After arriving in Fukuoka by ferry from Busan, I spent the night there before trading in my Japan Rail Pass voucher and riding the rails through Hiroshima, Osaka, Nagoya and Tokyo. My brain struggled to swap out my knee-jerk kansahamnida for arigato. Habits made and broken in a matter of days when you’re on a trip like this. There are things I admire about Japan that strike me the moment I arrive. The formality of a taxi driver with his white gloves, the remote control passenger door, his lack of hesitation in getting out to wrestle luggage into the trunk. The cleanliness of the streets. Order as fine as that of their temple and shrine gardens. And the adherence to rules.
I’ve always been fascinated by the Japanese standing at the edge of the crosswalk facing the red light, not 15 feet from each other on a side street that doesn’t even show a parked car let alone traffic. And waiting. Several minutes before crossing on the green. What discipline. I tap my foot, trying to be a good model traveler, representing my homeland in a way, but impatient as hell wondering at the purpose of not just giving us maybe a yield sign, a little yellow walking man winking at us, Go on! Give it a go. Just look both ways, OK?
If I dare cross, I know what will happen. Society falls apart. The few moments that I have been late for an appointment or train, I look around at everyone staring blankly, check that empty road again, and set off across. And roughly half the crowd immediately follows suit. Call me Mayhem.
I check in at a Best Western and am reminded how valuable space is in Japan. My boxes of school brochures are waiting and the front-desk manager carries them up following me down the hall as I roll my suitcase along. I open the door and see the room, then take a step back to let him in; there’s no way we could both enter. The bed touches the walls on three sides and the space alongside isn’t even wide enough for my suitcase. I let him out before I enter. The suitcase stays by the door and the little capsule bathroom there.
It’s stuffy hot in here, feels like about 80 degrees. Heaven forbid I catch a draft. Then I go to appointments, sweaty from hoofing it in a suit across Shinjuku or Sakae or a train station, up and down stairs, the little laptop backpack raising the heat across my back beneath my suit jacket. “Would you like something to drink?” Oh lord yes! “Water would be great.” And a little paper Dixie cup comes back with hot water in it. Like tea without the tea. *Sigh*
At night I wander the city, eat some sushi, and then head back to the hotel. I have no map uploaded on the phone and so I rely on the compass. (Yes, the compass feature on my phone – I use it a lot!) But I misjudge a subway exit, mistakenly believing I am on the opposite side of a branch of the Naka River (one station corridor apparently goes right under it). I walk around frustrated trying to make my mental map fit the upside down and backward real world I’m finding. Eventually I figure it out and cross a bridge onto my little island neighborhood in the river.
I pass a narrow alley that catches my attention. It can’t be ten feet across, a sidewalk path between two high-rises. But what makes me notice are the long red banners hanging down, jutting out on poles into the walk, and spaced out along the length of it to the next street. In the dim light I can see there are two paces between them, bicycles parked in between, Japanese characters in white down the red cloth. They stir a bit in a breeze I can’t feel, light and airy, just hanging there in this no place. The river lies across the street at the other end.
I step into the darkness and walk along slowly. Japan has a penchant for urban horror stories, movies like the original version of The Ring or that movie with the flooding apartment make our Hollywood remakes look a bit tame. I could see how this place could play into that, a dark passage, hiding ghastly things right in the middle of the bright lights of the mundane city. But at the end of this short walk just before the next street, is a tiny pagoda. Set into corner space to the right is a concrete foundation and 10 steps up to the little red structure, its paint showing a bit of a gleam even in the half-light. A rope hangs from a bell. A cat at about eye level tucks its paws under itself and stares at me in that slow blink of ennui only cats can master. The only acknowledgment of me is a single flick at the end of its tail. Such a defiant traditional structure down a deep urban canyon, unlikely to ever see direct sunlight, a peaceful sanctuary in the midst of the crush of concrete and the salary man’s world. So contrary to my tomb-like hotel room, its suffocating air.
After a long thoughtful pause, I step past and out into the street along the river, the blinking barrage of bright lights on the mall across the water awakens me and puts something else to sleep. I look back at that magical little red house and at sidewalk level, tucked right up against the gleaming paint, is a big, glowing red machine. My moment of Zen – brought to me by Coca-Cola.