A Break In The
By Colin Curtis
Colin Curtis, from
Blackville, New Brunswick, although currently living in Tokyo, Japan has been
dabbling in writing for quite some time now, but has never tried to publish
anything before. Colin tells us this website will be his first attempt.
Collin goes to say "For the last few months, I took a
break from my usual job, teaching English, to focus on writing about my life
here in Tokyo. This story is the first one anyone will have ever seen."
Navigating through a train
station in Tokyo is a tricky game. Being a good problem solver will indeed
improve your traverse through a crowd. A bad calculation could get you
squashed! In any case, experiencing this on a daily basis is a switch for a guy
from Blackville, New Brunswick, Canada, a village with a population of about
twelve hundred. Even the couple of years I spent in Toronto could not have
prepared me for Tokyo, which is considered the biggest city in the world, with
a population of about twelve million.
When I break
through the crowd, I come out through the central exit to an area similar to
any town square, anywhere in the world. This is the center of Kichijoji, the
place I have called my neighborhood for the better part of the last three
years. It is young, vibrant, and small-town feeling, even though it is located
on one of the busiest train lines in Tokyo, the legendary Chuo Line, which
unfortunately, is partly known for its' unusual amount of
This is my favorite time of day in any urban
area of Japan. It is dusk, with a wonderful deep-purple sky, contrasted by a
peach twilight. The night lights are just coming to life, adding splashes of
colour to the scene, which reflect sloppily, on the glassy-wet surfaces of the
buildings and streets, the mirrored neon lines twisting and intersecting, like
in a Jackson Pollock painting.
I find myself a clear
spot, while I wait for my wife, as we are meeting for dinner. For the time
being I will people-watch, one of my favorite pass-times in Japan and one that
never gets boring, with a complex variety of individuals going by at any given
time. Such is the case in Kichijoji, where there are as many schools and
workplaces as there are restaurants, cafes, shopping complexes, and
Most of the people I see,
however, as I have generally observed in Tokyo, are locked in their own worlds,
entranced by the routine of their busy, regimental lives. Other people are just
obstacles to them. My interpretation could be unwarranted, but I do not see
these people as enjoying life so much. I always hope I am wrong about this, and
that there is happiness beneath the cold faces that I usually
Across the river of people passing by, I make eye
contact with another foreigner doing a bit of people watching himself. We nod
knowingly to each other, until suddenly my phone beeps, indicating that I
received an email. I flip it open.
"I am going to be
late. Sorry! You should eat something if you are hungry. Email you later. C U."
It is from my wife. I email back a short message before heading down a shopping
street toward my favorite sushi bar. Despite being Japanese, my wife actually
doesn't like sushi so much, or most fish in any form for that matter, so it is
an opportunity for me to indulge.
streets, which in Japan are known as 'shopping arcades', are unique compared to
anything in western countries, in that the entire street is covered with one
long roof, under which you will find every kind of retail shop imaginable. In
Kichijoji, there are two very long shopping arcades that meet at a crossing
right in front of the station.
I finally make it to
the sushi bar, and to my relief, it is not too crowded. The automatic door
opens and I am greeted, loudly, by everyone that works
"Irashaimase!" they say. This means 'welcome',
which I hear in a choir of male and female voices ranging in different levels
of pitch and enthusiasm, and completely lacking sincerity. It is the typical
robotic hospitality of such establishments, which is a humorous novelty until
you become used to it. People usually ignore and never respond to the greeting,
which is why they are so shocked when I
"Konbanwa..." I respond. This means 'good
evening'. I sit and grab a few sushi dishes off the turning conveyor belt. I
usually have the tuna, the shrimp, and of course the salmon. New Brunswick
habits die hard. I eat quickly, wash it down with green tea, pay the cash man
and I am out the door.
"Gochisosama," I say, which
means 'thanks for the meal'.
Now that's fast food!
Nightlife in Tokyo is both fast and short-lived.
Although trains zigzag all over Tokyo, and in fact Japan in general, they stop
running relatively early. As a result, people go to the bars and restaurants
when the night is quite young, in order to catch their last train home,
considering they may have an hour to travel to get there.
Coming out of the sushi bar, I am already seeing
things transform. Many shops close around eight o'clock, with people heading to
dinner, going to bars, or making the long trip home. The shops pull down their
security grills, and the crowd dissipates. In all its' abandonment, it begins
to look a bit drab. Gradually, however, a new scene starts to
Various young people show up with carrying
cases of different shapes and sizes. Some are artists, craft makers, or Tarot
card readers. Others are entertainers like musicians, comedians, or even
dancers, who walk around looking for a place to set up. Some take advantage of
the well lit areas. Others opt for the darker
The day, which started out with rain, has
made way to a beautiful summer night, inviting people to come out and enjoy
this rare occasion during the rainy season, which like clockwork, happens in
the month of June, annually.
I decide to go to my
favorite bar, while the entertainers set up. I head down the other shopping
arcade and from there enter a maze of small winding alleys, where there are
several rustic little bars, some of which are only big enough for a few
customers. A few staggering men in suits are just leaving the ally. This scene
is a typical Friday night, anywhere in Tokyo.
other shops in this alley are closed, giving it a corridor like appearance,
with the pull down, garage-style security doors in place, reflecting colorful
light from the signs. My favorite is a dimly lit wine bar, with the walkway
itself cutting through the middle of it, and the bar literally on both sides of
the alley. In some cases, customers have to lean inward or move in order to let
a pedestrian pass. These alley networks are a truely Asian
I enter the wine bar, sucking in my
stomach to squeeze past the other customers, and take a seat. I order a glass
of red wine, and listen to the jazz blaring from the speakers. It is Miles
Davis: Bitches Brew, disk two I think. It was one of the first and wildest
fusion albums. The waitress approaches again and lights a candle for
"Ah, sugoi...Arigato Gazaimas," I say, which is
the equivalent of saying, 'Wow. What a surprise. Thank you very much.' I
appreciate the candle, as the Japanese often favor bright lighting. She smiles
and walks away.
Some things are still a novelty to me.
Being able to drink anywhere with no restrictions on alcohol is something of a
luxury to a New Brunswicker. There are no boundaries to where I could have a
drink. Here, if you want beer, whisky or sake, which is an alcoholic drink made
from rice, you could buy it from a vending machine on the street, and drink it
anywhere. It is no different than having a coke or a
While savoring my full bodied
Cabernet-Sauvignon, a silhouette appears and haunts the corner of the bar. I
hear the murmurs of a drink being ordered behind the music, which has become a
low decibel solo of some sort, with the double-bass and possibly the wine,
making the bar a bit soft and fuzzy. The bar-tender lights a candle, casting a
warm glow of light onto the face of the mystery lady at the corner. Her deep
eyes turn to me and she smiles. 'Wow, she's beautiful. I better be careful.' I
think to myself. I act like I don't notice
Experiences like this happen all the time,
regardless of how you look. Some people find you interesting simply because you
are a foreigner. She throws me a longer, more seductive look this time, her
eyes studying me. To add more spice to the image, her marriage band sparkles
from the very hand that tips up her wine glass. Such experiences in our own
country, are reserved for the movie screen, and never really happen. I am very
devoted to my wife and usually brush off these incidents quickly. But,
occasionally, you are cornered into talking. Some foreigners really get wrapped
up in this aspect of Japan.
I finish up my wine and
Things have shaped up outside, with
the various retailers or entertainers settled in their prospective spots. Close
by, an acoustic duo begins playing 'Love Me Do' by the Beatles, which makes me
cringe, unfortunately. If you spend any time in Japan, you will soon discover
that the Beatles are still extremely popular. I have become so tired of hearing
their songs I decide to skip this performance.
by a guy from Peru, who I have talked to once or twice before. He is selling
beaded accessories and jewelry, which he makes himself. His goods are displayed
in a spot that has become a little piece of Latin
"Hola amigo!" I sing out as I go by, just a
sample of the tiny bit of Spanish I know, learned from my short experiences in
the Caribbean, and having worked on a cruise ship, some years
"Amigo!" he replies laughing at me, "O'genki
desu ka?" This means 'how are you', or 'are you healthy' in
Hai, genki desu, and
"Genki!" he says. English, Spanish, Japanese,
what have you - this is our world, Although my Japanese is barely better than
my Spanish. I wave and continue on my way, as he attends to customers.
I walk by numerous other people offering services,
entertainment, or merchandise of some sort. One man has even set up a display
of restored cameras and old radios. A rather shy German man sells colorful
candleholders which he had crafted himself. I bought one from him before in
Inokoshira Park, which is a stones throw away. Sometimes these people remember
you, so I wave to him as I go by. He waves and smiles back.
Most of the people set up here are, of course,
Japanese. But, somehow you feel a connection to the rare foreigner you see on
the street, regardless of what country they might be from. Japanese people I
know have noticed this between foreigners as well, as if we are somehow one big
family. You will get some people, occasionally, who will ignore you, feeling
you are ruining their intimate cultural experience. I guess that is fair
enough, as I felt the same way upon first arriving in
Farther on, I discover a blues guitarist, a
Japanese man, sitting with his opened whisky bottle close by. He plays a mean
slide on a loud Gibson acoustic. With his eyes closed tight as he plays, I am
sure he doesn't notice me standing there. His music is heart-felt. Close your
eyes, and you are whisked away to rural Mississippi, at a cross roads, where
Robert Johnson himself might have made a deal with the devil. Who knows? Maybe
this man made a deal himself. He certainly is on
I wonder what his story
Tonight, there seems to be magic in the
Around the next corner, I find a unique fellow
reading a 'manga' comic book to a seated group of giggling teen girls, still in
their school uniforms. Manga is one of the most common Japanese pass times. If
here, you would see people reading them everywhere - on trains, in coffee
shops, at bus stops and so on. It is an enormous industry with a huge
The young man reading is an actor, and
performs the voices and expressions of the characters in the story, to a
hilarious affect. He is a wonderful performer! This may be one of the most
unique street performances I have ever seen.
least I think.
Down the street another ten meters or
so there is a man, about fifty years old, dancing in a very strange and
abstract manner. Even stranger still, is the fact that there is absolutely no
music to accompany him. Perhaps, he could borrow 'Mile Davis: Bitches Brew'
from the bar! His dancing is certainly a fusion of some unusual styles. I can
only describe it as some traditional Japanese dance, mixed with a hat and cane
vaudeville act, without the cane. It is so peculiar, I cannot not help but
In fact, he is captivating! He bows and
waves to anyone who walks by him, and is one of the happiest people I have ever
seen. Perhaps, that is what he is selling, although there is nothing set out to
drop money into.
Most people, in Tokyo, pass by each
other on the street, and never notice another human being, which perhaps is not
so different from any other city in the world, yet this man catches their
attention and makes them smile.
Office men, known in
Japan as 'salary men', often go through life here like zombies, working so hard
that they are only home long enough to catch a few hours sleep before it is
time for work again. Yet, for him, they slow down. Sure enough, an entire group
of salary men stop and watch. Loosening their poker faces and their ties, they
all suddenly smile. This is a wonderful moment to
Perhaps the dancer was once like them. The
other performers here tonight represent the college and university age group
that have yet to graduate and get salary jobs themselves. But, this dancer
seems like he could be a retiree who is past the life of a salary man. Or, he
could just be a man who has wised up to it all.
world where jobs truly dominate lives, where fathers are too busy to see their
families, and where mothers are often married more to their children or friends
than to their husbands, maybe somehow this dancer provides a temporary escape -
a happy, sunny moment - like a break in the rain.
is a truly remarkable evening, and one I will not soon forget. I continue to
watch him for a while longer, but even more so, I watch the reactions others
have to him. Some would pass him off as a mad man, some even make fun of him,
but the reaction is still the same - a smile. I think he understands this. He
is an artist that creates smiles.
He turns, bows
dramatically, and offers a generous smile to me, which I feel privileged to
receive. This is not a robotic service. This smile feels real! I smile back. He
continues with his dancing, and I absorb the scene some
Eventually, I move
I check out a few more acts happening around the
area. One man is sketching portraits of people. Two young women perform pop
music dressed in kimonos, backed up by a programmed synthesizer. A group of
guys are playing various types of bongos and congas. The variety is certainly
impressive. But, all in all, there are no more overwhelming moments, or
anything that moves me. I don't see other people reacting as much to these
I am, in fact, getting bored
Feeling that the moving experience I had earlier
cannot be matched again, I decide to go back to the bar for another glass of
wine. When I get there, I am comforted in seeing that the seductive lady I saw
earlier has left. A song played by Branford Marsalis now perfumes the air, with
his unmistakable spirit on sax. The dancing Man performs among my thoughts, as
I enjoy the wine and music.
Finally, my wife emails me
"Kichijoji soon. Where are you?" she says.
I begin the slow process of thumb-typing my reply.
"I'm close by. Wine bar. Meet you at Central Exit."
"OK. Have fun tonight?" She asks, in another email.
"Yes. Explain over dinner," I reply.
I get up from the bar to leave.
"Arigato gazaimas!" the staff shout above the music,
meaning 'thank you'.
"Gochisosama," I reply. With
that, I drain my wine glass in one tilt, and head down the alley, feeling light
from the wine and the night air.
I Think Colin has a nature twist for placing his readers
in another place without ever having to leave their seats. We hope to read more
from Colin and his adventure afar.