Today's outing to Roppongi is to see a display of 60 variations on what looks to me like a cartoon cat; a blue blob with whiskers who can go anywhere through a magic door. I'm optimistically reminded of the 100 or so artist decorated figures I discovered in the skyscraper Marunouchi Building on a previous visit.
When we get there, the Roppongi Hills figures have gone, but there is a lot of promotional material for a Gaudi exhibition at the Mori Gallery - an outing for next week.
A snap decision sees us returning to the metro to go back one stop. The man-with-the-ramp has fun here (only once have I been assisted by a woman-with-a-ramp, it is usually a man), because we are only travelling one stop he gets to come with me. At Kamiyacho station there is also a man-with-a-ramp waiting for me; after some initial animosity, my ramp man breaks the ice, gives way and the two of them exchange bows.
There is a brand new shopping centre here, another Mori building; more glass, marble and steel and some artwork. Universe 29 is a black and silver piece in stainless steel by Zhan Wang; Untying Space, flowing rivers of black on white glass walls by Sun K Kwak, interprets the flow of people coming in and out of this building with its 30 floors of offices, apartments and a hotel.
At the six entrances to the office floors another set of site specific works by Toru Kamiya consist of acrylic sheets each painted in a graduating colour relating to gemstones that reflect the jewel colours found locally.
As yet the space is strangely devoid of shops, but awash with places to eat. There is a flower shop (I have a weakness for Japanese flower shops), and a bookshop. Many Japanese people read books on the metro - books in anonymous covers; the fashion for phone games seems to be waining.
The 52 story complex building is more like a complex of buildings. There is a beautiful open air garden on the second level, some orange coloured 'mountains' for small children to play on, and a half-level higher there is a romantic moon balcony garden.
Moon and space themes seem to be fashionable right now.
And to celebrate the opening, this new building boasts two of the cartoon blobs: Doraemon and his new business-cat relative, Toranomon (a similar shape, but white with ears; the new building's mascot uses a time machine rather than a magic door). Toranomon, also the name of the building, means Tiger's Gate and was the name of the southernmost gate of Edo Castle.
I'm less than impressed with Doraemon, having seen him in the plastic, but he's very popular in Japan.
I'm even less impressed by the brand new platform lift that requires the user to call for assistance and then takes forever to travel down a very short flight of steps. But it does look good.
Independent access requires going outside, but only a very short distance.
The 'go anywhere door' is where to hide
from life. The 'go anywhere door' is for
a peter-pan style cartoon escape, for
manga and anime, for ninja and
cosplay and even for cute little maids
without cafés; the 'go anywhere door'
is the door to the centre of your own
personal universe; somewhere safe from
the undesirable past, but also
a pause from the unappealing future.
'Go anywhere door' is the illusion
of going nowhere, but leaving its mark
on gene-culture-coevolution. One
person can alone, inhabit the world.
Making the best sense I can of the little bits of Tokyo I am becoming familiar with is a gradual thing. Nothing is static, nothing is set in stone. And the Japanese strangers who converse with me may have their own agenda. More Japanese than ever are making the attempt. Notices and instructions in English are increasing, I put this all down to preparations for the Olympics - it's a prestige thing.
A conversation about culture leads into talking fairy tales. How do children get introduced to the culture that will shape their lives? The Japanese birth rate is falling, the government are doing their best to reverse the trend, but it seems to me that the commercial world is working harder. Babies are being promoted as utterly adorable and their electronic, brightly coloured plastic toys are awash with sugary-sweet jingles.
Japanese children's stories, so I'm told, are cute and uplifting, these days there is nothing like little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel. Japanese childhood is cute, creative and full of positive reinforcement - right up to the moment when an institution steps in and regimentation takes over.
There is tremendous institutional pressure not be be different. Historically not standing out, not being or doing different, meant being invisible and being invisible was safe - possibly. Belief in the power of normal invisible has cultural and superstitious weight behind it.
Once they are finished with school, a very high percentage of young people are rebelling; refusing to step on the treadmill of tradition, choosing not to marry or have children and refusing to be invisible.
Visible appears to replace equal - it being so much more desirable than equality. The fight is for the right to diversity.
I'm reminded of Vincent Van Gogh: 'Normality is a paved road, easy to walk, but no flowers grow on it.'
Today flowers on the path will not be beheaded by samurai swords, but by diminishing public disapproval.
There appear to be more exotic young people than ever, peopling even the most reserved and conservative areas - exotic in new and exciting, but still very identifiably Japanese ways.
I've been here only a short while,
yet already I hear people
bemoan the harshness of the work
ethic; the undesirable
fifty and sixty hour weeks;
the faceless monotony of
existence. Accepting this as
a personal burden, the choice
to be responsible, but not
expecting the new generation
to make the same sacrifices;
lacking the energy to mould,
or to batter the youth into
submission. Who would want the right
to that kind of equality? Who
would not choose a different path?
The fight, the silent opting out
protest of youth, is for the right
to be different, to be
individual. There is no
great appetite for community
or family when the cost is
identity. Equality just
confuses the issue.
Waiting for the guys to come and service my wheelchair, I watched the tail-end of a TV programme that had a sweet sounding Japanese female cooing about the laying and hatching of insect eggs and the emergence of new life. It was followed by a male voice talking the science of stars in the night sky.
A young female appeared on screen with a sketch pad, followed by a mature male who explained the sky to her and allowed her to look through his giant telescope while she marvelled and cooed in surprise and delight.
This short segment was followed by an adorable young female in an apron and spectacles being educated, by a grandfatherly figure, about pollination and the growing, ripening and harvesting of food.
The important thing here I was told, was that the voice of the older generation should be heard.
The TV screen rocks ominously while I wait.
My wheelchair has been making a clicking noise when the wheel turns. The engineer assures me this is caused by the age of the seat (I've had this chair for two years) and I find myself nodding gratefully in spite of logic, thanking him in a softer, higher pitch of voice to the one I would normally use, and generally acting like 'normal' person.
Who am I?
I give the chair a trial run; I click slowly until I build up speed and click faster. No one seems to notice, even the birds don't seem to care. There are a lot of birds in Tokyo. Busy flocks of sparrows, corvids, gulls and pigeons abound on the streets while in the green spaces more exotic birds thrive. It took my local birds a while to realise how unthreatening wheelborne people can be; these birds already seem to know.
I roll back wondering just how long I can cope with the clicking. I consider bringing back the engineer, but decide to wait. He is moving to a different area and I have already been introduced to the man who will service my chair next year. He speaks a little English. It seems as if everyone close enough to Ginza (where the Olympic village will be situated), is happy to be practicing their English already.
Who do I think I am
if my ancestors are
so quietly, culturally
invisible - as normal
as possible? Who do I
think I am if being
unnoticed is who I was?
Is being normal more
important than being
me? Who do I think I am
when there is only
Very Important Person
and nobody. Who do
I think I am when times change
and half the world is busy
working on their fifteen
minutes of fame? And it's
entirely possible that
in fifteen minutes
everybody will be
famous. Who do I think
I am when men and women
are happy to co-exist
on different planets?
It's the biting season, hot and humid with the electric fizz of cicadas interfering with my tinnitus. I make a second foray to the river - passing a gigantic hole in the ground where a new building will shortly enhance the space. The earth is a rich dark brown, almost black in places; the river itself is less red-brown, more grey today.
I decide to roll on into Tsukiji, the Tokyo fish market, and maybe further to reacquaint myself with the new Kabuki theatre and Wako - surely the most boring department store in the land, yet boasting some of the most creative shop windows.
I pass another wheelborne person on the way. I also get addressed by several Japanese men who separately enquire how I am and if I need assistance. Maybe I look lost; actually I'm feeling right at home on this familiar route.
Subtle changes in the area around the Tsukiji fish market remind me that the inner market is set to move; the Olympics being the catalyst that will set this much debated happening in motion. I notice that the area is going slowly up-market - in keeping with its surroundings: designer shops and the theatre.
The new Kabuki-za has settled in well; it is very similar to the old one, a designated Tangible Cultural Property, which it replaced last year. Replaced because the old theatre was worn out (possibly unsafe in an earthquake) and did not offer barrier-free access. I can find no translated information about the performance, but judging from the posters this is a much darker piece than the one I saw last year.
I roll on into Ginza and the Wako window. It is 'peopled' by very large black and gold giraffes; their hoofed legs are black at the bottom and stand out in the gold space. Their bodies are out of sight, but their gold decorated necks dip down into the window space so that their heads are also visible.
It's hard to tell, but they may be made of card or paper...
It starts to rain and I begin my return journey. At the next road crossing a Japanese man holds his umbrella over me and attempts a conversation. I insist I am ok in the rain, but he persists. Happily he is ready to say goodbye just before we get to the river and it is then I discover my camera is missing. I had it in my lap after photographing the giraffes, it will have slid off and I was a little too stressed to notice.
The quirky little inaccessible mysteries
are disappearing. Steps up, steps down, levelled out
in favour of smooth, modern marble; and beaded curtains
gone for sliding doors. Tiny spaces suddenly wider.
Tsukiji begins to mirror Ginza, and the prices
surely follow. The accessible environment has
glass and marble homogeneity, succumbs to
market values, commercial viability. The
magic of early morning sushi will be just beyond
reach when Tsukiji market moves to clean marble halls
out on an island with no history. The atmosphere
of life changes to make way for new people, for new
ways to be Japanese. For new ways to be tourist.
Approaching the Tokyo apartment, I'd made a joke about the familiar British look of the very patched up road outside. Next morning it was gone - the road that is. There was merely a river of rubble.
The workmen looked very concerned when they saw me looking to exit the main entrance of the building for a day out, but we assured them I could leave the other way - through the bicycle storage area. It has one steep step which, with help, is just possible to negotiate.
In the early evening when we returned, one side of the road was re-surfaced, the other was almost finished; there was just one last metre to finish off. I was suitably impressed.
The day out was to Lalaport to check out some new eateries for a small celebration meal.
Judging by the promotional posters, Japanese Metro is already gearing up for the 2020 Olympics. Our local station has a poster of a red-robed Santa wearing Japanese Geta (a sort of blend of flip-flop and clog), carrying a fan and asking: 'Where are the fireworks?' under the slogan 'Here to serve everybody.'
In Lalaport we ended up in the Italian restaurant with a very Japanese version of Italian food. These eateries are part of a small development of 24 new shops; every year there are new buildings with new versions of the shopping experience. I noticed a large sign, in English, proudly proclaiming that the Indian restaurant uses Japanese curry rice.
Some of the restaurants had queues outside. The Italian one had a long queue of mostly young Japanese people of clearly diverse ethnic origins.
There were a lot of wheelchairs there. Some of them occupied by elderly or disabled people. Some were neatly folded and parked. The parked chairs, unlike the many bicycles, were not padlocked, but I noticed that some had bright attractive colours and I had a flash of chair envy.
Suddenly Japan is peopled by many races;
my inner eye opens to details I never
observed before; the small, swathed ladies who scurry
under summer parasols are culturally,
racially different to the frilly manga doll
whose mobile phone is almost not - the bulk of charms
the size of a small cat swinging. And the guys in
shorts and foot-form sandals; I notice the textures
of hair, shades of skin, shapes of faces and angles
of eyes. I realise I have seen them all before
in ukiyo-e, the woodblock prints, without quite
appreciating the subtleties of this form
of communication; seduced by the myth of
us and gaijin. But in truth, the Japanese are
A smooth landing and fast, easy entry into the land of the rising sun, sees me speeding in a Skyliner train into Tokyo from Narita airport. The journey is familiar.
Japan's created geography can change as speedily as that traumatised by the natural phenomena that occur in this part of the world, yet certain things remain. The perfect rectangles of cultivated land, and the jungle effects of foresting trees dwarfed by bamboo - all tangled together with rampant vines, these things repeat between pockets of densely built-up areas that grow ever larger and closer together as we near the giant sprawl of Tokyo.
Scattered like dice across a gaming table, the equality of chance appears to dictate the position of these dwellings clinging to the surface of frequently inhospitable landscapes.
And I return to thinking about equality, something that might seem so clearly definable to Western thinking; I return to thoughts about its quality, it's values and it's visible, knowable face.
I'm wondering how loud a NIMBY could afford to shout, here where this equality seems so much less of an issue; where other values dominate and confuse western sensibilities.
I arrive with all the bias of a pro-Japanese visitor, the one with the little body of experience and the growing gaijin knowledge. I arrive with a mixture of trepidation and comfortable relief.
Brown girl in the wind; I run
on fast wheels to see Sumida
and never has she looked so
brown, a rich russet, rusty
river, chop-dancing in a
cooling breeze, glinting in the
eyes of gulls. Glass castles of
the eager children of men
reflect on her brownness
as their shadows bounce in her
lap. Sumida hurries land
to the sea. Torrential rain,
sliding everyday lives from
their roots, gathering smallest
details, histories and hopes
with a wild energy that
does not last, leaves only the
brown earth to river's embrace
and Sumida flees, eager
to be free of the burden.
Brown river washing the land;
brown girl in the wind.
You'd think I'd be used to it by now, but times change and flying gets more stressful as the world grows steadily more bizarre. Checking in with my wheelchair became a strange Groundhog-type scenario. Three times at different points I was required to give the same information about my chair, far more detailed info than in previous years, and even then I was stopped before actually boarding, and required to give wheelchair details that had somehow been missed.
Checking in I was given a 'better' seat, but special assistance then appeared to forget about me in the designated waiting area. Consequently I was the last passenger to board; usually wheelborne people get loaded-up first. I was getting seriously anxious. The flight was being delayed.
The better seat had an airbag in the seat-belt which would consequently not fit around me plus my support cushions. I was quite stressed by then. Mike, the inboard manager, took an instant decision to move me to first class. I travelled in my own little cubicle.
I take warm clothes and a hot water bottle when I fly, usually I'm freezing. On this plane I was comfortably warm - good preparation for Tokyo where the forecast was for thirty degrees of warmth the morning I arrived.
Cabin crew are always very helpful, but first class crew really do go the extra mile. Mike came and apologised for the seating 'malfunction' and assured me that no-one had taken the real thickness of my cushions into account, it was certainly not because I was too large. Sitting very comfortably in first class with real, edible food, I didn't really think the apology was necessary.
We are two hundred and eighty odd souls on board,
just living our lives in the sky for twelve hours.
Not thinking about disappearing or being
blown apart we are taking a northerly route
to Japan. I'm warm and comfortable and I
have slept. I have an aisle-seatbed with view, I've
eaten barbecued tiger prawns and blueberry
hotcakes. I have reason to ponder privilege.
And more reasons to think about equality.
Oh no! I won't be there. I'm so sorry; truly sad, mostly for myself, but also because I feel like I'm letting everyone down. I can't make it and it's definitely not because I feel like the second is an anti-climax; after the first one I'm even keener on a second.
I was like that with my own children. Sort of timid about the first: over-the-moon, but scared of the unknown. And then, well words fail me. It was amazing, he was amazing and I couldn't wait for baby number two.
As it happened, baby number two was a miscarriage. Now I have this legacy of uncertainty that lingers disconcertingly around every pregnancy I care about.
This one is no different.
Most times I worry without cause...
Like a pregnancy, Unlimited grows
with a sense of anticipation. This
second child will emerge without fanfares
of Olympic proportions; without the
international attention bestowed
by visitors to games of another
culture. The head is crowning when public
empathy, when solidarity with
diversity and disability
is in free-fall. It may be up to us,
the family, to give this birth all the
attention and celebration that proud
people can rejoice to offer new life;
hope around which family, friends, lovers
and neighbours might meet to build a future.