Shorts: Zen

A tribute to my first visits to Japan.



“Irasshaimase!” Welcome! I hear from a few places on this floor of the electronics store in Akihabara. Normally the bright lights would give me a headache, but not here. I often wonder if they’ve thought of that, and put filters on the fluorescent tubes to cut out a painful light frequency, or maybe they were just using ones that didn’t flicker. Probably, I’m just too excited.

I haven’t come in for anything – I’m only here a short while and I had planned to fill my rucksack with souvenirs, sweet treats and gifts for friends. I still haven’t found a kimono. I was making it my mission to come home with one. Proper ones cost tens of thousands of yen, I was told, so I might have to settle for a yukata, which is lighter, to be worn in the summer. The department stores in Ginza and Shinjuku are my next stop.

My Japanese is still rather elementary, though it is considered the toughest language for an English speaker to learn. So when I try to ask an elderly retail assistant in the depaatou, in Japanese, ‘honourable lady… I beg you to teach me where the kimonos are’, she begins to talk at me with such speed and alacrity I can only smile, nod, and try to humbly slide away between my soudesukas and my arigatous as my friends split their sides at my misfortune.

I manage to comprehend enough to learn that the kimono shop was on an upper floor – but they are indeed far too pricey, so I end up buying a yukata in dark blue, with golden dragons leaping across it. The politeness of the staff is something I had never before experienced – nothing else matters to them but my satisfaction, even though the chances of my repeat custom, or even of telling anyone of my experiences in any way that would end up being useful to them, are practically zero.

After the madness of the shopping centres comes the calm restoration of Asakusa. Not the souvenir section, of course, which is so crowded with tourists one can barely squeeze through, although the fact that this is all happening in Japan, a country where personal space is the most prized commodity, gives me a strange joy. I do pop in for a pair of chopsticks, ichiban ookii because my hands are so large and using the normal size ones here gives me cramp. I also plump for a box of mochi, because I fancied some. I look forward to our trip to Nara, when I’ll get the real deal: two men in perfect harmony working warm mochi paste, one of them moving the huge, green, dough-like blob in the way of the other who strikes it with a large wooden tool. They build up a rhythm and momentum, until they go so impossibly fast, the onlookers wonder how frequently accidents happen. The resulting green mochi are far superior to the ones I tried in the Tokyo souvenir shops, and only improved by the amazing spectacle we just witnessed. But I am telling the story out of order.

At last, the temple, with its red torii and lantern. Beyond, multilingual signs teach you how to pay your respects. My friends and I are atheists, but I welcome the peace it brings, and carry out the rituals; purification by water, and by incense. At the temple, I follow the others, clapping my hands and bowing. I have long hair now, and I feel a cool breeze clearing it from my face as I bow deeply. As silly as it sounds, I have a euphoric moment there, in that temple, in the middle of the struggles of city life. Despite the crowds outside, despite my frantic and strange urge to own a piece of Japanese clothing. I am at peace. I am grateful. Nothing else matters.

We return to our hotel room and deposit our purchases. We watch a sprinkling of television while taking turns to shower before returning out for food. The anime, with its bright colours and subtitles in English, appeals to our inner otaku. Reality television is a strange encounter, as ordinary people watch themselves picture-in-picture from a studio as large Japanese subtitles crash onto the screen in a bright, chunky font for emphasis. Children’s television is just about manageable as the subtitles contain hiragana to help a younger audience, who have not yet learned how to read perhaps half of the kanji. Being fully literate in Asian countries is a full-time task, and even natives feel their literacy slipping away if they don’t read daily. There are still words I don’t understand even in this context, and as the focus begins to exhaust me, we switch to a news channel, which also has subtitles in Japanese, though they zip by before I’ve even deciphered the first three characters.

woman walking in the street during night time
Photo by Aleksandar Pasaric on

We head out. Next stop is Roppongi, a seedier part of Tokyo, as far as Japan was ever capable of being seedy. Black men call out in Japanese, English, and French to advertise the happy ending parlours that litter the street we walk down, but we find it all so bizarre that their persistence doesn’t bother us. After walking down a number of side streets, one of our group leads us into a small bar called ‘meat man’, though we are greeted by a woman who recognises my friend who had visited once before. We are seated by the window, and the only other customers appear to be two salarymen, one the manager of the other (given their relative ages). They have been getting drunk together for a while – I imagine that the younger one is trying to ingratiate himself, and the older one is grateful for the company.

The smell of cooked meat soon begins to waft over and my friend with the frequent flyer miles reminds the owner of his order. A glass display case at the front of the shop begins full of chicken, beef, and vegetables; two and a half hours later and we have somehow emptied it, with the small help of the two drunken businessmen.

We leave, and pay too much. It is our first time – though my friend should know better. The two chefs, dressed in blue serving kimono, shout and call out to us five minutes later – stop, you paid too much! Tipping in such traditional places is as alien to them as the inverse is to us. You already paid, they say. We can’t take this.

Such is the honesty and care for each other here. You are safe here, it suggests. My usual state of mind requires a relatively fast heartbeat. Not in Japan.

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