There’s a lot of vegetation in the quieter districts of Tokyo and, since the streets aren’t named, and since most of the buildings look similar, I rely on the plants to navigate and find my way around. They become familiar: the pink flowering tree, the green fluffy maple with its leaves like a thousand tiny hands, the tall red-turning hedge, the pale green conifer with soft feathered claws hanging.
The trees are distinctive here, thankfully, and exotic. And they seem to grow to suit their district. Twisted Japanese-looking pines predominate in the small stone household courtyards, often pruned and wrapped into bonsai-like shapes, but in the backstreets of the bustling bright district of Shimbashi, I found a shrine complex where the trees rose almost as high and straight as the skyscrapers surrounding it.
The numerous trees in Tokyo are a pleasant surprise to me. The other surprise is the multitude of hidden shrines, tucked away in the corners of parks, in back alleys, between skyscrapers, behind trees. They’re little pockets of peacefulness and I seek out their solace regularly. I feel strangely reverent and slightly magical in their presence, as if I’ve slipped back in time a little and can become part of the ceremony and power of the shrine. It’s a simple ritual: offer a coin, make a prayer, toll the bell, clap your hands, twice (to wake up the gods), then bow and quietly depart, having washed your hands and mouth in the spring water fountain before entry. Old rites of purification and desire.
And then I can return, when I must, to the crazy Tokyo – to the long downtown streets lined with neon rainbows of high-rises, or to the weaving maze of backstreets, crammed with tiny restaurants and micro-bars, bathed in the softer glow of paper lanterns and a haze of smoke and cooking smells.
I walk and resist, walk and resist, enjoying the myriad lights of the outdoor Tokyo, until I am lured by necessity into the network of metro stations and malls, where I force myself to submit. Then I drift hopelessly along the fluorescent platforms and passageways, with their shining shops and beckoning kiosks and high female voice-overs which explain and apologise and cajole. No electricity is spared here. And I could become part of it, become just another pixel in the smooth lighted buzz… but every few minutes I’m jolted out of my synthetic reverie by another taut announcement, with its childish melody chiming loudly along beside it.
Ah, Tokyo. It panics and charms me by turns, and I can’t wait to get out.
29th September 2014