M. and I went to Japan last month to visit his brother J., who’d been living there for six years. We met J. in Tokyo, and traveled with him to Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe before hopping over to NYC for a wedding. I’m back in Seattle and not-too-jet-lagged and will write about the trip over the next few posts.
The first thing that struck me about Tokyo, having grown up in Brooklyn but having lived in Seattle for the last few years, is how large – and dense – it is. For me, this is joy. I love to be on an elevated subway, careening past a cityscape (hence the glee I experience in Chicago), glimpsing life from an angle you can’t get from any other vantage. I love, also, wandering the sidewalks, turning off from the bustle of boulevards to find a narrow alleyway filled with mom & pop restaurants, tiny art galleries, adorable (if, in Tokyo, overpriced) cafes. (M.’s urban planning is really rubbing off on me!) The thing about Tokyo is that wandering its enormity is like wandering the best of my anxiety dreams. Do you have those dreams where you’re lost in a city (for me, always a version of New York or Montreal or some fusion of the two) and the streets and trains never seem to end? I do. But in Tokyo, it felt right. Exhausting, as a tourist, but right. And despite that, one is never far away from a quiet garden or temple or shrine – some place where the noise just falls away and you’re in contact with the natural world.
There is so much to say about Tokyo, I can’t fit it all into a blog post. But, one of my favorite things we did was take a “Haunted Tokyo” walking tour, meandering the back alleys of Kabukicho, an older neighborhood that is now the red light district. Our tour guide, Lilly, has been living in Tokyo nearly 27 years and collecting its ghost stories all along. Our first stop was a Shinto shrine to the “mother of all angry ghosts,” O-iwa. The gruesome story of her death (her husband poisons her slowly, and half her face becomes disfigured, her eyeball drooping off of it) reminded me of how the worst of my migraines feels. To soothe O-iwa’s spirit, and to stay on her good side, local merchants leave her offerings of sake.
We stopped by a Buddha of the Phlegm (which is not haunted, but a good place to cure congestion problems) and learned that workers in the Edo period believed earthquakes (which happened every 50 years or so) were caused by the cat fish god, which, Lilly said, they liked because the cyclical upheaval caused a radical redistribution of wealth and rebuilding the city meant more opportunities for work.
Lilly told many more ghost stories, but perhaps my favorite morsel of her spiel was not ghostly at all. Walking down “Golden Alley,” a nightlife area purported to be favorite haunts of Wim Wenders, Johnny Depp, and Tim Burton, she told us that *her*favorite bar, Cremaster, is hosted by a psychiatrist, who for 1500 yen will give you a drink and a 30 minute chat. Maybe next time I’m in Tokyo I’ll go there and tell him about my endless-city-anxiety-dreams over a shikuwasa sour.