I was in Tokyo for the first time last October as part of the Tokyo Dateline Journalism team. It’s hard to fully encapsulate what a lovely trip it was and what a deep impression the people and places left on me, so I won’t begin to describe the whole experience, beyond what you have seen on this blog. Instead, I will just say that I will be headed back again this March, to show the people I love what I love about this neon city. I am not sure what better compliment I can give. 🙂
It’s my last week of work here in Tokyo, and yesterday the folks from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government arranged a walking tour of the Hamarikyu Gardens, located along Tokyo Bay.
The grounds of the Hamarikyu previously served various purposes – as the family garden and duck hunting grounds of the Tokugawa shogunate during the Edo period, and also as a detached palace that was later used by the imperial family after the Meiji Restoration.
The area is awash with several shades of green against the backdrop of a clear blue sky, it was quite a sight and a welcome reprieve from the bustle of Shiodome just minutes away.
Though most of the original structures were destroyed in the aftermath of the second world war, Hamarikyu has since been faithfully reconstructed – down to small, delicate details such as this wooden wall carving in a teahouse that represents the full moon.
To move from the busy subway to this detached floating rest stop feels almost surreal.
The visit included us having a sampling of a shogun’s meal that had been recreated by Professor Sachiko Matsushita, an Edo food culture researcher and Emeritus Professor at Chiba University.
Prof Matsushita had gleaned an insight into the culinary tastes of Japan’s Edo rulers by scouring through various materials, including cookbooks preserved from the era.
These, however, often contained only the ingredients and types of seasoning used, so Prof Matsushita completed these recipes in accordance with the preferences of today’s typical Japanese palate.
The meal was exquisite – consisting sea bream sashimi, shrimp and herring roe sushi, simmered lotus root with salt, fish paste, thick baked omelet, rice and a sweet red bean dessert, just to name a few.
You are, as they say, what you eat and I must confess I did feel a little lofty and refined after the meal, as I looked out at the lush greenery in front of me, sipping on tea as I sat on my tatami.
This lasted for approximately 15 minutes before the commoner in me was beset by a food coma, my excitement having caused me to wolf down the food in mere minutes. Some meals are worth a little post-food discomfort, and this was definitely one of them.
Yesterday’s Hamarikyu tour also included stops at the hunting grounds and a floating teahouse built over a pond, where I was served matcha tea and a traditional sweet treat.
It felt like I was coming full circle, in a way, because my first week in Tokyo had similarly begun with a tea ceremony at Koganei park. It’s been an amazing ride in between.
Hamarikyu is a site to behold in spring, I’m told, when the cherry blossoms are in full swing, but even today, on a regular morning in fall, something about the park today left me captivated.
I tried to rationalise it – this deep sense of serenity and calm – which somehow felt a little different from the usual walk in the park in other parts of Tokyo, or even back home.
I find the answer as I’m introduced to gardener Junichi Fujishima, who showed us the ways in which the pine trees here are trimmed twice a year.
It’s a tedious process – referred to as midori-tsumi in spring and momiage in fall – of pinching and breaking shoots that have newly developed within the year in so specific a manner that the trimmed pine leaves are left in the shape of a perfect arc.
The pinching and breaking is entirely done by hand, without any tools.
The art of trimming these trees, I learn, has been passed down over generations. Gardeners work their way around each tree from top to bottom, taking weeks to complete a single section at Hamarikyu. They rotate around three different parts of the Gardens every year, and Mr Fujishima tells me he has a soft spot for the 300-year-old pine tree, which he enjoys tending to.
He also explains how neither pesticides and insecticides nor fancy gardening tools are used in the gardens.
To keep away pests, for example, a two-layered straw mat hugs the trunk of each tree at the start of fall to trap worms that usually burrow into these plant hosts and weakens them. The same method has been employed for centuries past.
A fellow journalist asks if the gardeners take liberties with shaping and designing the arc of the pine trees; it has been hundreds of years since the methods for trimming them were originally dictated.
“No, we continue to follow the way things have been done over the last few generations and have left them the same,” says Mr Fujishima.
Hamarikyu, it hits me then, has unassumingly, yet firmly retained a crucial role in this city amid the large swanky glass buildings that surround it for precisely that reason – that it has remained unflinching in the face of stampeding modernity.
You can feel it – in the way the leaves of a 300-year-old pine tree rustle, or as you walk on sand and stone instead of concrete, or as you look at tree formations that have stayed in exactly the same shape for centuries.
And it makes a world of a difference – to be in a space, a sanctuary, that is neither pressured nor affected by the demands of the fast-paced, technology-saturated city life.
The struggle between retaining the old and embracing the new is an eternal one – to acclimatise and adapt to the changing needs of today’s world, compromises must be made, whether that means clearing out parks to build roads, or modernising facilities to make them more attractive and accessible to the masses.
But sometimes, retaining a sense of the past also helps us in the journey ahead because it anchors our memories, emotions and feelings and keeps us rooted. The large number of locals of all ages that I saw within just two hours at the park yesterday tells me very clearly that Hamarikyu has lost none of its relevance today.
Instead, this strong sense of the old and refined Edo has given the shiny Tokyo metropolis, in my view, a means with which to ground itself as it hurtles towards an unpredictable future.
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.
To meet the man who has achieved Olympic greatness, I must first walk through a narrow winding passage within the Komazawa-daigaku Olympic stadium, which has come alive on a Saturday afternoon as the city commemorates the 1964 Olympics.
A kids’ carnival has been set up on the large patch of grass outside. Inside, basketball matches for the wheelchair-bound are in session and in different rooms within the gymnasium, former Olympic champions have gathered to speak, to those who will listen, of moments they cannot easily forget.
I am led to a small sitting room in the basement of the gymnasium. A minder tells me that I have exactly forty minutes for the interview, and a few moments later, I hear the shuffling of footsteps. A door at the left corner of the waiting room opens, and Yoshinobu Miyake enters, unassuming, with no fuss or fanfare.
At only 1.54m tall, the 74-year-old has a diminutive frame but still manages to cut a figure of immense strength with his upright posture and wiry build. He grips my hand firmly in a handshake and offers a polite smile.
Easing himself into a black leather couch, he cuts to the chase quickly: “There are so many Olympians from the ’64 games. Why did you pick me?”
I tell him through the help of a translator that I had seen videos of him weightlifting and had found him very charismatic. This, aside from the fact that Miyake-san is regarded as among Japan’s most gifted Olympians in history.
True to Japanese form, he says “thank you” modestly and then asks, with a curious glint in his eye, if the videos from decades back are easily accessible today. I answer in the positive, and he makes no further comment, only grinning.
This reminds me instantly of that same energy and vigour I saw in a 24-year-old Miyake from videos of the past. Our interview begins.
Yoshinobu Miyake needs no introduction. The two-time Olympic gold medallist is widely considered as one of the best weightlifters of all time. In addition to competing in four Olympics (bagging two Golds and one silver over a span of 16 years), Miyake also won several world championships, set 25 world records and had a frog-styled lifting technique named after him – the Miyake pull.
As a 15-year-old school boy, Miyake first caught a glimpse on television of a weightlifter during the Melbourne Olympics in 1956: “I found it fascinating and entertaining, and that’s how I ended up here, with the Olympics as my life and the gold medal as the ultimate goal.”
“That was my dream. Weightlifting makes me feel like the harder I try, the more power and strength becomes visible, and I wanted to push myself further.”
Many people dream of achieving greatness, but few are able to fully realise it, and I ask Miyake if he knew he had the talent and strength to go far from the instant he set his heart on becoming a weightlifter.
He laughs and then merely says: “I love it, I was born to do this.” There is a twinkle in his eyes that suggests he voluntarily chooses to understate his ability.
The sportsman and now grandfather of five speaks in a measured tone throughout our interview, peppering comments with philosophical phrases to describe his state of mind during some of the most critical moments of his weightlifting career.
The 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics figures prominently in these memories.
Just four years earlier, at the 1960 Games in Rome, Miyake, the sixth son of an impoverished farmer and a housewife from Miyagi Prefecture, had already brought home a silver in the Men’s Bantamweight category.
It was the then-20-year-old’s first trip overseas, as well as his first time competing in a global arena.
“I believed I could get gold. I had the strength, power and capability. But I was too focused, too pressured, I couldn’t think of anything else – muga muchuu,” he says, to describe the state of being feverishly absorbed in the heat of the moment, rendering him unable to perform to the best of his abilities.
Like all hungry athletes, the end-result was far from enough.
“A silver wasn’t good, it was’t satisfying,” he says.
Miyake would get the chance to go for gold again four years later, but in vastly different circumstances – he would be fighting for victory right at home.
This time, the weightlifter switched to the featherweight category.
“There was no option but to win gold, in my mind,” he says in the months leading up to the Games.
“The Olympics was held in Japan in ’64 and was a symbol of our country’s recovery from wartime devastation. It was the first time it was held in Asia, and the weightlifting event was to be the first event, they were all counting on me to win. This medal was not just for me, I could give the Japanese people a sense of encouragement and braveness,” he explains.
I ask Miyake, who currently manages the weightlifting team at Tokyo International University, if that was an overwhelming amount of pressure to be dealing with as a 24-year-old, but he brushes this aside gently.
“It’s not really about pressure. It’s my duty. I was destined to do this, and if I couldn’t do it, who would?” he asks in return.
There is a firmness of stance when speaking of the concept of destiny that recurs as Miyake speaks, and which seems to have anchored his state of mind and his approach to competing. On the day of the weightlifting finals, he recalls, the nerves were mounting, but with his elderly parents and relatives in the stands, ware ni kaeru, he says poetically, to describe the state of “returning to my true self, and to reality.”
There was nothing left to do, but to fight. He fought hard, lifting a total of 397.5kg to clinch top spot on the podium.
“I realised then I just had to do what I was meant to do. I believed in myself, there was no forcing, no pressure. It was like returning to a state of nothingness.”
Success, he says, is a state of mind achieved when he let go of everything else – pride, ambition, fear.
That a young man could tune out the immense amount of the external noise that must have been surrounding him in the lead up to the biggest tournament of his life, is a testament to his mental fortitude.
“When the Japanese flag flew and the national anthem played, I felt like my job was finally complete.”
Miyake is quick to respond to questions he feels he is equipped to answer, but will also flatly decline to do so, if he feels words cannot do justice to his feelings. There is something fascinating in the way he does not try so hard to make himself understood.
“I cannot explain this feeling,” he says twice, when asked to compare winning Gold at home, and then again, four years later in Mexico.
“In Mexico it was so different, there was no longer the whole country watching, it was an inexplicable experience, hard to put down in words” says Miyake, who later went on to become Japan’s national weightlifting coach. His brother Yoshiyuki would also clinch a weightlifting bronze in the ’68 Olympics.
Our forty minutes are quickly drawing to a close and I ask him to ponder about the future.
In six years, Tokyo will once again play hosts to the world when it organises the 2020 Olympic games. Miyake will be 80, and is unsure of the ways in which he will be able to contribute.
“But even from behind the frontlines, I want to give my support. I was helped so much in the ’64 Olympics, and it is my turn to repay this debt.”
He imparts one more philosophy – fighting fair and square – or seisei doudou – which he hopes all young athletes will bring with them to the Games.
“Accept the challenge, and don’t fight dirty.”
Right on cue, Miyake’s minder enters the room once more, signalling the end of our interview. He stands up, gives me another firm shake, smiles, and walks back out.
His departure is done in as unassuming a manner as the way he enters, but somehow, leaves an indelible impression of what forms the core of a truly great champion.
(This YouTube clip is of Miyake’s featherweight finals at the ’64 Olympics)
all pictures copyright of Charli James (where stated) and Maryam Mokhtar
It is 2.24pm on a weekday afternoon and passengers at Tokyo Station’s train platform are milling about, earphones plugged in, eyes glued to the brightly lit screens of their gadgets, as the iconic Shinkansen bullet train pulls in.
Commuters glance briefly at the incoming vehicle, and then nonchalantly return to their phones and tablets. In the background, seven unassuming women and men in navy pants and pin-striped collared shirts take their places, one at each entrance of each passenger compartment along the train.
They enter the train at precisely 2.27pm.
From then on, it’s a clockwork process of cleaning and sprucing up the train carriage in a span of exactly seven minutes. There is little room for anything less than preciseness; each train that returns to Tokyo Station has a turnaround time of 12 minutes before it sets off again.
It is a renowned routine rehearsed to perfection and executed without hitch every few minutes, when a train departs from one of the several platforms headed to the various cities down south of Tokyo. In this realm, numbers are rounded off to the nearest second, at most, to the nearest minute.
There is no longer much fuss nor fanfare about this remarkable process that has now become very much an ordinary part of the Shinkansen ride. It is the first-timer (this writer) who is left gaping at the sheer perfection of it all.
The meticulous process begins away from these platforms, in the workers’ labyrinth – a network of offices, pantries and lockers located underground.
The doors to many of these rooms bear a sign that reads Otsukaresama deshita – ‘you must’ve worked hard and are tired, thank you for the effort’.
Three workers enter the main office of the Tokyo Service Centre within the station, get their timesheets stamped and then prepare for work. Every day at the Tessei headquarters, the cleaning company contracted by Japan Railway (JR), some 240 to 280 workers rotate through three cleaning shifts on the JR East trains that depart from the station.
The three workers spotted earlier pick up a red pouch and a blue or black bag, both filled with cleaning essentials – cloth, trash bags, cleaning sprays, gloves and even a remarkable coagulating powder that solidifies vomit so it can be quickly cleared off the floors or chairs.
Drinking, a strong component of Japanese culture, happens frequently on the evening trains returning to Tokyo from Osaka, when salarymen use the three-hour trip to unwind after a day’s work.
Just before workers head out to begin their shifts, each clips on a flower to the left side of their newsboy caps – today they are wearing cosmos to represent the start of autumn.
In spring, they don a plastic replica of the blooming sakura; summer sees them in straw hats and Hawaiian-esque shirts. In winter, they carry some of the Christmas magic with a tiny snowman tucked behind the ears. Crew leaders put on a friendly Santa hat.
Pouches strapped securely across the waists, bags slung over their shoulders, it is time for work to begin. The stopwatch starts.
It’s almost as if one has entered a time warp and hit the fast-forward button, though all of this is playing out in real time.
Trash is picked up, seats wiped down, floors mopped, window screens pulled up and chairs automatically swivelled with such an efficacy of speed that the motions are a blur. The hand gestures and movements of these workers seem methodical, even mechanical, no extra steps wasted, no additional wipes than necessary.
Supervisor Watariya Takuya explains that a typical row of five chairs in a train car should take an average of 12 seconds to be cleaned, before the whole carriage is complete in the stipulated seven minutes. But he stresses that it’s not all about time, cleanliness is as important a part of the process as speed.
I check my watch: the carriage I’m on is complete with about half a minute to spare – no litter in sight, plastic head covers on the seats perfectly in place, chairs turned around in the right direction.
As if on cue, once the cleaning is over and done with, the workers exit the train compartment. Like performers on a stage, they take a collective bow. Their audience ambles onto their respective compartments, largely unaware, perhaps even unbothered by the magic of the seven minutes that have passed.
They have places to go to, work to be done, just as these workers have more shifts awaiting them, more chairs to be spun. This is not a show, it is a job.
Watariya-san plays down any of the hype, often from foreigners, surrounding the cleaning process: “No one sets out to be a cleaner. No one has this as their dream. But these workers find a way to have pride in their jobs, to feel like they have somehow contributed to society.”
That an individual can place such dedication to his job, regardless of rank or recognition, should say something about the environment through which this attitude has been instilled.
Seven minutes should be just about enough time to ponder over this.
I’ve been seeing some strange things lately while looking up as I traipse past shops and buildings in this gleaming metropolis.
The first time this happened, I was being given a tour of the sprawling Tokyo Metropolitan Government tower in Shinjuku three weeks back. Positioned along a high wall, it loomed large from above, a bouquet of paraphernalia – cat figurines with their left paws lifted, fish figures, fans, flowers, a neatly tied pillow, small drums a set of gold coins.
Maybe just a casual, albeit odd, decoration, I thought.
The second time I spotted this Mysteriously Large Object was at the Edo Tokyo Museum located within walking distance of the Ryogoku Station. This assorted hive was huge and overflowing with even more items – paper cranes, golden balls, several wood panels with inscriptions in dark ink and the large lit-up mask of a chubby child, right smack in the centre of this strikingly bizarre creation.
By the third encounter, when I saw a simpler version along a small sweet shop in the Yanesen area, I told myself I had to do a bit of reading up.
As it turns out, these intricate creations are called kumade – bamboo rakes that have been decorated with various ornaments for good luck.
These rakes were traditionally used to sweep away fallen leaves, but from the Edo period also began to be adorned with various items as symbols of good luck – I guess in line with the phrase ‘raking in good fortune’.
The cranes you saw in the second picture above represent long life, as does the tortoise, while the cat figurine and its raised paw are harbingers of prosperity; virtually a must-have in shops and restaurants. Gold coins are too are a metaphor for good business and success.
The smiling lit-up face, it turns out, belongs to Otafuku, not a child, but a plump and cheery female character from traditional folklore and Japanese mythology. She represents fertility, fortune and happiness.
Every year in November, the Tori-no-ichi festival (days of the Rooster) is held at various Otori shrines across the country for believers to pray for good fortune, good business and lots of luck in the coming year. At shrines such as the Otori Jinja Shrine in Asakusa, (where the festival originally began during the Edo period), the large-scale festivities involve some 200 stalls in the area selling kumade. Just imagine that – a kumade fest!
Japan’s National Tourism Organisation website tells me that the fun part comes from observing these transactions – sellers and buyers clap their hands together in a coordinated manner and say a little cheer – all in the name of good fortune.
I checked the dates for Tori-no-ichi this year, the rooster days start on November 10th, just a day after I’m scheduled to fly back home to Singapore, sadly.
But if I take home the pictures of the my three kumades, perhaps that can count too?
It’s nearing the end of my second week here in Tokyo – time sure flies. It’s been quite a scramble this week so I couldn’t be happier when Ayaka, our extremely adept intern at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, took me and my colleague Charli away from the office today.
We headed to Yanesen, a part of what the folks here refer to as “downtown Tokyo” or shitamatchi. The word has taken on differing meanings over the many ages, but Ayaka tells me shitamatchi essentially refers to what one would call the real, traditional Tokyo. Old school, in my books.
Yanesen itself is actually an abbreviation of three neighbourhoods that are all within walking distance of each other – Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi. They all possess a similarly rustic, traditional feel and hearken back to the days of a much older, quieter Tokyo; one that is quaint, uncrowded and authentic. After facing the massive sardine fest in trains and along major streets on a regular basis, this was a much-welcomed respite. I’ll let some of the pictures do the talking.
A majority of the buildings in and around Yanesen largely escaped unscathed during the incessant bombing of Tokyo in the second world war, which explains why a lot of the area feels distinctively well-preserved.
Most of it never had to be recreated or rebuilt in the first place, unlike many other parts of the city. You notice these nuances in the rusted and peeling metal gates and when you walk past rain-beaten wooden doors and walls.
Some of the structures here have been around for more than a century, and the shitamatchi area was once regarded as the heart of Edo (Tokyo as it was known during the time of the Tokugawa shogunate between the 17th and 19th centuries).
Yanesen has an eclectic mix of traditional snack stores, tea and craft shops, artisan cafes, souvenir stalls and narrow alleys with hidden restaurants serving up a bowl of soba – hot or cold.
Many of these spaces have retained their traditional wooden facade, just like this restaurant right here.
What I really like about the Yanesen is how removed it is, or feels at least, from the hustle and bustle of the rest of this metropolitan city. There weren’t even many tourists, which was a nice change from the more popular spots like Ginza, Shinjuku, Asakusa or Shibuya.
You get the sense that time has stopped for a moment, and while you’re there, it’s easy to soak in the atmosphere and boy was I soaking and dipping and rolling in it.
There’s a lot to snack on in this part of town, and as part of an overarching attempt to immerse myself in all things Tokyo during this trip, I had to forcefully (read: wilfully) indulge, starting off with a traditional 100yen ($1.16) sweet white bean snack, with the paste sandwiched between two generous pancake layers.
For some reason, Yanaka Ginza, probably the most popular street in the Yanesen neighbourhood, is filled with cat-related souvenirs and crafts, which are supposedly a harbinger of good fortune. There’s a lot of cute to be had.
Just before heading off, I stopped to have a chat with 66-year-old cafe owner Hiroshi Ogawa, who gamely sat me down to explain the charms of Yanesen.
The area, he said, was in the past a thriving mecca for both craftsmen and artists as well as regular folks to gather, and that old-school suburban ambience can still be keenly felt today, a century on.
The spritely-looking sexagenarian is himself a true shitamatchi native who has lived and worked in the surrounding neighbourhood for most of his life.
I liked the one phrase he left me with: “You can feel it right? The old Tokyo, all you need to do is walk through here and you can even smell it.”
I could, I really could.