Mon, Feb 11, 2013 - Page 12 News List

Yomping through the drizzle

Taking the scenic route on foot is an ideal way to explore Tokyo’s strange mixture of modernity and tradition

By Marcel Theroux  /  The Guardian, TOKYO

For the next hour or so, we found a few wabi-sabi features in the landscape. Clear mountain streams were running beside the road. There were traditional wooden houses with tiled roofs, citrus trees in their gardens and strings of persimmon drying in the sunshine. In one house, I could see an old woman kneeling on her floor as she worked on a huge piece of embroidery.

We were walking along route 20, which follows the line of the Koshu Kaido, one of the five arterial roads of medieval Tokyo. We passed a marker showing 50km to Nihonbashi — the bridge in Tokyo from which all distances were traditionally measured.

The road was lined with two rows of gingko trees, which had shed their leaves in piles on the pavement.

“The gingko leaves, like heaps of gold,” announced Mr Suzuki, as though roughing out the draft of a haiku.

Around us, the city was still on a human scale, with small, artisanal shops: a man making tofu late in the evening (“Very difficult work, Marcel-san. Hard to compete with supermarkets”); a woman selling pickled turnips; various wagashi shops, which sell the bean paste sweets with seasonal themes that are served with thick green tea as part of the tea ceremony. But gradually, the city began to grow higher and denser around us.

At Hachioji, an overpass over the road seemed to signal the onset of the city proper. Suddenly, we were surrounded by vending machines covered with pictures of Tommy Lee Jones that dispensed cans of hot and cold instant coffee. “No ordnance preventing this,” said Mr Suzuki. “Americans think it’s very funny to find Tommy Lee Jones here. But you know he went to Harvard with Al Gore.”

Mr Suzuki and I parted at Hachioji. He had set up his mobile phone as a pedometer. “That is the farthest I have ever walked, Marcel-san. Thirteen kilometers!” I was sad to see him go.

I fell asleep at 9pm, exhausted from the walk and jet lag. At some point during the night, my phone rang with vague communications from home: a child was a speaking elf in a Christmas play, something about my mother-in-law. My jet lag felt less like Lost in Translation and more like Life on Mars.

The next morning, the weather was raw and gray. I followed the yellow gingko trees along route 20 and over the Asa River. My breath came in smoky puffs.

For the next two days, I walked across gray Tokyo suburbs in light rain, carrying a change of clothes in my backpack and listening to a Japanese tutor tape. I used sign language and half a dozen Japanese words to order lunch and dinner in noodle bars. I relied on Tommy Lee Jones for coffee and tea.

I had the exhilarating feeling of being immersed in a mysterious, distant world. At night, I was reading Richard Lloyd Parry’s book People Who Eat Darkness, and I couldn’t improve on his description of the excitement of being in Japan: “Every morning it takes her by surprise — the sudden consciousness of profound difference. Is it something unfamiliar about the angle of the light, or the way the sounds register in the summer air? Or is it the demeanor of the people on the street and in the cars and the trains — unobtrusive, but purposeful; neat, courteous, self-contained, but intent, as if following secret orders?”

Even at its most gray and mundane, there was something extraordinary about the city. It manifested itself both in strange absences — litter, overt conflict, graffiti, noise — and in the positively unusual: the huge numbers of people in surgical masks, the baffling signage, the sedate cyclists beside me on the pavement, the schoolboys in their Prussian uniforms.

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