I’ve always enjoyed visiting places that unsettle me. Where the scents and sights are so different that simple actions become fascinating.
In China, even after being there for months, there were still things, almost every day, that made me stop in my tracks. Men slopping tarmac onto the road with brooms, demolishing a house from the top down, by hand, or the exuberant slurping of noodles in a restaurant (how my mother would cringe).
They say travel broadens the mind. It certainly jars against your construction of normality. If these things are everyday sights for so many people, if this unidentifiable squiggle is a sentence, if these interactions are something people do all the time, then where does that leave you and your sense of what is conventional? You come to understand that there is no such thing as ‘normal,’ as it is so warped by cultural expectations and experience.
Cat or owl cafe, anyone? You can also hang out with hedgehogs and snakes
This is one of the reasons Japan was first on the list of our four-continent adventure. Begin with something startling, where we could immerse ourselves straight away in another world . It certainly hasn’t disappointed. What I hadn’t expected was the added challenge a small person would bring.
For starters, there was the sleep. Or lack of it. Having got pretty much used to a schedule where everyone gets a half decent amount of time in bed, moving nine hours ahead in time zones was always going to be a challenge. She didn’t make the transition any easier. Awake during the night, asleep all day. Not just unsettled but upset, crying every hour or so when we once again tried to put her to bed. Even when she dropped off, I staggered back to bed, only to find that, despite the clock reading 3am, my brain was whirring with activity.
Was this real or some weird dream?
You can imagine how the unreality of our surroundings was enhanced by the blur of sleep deprivation. Any new parent, student who’s pulled an all-nighter or insomniac will recognise it. How colours are hyper-bright, your eyes squinting at the slightest glare. Sounds are magnified, yet everything is somehow distant. You observe the world through a tired, fuzzy lens. It is far away, as if your day is happening to someone else. This extra layer was added over my experience of Shibuya. With its famous crossing, it buzzes with people and noise. Apparently once, for nine seconds, they recorded no people or cars crossing it, at around 4am. Either side of this flurry of feet and cars there are towering buildings, flashing neon screens throwing kanji and smiling people in your line of sight. Large trucks trundle by plastered with smiling young faces, blaring their latest pop tune. The noise from the pachinko and slot machines erupts from sliding doors as you walk past – flashing lights, drumming and shouting, floors and floors of vibrant entertainment. Add in a vending machine coffee and you can imagine how overwhelmed I felt by this new place.
While surroundings are undeniably interesting, human behaviour is far more compelling. I found myself staring at people’s shoes. Partly because I am so unused to seeing high heels – the average Londoner can’t be doing with an extra bit of discomfort while they tread the miles in between tube stations, so they’re a rare sight. I also felt incredibly unfashionable. So many people were dressed with precision. It was telling in the placement of a handbag over a wrist, the small fluffy pompom of a hairband protruding from a carefully placed hat, the fall of a skirt underneath the hem of a coat. While style is not ubiquitously Japanese, it still seemed that a certain attention to detail and conscious styling of one’s look was apparent everywhere.
Not as disorderly as it looks
And then there were the pedestrian crossings. The second or third time we came to one I simply stood and looked around at the people, not even registering if the lights had changed. For starters, there is no skirting the rules. I am an accustomed London road-crosser – you wait for a rough space in the traffic, then edge out until the car gives up and slows down to let you pass. This has become so common that I’ve found myself doing it in other cities, only to be furiously reprimanded by horns and shouting. There is none of that in Tokyo. But the way they wait, that was the thing that left me standing agape. Between each person was a measured distance. Perhaps half a metre, not much more. Yet as there were so many people, this distance meant that the crowd of people waiting to cross the road stretched far into the pavement behind. None of the jostling of Oxford street here. Each person stood, still, and more unnerving was how quiet it was, considering the throng. A huge glut of bodies, but laid out in neat formation, each calm and silent, waiting to continue on their way.
Now that is the mark of the start of an interesting journey. A country so different that it overwhelms you with its exuberance while at the same time unnerving you with its placidity.
Let’s hope the rest of the adventure is just as interesting, but with a bit more sleep.