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The potential of a Tokyo lock down increases as the numbers of C-19 cases escalate. On my arrival 4 weeks ago Japan was an outlier compared to the rest of the world. Or that was the party line while the 2020 Olympic Games were still at stake.
Now that those are off the table, over the past 5 days numbers of cases have risen drastically daily. If that plays out as expected mathematically and has been observed elsewhere in the world, in two weeks’ time those numbers could be thirty times the daily totals seen now.
Sogetsu School will most likely not open April 15 as hoped. If by some miracle it did, it would only close again during Golden Week, the first week of May which is an annual national holiday. Even if the pandemic should de-escalate (a most unlikely outcome), classes will not open before mid-May, if then.
My private teacher should not risk her health traveling between her home and her studio and frankly, neither should I. It’s also pointless to sit in my room in Tokyo with nothing to do as well as face possible isolation or quarantine with similar prospects both here and the moment I land in Vancouver. Therefore, this morning with a sorrowful heart I booked a return flight to Victoria on Friday, 3 April.
There was so much I anticipated which did not come to pass.
Very fortunately, the private teacher who took me on gave me an intense boost and pushed me forward in our brief time together. But more than anything, I ache with the deep disappointment of not being able to finish the main thing I came here to do—complete Level 5 of the Sogetsu coursework. As amazing as that aspect of Tokyo’s appeal is, not being able to enjoy the many artistic and cultural events which I so wished to see was secondary.
I followed my heart and invested much time and energy to make it happen. You do that for love. For most of 2019 I lived dreaming of stepping back into my Tokyo life: school and a vibrant city with endless opportunities on offer. And for a moment I have lived (mindfully and intensely) a fraction of that dream, but not at all the way I imagined or wished.
More heartbreaking, I doubt that I will be back. I dipped deep into my savings to return this time because I longed for it so much. Ikebana studied at the source is quite beyond anything that it is elsewhere.
That said, as sorrows go it’s better to bring them on—combine the jet lag with the mandatory quarantine and get the grieving started. It’s more important now to channel my energy to protect the things that matter most—my physical, mental and spiritual health, and perhaps even my life.
Shifting priorities as circumstances change is not the same as defeat—not when something which seemed central to my purpose a month ago has become a kind of burden. It would be misguided to hold on.
A feral cat howls incessantly outside my window, and its voice articulates everything I feel.
However, just as the ethereal petals afloat on the wind find their rest, I too must let go.
Yesterday my website dashboard went rogue and inexplicably shut down before I was able to publish the previous post. Instead of fuming I decided to enjoy an evening walk under the sakura next door in Aoyama Cemetery. A light mist, not enough to carry an umbrella, hung in the air.
The sky was wonderfully pink and the blossoms glowed as ghostly as my sleeping neighbours.
Why don’t you walk with me?
Here the tree seems to bend over the grave markers like a guardian spirit.
Looking west toward my Tokyo home tucked in the shadow of the distinctively curved building. I can always and easily find home from any of the famed city viewpoints.
This morning when I pulled back the drapes and the sheer curtains, I was surprised by snow. Though in hindsight I should not have been. Pink skies often signal snow.
After breakfast, noting that it was sticking, I bundled up and went out to capture a few shots.
I’ve seen snow on sakura only twice before. First at UBC’s Nitobe Garden and a second time in Thunderbird Plaza, Abbotsford.
Glorious. I remember the crows’ chorus: Wow! Wow! Wow!
The fragile, fleeting nature of life underscores all loss in ethereal petals about to let loose on the wind. Mono no aware. The pathos of things. The impermanence of things.
An opinion column in the Japan Times described Japan as a corona virus-outlier. That was a week ago.
Things change fast.
Last weekend many residents of Tokyo ignored the government’s requests not to hold parties this year and took to the parks for ohanami as usual, a colossal failure to understand the concept of social distancing.
In response, Tokyo’s Governor Koide warned of a pending lockdown if people failed to self-distance and stay home this weekend. Corona virus numbers continue to rise. Therefore, thinking it was likely inevitable, early Wednesday morning I began to stock up on nutritious supplies should that occur.
Good thing, because after news that the Olympics would not go ahead this year hit and people were again urged to stay home this weekend or face lockdown, Thursday’s lineups in stores were horrendous. The good citizens of Tokyo (as happened in cities elsewhere earlier) cleared the grocery shelves of bread, meat, eggs, cup of noodles, instant ramen packets, spaghetti and water.
Fortunately, after getting food poisoning while traveling in 2010 and being laid low in my hotel for four days, I am better prepared. Now I always travel with a kit containing a supply of medicines to deal with regularity, flu or food poisoning.
With the present the disparity between the Canadian dollar and the Japanese yen the worst it’s ever been, I also pack food for my extended stays. Staples which at Tokyo prices can be three times the amount I’d pay in Canada. I still have a few more breakfasts from the kilogram of rolled oats and the tail end of the coffee. Two weeks ago when I saw what a few grams cost at the supermarket, I began to use less of the 500 grams of sunflower seeds and 500 grams of pumpkin seeds I add to the daily oatmeal.
This time with C-19 looming and thinking of hydration should I get ill, I also came with 18 organic bouillon cubes, as well as half a dozen small containers of unsweetened applesauce. On a day to day basis I supplement those supplies by always having things on hand which would help me manage self-care should I become ill. These include the BRAT diet staples: bananas, rice, applesauce, toast and tea. In addition I keep milk, probiotic yogurt, eggs, crackers and cheeses on hand.
When Koike’s first warning came I had a dozen eggs nearing their best before date in the fridge which I muddled and froze in salad dressing containers I obtained from Jon at Citron. I have been keeping him supplied with paper towels which are hard to find now. Whenever I pass by a drugstore and can find a pack I pick it up. From him I also ordered 12 containers of house-made vegetarian pea soup.
I froze those and added the last two packets of frozen vegetables without nightshades I could find in the local grocery store. Those I can add to the bouillon cubes and swirl in one of the frozen eggs for a nutritious soup. I also picked up a dozen fresh eggs good until April 17, carrots, more boxes of crackers, and packets of high quality soba noodles. I prefer those to rice or bread and the cooking water can be enjoyed afterwards as a nourishing tea.
Wednesday I was fortunate to find 750 grams of a lovely French brand of rolled oats which I have enjoyed on previous Tokyo stays. A 250 gram package in Tokyo, however, is the same price as a kilogram in Victoria. Ouch!
Then for rewarding sweetness that packs a wallop of fiber and other healthy goodness, I have dates and prunes as well as kiwi fruit and bananas which are less expensive here than 5 dollar individual apples and other pricey fruit. I saw a small watermelon yesterday for 35 dollars. Ouch, again!
Canada is telling its citizens that their lockdown will likely go on for more than weeks. I recently saw a headline which speculated August. Bring on last week’s crow chorus: Ow! Ow! Ow! At preset people in Victoria are allowed limited grocery runs, but supplies aren’t always in the stores. I don’t know what the rules will be if Tokyo goes into lockdown. However, I am prepared to ration what I have.
Meanwhile I step up best practices. When I must take a train I can maintain my distance most of the time. Since I live beside Aoyama Cemetery I choose to enjoy the sakura with those who are not deadly–just dead.
Recently astronaut Chris Hadfield offered the following advice about self-isolation. Watch the YouTube video here. I offer my responses to his ideas in parenthesis:
Understand the actual risk. (It’s not small; it’s unavoidable. So be wary, but don’t fall prey to all the sensational headlines either.)
Don’t be afraid. (When his visor filled with fluid on a spacewalk he kept his cool. He had to in order not to drown in his helmet. Fear makes you stupid. Fortunately, I have not been afraid. Disappointed by the setbacks to my original purpose in being here and overwhelmed once or twice, but not afraid.)
Have a mission—goals and projects. (I focus on something as simple as sanitizing consistently—aka wanking my door handles which makes the chore a bit more amusing. I organize, create, watch other creators online and prepare for isolation if it comes. I hunt down the ever breeding Tokyo dust bunnies. There is always something to do even in a space as small as my Tokyo apartment. I exercise beside my peacefully sleeping neighbours and enjoy the cherry blossoms at the same time. They won’t last forever; neither will the virus.)
Take care of yourself and your space ship. (This one is so true. Eric Edmeades, recently posted a valuable video on how one critical point was being missed when C-19 was discussed—and that is the nutrition required to keep an immune system strong.
Alas, in Tokyo wild temptations for the taste buds are overwhelming: lemon tarts, pumpkin crème brulee—a new discovery. I work to limit those but in four weeks I’ve indulged more than I normally would in over six months or more in Victoria. Sigh….
Historically the Canadian government is woefully slow on repatriation of its citizens at any time. Therefore, I don’t think I’ll have to suddenly leave Japan before I get to use up my stash. Japan isn’t even on the list of countries from which the government is now trying to repatriate citizens simultaneously. Usually crises requiring repatriation are isolated incidents not global assaults.
Therefore, I continue to keep a Buddha mind about it since I am assured that I can extend my lease and the real estate company is being incredibly cooperative about the fluid situation.
I continue to gather the information I need to cope and thrive here. And I will be better able to assess my circumstances in two weeks’ time when I will need to make that decision. When I read of hotels in Victoria closing their doors during the current crisis, I’m most grateful to be in a lease arrangement with a large established company than in a hotel or an Airbnb.
As a result, there will be no great lamentations, weeping or gnashing of teeth in this quarter. While that makes great Biblical copy in the St. James, it’s not practical in the present circumstances. Keeping my lamp trimmed and ready is more my style.
So I’ll sit tight for now and see what develops. I’m sleeping well. Probably because I’m not fighting the situation. It is what it is. I do my best to make it beautiful. So far, in spite of the setbacks, my Tokyo life is rewarding beyond expectations. I’m savoring the season’s beauty and tapping into the bliss.
It’s been six days since my last post and much has changed in that interval. Last Friday following the first day of spring in Kamakura, I received an email informing me that my 27 April flight to Vancouver had been cancelled. But dealing with that is another story. More on that later. Or maybe not.
Yesterday I went out to Meguro to wander along the sakura-lined river and enjoy a lovely afternoon in the spring sunshine.
After closing schools and shutting down museums, galleries, sports arenas and concert halls for a month at the end of February, the Government of Japan had urged people to stay home as much as possible as well social distance in order to curtail the spread of COVID-19. Though people are free to go out and about, there is a noticeable difference. Streets are almost empty.
Normally people like to celebrate the sakura season by flocking to parks and enjoying food and drink with co-workers and friends under the blossoms. This year, on account of the pandemic people had been urged not to celebrate ohanami as usual. In order to make compliance easier, areas along the river bank where people might sit close together were roped off.
It’s permissible to drink alcohol on public streets and in parks in Japan, and a few were enjoying pink bubbly wines as they walked. Almost none were heeding 2-meter distances yesterday nor this past holiday weekend when many ignored government pleas, spread their blue tarps in parks and carried on as usual. However, yesterday “crowds” were quite thin by Tokyo standards as it was a weekday.
Fortunately, when walking alone I can keep a safe distance 98% of the time. I also avoid using trains during crush hours and can stand away from others in the often empty wheel chair area without holding onto straps. Even so, every action I take is a gamble in spite of the fact that I do my best to minimize risks. I sanitize, sanitize, and sanitize my home and hand wash, hand wash, hand wash.
However, as March wears on the weather turns warm and the sakura bloom. While things tighten up globally and other nations are locked down, some Japanese people have slackened their C-19 vigilance.
Until recently Japan’s numbers (after Diamond Princess’ passengers are subtracted) have largely been confined to a few local clusters in more remote areas. However, following a recent up-tick in Tokyo’s numbers this week, Koiko Yuriko the Governor of Tokyo warned that if people continue to ignore the social distancing guidelines as they did over the past weekend, a lockdown might not be avoided in Tokyo. Frankly, I suspect it’s inevitable as it is elsewhere; however, as I understand it only the Prime Minister has the legal authority to order it. So for now, the Governor is pleading.
Perhaps the gravity of the Olympic Games postponement this week may drive home the severity of the situation and motivate people to reconsider and comply. The rain which is forecast for Friday and Saturday may also help.
Of course, with a lockdown everything changes. As is permitted elsewhere, I likely could continue to walk outdoors alone. In France exercise is allowed, but residents need to carry a permission slip they write themselves and are routinely stopped by police when outside. If that happens here, everything gets more complicated than not having a return flight to Canada.
Therefore, I’ve begun further preparation for various “if this then what” scenarios. Having something to do is always helpful. Notes about that process, however, must wait for another day.
Accompanied by a lovely wind speaking from the canopy, late in the afternoon on the first day of spring I wandered through Hokokuji. A Zen Buddhist Temple in Kamakura renowned for its small garden of moso bamboo (Phyllostachys edulis).
Established in the 14th century, Hokokuji is the 10th destination on the Kamakura 33 Kannon (Goddess of Mercy) pilgrimage.
When mature, the plants reach heights of 28 meters (more than 90 feet).
The warm glow of the tea house through the bamboo.
First view of the burial caves common in the Kamakura area.
The burial caves.
Viewing the garden after taking tea.
Looking more closely at one of the many specimens which grace the gardens as the seasons change.
Sitting quietly, doing nothing, spring comes and the grass grows by itself. ~Matsuo Basho
Yesterday Tokyo temperatures hovered around two degrees and the pelting rain was laced with snow. Last weekend I braved the nasty weather to check out the new Shibuya Square. However, nothing could entice me into the frigid downpour. Though I did cave and braved the elements at day’s end to get groceries when I realized that I might like to something besides oatmeal.
By mid-afternoon, I’d finished the laundry which I started at eight o’clock. Seven hours for two small loads. Something that would take at most two in Canada.
So as not to waste a sunny day, I did what I normally like to do on bad weather days. Either I fill them with indoor pursuits as I did last weekend or productive chores I don’t particularly like. That way a day that could sink me into a foul mood leaves me with a sense of achievement instead.
In Japan I particularly dislike doing laundry. The towels and bed sheets in the washer/dryer take forever. The machine first thunders louder than a freight train, then burps and thumps from its corner and after two hours of drying time, everything is still damp.
Of course, I am more than grateful to have in-suite laundry; however, I am not allowed to hang things to dry on the balcony as the Japanese normally do. As that is pointless on a rain and snow day anyway, in reality I’m saved another in/out, up/down step in the process of getting clean, dry clothes.
I could let the machine thunder on for a couple more hours and hopelessly wrinkle everything. But because I get tired of the incessant noise and the resulting wrinkles, I move everything into the second dryer in the bathroom while it’s still damp. Again, I’m incredibly lucky to have that as well to finish them off. That way I can also close a couple of doors and minimize the roar. Bonus: It warms the apartment nicely.
For laundry that’s semi-dry, the overhead dryer shortens the time and eliminates wrinkles; however, it blows white fluff down on my mostly black clothing. Though I probably should, I’m not going to attempt to access or assess the filter.
While waiting for the dryers to do their thing, I scrubbed and sanitized all the interior surfaces. Who really knows what’s true or not, but apparently the corona virus lasts up to three days on hard surfaces like plastics and glass.
That’s your filthy phone, folks. Your mouse, the light switches, door handles, countertops…the list goes on. Without going over the OCD borderlines and ruining a good time—it’s an uneasy balance—I do my utmost to avoid illness.
I digress, but it was highly amusing to walk through First Class when boarding my flight and see all the good folks paying top dollar for their comforts madly scrubbing their surrounding surfaces as if they were fresh recruits for Molly Maid. The cabin reeked of sanitizer.
That reminds me, as airlines cut back on routes I am aware that the status of my return flight isn’t necessarily secure. I was in the thick of that reality in 2001 when our return flight for 30 people on a home stay exchange program in Aichi was cancelled (without anyone telling us that fact) in the aftermath of 9/11.
Much easier when flying solo, but there’s also no guarantee that I won’t automatically be quarantined or required to self-quarantine on my return to Canada. Things could get more complicated. That said, I do my best to stay grounded in the present. Letting my mind create intense anxiety over things that may never happen is as pointless as hanging laundry in the rain.
For three days now–and who knows how much longer–a murder of crows has been cawing incessantly nearby. So loudly that the sound pierces my custom-made earplugs at night. For a minute I thought I’d left the balcony door open. Not so.
Like 3:00 AM drunks with no consideration for anyone else, they play the same one-note samba which alternates between ow-ow-ow! and wow-wow-wow! then ah-ah-ah! and rah-rah-rah! Bloody beasts. Crow medicine is difficult medicine.
Still, the full-on racket helps. It saves me giving that sort of voice to my situation. I let them do it for me. Alas, the now global COVID-19 crisis has curtailed and jeopardized much of what I hoped to achieve over my two months in Tokyo as well as what I wished to enjoy. Who knows what its effects will yet be?
The Buddha advises …bear the abuse patiently until it ceases. …One is not controlled by these external things; they will cease as quickly as they come. Indeed. As will all things.
Thoughts of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Fir Tree remind me to remain appreciative. I don’t want to look back on these days and wish I’d lived better through the wonder of each one.
Crow photo credit to Mircea Iancu under Creative Commons CCO License; Kamakura Daibutsu photo credit to japan-guide.com
I’ve taken the train to Shimokitazawa, an area of Tokyo that is an eclectic mix of alternative, creative culture which is renowned for coffee, art on its shutters, vintage thrift shops and a vibrant music scene.
I want to check out the area with someone who knows it well, enjoy food, and take in some live music. The latter would be hard for me to find because I don’t read or speak Japanese; plus, I wouldn’t feel at ease going solo in that environment.
In order to enjoy travel experiences with a clearer understanding of things I can’t appreciate fully because I’m not literate in Japanese, I have engaged volunteer guides in other cities. However, this is the first time I have hired one.
As Ossan Rental (Old Man Rental) has a “no touching” policy, and has been featured on public television programs as well as in various mainstream publications over the years, I didn’t feel uneasy about the prospect.
Based on the information I provided, the company links me to N, we work out an itinerary by email and agree to meet outside Shimokitazawa Station’s East Exit.
N is lithe and fit. At 49 he looks to be approaching 40 rather than 50. Though I know that Japanese women are viewed as stale Christmas cake after age 25, how on earth did he qualify for the ossan distinction? Your forties are your late youth, I say. Eighty is the new sixty.
To my surprise he looks at me and quotes the Bible: White hair is a crown of glory and is seen most among the godly. (Proverbs 16:31, Tyndale Living Bible). Then he points at the few silver threads in his. I laugh because N is a long way from godliness based on that standard and I hardly qualify.
At ease after the joking around, we leave the station and surrounding shopping district to check out the old Suzunari Theatre. The late afternoon light combined with my lack of skill as a photographer is not conducive to photos so we wander through neighbourhood streets to Shinganji Temple and Kitazawa Hachiman-jinja Shrine.
Kitazawa Hachiman-jinja Shrine
Then, because the sun is about to set N suggests we hop a train to the next station, Setagaya-Daita, where we might catch a view of Mt. Fuji. A splendid idea.
By this time I’m hungry and ready to sit down for a bit. Learning that I like soba, N leads the way to a humble mom & pop style restaurant where we enjoy hearty, delicious portions with duck in the broth.
The place is small and warm. It feels rather as if we are visiting the rustic home of very elderly grandparents (which is exactly what the proprietors are), like kin who are delighted to see you and love to dote on you.
However, I can’t help feel that at their age we should be taking care of them.
Once sated, we wander back out into the night but don’t have much luck finding music venues that appeal. (Some days later I read that Tokyo music venues and DJ bars have been linked to the contraction of COVID-19. Perhaps we dodged a bullet there.) While we are standing in the roadway and discussing other options, I notice an Italian wine bar which looks inviting.
There we sit at the counter and continue to share stories over Prosecco. The owner who is working the salad station graciously offers us a complimentary bowl of strawberries.
Having returned to Japan recently after more than a decade abroad, N says finding work has been a challenge. He explains that firms don’t want to hire “old people” in spite of their extensive, valuable experience and credentials. As his skill set includes the ability to speak Cantonese, Mandarin and English as well experience as a guide abroad; he freelances with Ossan Rental. He posts his bio on their website and the company connects him with clients.
I’m curious but don’t pry. It really is none of my business; however, I wonder how lucrative that can be. I mention the current economic climate made infinitely worse by COVID-19 and the drop off in Chinese tourists. N adds that he takes on other seasonal work and is actively considering his options elsewhere. As he hasn’t been back in Japan all that long, his plans are still fluid.
Since we are discussing his work, I ask whether there are any aspects of guiding people he finds disagreeable. He winces and mentions that client requests to cross boundaries are difficult. I don’t probe, but he volunteers the example of one client who asked whether they might hold hands.
I don’t ask what he chose to do. Instead, I agree that the request was out of line. First, there is a company “no touching” policy and second, it’s not Tinder. The meeting was not a date. I also mentioned that I know that in Japan holding hands is a very big deal in the courtship process. No wonder he felt uneasy about the request.
Wanting to ease his obvious discomfort in sharing the story, I ask what the most interesting part of the job is. His diplomatic answer: Really? I have to say having conversation like this with you. Given that it has been several hours of affable conversation I don’t want to doubt his sincerity. I also know that if the position were reversed and asked the same question, I would answer similarly because it’s true.
On my way back to my apartment, passing my quiet neighbours in Aoyama Cemetery and looking across the city to the towers of Roppongi, I think about my day to day encounters with people. Once we get chatting, I never fail to marvel at their stories or the serendipitous ways that their paths cross mine. Sometimes it’s an ichigo ichie (one meeting once in a lifetime) moment. Sometimes, happy surprise, it’s not.
After a rather intense and topsy-turvy start to the week, things settled down and jetlag lifted by Friday. I wasn’t inclined to push myself to energy depleting levels.
With two months ahead of me and fewer classes than I’d originally planned to attend, I have gobs of free time. I don’t need to go into overdrive; I can ease in. With COVID-19 an ever present threat, driving myself to exhaustion would be stupid. Instead, as I settle in I organize things to my liking, rest often, eat nutritious meals and sleep well.
As I have done each time I lived here previously, I’ve enjoyed making my little apaato a cozy oasis. With simple items I brought with me such as cushion covers to pull over the nasty orange ones in the place, throws and fairy lights I’ve transformed less than 300 square, sterile feet into a serene and welcoming Home Sweet Tokyo home.