Vending machines near Narita airport, offering everything from cigarettes, to hotdogs, to an enormous variety of canned coffee which is actually much better than canned coffee in the U.S.
The drive to Tokyo was very interesting. I still could not believe how green and alive everything was. We were staying with my friend Asahi's father, who lived in Iidabashi, one of Tokyo's many suburbs. I had never met him but have been good friends with his daughter for many years. In fact, I had spent time with her on a recent trip to Miami, where she lives and works as a social worker. We had been casually talking about traveling and the places we wanted to visit while sharing sushi and green papaya salad at Sushi Siam on Lincoln Road when I brought up my dream of visiting Japan someday. She then told me that if I ever went to Japan I could stay with her father, whom would be very happy to meet us and show us around Tokyo.
The view from the window of Miho's minivan as we were driving into Tokyo.
The idea was exciting to me but never in a million years would I have ever imagined that just five short months later I would be sitting in the smallest minivan I had ever seen, on my way to a cozy little house up in the hills of Iidabashi with my sister, boyfriend, Asahi's father (Yasuyuki) and a Japanese woman named Miho who did not speak a word of English but whose timid yet warm smile provided us with a feeling of immediate comfort and ease.
I felt a rush of excitement run through me when I noticed the trees and how perfect in appearance they all were. I remembered some of the traditional Japanese artwork I had seen and the way the trees always seemed so orderly and methodically super-imposed over one another. I had always thought it was a characteristic style; a technique of sorts that all Japanese artists used to paint trees, but as we drove by these living versions of what I had seen on paper and on murals, I realized that this is the way trees really looked in this country.
The buildings grow larger and larger the further we go into Tokyo..
It felt surreal to drive through this sort of scenery. I can imagine that this may sound ridiculous to some people (especially people in Japan), because they may think of their flora as something incredibly mundane because they see it every day. I was really impressed, though- more impressed by the "little" things than I thought I would be- and I hadn't even seen ANYTHING yet!!!
I could tell we were approaching Tokyo because we started to notice all of these diminutive little buildings.. really small apartment complexes that grew more and more cluttered together the more we progressed down the highway. All of a sudden we were surrounded on both sides by buildings that had escalated in size, although there were still all sorts of other little buildings awkwardly crammed between them including houses, temples, businesses and vending machines.
Vending machines in Yasu's neighborhood in Iidabashi.
Although there were not as many cars on the road as you would see in a major U.S city (or maybe it just seemed that way because the cars were so tiny), there were a ton of pedestrians and people on bicycles. In fact, the amount of people on bicycles, scooters and mopeds was overwhelming in numbers. Bicycles were especially popular, particularly the old-fashioned bicyles with big handlebars and a basket in the front. There were hundreds and hundred of people riding them- everyone from Tokyo fashionistas with sky-high platform shoes, to smiling children, to senior citizens with content expressions on their face, despite the fact that they were sharing the roads and sidewalk with hundreds, maybe even thousands of others in this crowded city with over 12 million inhabitants.
The view from the window of the room we stayed in at Yasuyuki's house.
It was really strange because in the U.S. this amount would instill a feeling of impending doom in the sense that chaos would break out in any moment, but this city was strangely serene considering its enormous population. I was not just surprised by this sense of organized transportation and movement, but by the fact that everything was sparkling clean. The sidewalks, streets and buildings were immaculate, as if the whole city had just been scrubbed down to the point where it was spotless. How could it be that in one of the most crowded cities in the world there was not one piece of trash on the ground- not even cigarette butts! Amazing...
The hustle and bustle of the city quieted down as we entered a more quiet, quaint district of the city. I noticed a lot of family-run bakeries, hole-in-the-wall yakitori stands and little barber shops. Everything suddenly became very small in size, including the houses. We drove up a short, winding road uphill and came to a sudden halt right above a steep sidewalk that led to rows of small two-story houses on both sides with odd little vending machines, carrying a variety of canned coffees and different types of juices, next to the houses. There, tucked away in between these tiny suburban homes, was the place we'd call home for the next week.