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Updated: Oct 3, 2019

Inspiring Japan travel stories
Bamboo Grove Arashiyama Kyoto

The bus was running steadily through Shinjuku among sky-high buildings. The sun was pale, glowing up low like a tiny bulb hanging on the grey ceiling. Traffic was buzzing high. Vehicles were racing through multi-layers of streets and motorways. Men in black suits were walking in a rush chasing their time towards offices. I was the last passenger on this so-called Limousine bus from Narita Airport to the last stop at the Hilton Hotel in Shinjuku. The driver was sitting still like a statue, his eyes on the road. As it approached the Hilton, from the loudspeaker, he reminded me that the next stop was mine. He gave me a polite smile through the rearview mirror.

It was sixteen past seven in the morning as I was walking the wide footpath of Shinjuku West. My google map was as clueless as my navigating skills, trying to locate Hotel Roynett, the hotel I would stay for my two-week stay in Tokyo. It was just one block away from the Hilton. In reality, the tree line footpath has fences of the construction sites. Modern sky-high glassed buildings squeeze the old ones of the past as if they were struggling to breathe out the ultra-modern Tokyo. After thirty minutes of walking back and forth the same footpath following disoriented GPS signal on the google map, I gave up this twenty-first-century technology on the iPhone. I looked upon the buildings, gazing at signs in Kana, Kanji, and English, reading out loud each of them.

'Starbucks, Mini Cooper, Hilton, … Roynett Hotel!' I gasped. The last one was right in front of me, hiding behind a construction site fenced with the same name. It was a tall slim black building with the tiny steps leading up to the glass entrance doors. There was an automatic door to the hallway to the receptionist, black glossy desk with a warm LED lit on the dark wall. A glowing Roynett sign fills across the wall. A young girl was behind the counter, wearing an immaculate dark uniform, landed me a smile.

'I'm afraid you came a little earlier than our check-in time,' She apologetically replied.

'But you're more than welcome to store your bag here then come back later,' She continued, eyeing on my only luggage sitting on the floor. I told her I was exhausted after my sleepless flight and needed room to rest. The rest was money talk to get me to pay the extra cost for an early check-in, which left me with no option but agreed to pay for a first sleep.

I woke up by the moonlight through the large window in my hotel room. I must have slept the whole day through the night. City lights dotted dark, tall buildings like millions of fireflies, landed on dead skeletal trees. Traffic was buzzing low, gently tickling the glass windows. The aircon blew gentle heat circulating in the dark, floral-scented hotel room. Tiny squares of digital displays glowed fluorescent white on the bedframe and walls. It was thirty past seven on my iPhone. Along with unread messages on Whatsapp and iMessage, I scan-read between emails and News, and weather forecast Sydney and Tokyo. It was fourteen degrees tonight with the clouds hanging over Tokyo til the end of the week. Cherry blossom season almost reached its end. It was only a week before the golden week where everyone throughout the country would be away on a long holiday. Only a few would be in the office. They stare at glaring computer monitors with the business suits from many days remained unwashed because no one but you could smell.

'Expect long queues on popular tourist attractions and trains!' Remind Ayumi, a Japanese friend of mine who works for ANA before checking me in at Sydney Airport. She left a little note attached to my luggage.

After a hot shower in a tiny bathroom, I flipped the pink cherry-blossom card as it read 'Have a wonderful time in Japan, Mr Richards, From ANA team!'

'What a nice little touch,' I thought, unzipping my luggage. I chose a shirt randomly.

'What's next? How can I spend this fourteen degrees night in Tokyo?'

I found myself bathing in the lights of Shinjuku. There were futuristic neon lights and giant TV monitors. They were all showing off commercials and new movie trailers. Flickering typos were running across, and they reminded me of the scene from the movie 'The Blade Runner'. Cool breezes of a spring night pushed me away from the crowds onto smoky dark alleyways hidden behind glossy neon-lit stores. Like I was thrown from the LED-lit night of future into the dark past time, where candlelight bulbs dimmed, and the white-red lanterns glowed on the tip pointed ends of wooden roofs. Rustic corrugated iron walls emerged from the unknown endless alleys and charcoal burned high and crackled sparkles of fire dust.

There were men--their face was glossed with sweats--wearing headcloths behind the smoky charcoal-fuelled bar, toasting sticks of Yakitori. The famous Japanese assorted barbies served on bamboo sticks are mainly the tourist attraction of it all. There are signs' English Menu Available' in front of tiny shops as a friendly gesture for foreign tourists who don't understand Japanese. Sake ceramic glasses clinked as peals of laughter broke up the heated air. A middle-aged man greeted me before asking him if he could squeeze me in his tiny restaurant. A man who sat right in the front gave me a gesture to sit next to him. His warm smiles were somehow curious as he looked up at me. I replied to his broken English with my broken Japanese. His laugh filled up the entire shop. I wasn't sure if he laughed at my Japanese, or he laughed at himself, caught in the language barrier. My bravery to speak a rough ride of Japanese words seemed to be less appreciated. The Australian family who sat on the other side was quite impressed, though.

'Where did you learn Japanese?' The wife asked. 'I did a short course at Japan Foundation in Sydney,' I replied, before placing my order a couple of mushroom and tofu sticks, beef liver, and a Suntory beer. Though they weren't entirely impressed with the price tag at the Shinjuku robot restaurant, they recommended.

'It was worth a try for the first timer like us,' She suggested.

I was in the conversations between a young Australian family, and a curious Japanese man who taught me a few Japanese words in between sips of beer, and bites of Yakitori. A cold spring night of Tokyo was suddenly warm and content. Somehow in this dark alleys, under the JR railway bridges, traditions are separated from the mainstream modern Tokyo. I found myself intrigued by what and how Japan would bring me till the end of my journey. Will the multiple layers of Tokyoite subcultures keep surprising me that I would always feel like I walked into another parallel dimension. Suddenly, I became to understand why Murakami wrote many novels with the parallel universe as the main plot of his stories, and many other Japanese writers after him.

In Tokyo, it seems both urban modernism and traditional culture are inseparable, or they walk hand in hand. Thus, the concept of a parallel universe--for some of the Japanese writers--is no longer dilutional myths, or strange, but a reality. It frames up the life itself from frames to frames. You will be lost, but you will be found again before you know it. I didn't just let myself lost, but I wanted to make myself lost. I wanted to hop on and off between one frame Tori gate of time and space to another Tori gate, and another one. Having been drifted in the sea of people, I basked in the lights of Shinjuku. I drew myself more in-depth into the electric town of Akihabara. I saw myself standing under the feet of Buddha from the golden period of Nara. I imagined myself watching ancient Buddhist scholars as they chanted the rhymes of Tripitaka the holy book. I found myself contemplating in Nanzen Ji temple garden complex in Higashiyama, Kyoto, and found the wisdom of letting go.

All of a sudden, voices of the honourable Daimin, the founder of Nanzen-Ji temple, echoed: Do not let the past troubles catch in your mind, nor future fears. Live in this moment, this place, in pure mind without regrets, and each day will be a good life.

The enlightenment electrified me.

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