I arrived in Tokyo five days ago, on Sunday. Landing in Narita International, on an Aeroflot flight out of Moscow, and hearing the soft polite sounds of Japanese ground control take over, I felt a great sense of relief. As a New Yorker, there is something of home for me in Tokyo. Anna, my Moscow friend, commented how much Narita recalled her experiences of US airports like Washington D.C’s Dulles: clear and efficient, lots of signs in English, brisk politeness and smiles–customer service.
Entering the city in a dream state after a long flight into a future 9 hours ahead of Moscow, and 14 hours ahead of New York, I experienced an immediate calm: the quietness of the voices, the deliberate design of every amenity, the sense that this city “cares” for strangers. I mean, the seats in public toilets (they have free public toilets in Tokyo! Are you listening, New York?) are perfectly warm, and massage your nether regions with accurately aimed sprays of water. Tokyo convinced me to actually sit on a public toilet for the first time in my life: a revelation.
With my hair piled high, and my bright leggings and large sunglasses, I appeared strange, even among the colorful fruits of Harajuku, with their asymmetrical spike haircuts and wild costume clothing. I felt only brief looks on the subway and in the streets, a fleeting sense that I was out of place. Almost in unison the citizens of Tokyo cast their gaze away from me, as part of the perennial politeness, or a sense of cosmopolitan pride, or some combination of the two. They fitted me with a welcome indifference towards strangeness, so familiar to me as a New Yorker, but almost impossible to find in Moscow. This meditative withdrawal of attention fills me with relief, whether or not it indicates a true tolerance of difference or is simply a rote performance of politeness.
Travelling through the underground tunnels and pedestrian bridges connecting multiple train and metro lines, I sense both the crowdedness of the city and the deftness with which people manage the small spaces between each other.