The Tokyo Snapshots
An elbow in your side, one resting on the side of your head, and your face pressed into the glass. The fans that line the ceiling do their best but are no match for the humid air that swirls through each carriage. Those lucky enough to get seats do their best impressions of bobble heads, using their privilege to find a few extra moments of rest. At each station the tide of people recedes and then builds again, sometimes eclipsing the boundaries of the river. Droplets of sweat sit atop lips, like unwanted passengers. Few words are spoken, bar the recurrent ’sumimasen’ as people seek to part the crowd. No-one complains, no-one pushes. Politeness surrounds. This is the morning train to Tokyo.
The red man glares down at you as the sun begins to recede. On your right is a mother, child in one hand, groceries in the other. On your left, a group of school boys tease one another. You look down the road, both ways. No cars. Your legs itch to move, to cross the street, as you normally would. You wait. No cars pass. You wait. The man flashes green, and motion resumes on all sides. For some reason, you can’t bring yourself to j-walk here. This is the walk home from work.
Any tension accumulated during the work day escapes as the waft of honey tea fills the room. You sit in a cafe, an old one, populated by books, fragile china, and the warmth of slow jazz. The table in front of you is an art work, tended to by the waiter. He arranges the items as though conducting a surgery. Tiny jug of cream. Tiny jug of sugar syrup. Saucer, cup, wash cloth, a selection of cutlery. He pauses before he returns to his post, rotating the water glasses a few degrees, and aligning the edge of the cloth with the edge of the table. He nods and recedes into the cool evening breeze suspended in the cafe. This is an evening spent in your favourite cafe, drinking tea and eating cheesecake.
You come to the konbini not just for the food but for the transition from hot to cold, the cloak of manufactured coolness that frees you from the pounding sun. Suzushii. It’s formulaic by now. 750ml of fruit and vegetable juice. Two onigiri. A pack of edamame beans. You glance over at the shelf of baking, the chocolate croissants, the pastries, the cakes. Sometime you indulge, mostly you don’t. You’re beckoned forwards by a warm face. She knows you now. How could she not? You are there every day, picking up some variation of the same thing. She asks your name. At least you hope that’s what she asked, because you reply with ‘Chris’. She thanks you, you thank her, and the sliding doors invite the sun to pelt back down onto your face. This is daily lunch from the convenience store.
Clink, clink, clink. ’Kumpai’ reverberates around the small space. The first sips are taken and the weight of the week ever so slightly lifts. You sit cross legged on the floor, knees aching but too distracted to pay any real attention to your discomfort. You can feel the politeness and formality that coats much of the working week being peeled away and an air of lightness taking its place. People laugh, both near and far. Stories are told, shirt collars are loosened, a drink is spilled. The joke that on Wednesday remained on the tip of the tongue, tonight spills out. Warmth fills the room, but this time it’s not from the sun. You look around you and smile, and ten faces smile alongside you. This is an Izakaya on a Friday night with your colleagues, at the end of a long week of work.
You sweat. Yet unlike the train, you are not surrounded by people. The faces of commuters have been replaced by trees that reach skyward. The neon signs replaced by green, and blue, and the kind of brown that makes you curl your toes inside your shoes, in an effort to suspend the moment. It is quiet, bar the gentle chorus of birds and the whispering of the breeze. The voices of your friends catch in the wind and are somehow softer, lighter than they were before. You are 30 minutes from Tokyo yet you couldn’t feel further away. As you climb the last few steps, breath heavy, the trees clear. Mile upon mile fills your vision, as the blues and greens extend seemingly endlessly across the sky. Once more, you smile. This is a hike to the summit of Mt Takao on a Saturday morning.
You make your choice and turn towards the checkout lines. Chicken, egg and rice. Tomorrow’s breakfast, bought the night before to make the most of the 50% discount. The lines are long at this time, as Mums and students and workers pick up their provisions for the week ahead. Despite the lines, you are relaxed. Impatience seems absent. The faces around you are a mix. Of tiredness, of longing for the ease of Saturday morning, of resolve. The resolution you see in the eyes of those around you takes you back for a moment. You are flooded with a sense of respect for the quiet humility with which so many of these people live their lives. You exit with this image firmly in your mind. Quiet humility. This is your local supermarket on a Sunday evening.