Thirty days in Tokyo

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Today marks exactly a month since I’ve been in Tokyo and I thought I’d take stock of what these four weeks have been like.

For the first-time tourist, Tokyo is an endlessly charming city – polite Japanese on the subways, endless streets to wander into – neon lights that hypnotise me along one lane, traditional roofed shophouses that greet me at the next.

Within hours of arriving, I got a sampling of one of the world’s most efficient and fascinatingly complex metro and subway stations, accurate down to the nearest second, and was exposed to the truly world-class service standards in this food paradise.

After two weeks, I started to miss home just a little but had an absolute blast discovering Asakusa, Yanesen, Shibuya and the little alleys in Kagurazaka.

On my way home from work one afternoon, a young sumo wrestler cycled past me, smiling to himself, munching on a snack and seated on a bicycle I fear is much too small for him. It was a lovely sight and I begin to understand that Tokyo is meant to be enjoyed in these small, irreplaceable moments.

Four weeks in, I still can’t get used to the complex metro and subway system, which on days where I am exhausted from work, has become a chore rather than an adventure to navigate through without the use of Google Maps.

In the mornings, I am a sardine helplessly forced along by a swift and forceful subway current. The novelty of having my face barely five centimetres from a complete stranger wears off after the first time.

A few days back, I committed the cardinal boo-boo of entering a restaurant without my socks on and the briefest hint of disdain flashes over the face of the waiter, who recovers within a split second.

I’m not sure if it’s better or worse that my behaviour, though painful to the eyes of many, is excused because I’m a foreigner. There are many, many, many social norms to get accustomed to here.

Just days later, I am at another restaurant, struggling with my limited Japanese to order a plate of dory baked pasta without any bacon.

Three staffers come up to me one after the other, struggling with their English but nonetheless determined to help me place my original order without having to settle for an easier option – vegetarian or plain soup. This does not happen in a fancy restaurant in the heart of Ginza, but takes place in a small restaurant close to the subway located ten minutes from my apartment in Ryogoku. There is a strong sense of sincerity and pride in service that is found anywhere and everywhere here.

On Monday, I returned from a late night out with my colleagues. We were on the Yamanote line, and the train had stopped at a particular station that was not our final destination. We bantered on cluelessly and a young Japanese Tokyoite in his mid 20s, who had been standing along the platform outside, enters the carriage we are on.

“Train..stop final..here,” he says haltingly. “Change..” he trails off, embarrassed that he can’t convey a clearer message though there is nothing in my eyes to be embarrassed about.

We hop off, deeply grateful and thank him profusely, but he has little time for thanks and is instead preoccupied with the subway map, trying to help us figure our way home. I’m touched.

Vacations give you an idealised notion, a getaway that presents a markedly different alternative to the routine of daily life back home.

At home, you are decidedly honest, quick to spot faults or weaknesses and compliment grudgingly – all this fuelled by a sense of familiarity, where one can easily do away with the need for surface-level niceties.

On a holiday, there is a postcard-pretty picture of the place you visit, and this is what you take back with you, these surface interactions of the great time you’ve had.

It’s been 30 days since I’ve arrived, and I continue to encounter different experiences that make me appreciate this city for what it is – unapologetically full of charm and idiosyncrasies. It’s been long enough and I’ve been in myriad situations that have helped me to understand better what life is really like in Tokyo, but I know I’ve barely scratched beneath the surface.

Still, that I can complain and fuss and yet at the end of every day be thankful that I am here, makes me feel like a small part of me has already begun to call this place home.

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