Two pairs of grey slippers on a round green mat.
Lined up and waiting for us to step into them and our new life in Kaminoge, Tokyo.
We’d been travelling for three days, delayed by fog in Istanbul. The slippers made an impression. ‘Leave the outside behind you’, they seemed to say. ‘Your’e home now. Turn your attention inwards’. We did and collapsed into bed.
The next morning, in spite of tiredness, we woke early. Jim said ‘I feel like I’ve wandered onto the set of Madame Butterfly’ – our little house has sliding paper walls and tatami mats cover the floor. I pull what I think is a light switch and a breathy, female voice issues instructions in Japanese. At least I assume she’s giving instructions; I really have no idea what she’s saying. There seems to be no hot water. At least we manage to turn on the gas and make a cup of tea. Thankfully we always carry a stash of tea-bags.
Our Airbnb hosts pops round from next door and explains how to work the key-pad next to the bath – there is hot water. We pull back the curtains on the tea deck to reveal a tiny, private garden – greenery, three small oblong ponds, and a round stone table and stools that make me think of mushrooms forcing their way up and out of the damp earth. ‘There are frogs’, he says moving his hands apart to indicate their size. His gesture suggests they are as big as footballs, but later we think he’s just been in Japan so long that he’s got used to the diminutive and anything past minute becomes gigantic. I watch a cat jump over the wall and lap at the water. It runs away when it sees me. It’s too cold to sit in the garden, and too wet, but the sight of it makes me happy.
We wander our neighbourhood. At the Seven-Eleven on the corner we draw money from the ATM. We’d been warned. Tokyo – high tech in many ways, is stone-age in others; Japanese banks and foreign cards don’t mix.
Cash in wallet, we headed to the local supermarket. I don’t know what anything is. I chose a few veggies. Soy sauce? There are so many bottles of brown stuff on the shelves. I can’t read anything. I stupidly keep the till receipt, thinking – without thinking – that I’ll work out what things cost – but it’s just full of squiggles. The supermarket sells only food – no cleaning products or toiletries. We carry on our search. The man bows when Jim pays him for the toilet rolls. Jim bows back. ‘I can’t help it. It’s contagious’, he says. The uniformed man outside the nursery school bows deep from the waist when I say ‘konichiwa’. ‘I could get used to this’, says Jim.
We walk to Futakatamagawa and wonder if we’ll ever be able to pronounce it. More shops, restaurants and cafes – and this is only suburbia. We end up in a Starbucks – of all places. But at least we can understand what’s on offer. We watch: people wearing face-masks; giggling, selfie-taking, short-skirted schoolgirls, and impeccably dressed lunching ladies. Shoppers move with purpose but do not rush. There is no jostling, no loud voices, no litter, no dirt. There are no other Westerners anywhere but no-one pays any attention to us except a couple of kids who stare open-mouthed.
‘No-one speaks English’, our host had told us ‘but then occasionally in a place you’ll least expect it, someone will’. On the way home, walking through the park, we met three elderly people and the man smiled and asked where we were from. In stilted English he told us ‘this is a typical Japanese garden’ and smiled again. It was a welcome, and I felt in my bones that I was going to love this city.