PEAKS & PILGRIMAGE TOUR
TOKYO, SEPTEMBER 2013
The flight to Japan was the easy part. A couple of hours from Busan we were swooping over a green and crumpled landscape. With a surge of long-dormant affection I gazed down on the farmland and mountains that, even from that height, seemed comfortingly familiar.
And what a thrill to recognise an old pal (and on one occasion a formidable foe) in the last light of Wednesday:
The journey from Narita Airport to my friend Andrew’s place in Tokorozawa took considerably longer. Toko, as we used to know it, was also the site of the school where we met 13 years ago. It’s a decent-sized city that, though part of the sprawling conurbation of greater Tokyo, is actually in an adjoining prefecture, Saitama.
We worked at a kind of hub school — The Mothership, with numerous outlying satellites – -that was part of a nationwide chain of English conversation schools: Nova, the biggest in Japan, a brand name every Japanese knew and trusted.
Nova…is a large eikaiwa school (private English teaching company) in Japan. It was by far the largest company of this type until its widely publicized collapse in October 2007. Before its bankruptcy, Nova employed approximately 15,000 people… [It] reached its peak in February 2007 [with] 924 branches… [Wikipedia].
One of their selling points was that every branch was conveniently situated near a train station.
Tokyo has the most extensive urban railway network and the most used in the world with 40 million passengers in the metro area daily. There are 882 interconnected rail stations in the Tokyo Metropolis, 282 of which are subway stations,with several hundred more in each of the 3 surrounding suburban prefectures. [Wikipedia]
I was relieved that, all these years later, I was handling the potentially nervous breakdown-inducing train connections with the flair of an old pro. At last I was on a Seibu-Ikebukuro train to Toko, Andrew, and our appointment with a few frosty nama biru — draught beers — in an izakaya (bar-restaurant) not far from the site of our old school.
First shock: Andrew hasn’t aged a year. Second: smoking is still rampant in Japanese bars!
Inevitably, we talked of old friends, legendary colleagues, near-mythical incidents and the numerous utter lunatics who used to partake of the (very expensive) Nova lessons for the simple reason that nobody else in Japan would talk to them.
I attended Andrew’s wedding not long before leaving Japan in 2003; he now has a couple of young kids. It was a half-hour walk through a warren of back-streets to his house, a walk I enjoyed immensely. For one thing, I was slightly intoxicated. For another, it was a beautiful, quiet evening, and there are houses in Tokyo, hundreds of thousands of them, homes with gardens and character. So much more pleasant to stroll through than a monotonous eternity of apartment blocks…
In the morning, after breakfast with the family, the serious business of cramming a week’s worth of sightseeing and walking into three days. Andrew walked me to one of those several hundred stations…
..and a short journey later I was at my once-local station, Nishi Kokubunji, on the Chuo Line that runs west from Tokyo (and is, or used to be, anyway, the favoured place in Tokyo for suicide on the tracks):
My pilgrimage had begun. Backtracking occasionally in the maze of lanes and alleys, I sought out my old apartment building. I looked for Tatsuya’s old “western” bar — gone — and remembered walking these lanes most work nights with my friend Shawn, bitching about work, heading to the gym above the station for a brief workout and a lengthy soak in the hot tub.
I remembered, with a smile, the drunk salarymen weaving happily homeward on their bicycles after a night schmoozing colleagues, brakes screeching at each turn the way just about every bike in Tokyo screeches. Then I rounded the last corner and there it was:
A back view of Green Casa Koigakubo (rented at an exorbitant price from Nova), home for two and a half years. How Shawn and I, perennially unlucky with the local ladies, laughed when we learned that Koigakubo (恋ヶ窪) could be translated as Love Pond:
I’ll admit to deriving a perverse pleasure from revisiting scenes of long-ago misery:
Not that I was usually unhappy here. It was work that was awful — three long years of awful. It was always a relief to get home after an evening shift, slump up those steps, eat, and head to the gym with Shawn. And I never hung out here. Just about every weekend for three years I was in the mountains…
It was here I lived with (at various times)…
..Jason, the sweet-smiling, blue-eyed, chain-smoking boy from Saskatchewan (“What kind of music do you like?” “Top 40.”) with whom most of the female students seemed to be in love — Jason who once shrieked in terror and ran downstairs and into the middle of the street when I picked up a rhinoceros beetle…
..S____, for whom I developed an immediate and escalating dislike, an Australian with so little personality and such a burly physique (Jason: “He keeps asking me to feel his muscles!”) that it took him all of three days to find a Japanese girlfriend…
..Aussie Dave, from Melbourne, a good bloke/stand-up fella, whose musical predilections numbered two: heavy metal and classical, either of which might be blaring from his room when you got home…
..and Shawn, a Newfoundlander and fellow cynic who shared several hikes and remains a friend.
(It was in Shawn’s apartment downstairs, before we lived together, that, one evening in September 2001, somebody changed channels and asked “What’s this movie?” A skyscraper was burning; the camera panned to a big jet, and someone said, “That plane is getting pretty fucking close…” Before long we were transfixed, beers warming while our phones beeped with TURN ON YOUR TV NOW! messages…)
But I had a ton more ground to cover — gotta ration out the melancholy. I headed back to the station, pausing to enjoy the allotments that, thankfully, still fill a lot of ground between the houses:
A nice gardener started pointing out and naming the various blooms:
I followed him around while he dug deep into his memory for a few English words — white, red, okra — punctuating his tour with a series of highly audible farts.
And a more apt conclusion to my Love Pond pilgrimage I couldn’t imagine.
~ And that’s all the Goat wrote