Being a celebrity strumpet, I was immediately intrigued by the small camera crew crowded behind a gent at a pedestrian crossing. We were on our way to catch a train, and eyed up this unusual gathering with interest. What seemed to be a TV troupe had all equipment trained on this fairly ordinary-looking, middle-aged guy.
“Someone famous,” I said casually.
“Get your camera out,” said husband.
“No, you,” I said, pretending not to care that we might be in the proximity of a celeb.
As we stood, my family on one side of the road, the big shot gathering on the other, us staring with uninformed fascination, them waiting for the green man, the personality glanced above our heads, laughed and waved. I turned and saw some people hanging out the window of a building, several floors up, waving with excitement.
The green man lit up like a flare and I fumbled for my phone. “He is famous,” I justified. As we passed each other on the crossing and I unashamedly pointed my phone and snapped, the man genially waved the peace sign at me.
Some asking around later revealed that he was Junji Takada, an actor and comedian. My source informed me he is very famous and very funny. My celebrity fix was sated.
A note on the road system, since I was talking about a pedestrian crossing. Lol – it really isn’t as boring as it sounds. Shut up, it isn’t. The thing is, I’m pretty obsessed by the prioritisation of cars and road traffic in the UK so the shared spaces philosophy they have in Japan is one of my top five favourite things about the country.
So, yes, pedestrians will inexplicably stand and wait for the red man to go green, even if there is no traffic. This seems to be almost a rule of etiquette, as well as safety. But, if a pedestrian were to wander into the road, he doesn’t get beeped at. I mean, come on, that’s unheard of in the rest of the known universe. If a pedestrian so much as thinks about encroaching on a vehicle’s precious space in the UK, the driver will swear, wave a middle finger and shake their head angrily. Like pedestrians are a new and unwelcome invention or something.
Japanese drivers don’t beep at pedestrians and they don’t beep at cyclists. They beep at each other occasionally, yes. But there seems to be an understanding that cyclists, pedestrians and all other forms of vehicle and human have as much right to all routes through the city.
This is especially important for many of the side roads and lanes, on which there are no pavements anyway, so drivers have to take special care not to kill anyone. (Oh, but cyclists do seem to be allowed to ride on pavements, which does require a bit of extra alertness on the part of the pedestrian.) It means that, despite the traffic, the noise, the busyness, there is little sense of stress, injustice or near death experiences.
(Weirdly, this carries over onto the commuter trains, those insanely packed ones you might have seen photos of, with people literally being squished into carriages by uniformed rail workers. We accidentally found ourselves on one of these, when we made the mistake of using the railway in rush hour – though there was no-one physically pushing passengers in, they did a pretty good job of doing it themselves. At each stop, daughter and I became more and more condensed into a small space. What struck me most of all was that this gradual increase in discomfort and insane inhumanity was greeted by almost total silence. There was no tutting, no humphing, no aggressive shoving, no shouting of “Why don’t you move down inside the carriage?!”. Just persistent squeezing.
Just as I thought I might get to be a few centimetres thinner we arrived at our stop and the compacted commuters exploded out the opening doors onto the platform.)
The home schooling’s going well now. Son has accepted that I’m being serious about pretending to be a teacher, and no amount of sulking or pre-pubescent behaviour is going to stop our morning routine. We’re almost enjoying the experience, especially when we’re tired and just do it in bed. There was me, before we came, thinking we’d get up each day at 8am by the latest, have breakfast, get dressed, and settle down in a civilised fashion to engage in some learning, before marching off for some cultural enlightenment after lunch.
Nah, that’s gone tits up. We wake up when we do. We have breakfast. We climb back into bed with tablets, paper, pens and worksheets. We work through our timetabled tasks, stopping every now and then for a snack. Then we shove everything aside and ask ourselves what we can be arsed to do for the rest of the day.
Home schooling for the win.
Son has even learned not to judge me for not knowing something I clearly should. I was overtly excited when we (we!) grasped how to calculate cubic volume. I’m pretty certain I never did that at school. (I really hope my Maths teachers aren’t reading this.) Long division was an eye-opener, and as for long multiplication… I am delighted to have mastered that skill. I say mastered – I solved a couple of problems.
However… “This will be 2.25,” I informed son as we worked out how to calculate decimals from fractions. “Are you sure?” asked son. “Yes, look,” I said smugly. “This is one, this is two, and this part makes it 2.25.”
“I’m going to put 2.5,” said son. I waited for him to learn from his mistake. Turns out I had to learn from mine, since the answer was 2.5. Which was embarrassing.
Son’s precocious abilities did come in handy in the restaurant when we were ordering dinner. “Wain wa arimasuka?” I asked the waitress. Do you have wine? “Hai…” she replied, followed by a sentence in which the only words I recognised, though I didn’t know why, were aka and shiro. I silently looked at her.
“Red or white wine, Mum?” asked son. “Aka is red, shiro is white.” I have never been more proud.
(If it’s beginning to sound as though I’m the weakest link in this family, I would just like to say that husband also had a moment of embarrassment when dining out with son. Having forgotten the Japanese for could I have the bill, “Look,” he said smugly, “I’m going to do the international hand signal for could I have the bill,” and, catching the eye of a waiter, he pretended to scribble across the palm of his hand. The waiter marched over and stood with paper and pen in hand, waiting for husband’s food order. “Only international in the rest of the world,” said son.)
If you are a fairly dyed-in-the-wool vegetarian, and especially if you are vegan, you will struggle to eat out in Tokyo. As mentioned before, you haven’t a hope in hell of ordering something completely meat free even if you do understand the Japanese menus, since not all ingredients will be mentioned. A Hong Kong-based friend has a theory that, if there is only a smattering of, say, bacon in a dish, it will not be called “bacon and egg fried rice” in case the diner is expecting a substantial amount of bacon. It’s a matter of honour and modesty. That’s certainly a theory.
Pescetarian son and I have a what goes on tour stays on tour philosophy and have decided that given the choice we’ll try to eat just fish and veg but, if we are served unexpected meat, we’ll eat it. We have, however, discovered Lima veggie café in Shinjuku, and I thoroughly recommend you track it down. It wouldn’t look out of place in the hipster lanes of Brighton, and served by far the best fried rice I’ve had in Japan. “What does macrobiotique mean?” asked son, reading a sign on the wall. I looked at scientist husband. “Healthy,” he said. And it was indeed the most vitamin-infused meal I’ve had so far on this trip, washed down by a gloriously fiery organic ginger beer. Cheap and cheerful, wholesome and happy.
End note: my children do not stop talking.