As I may have mentioned, I’ve been to Tokyo before. When I was 19, after I lost my job in pharmaceutical data entry thanks to the global financial market crash, I headed off to Tokyo for four days on a blow out shopping trip, where I splashed my way through about 12,000￥ a day and bought so much stationary that they’ll be sending my funeral invites out on Rilakuma headed paper.
This time was going to be different. For starters, I didn’t have anything like that in terms of funds, not even stretched over 12 days instead of 4. Secondly, I have the option of being here for a year, so there’s less of the heady urgent it’s-now-or-never buy-buy-buy impulse. And lastly, over the decade since my last trip, I have blossomed into a responsible boring wheat intolerant grown-up, with an aching need for daily vegetable consumption, yes, even in cities where it’s perfectly possible to live off sushi, crepes, and rainbow candyfloss.
Supplies were in order. And not just food. My poor first aid box was beyond medical attention.
But first, I felt in need of divine protection. I headed back to Senso-ji to have a look at the お守り. For such a big temple, there was a fairly small selection; my options whittled down to a red one to ward off evil, or a yellow one that purportedly made wishes come true. Given that “wishes” was plural, I wondered if you could include the warding off of evil within your wishes, or if that would be considered a dishonourable attempt at gaming the system.
I decided to game the system. After all, gods generally like a bit of initiative.
Plus, if you throw multiple wishes out there, surely one of them is bound to come true? It’s the shotgun approach to happiness and prosperity!
From the temple, it was only a few streets to the Asakusa branch of Don Quijote. If you’ve not heard of that store before, just imagine a discount shopping centre crossed with a wasps nest put through the filter of the kind of dreams you have after a bad reaction to medication. To call it an assault on the senses would be an understatement. They sell a huge range of products crammed into skinny little aisles, with tiny advertising screens running on loop chirping hypnotic jingles in some insane non-stop overlapping dawn chorus.
You will see things you never thought could exist, like this single person karaoke experience:
Or dystopian citizen fuel:
One of my favourite things was seeing how much limited edition spring sakura stuff was on sale, especially in the kitchenware section. You see, while the UK is losing its collective mind over knife crime to the point where hysterical think-of-the-children-ites posit that people found carrying knives should be sentenced to ten years hard labour without trial, and politicians are literally suggesting that knives be fitted with GPS trackers; the people of Japan are encouraged to do their bit for conspicuous consumption by buying a new pink one for cherry blossom season.
Despite wanting many many things with what felt like every fibre of my being, I managed to leave with relatively few bits and bobs, including a new pouch to keep all my first aid bits in.
It was time for my favourite culture shock experience– the supermarket. Hoping that the one in the local department store’s basement was just a regular スーパ and not the equivalent of Harrod’s food hall, I made my way there. I won’t bore you with the details. The main things that threw me were the packaging on individual fruit and veg at a time when the rest of the developed world seems to be kicking up a fuss on single use plastic…
… and the range and cheapness of tofu. I was also able to get 3 packs of natto (fermented soy beans, a good breakfast) for just 54￥. Sure, they were a bit slimier than the other brand I’d tried, and they didn’t come with the little soy sauce and mustard packets, but that’s insanely affordable. Here’s my full basket, which I’m pretty sure came in under 1800￥.
Full run down:
– 6 packs of 100g pre cooked rice (for breakfasts)
– 3 packs natto
– 4 bananas
– 3 carrots (way stubbier than British ones)
– half a cabbage
– green onions (way longer and skinnier than British ones)
– 2 pack tofu
– 5 tangerines
– 2 skinny cucumbers
– half a daikon
– small tin cooked chicken
– mystery pre cooked omelette things from bargain bin
– super mystery fish tubes??? from bargain bin
When you check out, the cashier takes your items out of your basket and puts them into another differently coloured basket, so you can take it over to the side and pack your bags. This is a great way of doing things which I feel we desperately need to adopt in UK supermarkets, rather than doing the LIDL panic packing dance which ends with high blood pressure and the sense that you are disappointing everyone in the queue behind you.
I went home to the hostel. I ate. I decided to go for a wander down to the river to watch the sunset, via Kappabashi Dori, aching for every piece of kitchenware I saw like a nesting bird desperate for twigs. This is a horribly common thing for me; I don’t have a real base, but I’m constantly lusting over the things I would have if I did. It is not a great state of mind to be in. In fact, it is rather like having a spoilt brat in your head who is putting together the mother of all wedding registries.
As I reached the Sumida River, the sun began to dip below the towers of Tokyo, casting it’s magical pink blush across the clear sky. The wind whipped off the water and blew cobwebs out of my soul. Every good city needs a river, not just from the historical founding point of “oh there’s fresh water and a transport vein here, we should build a city around it”, but on a spiritual level: the river doesn’t just flush away the literal shit of millions of citizens, it’s there to wash out our heads too.
In my first year of university I lived just off Blackfriars and would run up and down each bank of the Thames, past battleships and spy headquarters, around loved up couples and under stock cube towers, and slump back to my student cage feeling a little further from insanity after watching London’s tide lap against brick, as cormorants bobbed alongside its flotsam speckled ripples and the lights sparkled in the trees near Gabriel’s Wharf.
All good cities have rivers.
On the hunt for cherry blossoms, I headed for the West bank of Sumida Park, which interestingly is completely split by its namesake river, with half the park on either side of its waters. So far every tree I’d bumped into had been right on the edge of blooming, but here by the river two stood proudly in blossom, lit from below.
I’d read on a sign that there was a famous cow shrine in the park, supposedly with a healing cow statue, so let myself wander around winding park paths until I found it.
Glowing serenely and surrounded by strings of origami cranes, Nadeushi was curled up on the rock she was carved from, under a little manger, and wearing a red bib. She radiated a sense of peace.
Not knowing if there was a specific place I was supposed to touch her, but sure than I’d never met a barnyard animal who didn’t like them, I reached over and gave her a gentle ear scritch, unsure which part of myself I should direct her to heal. Nadeushi looked like she was smiling. I said thank you, and left, thinking afterwards that mentioning my blistered and bleeding toes probably would have been a good idea.
The Skytree sparkled at my back on my walk back to the river, and as I watched the restaurant barges pass on the dark water I thought back to the song my brain had begged me for at Bologna Airport.
All that I have is a river
The river is always my home
Lord, take me away
For I just cannot stay
Or I’ll sink in my skin and my bones
The water sustains me without even trying
The water can’t drown me, I’m done
With my dying …
Now the land that I knew is a dream
And the line on the distance grows faint
So wide is my river
The horizon a sliver
The artist has run out of paint
Every good city needs a river. And so do I.