Urban White Noise

I've been here a month and a day and I can hardly begin to grasp Tokyo.

To get to Kamasuzaka onsen took about two and a half hours out of downtown by rapid-express train, and it was only after the first hour that I saw anything remotely like countryside. It was nice to get out of Tokyo last weekend, although I was probably technically still in Tokyo. Tokyo is so large it is both city and prefecture. Nevertheless, two and a half hours out of the metropolis I was finally surrounded by greenery.

It was almost suspiciously picturesque. I saw rice fields and bamboo forests and tiny, furry mountains. Japan is about 70% mountainous, but I was in a surprisingly flat region. Across miles of level fields I could see the occasional bamboo-feathered hill jutting out of the mist. In the midst of this countryside I passed little Japanese townships with populations larger than St. Paul.

Most of these remote towns were ancient. In the city it is easy to overlook Japan's history because they've covered the old wood and stone in shiny chrome--what little remained after the war. But in the rural neighborhoods, where tiny wooden houses like bonsai fortresses outnumber the convenience stores and pachinko parlors, it's a different country.

These neighborhoods are Old Japan, built to the specs of centuries past. Houses stand so close to the high stone walls that their tiled eaves overhang. Their gardens are smooth white gravel, craggy boulders and trees pruned like puffs of smoke. Maybe, hidden away, a shrine with an alcove for incense. They are small and well tended, intended for private enjoyment rather than public display. Of course, the well-preserved, quaint neighborhoods were probably built by wealthy families. The less desirable neighborhoods are ramshackle labyrinths built from a patchwork of rusted corrugated metal and scrap wood covered in peeling paint. Some of the poorer houses would fall over if I leaned on them hard.

Between these villages and the city there's a vast expanse of urban white noise. I passed through drab factory towns, miles of stained concrete with utilitarian signs ("Iwata Compressor") and a mind-boggling canopy of power lines overhead. Tiny cars filled huge parking lots on a Saturday evening. Tokyo is so large that when a certain area is devoted to a specific industry there's a lot of that industry. The areas of concentration in Tokyo are intriguing because they bespeak the size of the city that could demand so much of anything.

I changed trains at a station called Utsunomiya, a city of metal and dust that seemed to exist only because several major rail lines converged there. I've never seen anything so simultaneously barren and bustling as those five platforms teeming with people waiting for trains to somewhere else. Utter desolation was close at hand. I was sure I would find tumbleweeds and stray dogs outside the station. Surrounding Utsunomiya were acres of train hangars, dead-end tracks and switchbacks for maneuvering locomotives. Webs of powerlines met webs of rails at the horizon. When I finally pulled out of Utsunomiya I saw, beyond Japan Rail's bunkers, sunset on a hazy gray city whose lights still hadn't come on.

I passed through proletariat bedroom communities of tenements housing at least a thousand people each. In this quintessentially Asian suburbia, clusters of off-white hives almost thirty stories tall loom large as skyscrapers. Each hive is a double-sided coin locker of narrow apartments. The apartments have a single door and window which open onto communal balconies that serve as an entire floor's hallway. From afar, the door and windows across the faces of these vertical villages blend into dense, uniform patterns.

Tokyo is a city struggling with its own mass. It's an obese man whose bulk is crushing his own arteries. Japanese people rarely so much as hug, yet their subways are civilized moshpits where frantic citizens stuff themselves into already-stifling trains as the doors shut on them. There's a very specific technique to it. They approach the door, which is already bristling with arms and umbrellas, and turn around. Then they back into the train, compacting the mass of people behind them. They will brace against the doorframe and force themselves in when it's really crowded.

Against all expectation I find myself wishing I was living in the coutryside I saw last weekend, amidst rice and trees and mountains. This city has me craving organica: blues, folk, jazz, soul. The acclimation process continues...


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