The first charm of Japan is intangible and volatile as a perfume — Patrick Lafcadio Hearn, 1894
First Impressions of Tokyo
More than a hundred and twenty years ago, Patrick Lafcaido Hearn, whose musings about Japan seem fresh today, opined on the charms of Japan in his series of books “Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan”. Although I spent time as a child in Kindergarten in Kobe, Japan, Japan is unfamiliar to me, and yes, quite charming.
A great mass of interconnected neighborhoods, at first glance, Tokyo is some ways like Los Angeles. Except, the streets here are severely narrow. Also, the primary modes of transportation are trains and bikes, instead of cars. Inexpensive bikes ($100) with a basket hung on front to carry groceries, are popular, hundreds of them found parked in bike lots in near every station.
Now, after boarding the Chou Line in downtown Tokyo, I arrive in Musashi-Sakai, to finally meet my traveling companion Yiyi. A mutual fascination with travel and culture has brought us together. Through the miracle of the gifts of Steve Jobs, and the latest social media apps, we’ve become acquainted across the miles, so our meeting in person is familiar and easy.
We ride bikes about five minutes back to the station at Musashi-Sakai, and take the JR train two stops to Kichijoji. The train is full, but it is quiet. No one is talking on their phone, or to their neighbor. A recorded female announcement asks in both Japanese and English to refrain from speaking on the phone. The same announcer calls out the stations in a delightful voice familiar to all travelers in Japan: Mi-ta-kaaaaa, Mi-ta-kaaaaa… it’s practically the only noise on the train…and then, a few minutes later, our stop Ki-chi-jo-jiiiii…. Ki-chi-jo-jiiiii….
Our destination is Iseya, a yakitori place specializing in pork. As we arrive, Yiyi tells me that Kichijoji for many years has been the number one place in Tokyo for people to live. In some ways it is like Santa Monica, full of shops and restaurants… and there is a large park:
The highlight is Inokashira Park, with long walking paths surrounding a lake. The park is filled with both cherry trees and maple trees, making Inokashira Park an excellent choice for both flower viewing in the spring, and seeing the autumn colors in the fall.
The Inokashira Line from Shibuya dead-ends here, forming a T with the Chou Line. Between the two stations, a narrow street, people are walking everywhere, some riding bikes. Among the shops and the restaurants and people, a few taxis and busses make their way down the narrow street.
At the crossing between the stations (visible in the map above, lower right) two cops wielding red light sabers and bullhorns direct the crowd non-confrontationally and politely, saying in Japanese: Stay behind the white line kudasai because a bus is coming.
In the US there might be loud police whistles, furious waving of arms and resistance from the surly evening crowd, but not here. Here the cops are uber polite, and so is the crowd. I nod and smile at one, in response he bows back an even deeper bow. I am humbled and pleased by this sign of respect. Respect seems to be a dominant characteristic of this Polite Japan, even in this most europeanized of Japan’s cities.
We walk the two blocks to Iseya a yakitori place specializing in pork. Iseya began as a butcher shop over 75 years ago. It’s crowded; we share a table with four people from Hong Kong.
The food is good, the atmosphere better, even if a little smoky… the, ah…. building codes seem to be absent on this point. White shirted waiters and waitresses yell out orders for two kitchens, one behind us where stews are made, and one in front where yakitori is prepared over hot coals. Near the hot coals, a wall covered with 1000, 2000, 5,000 and even 10,000 yen dangle over the patrons sitting at the tall yakitori counter.
We enjoy a decent meal, generous portions. Inexpensive at $25 total with drinks for two, it’s a great deal. The atmosphere is amazing, exactly the kind of a hole in the wall I love to discover. An gathering place for over 75 years, Iseya is also perhaps, a glimpse of the past.
After dinner we walk through the enormous shopping district in Kichijoji. The streets are covered against the frequent rains in Japan. Pachinko parlors, clothing stores, even McDonalds, and especially sweetshops dominate the area. There are a few 100 yen stores, Daiso, with a higher quality of goods than that found in American Dollar Stores.
We bump into my favorite clothing shop Uniqlo, which, like the Gap when I was younger, is a great place to buy wardrobe staples. We also find an outdoor store where trekking poles sell for $100 (high) but the Japanese versions of Yaktraks sell for less than US. I have brought my own Yaktraks from the States, yet, according to Yiyi it only snows twice a year so who needs them?
The Greater Tokyo region has about 35 million residents, perhaps a third of Japan’s population. Tokyo is in some ways the culmination of 2500 years of Yamato, the dominant ethnic group in Japan. This efficient, polite, comfortable, economical city is the ‘europeanized’ version of Japan.
According to Patrick Lafcadio Hearn, however:
… the rare charm of Japanese life, so different from that of all other lands, is not to be found in its Europeanised circles. It is to be found among the great common people, who represent in Japan, as in all countries, the national virtues, and who still cling to their delightful old customs, their picturesque dresses, their Buddhist images, their household shrines, their beautiful and touching worship of ancestors.
This is the life of which a foreign observer can never weary, if fortunate and sympathetic enough to enter into it—the life that forces him sometimes to doubt whether the course of our boasted Western progress is really in the direction of moral development.
— Glimpses Of Unfamiliar Japan by Patrick Lafcadio Hearn, first published in 1894
So far, the familiar Japan in this europeanized Tokyo is delightful. I can’t help but wonder what treasures await as we travel away from the great city of Tokyo, tomorrow, as our own glimpse of unfamiliar Japan continues. We’ve planned a trip walking along the Nakasendo, the ancient route from Tokyo to Kyoto.