POSTCARD FROM TOKYO

I've been in Tokyo for four weeks now. Generally weather has been mild since arrival, a jacket barely required on some days and even sunny at times. But on the Monday after I arrived was an unexpectedly severe blizzard. More than 20cm of snow dumped onto the city over the course of the day. It was the most seen in over 4 years and brought chaos with it. On the roads police were pushing cars out of snowdrifts and traffic was at a crawl or standstill everywhere else. I'm sure the media were advising everyone to stay indoors.

Unwisely I decided to honour my dinner reservation at a restaurant, a fair distance from where I was staying. When I finally got there I was the only diner. Guess everyone else had either cancelled or set out and never made it. The chef gave me an extra course on the house and the manager gifted me his umbrella when I left, no doubt concealing his amazement at my stupidity in not having brought one.

At the nearest train station, Shibuya, a congestion of people were trying to get wherever they were going. (I read later that there was a 1-2 hour wait there just for people to get onto the right platform to wait for their train.) I abandoned that idea and went outside, where no taxis could be had for love or money. I ended up taking a one-hour bus ride to another station, finally got on a train there - but had taken the wrong one and ended up stranded out in a distant suburb!

At this point, standing outside in the snow and under-dressed, I was thinking I would probably be found frozen solid there in the morning:

"Mummy, is that a snowman?"

"No dear, it was an Australian tourist. They're not always very smart."

But I did make it back, eventually. And I would still take that adventure over Sydney heatwaves!

I like the focus here on politeness and manners (a very different experience to my great uncle Walter's in 1945). Also how clean, safe and orderly Tokyo is. The city is spotless, everything runs on time...remarkable given that it's the biggest city in the world. By comparison the other megalopolises of the world are pretty grimy and dangerous in spots. Every time I go outside here I see someone sweeping, mopping or wiping whenever they have a spare moment. "If you've got time to lean, you've got time to clean" seems to be taken seriously by an entire nation.

It also seems to be a culture about attention to detail and pride in one's work. I went for a haircut the other day. Let's face it, not a lot required there these days. In Sydney the barbers, who seem to be mostly frustrated shearers, will run the clippers quickly over and job's done in a few minutes. Here, it is at least a half-hour ritual involving hot towels, contemplation over each move and a complimentary glasses cleaning and shoe shine. This for the same price as in Sydney...

I'm so into sushi these days, and of course there's nowhere better than Tokyo for it. A couple of nights ago I had an interesting meal at a little six-seat sushi bar out in the suburban styx. (I got the right train this time - I seem to be improving.) They age their fish there for up to 90 days! Eating raw fish that is months old - now that is putting a lot of trust that the chef knows what they're doing. Luckily he seemed to, although perhaps I shall reserve judgment for another 24-48 hours...

There is one fish that chef buys (he told me the name, but I would have to see it written in English to remember) which weighs around 30 kilos at purchase. After all the aging and trimming and so on, 500 grams remains usable for sushi! (The trimmings would be used up in soups, sauces or staff meals - a good restaurant wastes nothing that comes in if they want to stay in business.)

photo: Steven Corrigan


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