Is It Time to Go to Tokyo?City Travel, Japan, Spiritual Travel — By Meghann F on May 6, 2011 at 12:00 pm
Just in Japan before the earthquake and subsequent tsunami hit, Deputy Editor Meghann Foye urges people to consider returning to one of the world’s greatest, most exciting cities—and why the time to go is now.
Back in November, I had the chance to visit Tokyo, spending just five days in the city along with one day exploring the coastal town of Kamakura. My first impressions matched my previous Lost in Translation references—traffic traveling through myriad office towers at mid-level as if floating on air. Lights are dim neon and always moving. People’s minimalist movements are timed so perfectly that no one ever seems to touch despite less per capita room than anywhere else on earth except Mumbai. Mouths are covered in hospital masks to avoid germs—giving or receiving.
The city is completely modern in the sense that it feels like technology has taken over in every way. Even from the first moments in customs at Narita airport, where your fingerprints and photo are captured before you can blink your bleary jetlagged eyes, you feel like the city has forgone any remnants of its organic self. But that’s just a cover.
In the end, the city was nothing like I expected. Beneath the antiseptic cleanliness and Bladerunner references was a heart so heavy I could feel it in everything I touched.
“Power Spots” are all the rage in Japan right now. Energy masters are heavily covered in popular women’s magazines about where and how to find your own “Power Spots,” which can help spark your own personal energy and attract health, wealth and love. Many are said to be in the shrines dotting the city, where the remains of ancestors are kept along with ceremonial incense. Some are in the parks and other natural spots, and even a few in major hotels—the lobby of the Conrad Hotel, where I was staying as a guest, was said to be a power spot by some because of its prime views of Tokyo Harbor and the Rainbow Bridge. The panoramic expanse that covers of all the major neighborhoods, CBDs and water areas that make up the massive Tokyo can be seen while sitting in the clean-lined, high-ceilinged sitting area with a glass of cherry-scented single malt.
It’s a funny feeling when you “get” a place, or a place “gets” you, or a mix of the two. Tokyo is this for me, as I find it totally surprising to find that I can feel the “power” these masters are talking about.
…where the scent of the old-growth pines blocks out any sign of city life. They make it almost too easy to feel the spiritual, metaphysical energy in the air, like a kitchen just wiped down with Pine Sol-meets-Catholic church pew-meets-boy scout camp fire. The fact that it’s been like that for more than a thousand years no doubt helps.
I can feel it in the Hama Rikyu park…
…as we have a ceremonial Matcha, or whipped, Japanese green tea in the traditional way. The servers pour, then stir briskly with a course bamboo whisk, imbuing it with their own energy as they pass the bowl to you holding both sides and looking you in the eye. The thick tea is the product, but what’s happened is a singular moment in time between you, the server and nature known as the Japanese philosophy of ichi-go ichi-e, or the idea that each meeting should be treasured, because it can never be recreated.
I feel it intensely in the tiny coastal town of Kamakura…
…where the giant oxidized bronze Amida Buddha sits heavy on its haunches, amidst birch trees and a single eagle doing figure eights overhead at the Kōtoku-in shrine. It’s about a half-mile from the train station at the end of a narrow village street that reminds me strangely of my own hometown of Marblehead, Massachusetts.
Surprisingly I feel the pulsing power elsewhere around Tokyo, too…
…in Tsukiji, the biggest wholesale fishmarket in the world, around 5:45 a.m. The Tuna Auction is just beginning and hundred pound yellowfin, albacore and skipjacks are fought and cried over by salesmen repping major restaurants and wholesalers around the world, one selling upwards of $20,000. The world’s best fish are found here, stacked on wooden crates, with Japanese men wearing yellow wellies and blue coats, cigarettes hanging out of the sides of their mouth, cradling hooks fraught with bloody fish guts in one hand and cell phones in the other.
…where teen girls pose for pictures in the trends of the day outside the Shiybuya 109 shopping center. I travel up the six floors to find out what the trends are—it seems as though right now it’s a mix of Taylor Swift meets Laura Ashley meets the Kardashians with hemming so generous the clothes barely covering anything. Teen girls layer on doll-like fake eyelashes and dye their black-brown hair honey shades of blond. “Sexy School Girl” has been the popular trend in Japan for years, thanks, I think, to a strong repressive side of the culture that keeps men from fully owning their own power, yet, these girls are actually school girls. Outside, Seventeen Magazine Japan is doing a “girl on the street” photoshoot with girls wearing giant fake raccoon tails on their purses and I wonder how soon it will be before this accessory trend translates to Seventeen Magazine U.S. where I used to work. Girls flexing their full creative power through their wardrobe choices, a spot of artistry in every adolescent on the street.
I feel it in the central business district ward Shinjuku…
…where we are taken at night. There are men wearing slim-cut suits with bright-colored ties and sipping beers along with their femle colleagues on Friday night at a high-rise building filled with trendy bars and restaurants on each floor. At 11, I can see the drunkenness just about to hit, the men looking at their pretty coworkers in a different way than just a few hours ago. People check their cellphones more and more frequently, and the tiny, unique bars that make up this floor are filling up more and more until the tenor makes it too hard for us to communicate. As we cab it back to the hotel, a young salaryman teeters while waiting for the light to change, making us worry that he’ll be foot-up soon.
But most fully I feel it Saturday night down beneath the Shimbashi metro station…
…where there are rows of streets filled with izakaya, Japanese snack food and drink joints. We’re on a typical “salaryman’s pub-crawl” meant for the express purpose of blowing off steam after the week of general subservience and hierarchy that dominates the life of a Japanese middle-management professional. We find a popular spot for kushiyaki, or barbecued skewered meat, one of many in this dense neighborhood right next to the subway station, and it’s packed at 8 p.m. Smoke, heat and searing sounds fill the air, as we choose many types of skewers, filled with fleshy moist meat. First comes chicken thigh (yakitori), beef shortrib, and then more interesting cuts aided by small glasses of sake: kidneys, hearts, perineum, small intestine. We head to another place for just a beer and conversation, said to be where men go for small talk with their pretty hostesses/barmaidens, and then finally to a ramen joint where we buy a ticket from a vending machine then take a seat to enjoy our food, sipping Asahi-filled steins to good cheer all around.
These are the power spots that I found while I was there, and I think it’s not so much a sense of old or new, but more of a feeling of aliveness and energy, a spirit of incredible excitement.
As the March 11th tsunami hit the shores of Tohoku in northeastern Japan and the radioactive zone lay precarious, we called our friends. All and their families are mostly well, but it’s a tragedy, especially for the older residents living in that area who’ve had to relocate. But my friend tells us the Japanese spirit of kijuna, or the bond, trust and sharing among human beings, has prevailed. “In tough times, though, a people’s true spirit will shine through the gloom, and in my 20 years living in Japan never have I been so proud of this country,” says my American friend living there with his Japanese wife and family. He also let us know about the 2:46 Quakebook—first a website containing tweets and status updates from those around the world, now turned into a downloadable eBook containing essays, artwork and photos, including some from Yoko Ono whose proceeds go to benefit the victims.
Right now, the annual springtime rite of the cherry blossom festival is happening, where people practice the centuries old custom of hanami, or picnicking under a blooming sakura tree to acknowledge the beauty of nature. It’s also a time for families and friends to gather and rekindle lost bonds. Because of its short blossoming period and intense beauty, the cherry blossom has always been an important symbol for the Japanese as an omen of good fortune, but also mortality—another powerful reminder of the enduring, cyclical nature of life.
The U.S. State Department says that while the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi plant remains serious and dynamic, beyond the 50-mile evacuation zone, including Tokyo, the risks are low and don’t pose significant risks to travelers at the moment. Everyone has their own personal threshold for risk, but right now, flights to Japan are lower than they’ve ever been in years due to a historic and major partnership between American and Japan Airlines. Like a surge shorted out by a protector, Tokyo may have been offline for a moment, but the energy is still there, ready to spark the night again. I say the time to go is now.