Tokyo in Two Movements
By Lee Tse Mei
Tokyo I: Sakamoto and the Sound of a City
The pleasure of Tokyo is that it is about other things. Walking between places. The sound of silence amidst the traffic, crowds and buildings.
Tokyo is a city of the heart and the senses, and to perceive it, one needs to slow down the pace of intake and absorption to gain an awareness of the beauty that it has to offer.
From the moment we are taught to walk and to talk, it seems to me that much of our lives are spent and our achievements measured in terms of speed and quantity – the maximum of gain and output in economic terms within the minimum of time input.
It seems that only the old, the young, the poor and the infirm, have time on their hands. The rest of the world gainfully charges ahead in a headlong pursuit of constant endeavour. Until something happens that gives us room for pause. And then we pause for a bit, and when we recover and are back to our normal selves, we charge ahead again.
We live in a world of more. We prize more. More benefits, more goods, more knowledge, more wealth. But the more you have, the more you need to sort out, to store, to maintain, to get rid of. The more you possess, the more you need to build, the larger a house you need, to service your gains.
Until we do not know what to do with what we have, and we forget the difference between what we have and what we need.
In Tokyo, everything is quiet. The frequency is tuned to a lower decibel level and so in order to make myself heard, I, too, have to tune everything down several levels. Elsewhere, people speak louder, the gestures are more emphatic, as though by saying something louder, we are increasing the value of what we have to say.
But Tokyo takes everything away. And leaves you only with the bare reality of what is beneath.
It is an unpretentious city, a city of contemplation, introspection and quiet. The city that I am familiar with and love is not a city of glamour. Instead, the pride, humility and unadorned quality of Tokyo and its people absorb naturally all of the superficiality and excess of glamour and lay bare the essence of the original.
What do I love about Tokyo, Japan and the Japanese?
That much of it is simply about people, doing what they love, each day, day after day.
It is 6.30pm, and I am the first customer at the dimly-lit bar. I take a seat next to the window, a long horizontal slat overlooking the skyline of Roppongi.
Hello. The manager greets me and brandishes an English menu. It is our happy hour. 500 yen, all drinks. What whiskey would you recommend? Scottish? Japanese. He points to the Hibiki blend. What about this one. Tatetsuru. Yes.
Someone enters and sits at the opposite end of the bar across from me. After a while, she gets up and crosses over to the piano and sits down. It is the pianist for the night. 'Moon River', followed by Max Steiner's 'Gone With the Wind'.
At the third song, I turn across to the piano.
What kind of music do you like?
She plays it. And later, 'Over the Rainbow', 'My Way' and 'On the Sunny Side of the Street'.
At the end of the set, the pianist gets up and takes a seat at the bar.
What is your favourite song? My favourite? She thinks for a while and writes it down on a coaster. 'I Love You' by Osaki. He died in 1992. She crosses over to the piano and plays it.
Do you know Ichirou Araki?
Ah, Araki Ichirou. The bartender chimes in. Sora ni hoshi ga aru you ni. Yes. You know that song? 1965. My mother knows that song. A voice from the corner of the bar. It's the manager. Yes, it's a very old song.
I turn to the pianist, M-san. How many sets do you play? Three. I play here till 11.30pm and after that, I will play at a jazz club in Roppongi, from 12 midnight to 3am. And Friday night, I will be at an Italian restaurant in Roppongi. And Sunday, at a club, with S's band. I play too in the streets in Shibuya.
Have you heard Hiromi?
We talk of instruments. The jazz violin and how difficult it is to find a good jazz violinist. What about the trombone? Trombone? Yasashii desu.
A group of customers walk in and take a corner table.
What are the jazz clubs that you like in Tokyo? I like Cotton Club. And Body and Soul. In Minami Aoyama? Yes. You are from Tokyo? Yes. I have been playing for five years. I learnt jazz at a school in Kawagoe.
M-san opens the second set with another Jobim song, 'Desafinado'. After each song, I thank her and give her a thumb's up and she smiles.
It is after 10. The room begins to fill. As I get up to go, we leaf through the scores and lead sheets spread out on the piano top and I come across a song that I recognise. It is Ryuichi Sakamoto's 'Energy Flow'.
You like this song?
The song ends, I pay the bill and walk to the lift. The manager comes out to say goodbye, M-san as well. The lift arrives, and I emerge into the night below and the glittering lights of the streets of Roppongi.
Yesterday in Ginza, Yamano Music was playing Glenn Miller from their Christmas stall outside, and the tree at the entrance was lit up in silver and green music notes.
Hibiya. 1.30pm. A stranger on a train. A senior Japanese man and a brunette, a woman with impossibly high cheekbones, a grey coat, black trousers, black bag, a hint of troubled vulnerability; stories are built out of moments like this. Time slows to a crawl. At each stop, the train glides to a halt, the train doors open and the people move in and out. And still, the girl and the man remain standing in the corner on the train.
1.38pm. How would you film this? Very, very slowly, to give a sense of time slowing down and stopping altogether of a vast interior world that gradually emerges into view. The camera can give a person a sense of a different world that is emerging or that you are entering into, a sudden movement from one world into another, an interior world, a world of the woman's thoughts. The camera mimicking the motion of the eye. As the woman suddenly comes into view, a shift of the vision, the line of the eye, a transfixing gaze through the crowds in a swift linear line of motion adjacent to the perpendicular lines of the train and the platform and against the currents, the eddies of crowds moving in and out, to and fro ceaselessly and restlessly as the train jerks and stops before moving on. Parallel lines and lives.
Ueno. 3.19pm. The rumbling of the train tracks beneath and on the second floor of the Atre, the sound of conversation rising above the dim roar of the train, a hypnotic bassline accompaniment to the background music of jazz and the murmuring of voices sotto voce in the afternoon. Backs and shoulders hunched against the wall, lone Tokyoites sit and read and work undisturbed and in the smoking room, amidst cups of coffee, cigarettes and smoke, books in hand.
The Ueno station has a curious quality of neutrality and none-ness. Colourlessness. No gathering crowds of friends or families here, no obvious merrymaking or reunions. Instead, the majority of the people are on their own, singles who sit in a silent joint ease and camaraderie. Everyone seems fairly content and happy to be on their own, no one is rushing madly or dashing to catch a train. No one seems fatigued or lonely or ill at ease or out of sorts.
Across the partition, on the other side of the glass, a man sits looking at his mobile phone while his son eats his sandwich quietly. It didn't strike me at the time, but something about the scene and the child felt forlorn and lonely, as though they were waiting for someone who might not appear, and the scene was lacking in something, a woman, a wife, a mother.
Yurakucho. A woman sits dozing on a chair. She is interrupted by a man casually dressed in a black winter coat, jeans, white and black trainers. Excuse me, could I sit here? She moves her belongings to a side and he gets an ashtray and sits down, takes out a pair of reading glasses and starts to read the papers. She smokes, he smokes and reads, they share a table, two strangers, and yet something about it looks right.
The sky is brilliant blue on a winter's day, with gusty winds that slice through you.
Tokyo is an art-house film coming to life. Black and white in its soul. The city possesses a purity and simplicity distilled at its core. It is a city where the residue has been removed and what remains is the filtrate, the clear uncontaminated essence of a substance.
On days like these, I think to myself that there's nowhere else that I'd rather live, that the city is incomparable. There may be other cities that are a feast for the senses, but only Tokyo offers you purity and simplicity, the essence of the soul distilled to an inner calm, gentleness and quiet. Only Tokyo out of all the cities in the world speaks to the inner soul. The magic of Tokyo is in its spaces, its quiet pockets and its silences. You can find places with interesting sights, but there are very few places in the world that can give a person inner peace.
How and why? It is a quality of character that is in the Japanese people. Cities and roads, houses and villages and parks, the hardware of a country, of a city, are fashioned out of the imagination of someone sitting at a table with an idea, a vision, a pen and a paper. They are built by teams – multiple groups of people transforming a vision into reality. But every building, every road, every plan for a subway station, a town, begins with an idea, and that idea has its seed in an individual. What makes the final product the reality of that vision an excellent one that feeds the souls of millions who walk through it or who stand and look at it, is the result of people – the minds, hearts and hands of people every single step of the way informing the final product that you see. A brick that is carried by a construction worker with a personal care and attention to detail, that is chosen with great attention and placed with great care. A piece of glass that is selected to adorn the facade of a building. A window on a building that is cleaned by someone day after day, every square inch of that single pane of glass out of the thousands of glass windows glazing the walls of buildings across the city. Imagine that multiplied not by a hundred, a thousand but a million times over, not just one person but millions of people day after day in every single act they do as they go through their daily lives.
That is what makes Tokyo special, and that is why the building on the street that you see and pass through each day elevates you as you walk through it or sit in it, because every single thing in that building, on that wall, has been chosen, built and maintained with a desire to attain a consistently high standard of excellence and quality.
Is it any wonder that the average building in Tokyo informs the spirit and nourishes the soul whilst the most beautiful, extravagantly built building in another place may seem hollow and lacking?
You can imagine the most beautiful design in the world on paper, but that design needs to be built with physical hands and maintained by physical labour. The people who walk through its doors who use its facilities, who stand, stare, work and gaze at it, who fill its hallways every day are a part of its landscape. Everything begins and ends with the individual, and the collective character of a people will result in the end product of a city. It is no accident then that all cities have different personalities and invoke very different feelings amongst those who inhabit them. We build places and fashion and inhabit them out of who we are inside.
What drives the desire for quality? It's a very small thing, but it is an essential one, it is a matter of the heart. Would you believe me if I told you that the secret is love, and care, patience and kindness in everything that you do, qualities of consideration and unselfishness? A purity of heart and soul. Practiced on a daily basis. Day in day out. That is what drives it.
Someone wrote once that Tokyo was a city of subtraction. And that's exactly it. The rest of the world is about addition and multiplication. But the soul is about subtraction. Artistically, the easiest way to intensify a thing or experience is distillation, to take away everything until there is nothing left save for what is absolutely essential. Concentration. Like whiskey or wine. But that is emotional intensification. Inner peace is about nothingness, a vacuum. Tokyo, perhaps, is a city that understands the extreme point of nothingness and vacancy, the point of zero. One hundred and zero are opposite points on a scale. There is a lot of happiness in the middle zone, but perhaps it's those who have experienced extremity on one point of the scale, at some point in their lives, who seek the other point in order to arrive at a place of peace within. People who come from a zone of war.
The trees are shedding the last of their ginkgo leaves in preparation for the approaching winter. Someone has swept carefully and gathered all of the leaves to a side, and the yellow leaves look neat and beautiful on top of and around the rows of green shrubs. Winter feels like a proper Christmas in Tokyo and strangely New Yorkian, with the grid-like streets in Ginza, the wide expanse of pavements with the tall skyscraper-like brownstone buildings on both sides. The crowds and holidaymakers are in the Mitsukoshimae belt leading up from Ginza, but here, a street away, all is quiet, and the only people walking the streets are black-suited salary men and the odd couple or passers-by on their way to somewhere else.
The Otemachi Tower. Sheets of prism-like glass. Waterfall. The price of beauty and perfection.QLRS Vol. 16 No. 2 Apr 2017