11.03.2015 - 12.03.2015
The sound of water beating the confines of my tub is a stark beginning to the day, a pair of new neighbours above gaining quick insight into my erratic hours as I draw my warm dip at 0230. Following two hours of buzzy sleep the immersion gives credence to the idea of a new day despite a body clock warped beyond recognition. By 0600 hair and mouth are dry as mom and I whisk to Departures, the last gasps of a cold draining just in time for the bottled filth of plane air. Despite the carnage of Delta's ever-changing schedule I am perfectly in time, and up and over with quickness into a blurry Seattle. Customs is a joy, a man with an expansive voice who offers two shouted phrases, "Welcome Home" for local patriots. There's something perversely satisfying about having "Welcome to the United States" shouted at you, and I find myself strangely pro-American as I saunter to the United club. Encased in wires shortly, I kill a few hours fog-watching and charging, heading to the gate only in enough time to walk to the near end-of-line.
The march down the aisle brings me a row seat, no neighbour yet in sight as I settle in, swaddled in a tissue-like blanket. A few minutes later a middle aged woman with glasses and a huge duffel bag appears, chuckling at her own excess, trying to hoist a second bag that thunders down on a man's head before I grab it and push it into a bin with all the force available to me. Intrigued by the now openly-laughing sphere of mirth with the travel tonnage, I settle back in as she takes point by the window, turning to tell me that there are two more bags in the hold that she is singularly struggling with. She laughs openly again, jabbing at her ticket to show me that she is bound for Manila, the un-selfish warmth strengthening my preconception of filipino culture. Asking after my destination she nods vigorously at the mention of Tokyo, trying out her best "arigatou gozaimasu" and asking me for feedback. I give her the universal thumbs up as I tell her to drop the audible u and ask to learn similarly in filipino. She obliges happily, and it is with a smile that I begin to cruise through digital offerings as ground work for the 10 hour flight. A Japanese flight attendant brushes down the aisle with drinks in tow, large unblinking eyes and prominent ears lending a look that comfortably walks the line between adorable and gremlin. She complies with a request for water, my own slightly unsettled by the searching globes on her facial mid-line. I dive into the Horrible Bosses sequel, a perfect ensemble comedy that I pair with a teriyaki chicken dinner eaten wanly about the sides. Not so delicate with my blondie brownie, I let sugar-free gum succeeds sugar as I move onto some episodes of UK comedy.
Somewhere before credits roll I surprisingly drop out, waking up half an hour later with my head at an ungainly angle. The cabin is dim, a man across the way bordering an interior seat-mate who folds in on himself languidly, six feet of Japanese man in a surgical mask and huge slippers. In short order the roles reverse, and the mid-seat man holds me rapt as he slips out over the sleeping aisle-mate by straddling him with aborted hops and determination. My own neighbour is in an unclear state of repose, leaving me to a half-baked Godzilla reboot. I am almost through a third thriller as breakfast appears, a flattened bagel sandwich hot-glued with instant cheese and a Kit Kat I pass to my neighbour for the final lap to Manila. She laughs characteristically, introducing herself as Estrellia after catching my name. Things go slightly turbulent as we wind down the flight, a slight wash of grey covering the glimpses I get of Japanese countryside. I help Estrellia de-plane, losing her in the shuffle as I stride off to arrive officially. Customs and security are quick and painless, leaving me with a few arrival tasks to get underway and online. I stop first at the post office, picking up portable wifi then make for the rail office. A few minutes later I leave with a three week rail pass and self confidence intact as I have yet to bungle anything significantly. A few laps of a shopping arcade moves me to a drug store where all my usual air mail essentials are on offer for a trifling amount of yen. Eyes glazed with Japanophilia, I fumble past a motley crew of rainbow haired foreigners and descend to the Narita express train level. The tracks are spartan, only a handful of people joining me in my carriage, my suitcase clipped alone in the front hold.
A half day of travel has left me overheated and clammy, my nose a red beacon hastily swathed in egregiously thick layers of foundation as the train emerges from underground to a setting sun. The landscape is a dusky green, muted golden undertones laced in and around low building blocks and an abundance of charming traditional rooflines. Ten minutes into Japan proper and I feel myself falling, the sense of peace and order evident even through bullet train glass. Past Narita city there is a pause, the sights of Tokyo rushing in shortly after, the outer boroughs quiet and not in keeping with the neon metropolis I'm expecting. The hour long journey comes to a close as we move up to mid-city level and arrive at Tokyo city station. The night is fully realized as I come up from a packed underground to a taxi round buzzing with arrivals and a few departures. Not wanting to commit a faux pas I hang back, waiting for the next car that will arrive with automatically opened doors as invitation. A likely ex-pat behind steps up with a smile and shows me to a car freshly unloaded. Finding the elegance and deference of Japan has put me in full pageant mode I stifle an urge to point sweepingly in the door's direction before gliding for it, teeth gently ground and visible as I thank the sweet man for his help. His expertise is tarnished slightly as the car pulls away without me, as do the next few he tries to secure. He is truly puzzled by the lack of success, my reply characteristically over-sharing as I blame my unmissable lack of purpose and Japanese proficiency at reading between lines. The next cab swings open, my bag put to rest as I haul out my Japanese directions to the forlorn Nagakin capsule apartment building.
The drive winds around the glittering heart of the Ginza, smartly dressed shoppers and salary men dotting the corners as we pull up to an unassuming entrance, the distinctive blocky façade invisible above a large overhang. Having read that the building manager is not overly foreigner-friendly, I move silently to the mailbox where my host has left his key. The manager looks up from his paper, my gaze caught as I weave between apparent lunch tables in the warm lobby. I greet him sincerely and he returns it cautiously, asking if I am staying at the highly trafficked apartment. Answered in the affirmative, he points me to the elevator, leaving me to reflect that if this is what passes for unfriendliness in Japan I am holding the wrong passport. The elevator is original 70s work, and as the lift ascends the ambient temperature drops precipitously. The door bumps open and I am met with the sight of grey neglect, a cold series of stairs and levels that winds up and around. Sadly unkempt in the face of an occupancy rate that hovers below half, it is still absolutely fascinating and I am delighted as I open the door of 907 to a piece of Japan’s Metabolic architectural history. The apartment is a sleek tube, white paint peeling off a bank of built in drawers and fold-out surfaces that rise off surprisingly handsome wooden floors. The window is a grill covered circle, completing the utopian fantasy that breathed such a space into existence, the view to skyscrapers that could just have surely been a window to the cosmos.
Space: The Final Frontage
The bathroom is tiny, ergonomic, and grim, the mirror distorted and bathtub out of bounds with a yellow pail stuck inside by a shower head dramatically labelled “NO!”. From the comfort of the mid century modern couch I begin to collect my thoughts and make peace with my limits. Unmoved by the lack of space and shower I wrestle instead with the one pressing deficiency that has me quaking under a pile of quilts. Though a heating unit hangs from the ceiling whirring at full tilt it is surely near zero inside, more than 40 years of deferred maintenance saturating the pore of each wall. I am so in love with the space I opt for an hour of huddling and hotel searching, hoping against hope that the room will creep up to a liveable warmth. No such miracle has transpired by the time I put my eyeliner back on and lock up, heading for the convenience store next door for a small indulgence and distraction.
I end up with a chocolate pudding Kit Kat and a verdict, deciding against emailing my Airbnb host to cancel as I am out the money regardless. Instead I decide the overarching theme to my Japan trip will be indulgence, a fantasy life that will include the capsule for the next few days as a Ginza pied-a-terre in which I can take mid-day breaks. Very pleased at having turned a defeat into a costly success, I slip in and out of a cab that arrives at the APA Kendomacho Ekimae hotel, a slight tower only a short drive away in Chuo district. Check in is fast and friendly, my extremities defrosting as I work my way up to room 411, the cozy space charming and neat. Preoccupied by the search for heat and succour I dip myself into a hot bath, a show playing out on my iPad perched in front with my chocolate beside.
Clean and drunk with hedonism I move my damp skin to the bed, the window opposite cracked for fresh air only with no view to speak of. Even so I find my vision of Japan is unobstructed, the cliché of perfection in all things too easy to hand, but probably right.