journey into Tokyo holds my attention, stands of tall pines tangled with equally tall bamboo amaze me. Why don’t I know about this? Awaiting me is the hired powerchair and after a quick unpacking and sampling of Tokyo water we head out on my first exploration of Ginza.
SP did tell me that Mega City Tokyo is more like a collection of villages and the description is accurate. The texture of Tokyo is rich and thought provoking and everywhere are reminders that people are rising to the challenge to be helpful and supportive of each other through the aftermath of the disaster.
There is so much to look at, I could easily be overwhelmed: the architecture, the unban geography, the people all vie for attention. My fascination with shoes draws me into the first shop. I am greeted with bows, I admire the shoes and the assistant smiles. Suddenly we are communicating, she makes images of bubbles, circles with her fingers floating, “Tokyo frighten”. We are talking about radiation, she mimes the bubbles sinking into her skin, this invisible threat far scarier than quakes or tsunami.
Our walk into Ginza followed the river outside SP’s flat, and although the area shows no sign of it, the tsunami did sweep a metre or so of water into Tokyo and muddy debris was deposited along the river walk. Everywhere is clean and there are plants; trees, flowers and grasses in every conceivable patch of land, or in pots and tubs. On our return along the riverwalk, melancholy jazz notes float over the river from a lone musician on the opposite bank.
Early evening and via the metro, we head over to Roppongi to eat. Tokyo has a low-key sparkle. The only lights on Tokyo Tower are the aircraft warning lights. I actually find it beautiful and very atmospheric. The waterfall at Mori Tower is switched off, the iconic spider sculpture is unlit. The Mori Gallery is showing Marcel Duchamp, Dali, Jackson Pollock, Rene Magritte and more. I ponder this over a dish of Soba. I must come back in the daytime and view the exhibition.
The arrangements are made;
the day has been booked.
Food, drink and the blue plastic
ground cover, all are
ready but the sun.
And a cold wind blows.
But all is not lost
and rescue provided by
an enormous bunch
of lurid pinkness;
balloons on strings,
stand-ins for the cherry
that failed to bloom on the day.
Today we take the metro to Meiji Jingumae, it involves changing trains and using platform lifts. It all happens very smoothly and although there are several points where I am anxious, the service is very efficient and the station staff always polite and helpful. We visit the shrine at Meiji Jingu and I take masses of pictures. The access is very good. The shrine buildings and Shinto Wedding Hall are set in 175 acres of mostly woodland planted by volunteers 90 odd years ago. There is also a garden which predates the shrine and woodlands. It is all beautifully kept, but there is a cold wind and I am glad to have lunch in the warm restaurant. The bowls of tea are constantly topped up and my hot-water bottle gets a refill too.
After lunch we head for Yoyogi Koen where the cherry blossom parties have already started. A long queue of mostly teenage girls, winds into the park from the neighbouring stadium. There are police, crowd and traffic managers everywhere; placards and collecting boxes lead me to think it has something to do with the disaster fund. I do not read or speak Japanese, I can only observe.
We stop to watch a troup of Elvis impersonators street dancing, before winding our way through the park. Progress is slow, there is so much to see. Between the party-goers are the entertainers and people playing games.
The entertainment varies from actual performances to people just practicing or the spontaneous coming together of passing musicians; Boy Bands attract masses of young Japanese girls. The atmosphere is energising and cheerful in spite of the silent fountains, cold winds and constant reminders.
Packing as much as we can into the day, we head off to Omote Sando, a label shopper’s pardise, where we take refreshment. Architecturally Omotesando is amazing – anyone who is anyone has a building here. The one we are in reminds me gently of the Round Tower in Kobenhavn, the floors all slope their way around (or in this case, oblong) to the top. There are fascinating boutiques, small restaurants and beautiful cafes lining the way. I have roasted twig tea and a bean and chocolate cake with ginger cream; the smell and taste lingering Japanese reminders.
I seldom see anybody in a wheelchair, yet access is great and the attitude is amazingly helpful and positive. I feel more like a person here, and less like a wheelchair attachment.
April 4: An outing to Ginza
Minato. Gateway to the sea.
Gateway? Is this your first
port of call? Sumida
feeds you, ripples and
scurries to greet you
and you nudge back,
pushing and teasing.
Gateway? Can she keep
you out? When you surge
with your burdens of
wreckage and mud, will
Minato survive? Will the
shrine on the corner
Today I’m out on my own, it’s brilliant sunshine and I’m going from Minato, Chuo-ku, where SP lives by the Sumida river, into Ginza. Road works outside the flat require two police persons to ensure safety and even though there is no traffic in sight (it’s a very quiet road), I am solemnly greeted with a bow and the non-existent traffic halted to allow me to cross.
I pass my little landmarks: the shrine, the pots of pansies and orchids, the spider plants, and the playground and arrive at the lift to take me down to Hatchobori station. I am welcomed at the information booth; my ticket is secured, the platform lift unpacked and the portable ramp fetched. I wait patiently and they find this reassuring. The lift is operated by the staff and all is carefully done by the book. I then wait at a marked spot on the platform. The train stops on target and the staff flutter and fuss while I roll on board.
At Ginza I am assisted by an impressively helpful member of staff who, at the mention of ‘shopping’ escorts me out of the station and walks me to within sight of the Mitsukoshi department store. Here I roll around among Scandinavian knick-knacks, cakes so perfect they look unreal, and tiny shoes that seem strangely old fashioned. Next door are the big-name, diamond jewellery sellers and a flower shop.
I had decided to roll back via Higashi-Ginza and Tsukiji and at the store exit, attempt to confirm my direction of travel. Ginza, Higashi-Ginza and Tsukiji run imperceptibly into each other along a main highway.
Unfortunately none of the locals have heard of my destination; mention of Tsukiji however, brings eager confirmation that I am indeed going in the right direction. The road is a busy one, three or four lanes in each direction, but packed on each side with a fascinating selection of little shops. Dropped curbs here are as variable as in England, and uneven slopes cause the unfamiliar powerchair to career out of control. I need to keep my eyes open and be a little careful.
This route is now familiar and I relax and enjoy the roll, browsing some of the little shops along the way. Many are inaccessible: steps or impossibly narrow entrances keep me out. My path curves left at the river and I follow the walkway home.
Pausing by the river I reflect on the outing. I have not needed to say “excuse me” once. I have not been made to feel like a leper by folk backing away from me in alarm. No-one has looked dismayed at my mere presence or intimated that I am taking up too much space. I have felt accepted in a way I hardly ever do on the streets of England.
I have felt like one bird in a flock of starlings: trusted to move carefully by those around me; to hold the complex pattern and respect my neighbour. Strange as it seems, I actually felt a sense of belonging.
April 5: Visit to Roppongi and the Mori Gallery exhibition
In silver dragonskin
the rippling river
slides over the rolling
muscles of the sea.
Quiet now in her lair
Sumida still attracts
my attention. Su mi ma sen.
Excuse me! Not the
apologetic version I
repeat endlessly at home.
Here I am.
Take notice of me!
Su mi ma sen
Sumida showing me
another way, a better way
Today Sumida sparkles in brilliant sunshine and her reflections ripple on the ceilings of the flat. A good day to visit Roppongi Hills and the view from the Mori Tower.
I have discovered that the shrine I pass on the way to Hatchobori station is Teppozu Inari Shrine, dedicated to the Guardian God of Minato. Minato has reportedly been the gateway to Tokyo by sea since the Edo era, so it surprises me that so few Japanese have heard of it.
I roll over to the station, and complete the usual ritual to board the train. Roppongi is a longer journey and there are no wheelchair spaces in the carriage, so I try to park thoughtfully. My interpretation of Japanese way of thinking is something I call Narrow Focus. You see what you need to see.
Mostly it benefits me. I enjoy not feeling like a leper; not having people pressing themselves against a wall to give me three unnecessary metres of room; not constantly accusing me of speeding; not loudly warning loved ones that they will be mown down. Here people take it for granted that I will not do anything to upset the system.
The staff are a little less attentive at Roppongi, but it’s easy to find my way around. The station is in Roppongi Hills and the Mori Tower impossible to miss. I buy a ticket to the viewing platform and the Mori Gallery exhibition. An ear popping ride to the fifty-second floor brings me to The View. It is indeed impressive.
Tokyo stretches as far as the eye can see; Tokyo Tower, bold and red in the sunlight, is being slowly outshone by Sky Tree, the giant to it’s left. The sea of skyscrapers is punctuated by tiny hillocks of soil with mini-diggers working; by patches of rust where old metal objects gather in breakers’ yards; by gleaming blue ceramic tiles, the tiny roof-tops of ancient and modern buildings; by shrines and temples, the cemetery and the cherry blossom.
Eight lane highways carve grooves into the rich texture, then layer-up road, rail and river, linking the past with the future. Tokyo Harbour is also visible, glinting peacefully, the tsunami not in mental focus right now. Further around I notice a change in the tone of the misty skyline, this is where Fuji-San lives. I hope there will be time for a dedicated visit and that Fuji-San will not be hiding in the mist.
The gallery is on the fifty-second floor and I’m taken behind the scenes to access the lift. The poster I saw earlier was misleading; “French Window” is an exhibition of works by Marcel Duchamp and various winners of the Marcel Duchamp Prize. The play on words seems overly tedious to me: Duchamp’s playful “Fresh Widow” gains little from bouncing the idea back on itself. A shame because the exhibition is well presented, thought-provoking and fun.
My next destination, the National Arts Centre, is no fun at all to get to. Rolling through the rather seedier Roppongi Crossing is an adventure, but as the road surfaces begin to deteriorate, the journey gets a little dangerous. And the signposted route ends in steps. I do find another way, but the place is closed. I head back to Roppongi Hills, just a little frazzled and disappointed.
Later SP and I meet up to eat in the Mori Tower, not his favourite sushi place, which has steps, but somewhere he pronounces acceptable. The food is delicious. We make our way home through the moody half-dark that is Tokyo in recovery. The nuclear reactors and cooling systems are on the TV news. We don’t watch it.
April 6: Cherry trees in Hamarikyu Garden
The morning river is
pleated and folded. The sea
monster heaves it’s way
inland and the early
sun sparkles, scurrying
to the harbour, are battered
against the river’s concrete
containment. Battered and scraped
as the monster crosses the
river-bed; lazy this morning,
the caged animal not
breaching it’s containment
just rolling it’s muscle.
A warning, a statement:
You are the river, but I am
Today I roll along the river-walk to Tsukiji. Cherry blossom is exploding everywhere in the warm sun. Road-works threaten to block my exit, the rill normally containing water, is empty due to power-saving and is being repaired. The workmen assist me. I need to switch off the chair’s power and they push; the skinny wheels make control less easy.
Tsukiji has the famous Fish Market, but today I’m going to the Hamarikyu Garden. There are notices everywhere, mostly they seem to be about power-saving; here at Tsukiji they proclaim closures of a more drastic nature. The tsunami will have long term effects on the fishing, and the radiation will have it’s effect too; the notices are signed, “The Earthquake Generation”.
Access to the Gardens is terrible. The steep and wonky slopes that occur quite frequently are just too much for the skinny wheels. Power hubs do have their disadvantages. I switch off and grab a fit looking young couple; they manhandle the chair over the dodgy bits.
Inside I’m informed that I’m free entry, given a map in English and one in Japanese. The Japanese map has a wheelchair route marked out in red and I’m reassured. Then I notice the very wonky gravel slope that leads into the garden proper. My heart sinks. I point out the difficulty to the ticket man. He offers no help. I ask him to push the chair over the bad bit, he agrees and I’m in.
Somewhere I have read that “by English standards the park at Hamarikyu is nothing special” and maybe through English eyes it is not. However it has fabulous trees, elegant spaces, beautiful stones, a tidal pond, and the best cherry tree so far.
The tree extends a welcoming branch, arched low over the pathway so I am surrounded by the delicate scent and amazing blossom: magical. And people are queuing to have their photograph taken with it. I spend quite some time in this garden, now and again asking for help which seems willingly given.
Eventually I decide to find out if there is a different exit, there is and it’s accessible. I roll back, slightly anxious about my path. The workmen have finished for the day, and fortunately they have left just enough room for me to get through. I roll home along the river, chasing the last remaining rays of sunshine that filter through the gaps between skyscrapers.
Earthquake / 7 April 2011
on giant fish
makes sense to me
now I too have
ridden a serpent;
The great snake monster
that is Gaia, arched
and rolling spine
curving and bucking with
shivers and shudders.
I exercise the
Asakusa is today’s destination and I will need to change trains. Ueno is suggested as the obvious change point, but when I ask the station staff to check out the elevator situation they change their minds and send me via Ningyocho. An embarrassed-looking, but helpful assistant carrying the portable ramp, travels with me to the change-over station.
Asakusa is a large station with confusing signage. I join several Japanese tourists looking for the correct exit. Thanks to Google maps I have a good idea what to expect and in principle it’s easy to get to my destination. Confronted by the reality, I’m a little overwhelmed.
Soon, tiny shops line narrow walkways en route to the Temple Complex and, together with ancient and new pagoda-style buildings, vie for my attention. It’s hard to decide which to explore first. The shrine is my ultimate destination, but getting there is a joyful roll from one distraction to the next.
People here are very chatty, all of the Japanese mention the quake situation, none of the Westerners do.
I sample strange food including sesame ice-cream, which tastes a little like wet sawdust; buy a Japanese coin purse and look at Samurai swords. I find a beautiful kimono and copies of famous woodblock prints. And eventually I arrive.
There seem to be a lot of wheelchair users here and when I find the access lift is closed I enroll one of them in my quest. Sadly the lift is closed because of power saving. There are other shrines, some with one step and some with level access and all have burning incense as well as the flowing water for cleansing. There is plenty to see and do for all the visitors.
Here in Asakusa
are the crips.
We are many
powered or peopled.
We can all pass
the giant sandals
high on a wall
out of reach.
But to touch them
and good walking.
I sample the “Rubbing Buddha”, a metal statue with a soft brassy gleam on feet, knees, belly, chest and head. I watch a laughing woman rub her own knee, then the knees on the statue; an intense man who starts at the feet and works seriously upwards and a woman who rubs slowly on the belly; the man who is holding her hand, kneels down and reaches for the Achilles heel.
An elegant wooden hair-pin lures me into a tiny shop, and the owner soon expresses great concern for my safety. Tokyo is dangerous now, he says and he thinks I am very brave.
Around five-thirty it gets dark, the little shops are closing and lanterns are being lit at the night-time eateries. SP and I meet up around seven and I get my first experience of a rolling sushi bar. This one has chairs, so they can take one out for me.
I try two new dishes: the fish custard and the fermented bean curd. The first has a delicate flavour, but the second tastes like the pong of smelly feet. We eat quite a stack of plates-worth and drink copious mugs of Japanese tea.
We leave feeling full and happy, there is a moon and stars, Sky Tree has a few lights, the funfair has closed and all is peaceful.
The earthquake that shakes Tokyo later that evening is not unlike the frequent smaller ones that are a fact of life.
April 8: Seeking art
And words I do not understand.
Artist? Yes, artist, and
here we communicate.
I point to me:
No, oh no,
Today I return to the National Arts Centre and it is open. Getting in to the space is free for disabled people and carers, but the individual exhibitions cost varying prices. Tickets are bought outside, but all the information about the exhibitions is inside and the girl in the ticket office tells me there is no Japanese art in the building.
I go in anyway; there is a vast gallery of paintings by a group of local artists and it is free. The works are all large, but that is all they have in common; the quality varies a lot. I would guess there is no selection process. The whole area smells of fresh oils and is buzzing with visitors.
In the many aisles, I get lost, I keep thinking that I’ve been here before. Girls sitting in chairs, cleanly painted Western girls; roof-tiles, meticulously painted ceramic tiles with a mediterranean flavour; similar images punctuating a variety of all rather forgettable pictures.
The only one to stay with me is a disturbing, blue, Picasso style image of two naked girls looking stressed and unhappy.
Thinking that the artists themselves may be manning this exhibition, I try again to ask about Disability Arts. I am upset by the very negative body language that accompanies the realisation that I am asking about disabled artists.
I decide to explore Roppongi Crossing and Roppongi Hills before meeting up with SP for dinner. I am approached by a sad looking young woman who is possibly on drugs; I wave her away, not having the vocabulary to deal with the situation.
It is incredibly windy at Roppongi Hills and as I shelter in the circular shopping mall to take photographs she appears again, she is hard to shake off:
with an el:
a drafty spot for the well-heeled.
No sticks here,
I sit in the Hollywood
Metro Hat and I
could be anywhere, but
for the language.
And just down the road
caters for the rest.
Here I was propositioned.
A slinky girl
snaked up to me
with a thrusting body
and words incomprehensible
except for kinky.
April 9: Kamakura and the Jizo statues
possessor of all
the blessings of the earth;
and out of reach.
for the souls of
But no comfort to me,
inaccessible on a hillside
half-way up steps.
Hasedera Temple, with all
it’s attention to detail
is a joy and a disappointment.
The garden, however
and gives me
it’s own blessing.
Today we are going to the garden at Kamakura, with, at the Hasedera Temple, the Jizo statues which I hope will somehow resonate with some of my own work.
We go via Yokohama and the final train journey from Kamakura to Hase, down a single line track is enchanting. Trees and shrubs brush against the carriages as we pass and in some places I’m sure the local inhabitants could reach out of their windows and touch the train.
The Temple garden is easy to find, but doesn’t look that accessible, it seems to be mostly built on a hillside. At the ticket kiosk I meet an unhelpful “jobsworth” but her collegue waves me in for free, with a wry smile.
The Jizo statues are sadly out of my reach. For the first time since I got to Japan, I am deeply disappointed. A great wave of it hits me, but we go in anyway. The garden is beautiful and I take picture upon picture.
I had plans for my artwork and the statues; at some point I will need to really think about that.
I have little glimpses of the Jizo half-way up the hillside and send SP up to photograph them while I wander the accessible parts of the garden. The beauty of it all soon lifts my spirit and I am reluctant to leave, but not far away is a giant Buddha and we plan to see that as well.
He proves to be in an attractive garden too, and although he’s big, he is, I’m told, not to compare to the one in Hong Kong; well, that’s for another visit!
We stop at Yokohama on the way back, do a little exploring and eat in Chinatown. Chinatown is very glitzy, in complete contrast to our day in the sticks, but our chosen restaurant is quiet, elegant and warm. It gets quite chilly here in the evenings.
We eat dim sum and drink Jasmine tea until we are stuffed and then take the trains back to Tokyo. It’s been a good day, we are both tired and forget one change. Thank goodness for the man with the ramp!
Today there have been no notices about power-saving, only notices about cancellations and reductions of train services, and at night it’s obvious that everywhere is operating with reduced lighting. Tomorrow we have an early start, we take the Shinkansen to Kyoto.
April 10: Shinkansen day
Surely I must be
falling off the
edge of the world.
The skyscrapers lean
angles; and cars,
why don’t they
Riding the Shinkansen
is a glide into wonderland.
Tokyo to Kyoto,
in just four stops.
I have no sensation
of speed, yet the
journey is over
Today we get up at five, and I’m excited to be having my first high speed train journey. Japan has two incompatible power systems so there is no power-saving in the west of the country and the Shinkansen to Kyoto still runs.
Travel by wheelchair always takes longer than non-wheelchair users plan for, and access delays at the station mean that we arrive early for the seven-thirty, rather than late for our reserved seats on the seven-o’clock. And being early we secure seats in the unreserved carriage; it’s as easy as that. SP is a little disappointed, on my behalf, that I am missing the reserved carriage, but I am excited just to be on the train.
The train journey is incredibly smooth, there is no sensation of speed, just great views of Japan. There is countryside; mountainous, wooded, and lots of water, though seldom flat for long and hardly a view without buildings on it somewhere. The journey seems over too quickly.
In Kyoto we leave our luggage at hotel, eager to start exploring the city that claims such history.
The Toji Temple complex is close to the hotel and quite stunning; it’s shrines are impressive; the cherry blossom is perfect and the five-story pagoda, at 187 feet, the tallest in Japan.
We stroll through a public garden on our way to the next tourist attraction, it’s full of folk playing games and having cherry-blossom picnics. Hongwanji Temple initially looks somewhat life-less, but that impression is so miss-leading. There are ca. three thousand people sitting quietly inside as the second day of their seven hundred and fifty year celebrations begin. The thanksgiving ceremony to the founder is being televised; screens and loudspeakers make it all very accessible.
I am made to feel very welcome, ramps allow access to the main ceremony as well as various shrines. It is all most impressive; the great wooden building with it’s intricate carvings; the silk brocade robes of the processing celebrants, the flower decorations looking like Christmas trees in giant vases with blossoms like lilies and tulips; and the silence.
Then there is music and chanting and a sense of timelessness that eventually helps us decide to leave. We have no idea how long this part of ceremony will last and are now keen to check into our hotel. It is a relief to stretch out for a while; I smell of incense.
April 11: Walking in Kyoto
We have no gods,
we celebrate our founder,
our gratitude; the teaching
that enables us to find
The true path.
We have no gods
we celebrate the man; we want
to live the way he lived;
dress the way he dressed;
think the way he thought.
And I begin to see how
maybe, just maybe,
celebrity, the cult,
was born here.
After a hard days sightseeing (gravel and beautiful stone pathways being hard on the spine), I get a hard nights sleep. In all the old woodblock prints I so admire, people sleep on mats on the floor, with little wooden pillows. Japanese beds are still hard. I fold the very long Japanese duvet into three and put it under the bottom bed sheet; I sleep under the duvet from the second bed.
Drawing the heavy curtains in the morning reveals an over-caste sky, but no rain is forecast and we plan more city exploration. By the time we have eaten breakfast and got ourselves ready the day has warmed up and we have not gone far before we pause for ice-creams.
Our first discovery of the day is a similar Temple complex to the one we found yesterday. This one is being extensively renovated. It claims to have the largest wooden building in the world and because the whole complex is tented with scaffolding and tarpaulin, with lots of accessible working platforms, I get to explore places usually off limits.
I recognise the layout, also the ca. three thousand seats awaiting the congregation who, also here, will continue to celebrate their founder for one whole year. I am approached by one of the members who seems to be offering to enlighten me. I feel uncomfortable, perhaps even more so since I have just seen an enormous coil of black rope. It’s fatter than my arm and made of human hair.
We meander our way over to Gion, where there are covered walkways with stalls rather like those in Asakusa. The selection is different here, but just as much fun to explore. I buy some knobbly silver chopsticks and a piece of silk. There are the usual foods on sticks and we nibble some delicious raw tuna.
Later we buy hot roasted chestnuts and take them over to yet another Temple complex. Unlike any of the others this one is painted bright, almost fluorescent orange and jam-packed with stalls.
Getting in is problematic, the best wheelchair access being blocked off, but SP is perseverant and although my bones are somewhat shaken, we do find a way.
The stalls are cooking food, making candy-floss, selling netsuke, beads and souvenirs and there are lots of vending machines with drinks. There are also masses of people picnicking on blue tarpaulins, because here there are cherry trees in bloom.
There is a stall with whole small fish on sticks waiting be cooked in mini fire-pits, we have fun trying them. By the time we head back to the hotel it’s dark and cold, but the day has been good.
A gold-framed message of sympathy and support for the earthquake victims of 11 03 2011, has appeared in the hotel foyer; in Tokyo the ground has been shaking again.
April 12: Golden Palace
I sit in a swirl
of good luck.
A teasing wind
blows it toward me
and I laugh
into the dancing storm.
At night, undressing
for bed, a
escapes from my
clothes to the floor.
I wish, in this
circle of blessings,
of my memories.
I have seen Kinkakuji, the Golden Palace, in books and it has also been on my wish list of places to visit. Today we hope to get there.
SP declares that we are to investigate the buses, so we buy a ticket and queue. All the buses have wheelchair symbols on them and a button to press for assistance.
As the first bus arrives we make eye contact with the driver, but he ignores us. The bus fills up and drives off.
The second bus comes ten minutes later, and seeing us first in the queue, the driver gets out the ramp. This time we go too. I have to curl into a ball to cope with the travel, and it is still painful, but we get there.
The day has become hot and very sunny and the Golden Palace, with it’s two upper stories covered in gold leaf, really does shine impressively, both in the shimmering air and in the surrounding water. The garden around it is peaceful in spite of all the visitors. The cherry trees are in full bloom.
Kyoto is popular with Japanese tourists too, and of course still hosts all those people who are scared of being in Tokyo right now.
Reluctantly we move on. Kyoto has hundreds of shrines and Temple complexes and between our planed destinations are wonderful, stumble-upon discoveries. The stone garden in the next Temple complex, covers a vast area, but also has plants and many shrines.
Kyoto has such a different flavour to Tokyo, being visibly surrounded by wooded, mountainous countryside. There are more plants on the even tinier side streets, and the side streets are the important places. The big highways are not much more than conduits from one district to the next.
We have decided to explore the local trains to get back to the hotel, so once again we move on. Around the station area we peer nosily into peoples gardens. Wonderful gems, with beautifully shaped trees, carefully placed stones, bamboo (how do people keep it under control?), water and a strange and hideous figure that crops up everywhere.
Often made of plastic in garish colours, it might represent a bear, with a beak-like snout; it might be male and female and it is rather fat. I have called it the lady-boy owl-bear. I’m probably being disrespectful, and certainly ignorant, I need to do some research.
Everywhere the cherry trees are blossoming; towards evening it gets windier and the petals dance through the air like snow. Petals landing on you bring good luck.
The little local train works well, it gets just as crowded as the bus, but I cope better. The days still cool rapidly in the evenings and after a short rest in our rooms, we wrap up and wander off to find food.
A local Chinese-Japanese restaurant is warm and aromatic. I have a fish and cabbage dish that does warm me, though the taste is very mild. The other guests are amused by my chopsticks – I eat with them and I wear an arrangement of them in my hair. They attempt to communicate with me with smiles and approving gestures.
The people of Kyoto seem not to practice the Narrow Focus quite as strictly as the people of Tokyo.
April 13: In a Bamboo Forest…
Yet here I sit
with no wi-fi
in a modern
hotel in Kyoto;
Another clear and sunny day; Japan is warming up. Being in a hotel has focused me on some different things: I notice the little green circles with white crosses marking maps with refuge points, places to gather if the earth quakes badly. And I find the rechargeable torch by my hotel bed, together with the Gideon Bible and Teachings of Buddha.
The earthquakes that still remind Tokyo dwellers of danger, are not felt here. To all intents and purposes life has returned to normal. The separate, and incompatible, power system in the west of Japan means there is no power-saving here.
The only daily reminder is the gold-framed notice in the hotel foyer expressing sympathy. And while Japan’s “renewing, rebuilding” mantra is repeated here, the emphasis often seems to be more on forms of conservation.
Saga-Arashiyama is today’s destination. The local train worked well yesterday, so going to see the Bamboo Forest has become possible.
We have the Japanese buffet breakfast, I’m working my way through varieties of seaweed and vegetables with variations on egg and fish, followed by fresh fruit. My favourite dish is a fish custard; made with prawns and straight from the cooking, it’s delicious.
Arriving at Saga-Arashiyama, and heading for the forest, I am surprised by the crowds of tourists, but the explanation is soon obvious: the wide river with a wonderful avenue of cherry trees. It looks amazing and warrants a detour; the trees are in full blossom, the day is warm and windy and blossom swirls around us like snow.
I just have to try out a Japanese ice-cream that has five flavours. It proves to be enormous and I start to giggle, soon all the people around me are laughing too. The first layer is vanilla, then green tea, cherry blossom, sesame and finally, possibly roast tea. Some good, some not.
Then more detours: shrines and gardens intercept our path to the bamboo, but eventually we get there. Cool and elegant, bamboo 40cms or more in diameter and tall, so very, very tall, whispers secretively in the breeze. Quite magical.
The forest is on a hill, but the path through is tarmac and travelled by locals in cars as well as tourists in rick-shaws and taxis. The climb is steep, sometimes scary in the lightweight powerchair, but exhilarating.
Being surrounded by these blue-grey giants is like being in a fairy-tale. Here and there, where the sun creeps through, bright camellias bloom.
The countryside in this part of Japan is stunning; hilly and tree covered, it provides a glorious tapestry of spring colours as a backdrop to the whole Kyoto experience. And it is reflected everywhere, giving me lots of ideas to take away.
April 14: Soari: arts and disability or Disability Arts?
The morning looks sunny and bright, I have promised to try the stewed root vegetables for breakfast, and I do, but won’t be doing it again!
We plan another bus journey today; Ginkakuji, the garden with the raked silver sand, is on my wish list. I wait in the queue while SP buys our tickets so that we can be first in the new queue. It doesn’t help. The driver ignores us and loads up the bus. They come every ten minutes, so we wait.
The next bus is no better. We notice that it has steep steps to board and realise that the wheelchair symbol on the outside has no real meaning. The only accessible buses are those with the symbol in the destinations window. We ask when the next accessible bus will arrive, but no-one knows. We wait.
The next bus is equally inaccessible, but buses to Ginkakuji go from three different points at this terminal, so we decide to try for one of the others. The wait here is twenty minutes, so we decide to give it one more shot. The bus is not accessible. We head for the train station.
Ginkakuji itself does not disappoint and I’m thrilled to be in the fabulous garden. The sand is actually a fine gravel, and although the “Gin” part of the name means silver, the sand is pale grey in the bright sunlight; very difficult to photograph.
Thank goodness for digital cameras, I can take as many pictures as I please and I do. The garden is so beautiful. Again, this is somewhere I do not wish to leave, but there is still more to see. We are going to follow the Philosophers Path, a long winding route beside a narrow stream lined with cherry trees.
People are promenading in traditional Japanese costume with summer umbrellas. The blossom is just going over and petals are falling like snow; it’s all amazingly beautiful. We stop in the warm sun for something called “apple and cinnamon cake sand” and are definitely amused.
The wheelchair’s skinny wheels have given me some hairy moments on the uneven surfaces, but SP has been on hand to prevent me ending up in the river. I have used up one battery and am glad of the spare. We change them over at the station and then dawdle our way back via Gion.
This is where I discover Soari.
A shop with gloriously beautiful, woven cloth hanging in the window, transfixes me. There is a step, but SP gets me in. Two smiling women hand me a paper in English: it explains Soari, a project to bring dignity and purpose to the lives of those who have been deprived of it.
Soari is mainly about disabled people, but does not exclude. Its a project which allows people to freely express themselves through freestyle weaving. I attempt to communicate and the ladies are thrilled that I love all of the garments displayed.
I buy a scarf with all the colours of the cherry tree in spring, and wear it; it’s delicious. I would love to know who made it and ask if it was one of the two smiling, helpful ladies. They back away from me. No, not them. Certainly not them. They are the helpers, the volunteers, certainly not the poor people who do the weaving…
Back in the hotel I wear my new scarf like shawl for our evening meal and feel fabulous.
April 15: Souvenir shopping in Kyoto
Plink, and I awake
to the wood on wood
sound of a falling
chopstick. I crawl out
of bed in the dark
and activate the
emergency torch to
Here I discover
my bed anchored
to the floor by four
solid steel brackets.
Reminders that Kyoto
is also vulnerable
to the earth dragon
and the great fish monster
Today we have decided to walk/roll to the Gion district for some souvenir shopping. Now that we have discovered the Keihan Railway we know we can always get a train back to Kyoto station.
The walk is punctuated by the familiar “ice-cream ritual” where I have discovered that I rather enjoy red bean ice-cream, together with “love potion”, a portion of vanilla, with bitter chocolate hearts and a blood-red sauce, it’s particularly good.
I never find souvenir shopping easy and welcome distractions like the elegant cranes on the river, and the Temples and museums that appear around every corner; from the solemn to the ridiculous, they all need exploring.
After I’ve found some souvenirs I can relax and enjoy the rest of the day.
The chopsticks in my hair
a lot of attention;
amused and bemused.
People smile and laugh
and seem to be saying
though the words are
Fingers and faces
make signs of approval
and slowly some words
take shapes that I
begin to understand:
After dark we explore tiny restaurants in dark little alleys, looking for atmosphere. We find all sorts, mostly up or down steep and narrow flights of stairs, but some are accessible. From the limited selection we choose one at random and it’s great. The food is fresh and delicious and the cold sake goes well with it. The interior is dark with chunky wood – a style I’m beginning to recognise as Japanese.
We roll leisurely home through the brightly lit and busy city. The day has been good.
I did miss out on a beautifully illustrated art book souvenir as SP didn’t think some of the illustrations were acceptable – too riske, but he raised no objections when I stopped to photograph “Hotel Chapel Cinderella” with it’s Disney-fantasy style exterior and its boldly advertised hourly rates.
And he was quite complacent about some of the seedier places we stumbled across when restaurant hunting: “this seems to be the way of the Japanese”
April 16: Fuji-San surprise
Luck hurtles down the river;
twirls around the feet of
feeding cranes; swirls
into little peaceful ponds.
Luck skips along the ground;
settles into drifts to lay
blush-pink carpets and
Luck flies through the air;
brushes my cheek, my lips,
decorates my hair;
creeps into my clothes.
Kyoto air is heavy with luck
and Fuji-San responds with
a surprise revelation.
Today we leave the peace of Kyoto and return to Tokyo where the earth still shakes and reminders are frequent. The day is warm, but overcast. I choose my favourite items from the breakfast buffet including the fish custard and pumpkin mash.
We pack and store our luggage at the hotel before setting out for a last look around. I photograph the odder things we come across; Japan is also a country of contrast and surprise. The wind is quite blustery and cherry blossom swirls everywhere, prompting smiles and laughter. Japanese do seem to be a happy people.
We buy nibbles for the journey: mini Japanese cheesecakes and a box of something that looks like folded handkerchiefs; collect our luggage from the hotel and check-in at the station. I get the usual helpful response that I believe is given to all wheelchair-travellers.
Trains are delayed today; Shinkansen is ten minutes late and we are escorted to a waiting room by a helpful man eager to practice his English. He returns five minutes before the train is due and it arrives precisely ten minutes late. We are helped on board.
This is where I get to understand SP’s disappointment at missing our reservation on the outbound journey. We have what amounts to a private room. It has a bench seat that is also a fold-out bed and a spare seat is hanging on the wall; there is plenty of room for my wheelchair. Shinkansen windows are small, like aircraft windows, but there is a good view out.
On the other side of the door is the accessible loo and a small curtained alcove with a basin. All very civilised. We settle to enjoy the journey; the sun has come out and it is now a beautiful clear day. Our nibbles, in shades of green, black and white, are a pleasant surprise.
Suddenly we become aware of the great presence in the landscape; clear and extremely impressive, Fuji-San is revealed in all his glory. We sit with our noses pressed to the window; what luck! All that cherry blossom must have worked.
We get this spectacular view for quite some minutes and attempt photographs; I’m so keen I lean from my wheelchair and fall out, laughing so much I miss a last look at the beautiful mountain. Fuji-San has a reputation for hiding in the mist and I had been wondering about the possibilities of seeing him. Such a great surprise, such a wonderful gift.
Back in Tokyo I have the platform change in Ginza to worry about. We try to find alternatives, but this time the station staff are uncommunicative and sticking to the regulations. At Ginza they want to manhandle my wheelchair and me, up the escalator. I dig in my heels and refuse.
Two staff patiently escort us out of the station, down the road for what seems like miles, and into an escalator. We’re all a bit grumpy, but this works better for me. From here it’s easy and we are soon home.
April 17: Earthquakes and Tokyo Tower
Sleek and lazy
when we returned,
Sumida gathers momentum;
with a sense of urgency.
her skin puckered
by soft breezes, she
ripples the skyscrapers
reflected in her journey,
along the riverbed.
The familiar bed
that is all hers
to play in, when
the great sea-monster
is hunting elsewhere.
It’s good to be back in Tokyo, even though she welcomes us with a whole series of quakes; just little ones, around four on the scale, but the centre is closer.
We make a late start, have a relaxed morning and then take the metro into Roppongi. We are going to try Tokyo Tower, but will explore the lower levels of Roppongi Hills and the Mori Garden first.
The garden is a neat little space, handy for local office workers with a bento box or an apple, to eat lunch. We make our way to Roppongi Crossing, looking at places to eat along the way. SP leads me into a little place that doesn’t look very special, but has a warm welcome.
They rearrange the tables to fit me in and we order. Just a light lunch, we think; I choose a bowl of sashimi on rice, SP has a similar bowl of rice with salmon eggs. We nibble soya beans cooked in their pods and served salted, while the food is prepared.
The food is utterly delicious. The fish as perfect and as fresh as it possibly can be, the wasabi is fresh and strong and the rice delicious. I devour it all.
Tokyo Tower, fifty-two this year, is not the most accessible. Her top is bending at a strange angle (reported to be damage from the earthquake), but she has plenty of visitors. We take the lift to the first viewing platform and, unlike the Mori Tower where I looked down on Tokyo, here I am in amongst the skyscrapers. I’m beginning to get a little familiar with this small corner of Mega-city Tokyo, but it is still amazing.
Getting down is a complicated process of swapping lifts; the temporarily non-disabled have to take flights of stairs to avoid mixing up the up-queue and the down-queue. There’s another quake while we are there.
Back on the ground, we return to the Hills for refreshments in an Internet cafe. Wifi, though widely available and free to use, needs a membership code to access. This too tends to come free with a purchase, but then of course you have to have made the purchase in Japan.
I browse the library, and sample flip-books until we decide on an early night. Back at home by seven, I have time to catch up on my mail, blogging and watching a little TV before bed.
April 18: Completing the art triangle
A glitter ball twirling in
bright sunlight, Sumida swirls in the
aftermath of more quakes.
all over Tokyo.
White Van Man,
with entourage buzzing,
Small groups assemble,
some with religious
Friend or foe?
I cannot guess.
carries the sounds
wide over the water.
When I visited the Mori Gallery a brochure informed me about the Roppongi Art Triangle, so today I will attempt to complete the triangle by visiting side three: 21_21 and the Suntory Museum of Arts.
SP is not impressed that I’m already returning to Roppongi, but there are other galleries here that are supposed to be open on Mondays so this seems to be my opportunity. Hatchobori station is quite busy when I arrive, but they are used to me now and getting me on a train is less of a performance.
I roll into Midtown and explore a little before attempting the first gallery. There are gardens here, and the paving is smooth and easy for the skinny wheels, so rather relaxing for me.
Designsight 21_21 is a modern concrete building, all slopes and angles; two giant panels of glass slide automatically, one after the other, to allow me entry. Inside looks very empty apart from the reception desk and some stairs.
I ask about access, but communication is poor. Pointing to stairs and my wheels usually does the trick, but not here.
The entry fee is 1000¥; I wave the money about and am rewarded by: “we have elevator-e”.
A young man is produced to remove a cordon from infront of the elevator and escort me down to the basement floor and the exhibition.
He keeps a watchful eye on me. Visitors here are very serious, apparently well-heeled and all of the temporarily-non-disabled variety. The exhibition “represents the world of design, a world of dreams and love created by designer Shiro Kuramata and master of Italian design Ettore Sottsass.”
Filmed interviews with the designers introduce the exhibition and threaten to alienate me before I’ve had a chance to see anything. I bristle at the declaration that: “Good design should totally ignore functionality in it’s quest for beauty.”
There is also a strange statement about Tokyo, “Tokyo has two faces: the public one which is unknowable and the private one which is secret and religious and the one we love.”
I move into the exhibition proper. And rather like it.
The gallery staff relax and stop watching me like hawks. I roll around some very attractive pieces that “outshine functionality and convenience” but are good to look at.
There is the bed long enough to sleep four people, head to toe and the iconic, clear acrylic chairs with embedded plastic roses by Kuramata, as well as a collection of Sottsass’ “Kachina”: very large glass objects with symbolic significance.
I am finally driven out by the concrete. Irritating my eyes and nose the building itself is a triumph of non-functional inconvenience.
Entry to gallery two is over a stepped bridge from Design 21_21 or by a badly signposted route through the Midtown mall. It also involves the elevator dance; controlling queues is a Japanese speciality involving one set of lifts and x number of stairs.
Ticket purchase and entrance are preferably on different levels. When I do get in I’m already confused.
The Suntory Art Museum is showing off: “Art in Life” displays choice items from it’s collection since it opened half a century ago. Ceramics, glass, calligraphy, textiles, screens and ornaments dating from the fourteenth century to present day are beautifully displayed – wired in case of earthquakes.
I join queues of visitors silently admiring the exhibits. I love the ancient Japanese pottery, the kimonos, the ornate hair decorations and the beautiful painted screens. The Japanese visitors whisper approval over the large collection of French glass by Galle.
The visitors here are also very serious apart from two men in business suits with briefcases who stand sniggering beside a display cabinet. There are several of these, they are not easy to see into from my wheelchair, but I try.
The cabinet contains a scroll. It depicts men bending over with exposed bottoms, engaged in a farting competition.
Outside on the streets, I’ve managed somehow to avoid most of the vans with loudspeakers campaigning for the coming elections and by evening they have all disappeared.
SP and I meet for dinner. I am assisted up steps to a regular haunt of his, a Hong Kong Chinese restaurant serving dim sum. He orders a selection of our favourites and they are very good.
I ask him if he loves the “secret and religious Tokyo” and he gives me a blank look. I explain about the exhibition I visited and he concludes that there might still be some people like that about, somewhere.
April 19: Super Bank Zone
You Are Here;
sitting by Sumida,
where tufts of bamboo
poke cheekily out of
neatly trimmed azalea
hedging; here and there
in full bloom.
Sumida, so close
to the harbour
smells of the sea.
I will follow her
into Tsukiji and
the Fish Market,
but here we part
company until the
evening when we meet
again; each with our own
impressions of the day
and each playing games
with our own dragons.
A rather mixed weather forecast mentions the possibility of rain, but I decide to chance setting out for Hibiya. I’m going to roll; I’ve missed the river and want to sit a while, hopefully in the sun, enjoying the water.
It’s warm by the river and to the consternation of locals, I shed upper, outer layers and sit in a sleeveless top, writing for a while. When it is time to move on I roll to the end of the walkway to take photographs before going back to the exit ramp and joining the road through to Hibiya.
I photograph all the things I will need to remember, including the empty fountain and rill. In Tsukiji I photograph the big fish painted, or mosaic-ed, onto the side of a building and, on the other side of corner-cafe “Jonathan”, the large shiny metal fish hung on the wall.
I roll through Higashi-Ginza, Ginza and finally Hibiya and head towards the public park. Sometimes these are rather boring spaces, much used for socialising and playing games, but often they are beautiful gardens too.
Entrance is over large, rough granite paving, pleasing to look at but very uncomfortable to ride on. I do see an end to it on my left and roll in that direction. The map tells me that I can complete a circle around a pond, so I set out.
On my right a massive stone wall of giant granite blocks and on my left trees arching over the pathway create a corridor leading to the pond. Emerging, I am greeted by the sight of a Japanese Crane stalking lunch in the reed bed.
I watch for a while and become aware of another unfamiliar bird sitting watching the Crane. We all sit keeping an eye on each other and suddenly, silently a cat appears to join in the watch.
Just when the Crane appears ready to strike and the cat moves carefully towards it, the whole scenario is interrupted by a noisy group of Japanese businessmen in suits. Pointing, laughing and shouting loudly, they run towards the action. I move on.
I had intended to explore the Imperial Palace grounds also, but as I head in that direction the sky darkens. Here I can see that the massive granite wall from earlier was part of the ancient palace moat. The water around it reflects the dark sky and carries a single white swan.
There is a lot of open space and no shelter, so I head back across the busy eight-lane road as the chilly wind stirs and buffets me about. Before I get to shelter large drops of cold rain are falling and I begin to look around for some warm refreshment.
The famous Mitsukoshi department store is the obvious choice, but after half an hour, six assistants, a free cake and helpful interference from other customers, the conclusion is that Japanese green tea is not available to drink here.
I can have coffee from a bar table which sits just under my chin, or English tea in a French cafe, but if I want Japanese, and at a decent table height, I will need to go next door. The Japanese fascination for all things Western surprises me.
The evening earthquake rocks everything for just long enough to worry, but I sleep like a log.
April 20: Able Art
I miss bathing in the sun.
Here in Tokyo is no
private space and sitting out
is shaded from the
heat. White skin is prized;
already selling well.
I seek out sheltered
corners from the wind
and watch face-masked
passers-by, in polo-necks
and dark coats; tiny
dogs in jump suits
and the odd rebel
in shirt-sleeves, skin
exposed to danger.
But strangely, no-one
Sumida, dark and mysterious, has sparkling circles spreading over her skin; she seems confused. Waves cross-cross beneath her surface and swish along her concrete sides with sounds of a beach; gulls call to each other.
Shortly after SP leaves for work another quake rattles the building. I’m not keen on being in the metro during a quake, but I’ve planned to visit Ningyocho, the textile district, today so I set out for the station.
It’s a beautiful sunny day and the station staff are happy to sell me a ticket, until I ask about access. Ningyocho has no elevator, I will not be able to leave the station. They look expectantly at me; I had hoped someone might have a suggestion, but that is not the Japanese way.
I say the first station that pops into my head: Ueno, and everybody is happy.
I read the road signs when I get there, but am not much wiser. I head in the opposite direction to the public park, towards Sky Tree. Still far away, here in Ueno it does actually look quite close.
From the main road I find my way into the little side streets and discover a hive of industry. Tiny places where cabinets, statues and shrines are carved, painted and gilded; minute garages where cars are serviced, smaller spaces packed with tools and ladders and each one with masses of plants and flowers in all sorts of containers, nooks or crannies. I wander enchanted among Samurai and sea monsters in various states of creation. I peer into possible shops, or are they homes?
One place is actually a flower-shop, but until I am in it I couldn’t tell the difference; the whole area looks residential at first glance. The Japanese don’t seem to make a distinction. I find Temples too and a shrine dedicated to business prosperity and matrimonial happiness. Here passers by pause on their journey to stand, clap their hands and bow the head.
In the afternoon I travel to Akihabara to meet with the friend of a friend’s friend. He will introduce me to an elusive Japanese person practicing and promoting Disability Arts. Akihabara is known as Electric City, but we are to visit an un-used school building which has been turned into artist studio space and galleries.
They have advertised an exhibition, the “White Rody Project” which appears to involve A|A galleries. A/A is Able Art. I feel hopeful.
Struggling to find the few understandable words in the English version of their information, I had come here with the impression that the exhibition opens today. It doesn’t.
Identifying itself with the recent disaster, the “White Rody Project” called for international artists to make work in response to a cartoon character named White Rody. The exhibition is visible through one of the gallery’s glass walls, but a notice on the door says Opening Saturday.
The whole place looks a little empty. There is no trace of any disabled artists. The exhibition will not entice me back on Saturday, but the venue itself is interesting and several other works draw my attention.
We browse the studios and galleries set out on several floors. We meet a pretentious (outside) gallery owner and a talented young Japanese artist. He talks at us. She pauses in her work and prompted by our questions, attempts to explain why she is covering a large white wall with pencil drawings of chrysanthemum heads.
The drawing gives the wall a vibrant energy, reminding me of Sumida, or flocking Starlings. It will be painted over in a week. She seems to be saying something about the edges of reality; she has some leaflets about her work and I look forward to reading the English bits. We say our goodbyes and I leave disappointed.
Electric City is the home of Maid Cafes and the route back to the station is lined with pretty girls in maid costumes inviting lonely computer nerds, and anyone else who wishes to experience this phenomenon, to join them for coffee and a chat.
SP phones while I am at the station and we agree to meet at Roppongi for dinner. This time it’s the Japanese version of Indonesian, and very tasty. The tables are laid with spoon and fork, but we soon call for chopsticks. Asian food, particularly noodles, is so much easier to eat with chopsticks.
April 21: Spanish chocolate and the price of melons
For the first time
when I look out on
the river, Sumida
All is quiet. And
somehow we are
produces it’s own
sense of anticipation.
I awake to this eerie quiet and a sense of waiting for something. I remember the chrysanthemum wall from yesterday with the artist claiming to find reality in the disappearing edges of things and I reflect on the aching sadness of untimely endings.
Today I’m going to Marunouchi; a roll through the sunny city streets to explore skyscraper worlds and the big name shops found on the Hibiya side of Tokyo station.
This is a very western world and could be almost anywhere; although the use of what appears at ground level to be large office blocks with uniformed security, for multi-level shopping and restaurants, does seem particularly Japanese.
Armani, Dior, Gucci, Bvlgari: they look the same the world over, but here each has a whole skyscraper or two, to it’s name. In one of the skyscraper worlds devoted to smaller shops and department stores I seek out anything Japanese. Apart from Ladies’ Formal Wear, I am not that successful.
The formal wear seems to frequently consist of a straight skirt, attached to a top made of lining material; a simple round-necked blouse, fastening at the back, to be worn with it and a jacket with some smart cutting detail, to be worn over that. It is always plain black and probably a fine woven wool. Serious clothes.
On separate floors, the food halls are fascinating and here I enjoy all the hustle and bustle, unlike in England.
The big surprise is the price of melons, I see a medium sized honeydew melon with a startling price tag of 12,500¥. I think 1000¥ is currently around £7. It is perfect, but the price hit me long before the perfection. The quantity and variety of strawberry cakes makes my mouth water. There is one decorated with the words: Happy Birthday.
I find beautiful flower shops and even one with the Latin names of plants so I can identify a specimen I covet, and had jokingly threatened to hide in my luggage. Now I can order it online, after I leave this magical place.
I also stumble upon Sampaka, a Spanish chocolatier that I tried unsuccessfully to find in Barcelona. I just have to sample a chocolate ice-cream in a chocolate flavoured wafer!
I dawdle about in all this splendour and get thoroughly lost. SP meets me in the underground shopping area and we go in search of dinner.
The day has two biggish earthquakes, at 6 and 6.1 and only forty miles away, they are the scariest I’ve experienced yet.
April 22: Imperial fiasco
Sumida is rocking and rolling
today. The gulls again cradled
on the water and the cranes
busy building Tokyo.
I roll down to the walkway
and Sumida rolls towards me,
waves working their way
the river bed. I feel the
curiosity, and the
welcome. I feel a kind of
wholeness, and an
empty kind of longing,
that is born of missing
Today I’m making a second attempt to visit the Imperial Palace grounds and although the air is warm and heavy, no rain is forecast. This is my most familiar route and the more I travel it the more I see. There is a lot going on today, much building noise and several of the big cranes are in action.
The election campaign is hotting-up and there are little groups with loudspeakers on many streets, as well as the vans booming “konichiwa” and delivering their message. No hand shaking or kissing babies here; everyone keeps a respectful distance.
I make a lot of detours, including exploring the Tokyo station area, and the journey is fun. I get stuck at a few curbs, but get lots of offers of help and drivers here wait patiently for pedestrians, the car is not king of the road.
The weather still seems ok when I get to the moat area and with eight lanes of traffic behind me and expanses of manicured pine trees on three other sides, I set out. The area seems vast and empty even by Tokyo standards.
The trees each have their own individual shape and space; enormous granite dumplings are strategically placed across wide gravel pathways to prevent vehicular access; everything is on a large scale.
I’m out in the middle of no-where when the first drops of rain fall. There is absolutely no shelter and I make a snap decision to abandon my goal. I turn and roll back as fast as the chair will go. Soon great drops are falling and I am engulfed in the smells of wet Tarmac, wet grass and wet trees. I take the shortest route to the nearest cover.
Though really heavy, the rain doesn’t last too long and I’m soon able to roll out again. Fascinated by Japanese ceramics, I enjoy rolling into some of the tiny shops selling pots. The staff have shown no obvious anxiety about my capability to control the chair and so far, so good; there have been no accidents.
Only once have I had any extreme reaction; I was headed towards a pedestrian crossing in one of many of Tokyo’s streets of Big Names.
A queue had forced an expensive Mercedes to stop half way over the crossing and, seeing me approach, the driver leapt out and with much bowing and arm waving, carefully escorted me around the boot of his precious vehicle.
In spite of not fulfilling my aim, I have enjoyed my day and the freedom I feel here in Japan. I am happy to roll about after dark in all the parts of Tokyo I have been in and today is no exception.
I could wish the earth here was more stable; there have been six smallish earthquakes today, not that far from Tokyo; all these small tremors serve as a reminder that the really big one hasn’t happened yet.
April 23: Dead umbrella day
Rain. I wake to a tremendous storm of rain and peer out of the window. I can only just make out the river through the vast quantity of water that falls through the air. Sumida is flat and black; the usual reflections battered away by the sheer force of the rain. I had hoped we would visit Tsukiji Fish Market today, but this does not look promising.
However, as soon as the rain eases a little we wrap ourselves in waterproof gear and set out. Before we are anywhere near Tsukiji the rain increases again and the wind picks up. The wind gathers in my rain gear and blows me along like a kite. I do feel a little anxious on the bridge, but all this weather is exhilarating and we laugh our way to the market.
The site is almost invisible through the rain, and the traders have nearly all gone. I’m sure they’ve packed up early, but then the rain has also made us late. There are masses of stalls selling all sorts, mainly food, and I want to look around.
The wind is so blustery and everything is wet. Stalls are closing up since there are hardly any customers, SP has had no breakfast and we decide to shelter a while and have brunch. We seek entry to a tiny shop with a counter and one table; the owner makes no objection to having most of his space filled by a wheelchair and we order food. We peal off layers of wetness, and settle to drink green tea while we wait.
We have sashimi, of course, on a bowl of rice, served with wasabi and soy-sauce. I have eel and as usual the food is fantastic. We watch the rain while we eat and decide to go on to Shinjuku, where the weather might be different and there will be more shelter. We take the metro to Roppongi, where we need to take an elevator up to street level and find the right elevator to take us back down to the Oedo line.
SP worries about the inconvenience, but I’m just elated about the freedom to move around; how very different to my life in England.
Shinjuku has the same rain and we head for “Tokyo Hands” a kind of Hobby-Craft, B&Q, and Ikea rolled into one. In the same building is Takashimaya, selling traditional Japanese Kimono, with all the accessories, as well as fabric and yarn. I want this store. I want to take it with me, or live in it – a maker’s paradise.
Several hours later we emerge; the weather is unchanged, but now it is dark. Even with power-saving Tokyo still gets lit up in a modest fashion and the lights sparkle in all the wetness. There are dead umbrellas everywhere; the wind plays with them.
Slender black limbs
ragged and bent;
twisted and tortured
to incredible shapes;
they lie in the shelter
of a wall, until the
wind catches them again;
rips at their wings like
dead butterflies, grabs
at their clear membranes
and drags them away
to a new resting place.
Identical before the storm,
they are now, each one, unique
except for the J they still have in
common: their white plastic handle.
The streets are packed and its fun to be part of the Tokyo that one sees on film; there is so much life and atmosphere. In spite of the weather, people look fantastic and a little crazy. This is where new fashions are born, where life is really lived to the full.
Eventually we find Shinjuku-sanchome station and take the metro to Kasumigaseki where I ride an escalator set up for wheelchairs, in order to change back onto the Hibiya line and the metro home.
April 24: Rainbow Bridge
The level of the river has been rising, and today there is a swirl of something that looks like seaweed. The weather is back to hot and sunny and we will repeat the roll into Tsukiji, but going on to Higashi Ginza, Ginza and Shinbashi where we will take the Yurekamome line which will take us, via an unmanned train, out over the Rainbow Bridge to Daiba.
We are both surprised to be met in the station by a uniformed member of train staff as this line is supposed to be unmanned. It turns out that there is someone keeping a discrete eye out for anyone needing assistance and so the “man with the ramp” is called for.
I am assisted to board the front carriage. I have a clear view out of the front window, but there is no space for the wheelchair. We tuck into a gap between seats and soon we are rolling. The train is not on rails and the movement is very smooth, We rise gradually up over Tokyo; maybe we are five levels up: there are roads and rails beneath us, something overhead and many levels underground too.
The views are stunning. We travel in amongst the skyscrapers until we get to the harbour, where the train curves around in a giant loop out over the sea, to gain height. I sit glued to the panoramic view: mesmerized, astonished and exhilarated.
The sun sparkles on the sea, it all looks so gloriously harmless and beautiful. A second “man with a ramp” assists me off at Daiba. We are very high up, so when we roll out into the sunny day, the walkways and viewing platforms threaten to overwhelm me. All the muscles in my stomach scrunch up in a primeval terror.
I turn one way and there is a passing jumbo jet framed in the bridged space between two skyscrapers; I turn the other way and there is a viewing bridge hanging out over the sea. A scaled version of the Statue of Liberty heralds a wooden walkway snaking down to Tokyo Beach and, at the same high level as me, a walkway follows a line of shops and restaurants back to the next station, Odaiba.
I take pictures and more pictures and head down the walkway to the beach. Tokyo beach is a sandy cove, There are windsurfers and a few small boats anchored, but swimming is prohibited.
in the baking sun.
People sit on the
feet in the sand.
No-one removes shoes,
or clothes. Children
some still in coats,
play in the sand.
On the boardwalk
there are wheelchairs
mostly the elderly
wheeled out to enjoy
this sunny April Sunday.
There are quite a lot of people, but its not crowded, unlike some of the streets and people do not appear to stay long. Young women in stilettos tiptoe gingerly across the sand with their children and husbands. Some attempt to drag pushchairs with them, but soon give up when the little wheels dig into the dry sand. Standing for fifteen minutes or so, with the children playing at their feet, seems sufficient here. Some adults do squat and join in the play and maybe further around the bay people stay longer? So fond of the blue tarpaulins for picnicking, the Japanese to not seem to bring them to the beach and many of the young couples seem to prefer sitting on the edge of the boardwalk with their shod feet in the sand. No one is eating or drinking in spite of the proximity of a shop selling ice creams.
I roll further around the bay and discover grass on the other side of the boardwalk and here are the tarpaulins. Here people have removed their shoes and are enjoying their picnics; here are also the men in suits with their companions, equally unsuitably dressed. And hidden far away amongst the trees I catch a glimpse of a foreigner, sunbathing.
Rolling back up to the scary heights and repeating my journey at a much higher level I roll toward Odaiba; on the way I pass street entertainment that attracts small crowds and I see one person with an ice cream; sadly the ice cream shop has steps up to it. At Odaiba I turn right and cross over the main highway via an overhead tunnel. I can see that the road under me is rather busy, but I’m heading for Tokyo Teleport station; being a sci-fi fan I have great hopes, but sadly its just another train station. I take the lift down, not to the station, but an open space/carpark area which I cross and take another lift up to Venus Fort.
Initially ignoring Venus Fort, I turn left towards the Tokyo Wheel and roll under it. I’m heading for the Toyota showroom and the Tokyo Universal Design Exhibition, This exhibition includes the new Toyota personal transport: a sort of wheelchair for all. Sadly I’m too late to try for myself, but do manage to see two chaps having a go. They look like they are enjoying themselves. I check out all the accessible vehicles before finally heading over to the must-see Venus Fort. More shopping, but this time in a mall painted to look like an open-air Roman city. There is permanent blue sky overhead, walls and pillars draped with plastic ivy and a maze of walkways centred around various focal points.
SP and I have agreed to meet up at Fountain Square; a large stone-looking fountain with several larger than life figures draped in flowers and pearls, and gushing with water. By now its actually quite late in the day and we decide to head back over to Roppongi for sashimi in a wonderful little restaurant that I remember. The ride back in the dark is also impressive; this time however I’m shown to the proper carriage for wheelchairs, so only get a side view.
The skyscrapers are lit up and the aircraft warning lights twinkle red in the night sky; my Tokyo might be muted by power saving, but it is still beautiful and looks very festive. We move through it, too low for aircraft, too high for any normal transport; I feel like I’m in “The Fifth Element”.
After another delicious meal of sashimi with really fresh and hot wasabi, its time to go home. Even this late Tokyo feels a very safe place to be; the night is warm and magical and the skinny-wheeled powerchair still has life left in the battery. Heaven.
April 25: Freedom and self esteem
The thing I will miss most about Japan is my freedom. I will miss the physical freedom and I will miss the emotional and psychological freedom that comes from Japanese people’s attitude to human beings.
My initial worries about the hired powerchair dissolved as I found ways to work with it; and gradually I became a fan. The skinny wheels are no more inconvenient than those of my manual wheelchair and just required me to have a more flexible attitude.
The chair itself was not quite as comfortable as my own, but my support cushions mitigated that, and all the advantages more than made up for it. The battery, light, neat and easy to take in and out, lasted about five hours under normal conditions, with clear indicators and plenty of warnings about power levels. I carried a spare which gave me approximately ten stress free hours of rolling; brilliant!
Being in Tokyo means being close to so many accessible things. Just a metro ride away everything changes and I don’t need to pre-book my journey. The man-with-the-ramp is always available, polite, attentive and respectful; always happy to be of service, never once making me feel I was too much bother.
Getting out of Tokyo is easy too and the Shinkansen makes for a fast and comfortable journey. I loved being spontaneous. There was no need for elaborate travel arrangements. I could even change my mind.
the leaving sadness is upon me.
it is only the possibility of return
that keeps me together.
Only the no-going-back
would break my heart.
and if Gaia refrains from
tearing Tokyo apart;
if the elemental dragons
allow me; if market forces
do not prevent me,
then I surely will.
returning is hope to hold on
to the thrill of this great adventure;
with its new discoveries
and the familiar growing
to wholeness and perfection.
It is perfectly safe to be out alone in Tokyo, even in the late/early hours; how different from the apparently genteel little city I call home.
Feeling safe from abuse, rudeness or wilful neglect took some getting used to. I know Japan has its share of criminals, but the average Japanese person shows great respect for others and this translates into more than just feeling safe. It also results in a feeling of acceptance and I have felt like an included part of life in a way I never do in England. The first Japanese phrase I learned was “su me ma sen.” In England I will need to say “excuse me” twenty times a day, in Japan I didn’t need it once. This in itself is a great freedom.
I met no-one who felt the need to challenge my access requirements, or my competence to function. I met no-one who showed dismay at the inconvenience of sharing space with me. Not needing to warn people of my presence; not needing to excuse my existence; not having people flatten themselves against walls or shout that they are in danger of being mown down; above all not being made to feel like a leper; these are things I will miss. I intend to try to hang on to them somehow. Their value for my self-esteem is priceless.
Access is so much about attitude and I’m filled with dismay at the thought of leaving all this access behind.
April 26: The homecoming.
I didn’t want to leave Japan. I didn’t want to say goodbye to the nifty little wheelchair with the skinny wheels. I certainly wasn’t looking forward to using my manual wheelchair; to re-engaging with its dual personality. Yes it offers the prospect of movement, but then it is also a cage that restricts me because I do not have the necessary physical attributes to move myself any significant distance.
I feel sick to the pit of my stomach at the thought of surrendering all the freedom I have so recently experienced.
At the airport I cease to be a person and become baggage. I’ve said goodbye to SP, and been handed over, by the very considerate Japanese lady, to a typical airport worker; he might be Korean. He takes control of my chair; takes away my passport and noses through it before handing it to the security team. At one point I am parked facing a wall, I have my luggage balanced on my lap and cannot even turn around.
At the boarding gate I am handed back to the Japanese lady who makes sure I have somewhere comfortable to wait until the boarding call.
Passengers who need assistance tend to be taken on board first and helped off when everyone else has gone so I have just a 30 minute wait and then I really do have to go.
I share a row of seats with a little family who carefully prepare their sick-bags as soon as they are settled. The aircraft personnel are excellent, and do their best to make this long flight as stress free as possible. On arrival I am soon handed over to the English version of the typical airport worker. I do not understand his English and he has a strange gait which makes for a very jerky ride, but he does also manage some of my luggage. The route is dirty, battered and uninviting; all around me it smells. I feel rather shocked.
I do manage to hang on to my passport and after I’ve shown it to the security control person, we head for the baggage carousel. At first my pusher takes no notice of me, so we wait a while before he discovers we are at the wrong carousel. I get a little agitated until he follows my directions; everything is clearly marked, but maybe he’s just not concentrating.
I am met in the arrivals hall, and get a wonderful warm welcome. The weather is also welcoming sunshine and England looks vibrantly green with large open spaces. I look with different eyes, wary of being swallowed up by the familiar. I need to hold on to the magic; I need the hope of better.
I have learned from Sumida, the river who lives with the serpent sea. I’ve tasted the freedom and I will be biding my time.
to a smooth dull grey,
like a well-fed lion,
sleeps beside her.
one into the other,
with the slow sensuality
of familiar partners,
they appear as one
they are each
their own time.
May 4: Reflections
Everything about my life here feels so strange now… I miss so much. Don’t laugh, but a warm loo seat just has to be on the list! Like the freedom, it took me a while to get used to, but now the shock of the cold feels even stranger.
I miss the food; so much fresh and delicious fish and wonderful wasabi; I miss the noises I found so distracting when I arrived. “The noises tell us that everything is functioning normally” I was told and it wasn’t long before I came to appreciate them too. And I miss so many enticing smells.
I miss the amazingly rich tapestry of life and the enabling quality of the Japanese way of living.
I would like people here to reclaim public spaces, to feel that degree of safety no matter what time of day or night. We can’t all be too greedy or selfish to share and have fun together.
Primarily of course I miss the freedom; the physical freedom that came with the accessibility of the life I experienced in Japan, and the psychological, emotional, attitudinal freedom I experienced through sharing space with Japanese people. Access, equality, quality of life, and energy, they are all so much about attitude.
I have been enriched, inspired and energised and I’m feeling brave enough to rethink my hopes and aspirations. I have changed the way I interact with people and my expectations of how they will interact with me.
I miss feeling accepted, trusted and welcome. Here I cannot look forward to getting out and about in my powerchair as the temporarily non-disabled generally look so dismayed at the prospect of sharing space with Us, and they exhaust me.
I have already had folk flattening themselves against walls to give me two or three clear meters of room to pass them; heard the “mown down” warnings, and the persistent and unfounded accusations of speeding. People are very ready to assume bad things based on absolutely no evidence; and to exercise what I’m guessing is supposed to be a sense of humour that I cannot connect with at all.
Its time for all of us to rethink our attitudes and priorities, because its not just disabled people who need society to change. There is no financial cost to being HumanKind, we could all try it. No-one should have to accept being made to feel like a leper because their presence is inconvenient.
where is home, when it no longer calls to me
the days chill my bones and the people exhaust me
the man I love is a stranger and my friends are leaving
home is in my heart but my heart is full of longing
home is wanting and needing nothing
and right now I cannot find it
I think Japanese people are as alarmed about disability as any other people, but their culture made life very good for me personally. I am still wondering what life is actually like for disabled Japanese people. Also, I wonder if it is as difficult for the non-native speakers to track down the artists and Disability Arts in this country as it was for me in Japan.
I’m wondering about Disability Arts as we understand it, or indeed any kind of issue based arts: do they actually exist in Japan? Or are they a culturally alien concept? They might have been under my nose, but I saw no evidence; the call for international artists to respond to the 11 03 disaster by creating artworks about an unknown cartoon character, left me puzzled.
As far as I could tell not one of them referenced the actual or ongoing circumstances created by earthquakes, tsunami or radiation leaks. Yet the people I met talked about it constantly; the unseen threat; the unknowable danger; these topics appeared to unsettle everyone yet destabilize no-one. The people retained their integrity. The people remained HumanKind.
And I remain seeking; needing to distill this into something I can work with.