Tokyo in the Morning – on A Hopeful Sign

If you haven’t seen it already, please go to the website of A Hopeful Sign and check out not only my latest post, but also the posts of other wonderful writers who believe in strong, positive messages.

My latest piece is about sunrise – morning – in Tokyo and the beauty therein.  Here’s the text, but please do go to the website to see with the pictures and in context of the site.

Tokyo at Sunrise

Some people might think I’m crazy, but my favorite time to hit the streets to exercise is 5:30am.  I have always been a morning person, (ask my friends whom I would drive crazy when we were teens – I was 20 before I was willing to see the midnight screening of the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” due to my early morning habits) but here in Tokyo, the mornings take on a whole new beauty.

Tokyo, like a woman readying herself for a night out, changes its tenor as the sun goes down.  It goes from a mild-mannered city of black-suited, white-shirted businessmen with practiced business acumen, to a place of alcohol-driven, late-night revelry.  The change-over is particularly vivid as the sun comes up again, which in February, is right around the time I’m outside taking my morning constitutional run/walk.  Unlike New York City, the trains stop for five hours or so right around midnight, and because of that, there are many bars and restaurants are open until 5am, so at 5:30 am, so at that time, the businessmen who missed the last trains home to the suburbs are spilling out of the bars and into the streets to go home for a shower and a nap before heading back into the city to do it all over again.  While I don’t live in an area that is particularly famous for its night-life, I do live near an area like that, and it’s always interesting to see swaying men and heel-tottering women in rumpled clothing and half-closed eyes making for the subway stations.

Beyond that, however, in my residential area, the 5:30 hour is a time when the mama-sans and papa-sans are up, bustling about and getting things ready for the day.  Often, especially the morning after some sort of storm, I see earnest men and women out on stoops or even on patches of sidewalks with little brooms and dustpans, sweeping up the debris of the night to start fresh with the sunrise. Every person takes responsibility for their little patch of heaven in the city – for keeping it clean and tidy, and fit for the entry of the Emperor, just in case. I see a few kids, some as young as 9 or 10, coming out of apartment buildings headed to schools outside the city that specialize in certain areas of interest and therefore require long commutes. The children, whatever the age, have a common look of eternal weariness along with dogged determination, a mix common to Japanese faces.

Tokyo Tower Photo credit: Robert Scott Laddish

The Tokyo Tower, something that used to be the tallest structure in Japan until last May when the Sky Tree opened, is often in my view and I can see the last remnants of its overnight lights as the sun makes its steady ascent over the horizon.  The streetlights flicker and die slowly in my city, so that darkness never fully encompasses the scenery.  The quality of the dusk or the moment before the sun makes it searing entry on the landscape are always bathed in a quality of ease, of buoyant expectation, as if something new is bound to happen with the change of light.

I suppose these things could happen in any city, at any time.  But I’m not in any city at any time – I’m in Tokyo at sunrise and I enjoy all the gifts the bustling metropolis has to give me.  I get back to my house before 6:30am, which is when the true waking of the city starts; when I’m more certain that the people I see are beginning their day rather than ending it, and I too, shower and dress and get ready for the adventures ahead.  The freshness of the city is my reward for meeting the dawn as it arrives and it starts my day with the joy of gratitude.

Guest Blogger Dan Cherubin: On Running in Tokyo

Today as a special treat we have a guest blogger, Daniel Cherubin.  His blog, Rebbetzin Man in Japan is a favorite

Dan, left, enjoys Tokyo with his husband, Rabbi Antonio

of mine.  Daniel is not only a great writer, particularly a great describer with his talent for comparison and contrast, but he is a terrific observer.  He often notices something that other people might not and his sparkling wit comes to the fore with a comment or two.  He is new to Tokyo having just moved here from New York in August with his husband, the new Rabbi at my synagogue.   The Jewish Community of Japan, I hope, has been welcoming to Dan and Rabbi Antonio and getting to know both of them has been a real treat for me.   So here is Dan’s view on the city – being new in the city and trying to get a little exercise.

Regards – see you Thursday!!


Everything Is Not Always Perfect

The most common question I am asked by fellow ex-pats is, “How are you settling in?” This is often phrased as a very fretful question, as if a somewhat negative answer will upset some heretofore unknown equilibrium. After all, these are often the same people who constantly go on about how perfect life in Tokyo is: “There’s no crime, it’s so SAFE, everyone is so NICE, there’s no BAD NEWS.”

Personally, I think these people need to get out more. Yes, Tokyo has a very nice atmosphere, a patina of pleasantness, as it were.  But frankly I’m glad there really are some cracks in its rather gray façade. I see daily train delays, pushy folks and petty vandalism. I’ve seen littering, schoolboys torturing cats and cigarettes flung into the street.

This is not to say Tokyo is hell. Rather, it is refreshing to see some semblance of regular city living. I’m glad to see it’s not a pristine city, afraid of some small, snide action. This entropy is not on the level of NYC or London, or at least it’s not visible to my ex-pat eye. But I do see something there, and that seems to upset many other Westerners. The Japanese, not so much.

It gives one the idea of actually living in a city while going about one’s daily activities. One activity I’ve taken up here is running. It was a combination of reasons: physical health, mental health, extra time ad yes, safer streets. Not safer in the sense of cars; Tokyoites, in my mind, are on the level of Bostonians when it comes to rules of the road, and many streets are narrow and uneven. But it is safer to run around at night in unknown parts of the city. There’s less chance of being attacked by crazies or having youth throw things at you.

But the latter actually did happen. A few times I felt a small object (usually rolled up paper or a wrapper) hit my back as I ran past some school kids. I usually just ignore it. Until that one fateful night…

I was running at around 5 PM, a bit earlier than usual. And I ran past a large group of high school students getting out of cram class. I ran around them as they took up the whole sidewalk (which is a whole other topic: the insistence of every Japanese to “mall-walk” in a bustling metropolis).  And as I ran ahead of them, I got popped in the head with a can. Hard. There was no other place it could have originated, and watching them all look down at the ground when I came running back added to the guilty vibe. I ended up throwing the can point blank at one of the “ringleaders” and then continued on my run, hearing some accented English-language insults thrown after me.

I was angry, yes. I was also bleeding. And I imagine those kids will not throw cans at large, lumbering gaijin anymore. But I did get over the anger. It could have been a lot worse.

The interesting part came is when I recounted the story for various people. My Japanese colleagues and acquaintances were apologetic, but also mentioned the pressure on high school kids at cram time and didn’t seem altogether surprised that it could happen, although it didn’t make them happy. And my Western acquaintances? The ones who would always spin these tales of the Utopia of the East? They acted like I just told them ice cream is made from puppies. The intense denial, the fumbling for excuses (“They must not have been Japanese!”) the look of fear as if I was going to throw open the door to the world and show them that not everything is perfect. It was quite funny.

A bit later, I was perusing the fora on Runners World (yes, I’m being very geeky about running) and there was a topic on “problems from non-runners while you run.” Ninety percent of the runners’ responses? Teenagers throwing things at them. This is from the US, Canada, Latin America, Europe and, yes, Asia. It’s what teenagers do: act stupid without thinking.

And reading these comments, I definitely knew my situation could be worse. No one chased me with weapons, no one threw something dangerous like a rock, no one tried to trip me and rob me. I was made ever so slightly bloody by a drink can.

But it did happen and it was caused by Japanese youth. This stuff happens in a city. ANY city. Even Tokyo. There is crime, there are transit issues and there are stupid high school packs. It’s not the end of the world and in a way it’s nice to know that I’m living in reality. So, my advice to those who ask me how I’m settling in is, maybe they should take up running. They might experience the REAL Tokyo!