Everything looks cuter in Japan.
Shibuya, Tokyo | Everything looks cuter in Japan.
Everything looks cuter in Japan.
Shibuya, Tokyo | Everything looks cuter in Japan.
There was always something in the air in Tokyo. Some call it a pulse, an energy – yet unlike its counterparts across the globe, in this city there’s an odd sense of calm amidst the madness, a stratosphere of zen that if you just reach for, the rest of the clatter dissolves away. A giant mute button as you watch it all go by, close enough to see it all, distant enough to observe it all.
So much of Japan and things Japanese have become almost a caricature of sorts. That restaurant where Uma Thurman beat up a bunch of ninjas! Men in traditional wear serve you food on paddles while yelling up a storm (I don’t understand a word but it sounds foreign and fun!)
It’s hard not to fall in love with the food in Japan. It’s beauty – inside and out, for the eyes and the palate.
Some cities have the luxury of a rural escape whenever the urban life gets all too much. Here you get a couple of hours of fresh mountain air and a sunset in silence, before returning to the city for your last meal of the day.
When you live on the equator with no true distinct seasons, life can pass you by in a monotony of indistinguishable days. Nature’s ushers are nowhere in sight in the grand amphitheater of time. There are no first blooms of spring to herald the beginning of a new year; no burnt oranges and fading reds of the falling autumn leaves to mark the mellowing of the year; and no snow and cold for the Christmas trees and festive carols. Every day is a consistent beat of scorching rays and the blinding blues of summer, broken only by wet humid rain. The months creep past like unnoticed visitors – how are we in the end of June already?
This was the topic of conversation one evening while we were wandering the streets of Tokyo. The Japanese call it Mono no aware (物の哀れ) – a sensitivity to the ephemeral, the awareness of our impermanent state of being. That melancholic wistfulness at the transience that is life, love, and all things we feel; and a longer, deeper, sadness about this state being the reality of life.
It was Golden Week in Japan, a bumper crop of public holidays, the last of which was Children’s Day. Originally known as Boy’s Festival, families traditionally flew Koinobori – Japanese carp streamers – in honour of their sons. Legend has it that a Japanese carp (Koi) once swam upstream to become a dragon. The Koi became the chosen symbol because it was considered the most spirited fish – so full of energy and power that it could fight its way up swift-running streams and cascades. It was courage personified; strength and determination to overcome all obstacles, and the ability to attain high goals – all traits traditionally desired in boys.
After some querying with the locals, we hopped on a train out of Tokyo and found ourselves in Tatebayashi in search of these carp streamers. There is a Japanese proverb – 鯉の滝登り- literally translated to mean a Koi’s swim up a waterfall, and used to encapsulate the victorious triumph over seemingly impossible obstacles. The burst of dancing colours over the muted greens and blues of the countryside captured perfectly the essence of the spirited Koi’s energy and vigour, yet somewhere in the breeze there was a gentle sadness, almost wistful flutter about the streamers. Another Japanese proverb springs to mind; same fish, but an entirely different spin. 及ばぬ鯉の滝登り – translated to mean a Koi unable to swim up the waterfall – this is used for a situation in which no amount of passion, dedication, or sheer effort could help you attain your heart’s desire. Often used with a play on the character 恋 (also ‘koi’, and which means love), this proverb best describes the helplessness of unrequited love.
It took me a really, really, really long time to get into yoga.
For years I always thought of it as a series of odd stretches and a whole lot of awkward breathing. Getting into and holding the positions made me feel silly, and for the most part of the trial classes I attended, I alternated between looking at the instructor upside down between my hands and legs, and trying to process by listening which limb I was supposed to be moving. Here I was, flailing like a drowning spider, and everyone around me seemed to be coming out of these classes with an afterglow and a ton of fitness
inspiration inspo hashtags. Friends swore by the mental benefits yoga offered. Encouraged by their testimonies, I persisted in different studios and under different instructors, and I still found myself confounded, bored, and hardly ever breaking a proper sweat. It felt like a much more productive use of my time to use the allocated exercise block to hit the ground running or body-pump at the gym.
Sometime in late 2016, a colleague invited me to join a private group class. It was only then that I finally came around. The solution to my years of yoga doubt couldn’t have been more obvious or simple – I just needed a good instructor.
And boy, was she good. All it took was one hour and she had me slipping on my puddles of sweat and struggling to lift my aching body out of bed for a good 2 days after every class. Getting your body into the right alignment made a world of difference. Some tiny adjustment here and there – a squaring of the hip, a tucking in of the ribs – and I finally understood what I was supposed to be feeling. It reminded of the times I got fitted for my prescription glasses; when the optometrist clicks the correct glass into place in those giant owl-eyed metal frames, and the letters and numbers on the chart magically come into focus.
When done correctly, yoga can give you a better workout than most machines at the gym. And more importantly, it has become both a mental stimulant and tranquilliser. Several years ago I asked a friend who smoked cigarettes continually throughout his waking hours how the very same thing could possibly keep him sharp and alert during the day but yet enhance the intoxicating effects of alcohol at night. He claimed that smoking his cigarettes heightened his concentration, and that allowed him to both focus better, be it contemplating a difficult problem at work, or intensifying that alcoholic buzz. I never got into smoking myself, but I imagine my post-yoga high to be the closest thing to this feeling he described.
These days, whenever I travel I always make it a point to look up yoga studios and to pop in for a class when I can. I have a strange habit of enjoying supermarkets, convenience stores, pharmacies, and bookstores wherever I go. I have found that these are often the best places to observe the local inhabitants going about their everyday errands and living out their daily lives. It’s almost like a National Geographic documentary on the behavioural patterns of the native wildlife in their natural habitat. I like seeing how their cereal and fruit differ from the ones back home, and how much meat and vegetables cost. I like knowing how different people all over the world medicate themselves and self-soothe (homeopathy? salves? drugs?). I love spending hours browsing in the shelves of blockbuster bookstores and small independent bookstores, even if the titles are all in a foreign language I can’t read. The Strand in New York City; Eslite in Taipei; Shakespeare and Company in Paris; City Lights in San Francisco; Daikanyama T-Site in Tokyo; Livraria Lello in Porto… everyone’s got their own Disneyland.
Visiting a yoga studio in a foreign land is a much more involved activity than popping into a grocery store. You can never get away with being a spectator, and there is always a risk of participating and looking stupid. I am excitable and loud by nature, and I always walk into a new studio feeling apprehensive, like a Bull surrounded by fragile gluten-free pieces of china. I always half expect everyone to be levitating visions of calm and enlightenment – people who have generally figured out the secret that is life and gotten their act together. I’ve now come to realise that most people are drawn to the mat not because they’ve gotten their lives lined up in orderly perfection, but rather because they’re desperately trying to do so. Yoga must be to the anxious mind what Christianity is for the despairing and the downtrodden.
In my short time as a yoga practitioner, I’ve practised in a village resort in Canggu (Bali), in the middle of the jungle in Malapascua Island (the Philippines), in a swanky neighbourhood in Sydney (Australia), and in a cozy studio on a small street in Seminyak (Bali) tucked away from the commercial madness it has now become. Desa Seni (Canggu, Bali) has been my favourite to date, with its sprawling grounds and hushed tones. The classes are held on open-air wooden villas with panoramic views of the surrounding greenery. It’s hard not to feel connected with nature in a setting like this, even for someone like me, who remains resistant to the spiritual element of the practice. It has been more than a year, and I still cannot bring myself to chant or even say namaste with a straight face. My cousin on the other hand, regularly plays the handpan drum in yoga sessions, and manages to get into the juju even without getting on the mat. We had trotted down to the yoga studio in Seminyak the morning after our cousin’s wedding and walked in to join a Vinyasa class. He boldly asked the instructor if he could play during her class and she unsurprisingly hesitated. The rest of the class grudgingly agreed and my cousin, completely unperturbed (as he has been his entire life), sat down and started to play. It took him only a minute or so before the entire class fell into a celestial haze by the ethereal sounds of the instrument. By the end of the class, the instructor had invited him back to Bali to play his handpan drum for her yoga retreat.
It is with no little irony that I found the class in Sydney the most ‘authentic’ as yoga classes come. The instructor had insisted on using only the Sanskrit names of the poses, and as a result I found myself twisting my neck to watch her while stuck in the most uncomfortable of poses, trying to figure out an Uttanasana from an Ardha Uttanasana. I did however end up purchasing some #activewear handcrafted from organic and ethically-sourced fabric – Anything to get me closer to that Adho Much Vrksasana right?
My first time was in 1999. Japan was in its heyday, blazing from its success of exports and the poster child for all things booming post-war. It was the go-to third language to master because this was the market to cater to, the tourist dollar that we hankered after.
My first glimpse of the famous Shibuya crossing was everything that a eleven year old hoped it would be. So. Many. People. Zipping across like a million ants scurrying about in their nest. And all with purpose, with some destination they all just had to hurry to. It felt like I was bearing witness to the Big Picture, a greater ecosystem that my young self was not quite ready to enter into yet. My dad still recalls fondly how my brother (then five years old), tugged eagerly at his sleeve while gesturing excitedly out the windows of our hotel room at the “Giant TVs!” It was a blitz of lights, products, and buzz. It didn’t matter that none of us could actually read the strokes and scratches that the Japanese language looked to the undiscerning foreign eye. Here we were, in the thick of things – the excitement was palpable.
Fast forward 15 years later, and there I was back in Tokyo, looking at the same famed crossing with older eyes. Tokyo was by now, a slowed giant, but by no means weak. People still hustled and bustled. Things still worked perfectly. Things looked old but there was still a newness to everything. It was a strange dichotomy. So much had changed, but yet many of the same buildings looked exactly like how they were. This was something the Japanese did well. When something broke, they always found a way to fix things instead of throwing it out for something new. You would see the cracks that came with age, but there was a pride in the way something old or broken was carefully put back together, or reinforced to make stronger. A Japanese-American lawyer recounted to me the days that followed after the 2016 Fukushima disaster (during yet another visit to Tokyo in 2018). While the Americans scrambled desperately to book flights out (when they weren’t swarming the embassy daily for Iodine pills), the Japanese simply carried on, as they were. Life just simply doesn’t stop until it does…
In many ways, this city embodies good, healthy, qualities which would do us humans all some good. Punctuality – nowhere else in the world does a train arrive precisely at 10.32am on the dot; Pride in everything – no task is too small to be done with purpose and self-respect; Perfection in all details – every craft, every act of service; everything has been honed and perfected to the minutiae.