There is no sense of turmoil in Tokyo. I just like the alliteration. From our hotel room window we see the Tokyo Tower, its lattice painted in bright stripes of red and white against a glowing night sky. Our bathroom has a toilet with a prewarmed, cushioned seat. Like most of the toilets we sat on in restaurant and office facilities, it has an intimate washing system with clear pictograms for ease of use. Some of these toilets even have an option to play music, intended to cover up embarrassing noises. I never tried the music thing because that in itself is an embarrassing noise.
It’s part of the clean clean clean and safety ethics Japan is so well known for. Safety at all costs except for the mad cyclists heading towards you on the pavements, no matter how narrow. They blatantly disregard the cycle lanes and no one seems to mind, except the untrained tourists leaping out of the way. The cyclists barely even slow down and it’s as if they’re in another world. This is understandable as in the bits of Tokyo we visited there is a lovely sense of calm, which gives the impression that Tokyo is quiet. And compared to other cities, it is. That the people are so kind and polite and considerate only adds to this sense of an unspoken gentleness in the place. Even the light in late summer is gentle and caressing.
We visited an enormouse equestrian park called Baji Koen and located to the west side of Shibuya, a major commercial and financial centre in Tokyo. Baji Koen was originally built in 1940 and lately upgraded for the 2020 Olympics. The facilities were then repurposed and refurbished as a smaller stadium and park. The park has graceful and immaculate lawns where toddlers can totter with no risk of landing in a muddy puddle or of finding something disgusting they might insist on eating. The grass is close cut and perfect for little boys practising their rugby tackles. Girls can swan about in complicated clothes without fear of tripping over. There is also a vast arena for showjumping and dressage and a racetrack, where we watched the ancient art of Yabusame – archery on horseback. No one fell off and of the four contenders the girl was much better at it than the men, one of whom almost did fall off several times and didn’t shoot a single arrow. Yabusame was originally a martial art, but it morphed over the centuries into something spiritual and then something competitive. Riders and horses seemed to be having a great time doing it. Equine visitors can avail themselves of extensive luxury accommodation at Baji Koen and there is probably a hotel somewhere nearby for the humans. It’s all very lovely.
That’s hardly surprising because Tokyo and probably Japan too offers incidental beauty everywhere you look. From the people and their carefully curated clothes, to the parks and green spaces, signage and the food, the focus is as much on the quality of appearance as on the quality of the thing itself. Grubby, rough and untidy doesn’t rear its head. Even a serving of truck stop soba noodles, made of buckwheat and served cold, has the food set bang smack in the middle of their bamboo tray thing. The accompaniments of dashi (broth) and chopped spring onions are carefully placed for optimal symmetry.
The many bizarre and challenging foodstuffs were for a vegetarian more intriguing entertainment than options for nourishment. That is, apart from the weird and unfamiliar vegetables that the Tokyo people didn’t seem to count as vegetarian possibilities. A main dish that does not exclude meat or fish, means there is no vegetarian food available. Except that potatoes with cheese, truffle fries, and rice and salad, noodles, beans and tofu are just fine, especially when you add fried tempe and some of the weird vegetables as a side.
Everything we came across in Tokyo was all about the details: warm damp towels before and after meals, special holders for spent teabags, complex soap and lotion options. And the diverse cooking methods matched to the huge range of foods, including an incredible diversity of dried foods. From the details included in a humble pot noodle to small packages of unfamiliar pickles, the array of foods and their nuances is astonishing. The dried additions for miso soup and potted noodles tell only a tiny bit of the tale. Used to tasteless Ramen packet noodles the enormity of noodle options was almost overwhelming. A single pot can contain everything required to make a divine noodly dinner. There are dried herbs and spices, dried meat or fish of various species and things to me unrecognisable. But they’re probably identifiable to the noodle connoiseur from the picture on the package. Either way there is no lack of choice, whatever your fancy.
The focus on helpful details and convenience spread to the clarity and sense of onstreet parking. There is not a lot. Mostly it’s not allowed except for temporary purpose like getting people into the car. Instead there are lots of small (think four cars) offstreet paid parking lots. That the streets are so clear of parked cars, at least in the districts we saw, is a major reason why Tokyo feels so unstressy. You don’t see congestion on the streets, although you do on the many motorways that traverse Tokyo. But people do not walk there. Despite being one of the most crowded and densely populated cities on the planet Tokyo is a walking city, with busyness confined to the highways and the extremely efficient train systems.
The districts we were in, Minato and Shibuya in the main, were trashless with no overflowing bins or rubbish in the gutters. There were indeed hardly any bins at all except for recycling purposes. The Tokyo people just don’t drop litter, they take it home instead. It’s part of a sense that people take responsibility for their actions, for how they interact with one another and for how they share their space. There is a softness and assurance without arrogance or complacence. The softness sort of hums in the background, like the birdsong you hear in the most unexpected of places.