I am stood in my Ballardian high-rise in Meidaimae, a suburb in the west of Tokyo, staring out east towards the skyscrapers of Shinjuku. Richard Hawley’s Tonight The Streets Are Ours is in my head. I can see, vaguely, where I want to be going – Ebisu, a bit south of Shibuya. At least, i convince myself I can. From here it’s just buildings.
The soundtrack to this flat is the gentle, distant roar of motor traffic and the almost permanent siren of the suburban railway’s many level crossings.
I go down in the lift and walk past the concrete flyover of the expressway that backs onto the block. Sensibly the main rooms of the apartment, and the balconies, face away from this pretty ugly concrete motorway. I cross the first of many level crossings, pass a taxi repair garage and a brutalist hanger of unclear purpose and walk between the suburban houses and apartment blocks. Already I’m amused by the cycling fashions in this bike-suffused city: there’s a woman wearing enormous black ‘cycling’ gloves that go up to her elbows, a popular accessory, swiftly followed by a dapper old gentleman in a pork pie hat and inpeccable suit. Around the corner there’s a young man in black trousers, black shirt, black Zorro-style hat, and black face mask. He resembles the 19th century train robber of my dreams.
I head south east along back streets. One good thing about Tokyo is it’s largely designed for humans, rather than cars: once you get away from the main arteries, it’s possible to walk for many miles barely troubled by a moving car. It’s a wanderer’s dream.
Sticking briefly to a main road in order to get my bearings, I pass a local biker shop. “Support your local biker,” demands a sign on the wall outside. There are trinkets, tie-dye t-shirts and flared jeans, and grateful dead t-shirts aplenty. But no customers.
Is that mega city one condo I see on the horizon Rappongi Hills? Fearing it is, I point my legs away from it. An antiques shop renovating cabinets in which to symbolically house your dead ancestors. A message from the other side of the world interrupts my reverie. It’s from a friend, suggesting we start a video game cafe in London. Beep. Bop.
It’s the end of the school day, and the mamachari bikes are increasingly laden with children – one on the front, one on the back, seems to be the favoured arrangement. Tiny kids who wouldn’t be allowed (or able, given the traffic and drivers) to walk home alone in London do so, often with their faces buried in manga.
I stumble upon a beautiful mosque, built by Turkish immigrants in the 1930s and, as is traditional in Japan, rebuilt since. It’s deserted, so I have a quick wander around its grounds.
I pass more schools. A kindergarten has a slide leading down from the first floor entrance, alongside the stairs: more innovations like this please. Next door, high school students are practicing their baseball in the yard with serious haircuts and serious expressions.
I’ll never see any of these places again.
I’ve managed fairly well to keep off the main roads, and I think I’m heading vaguely in the correct direction. The apartment blocks and closely packed houses are getting posher – Tokyo suburbaland stretches on forever, so it’s a priveledge to live this close to the centre. I pass Grandmas gardening next to posters of handsome local politicians. Ahead of me a salaryman runs across the tracks of Ikenoue crossing, ignoring the barriers and the bleeping siren. I don’t follow. Ikenoue is gorgeous and feels like parallel universe home. I close my eyes and think of the girl who leapt through time.
The sound of impassioned sports team chants draws me to what turns out to be Komaba Gakuen high school, the caged wall of its yard decorated with pleasingly gruesome student-designed road safety posters. I sit on the wall and watch kids kick a ball against it in a bored kind of way. This is the childhood I remember.
A winding hill. I head down it, and find the Megurogawa Ryokudo, a kind of green promenade through the city, with a walkway through gardens and a carp-filled stream on one side and a well-maintained cycleway on the other. I sit and write some notes, and get eaten by mosquitoes.
The path ends abruptly with a motorway flyover that feels like the start of Tokyo “proper”. I’m amazed I got so close to the centre while still feeling so suburban.
A storm drain masquerading as a river continues on the other side of the expressway, and, as luck would have it, is heading plausibly in the direction I need to be going. Though the river is inevitably a concrete channel, the streets running alongside it are leafy, quiet, and very, very posh. Though we’re only a few hundred metres from the clatter of Shibuya, ten year old kids still cycle or walk home from school. The separation of humans from motor traffic gives the impression of it being a relaxed and civilised place. Or could be, under the right light and work/life balance.
I pass an expensive children’s clothing store called snobbish babies, a regal dog hotel and training school called Brown’s, and a small art gallery with a crucifix, a neon cactus, and no customers.
It’s time to leave the water. I head uphill; a residential district, though there are factory chimneys in the near distance, the blinking red lights of which inform me it’s got dark.
At the top of the hill is the mysterious QED club – smug members, I bet, not averse to turning to each other to say “ha!”.
I’m now in Ebisu. I pass a brutalist Christian church, some restaurants serving expensive pasta to dating couples, and my meandering quiet road finally merges with the busy roads surrounding the main station.