Haneda at sunrise

Haneda mornings

In some ways, for this boy, everything starts in Tokyo.

Ever since he turned 18 here, on his first visit, the city has been a constant reference, and a sometimes home. The urban sprawl of the greater metro area has been a window onto so much of his life.

Today Tokyo frames the hours between four and nine am. For these five hours he wanders the new international terminal of Haneda without urgency. The rest of this trip, to Shanghai, Hong Kong, Ningbo, and back, will be a whirlwind of component approvals, press checks, and the small waits of travel required for each. For the next two weeks he will be seldom alone save for early mornings or late nights, and rarely on his own schedule.

This morning in Haneda serves as a counter to that sense of urgency. Drinking coffee in a chair with a view he can pause and think. About his cat, left at midnight the evening prior, the day prior, comfortably relaxed at the end of a quiet weekend. Of that same cat on the rooftop in the morning, looking out over San Francisco and sniffing the wind. He is happy on the rooftop, this cat, and the boy in Tokyo misses both spot and companion.

For so much of his life Tokyo has been about watching people. Sitting here as the airport wakes up, as business commuters and tourists make their way through security and start looking for coffee, the boy is happy. It’s been a while since he watched Tokyo this way.

At least a month.

Inspired by friends with similar jobs these layovers have come something of a ritual, a strange habit of intentional delay in what is already a very long commute. He began taking these breaks last year, in Hong Kong. Alone or with colleagues he would check in for his flight at Central, give up his suitcase of samples and clothing, and walk to a nice dinner, to a quiet evening drink with a view. Spending a few hours this way, before returning to San Francisco and the rest of his life, served as a firewall between the exhaustion of weeks in Dongguan factories and the exhaustion of jet lag. These breaks give him energy to return home with and become again responsible for the small parts of life, for dishes and laundry and the commute.

In twenty sixteen he has moved these breaks to Tokyo. Work is focused on Shanghai, and so Hong Kong is a less convenient option. Tokyo, with the government’s new focus on tourism and Haneda’s resurgence as an international airport, is becoming the perfect hub. Overnight flights from SF give him more than a full night’s sleep, more than enough rest to be awake when he finally makes it to Shanghai, some twenty hours later.

And the peace of Haneda, the fact that all announcements are played in Japanese, in English, and then in Mandarin, gives his mind some time to catch up to the rest of him, to accept the fact that he is once again on the road. Tokyo as rest stop is a new use for his favorite city.

In nineteen ninety seven Tokyo was a fairy tale for a boy on his way to university. It was his first trip abroad, other than Canada, and his first time alone without language.

In two thousand one Tokyo was a gateway, an opportunity, and the city he’d always dreamed of. Moving there got him out of the US, gave him a job, and showed him just how big the world could be.

In two thousand seven it provided a reminder of how peaceful a city could be, after years in the noise of Shanghai. It is this lesson he remembers now, and what brought him to this ritual layover.

In two thousand twelve he got to share his favorite places and the trains that connected them. Exploring Tokyo and Kyoto together they remembered how wonderful adventuring as a couple could be.

In two thousand thirteen, on their second trip to Japan together, they got engaged, in Fukuoka by the river.

And now, in two thousand sixteen Japan is a safe haven, a place to rest and relax, to hole up and to wander. On brief layovers he sings karaoke in Itabashi and climbs to rooftops in Shinjuku. He walks dozens of miles, and yet he also barely moves, spending hours chatting with old friends and hours reading in favorite neighborhoods.

Mostly he spends hours, like this morning, in Haneda.

Looking out over Idabashi in Tokyo

Winding roads

In the month of March I am mostly confused about location.

In a Shanghai hotel room an old friend brings me medicine in between naps. His daughter laughs at her reflection in the mirror while we chat. I’ve been sick for days and seen little save this room in between factory visits. The company is welcome and the medicine better than my homemade solutions.

A few days later I see a super hero movie on the US naval base in Yokosuka. I’ve never been on base before and the experience is strange. Sitting in a theater having paid $2 for tickets feels both familiar and surreal. It is strange to be in Japan and yet surrounded by Americans, especially after two weeks in China. Afterwards, wandering around Idabashi with my friends, I am so grateful to be back in the suburban depths of Tokyo. Sub-urban is a claim that can only be applied to Idabashi when it is placed next to Shinjuku. In some ways the duplication of train stations, shops, conbinis and aparto towers feels like it’s own culture, a form of topography and living for which Americans have no language. Sub-urban then only in hierarchy not in density.

In Las Vegas a few days later I look out from the thirty third floor at empty patches in the city’s expansion. Whole blocks skipped, still raw desert, surrounded on all sides by cul-de-sac housing tracts. A depressing view of car culture and relative waste that I don’t know well enough to imagine living in. Or to imagine feeling trapped in.

Sitting at a bar in downtown Las Vegas arguing about transparency and expectations I realize how much of our conversations are also about location. Much of the conversation, scattered over several weeks and countries, is about cities, housing, variations of living. So too is much of our conversation about our hope for the future, and many of our questions are about how places shape people.

It is a perfect if confusing way to spend several weeks, well-suited to this site save for the lack of writing.

Building forever

Landing in Tokyo at night, the city does not seem to end. From the air lights stretch away in all directions save where the sea still intrudes. In a bus from the airport this is reinforced, no suburban gap between airport and the city it serves. Neighborhoods change, the area around Haneda giving way to the denser residential sprawl of Tokyo proper, and then micro shifts as the gaps between train stations become the only visible breaks. Like interstate exits in the US, train stations represent the loci of Tokyo, clusters of shops, neon, and light that then spreads out, a subtle Doppler effect of dissipating commercial space, until the pace accelerates before the next station, another bunch of stores and people, taxis and signs. In this pattern we move on through the city in the night.

As many have written, Tokyo feels like the future. On this evening taxi ride, just arrived from Manila and another view of a possible future, I wonder why Tokyo, more than any other city, gets this designation.

The common reasons are obvious and true. It is clean, far more than any other city of size. Efficient too, in a way Germans and Swiss can enjoy. The city is polite in service and accommodating to foreigners, in a fashion that leaves visitors impressed and eager to return.

Our bus and then taxi each pass through separate construction areas, both calmly productive at one am on the morning of a national holiday. Lights are on, workers direct traffic, and the dirt of the digging is neatly contained by cones. Tokyo is, like New York, in constant repair. And yet there are no potholes, the average street seems five years old, and the sidewalk is level, blind strips and all. How can this city be so large and so well-maintained?

The smell, stepping out of the taxi, is what I remember most. Tokyo in the rain. So different than the smell of rain in Hong Kong, a few weeks back, or Bohol last week. So different than Shanghai, Dongguan, or San Francisco’s smells, the cities I now know well. The smell is clean, to my nose, lacking pollution and not quite of the ocean in the way Bohol was.

Now, a few days later, I think that the magic of Tokyo is not in just in the trains, or the organization, or the maintenance, but in all three. The magic is found in the attention to detail on all ends of the organism that is Tokyo. From construction to use to repair and replacement, the extra measure of care can seem robotic, idyllic. Especially after the vagaries of public transit in the Bay Area, after the impenetrable morass of Manila traffic, Tokyo’s mechanical functionality can seem impossible, the cleanliness obviously forced, drawing the inevitable comparisons to Disney or Singapore.

Instead I think, it represents what could be, not what will be. It represents what people might build, if so determined as a large group. Manila and San Francisco, St. Louis and Dongguan do likewise. All that differs are the people, and the complex intermingling of abilities, desire, and willingness to work together.

In this view the future of Tokyo is both approachable and impossible, marvelous and out of reach. It’s a city to love, I think. More than anything it’s a wonderful place. Standing on the balcony of our rented apartment, looking out at the city and falling rain, it is a place I am so glad to see.

As fast as possible

In the space of a week I go from Los Angeles and a pool to Petaluma, San Francisco, and Shanghai. Yangzhou, Changshu, and Tokyo follow before the string of airport initials and train station names reverses, leading me home in time for Christmas. With each step comes a greater sense of urgency, and a greater sense of exhaustion. Every vehicle and every contact is exhorted for speed. ASAP. Any phrase so often abused as to have a common acronym deserves consideration before use, in this case deserves preservation for the truly urgent moments.

How to tell what requires attention when everything is made to seem urgent?

Our lives are brief fragile things of scant import and dear value. They consist of years that can be counted with ease by children, of months tied together by weather, and of hours that seem to drift by with the Chinese countryside, in a state of waiting known as transit.

In the space of a week I spend forty one hours in motion and yet waiting, rushing and yet unable to move. In the space of a week I sleep in seven beds. At the end of it, waiting for the last plane, I try to clear my brain and add up the lessons from those miles, add up the value of the travel in a way other than the monetary cost or the hours.

I have had dinner with friends from all segments of life, from Tokyo ten years ago, Shanghai eight, Shanghai five, and San Francisco now. I have seen houses and children, girlfriends, and wives. In groups large and small, we have shared stories that will hold us together for another month, or year, or two, until somehow the world brings us to table again in the same city.

I have solved problems I am paid to solve, given support to those both up and down the chain of business from me. Listened to complaints, answered requests, provided explanations, outlined requirements. I have cleaned and trimmed and measured and folded and packed product in the kind of chill concrete building I try to avoid after Christmas 2007.

Do these things, done at questionable speed, make for a better life? They certainly do not help our shared environmental disaster. In fact, they are a direct cause, a product of the excesses of miscalculated transportation costs. What can I do to repair these damages? What can I do to make each hour both longer and shorter, both more memorable and less all-consuming? How can I continue to learn and work while allowing myself time for tasks that require mental focus and a single location?

These are good questions for a twelve hour flight from Seoul to San Francisco.

Build a home

Above the Pacific on a JAL flight to Tokyo the question strikes gently. Like most moments of introspection it lingers for days, long after I have landed at Haneda and taken the monorail to a tiny business hotel in Hamamatsucho. Opening the single window to the rain and lights of evening I think of it again: Where do I love enough to settle in?

Not settle down in the traditional sense, not stop moving and become a fixture at the local pub, but settle in with property, invest in making a place more than just a passing habitation. Where is it that modifying a space to my specific interests would be feasible, as well as useful?

Out the window the roof lines slope in a particularly Japanese way, from balcony to balcony to fire escape. After all these years away it is a comforting view, this slice of Hamamatsucho I have never seen before. In the foggy evening whole floors are lit, offices and apartment building balconies. Neon from the chain restaurants and convenience stores below sparkles, wet and inviting against the gathering dark. Looking around my room, well-shaped and just large enough for the bed, I think of my old apartment in Saitama and it’s Fuji-facing balcony. A space like that, designed for minimal possessions and a place to tuck necessities away? A space like this?

A few days later in a Harajuku studio I am sure this is not enough space, nowhere to hang towels or stash bags once they are unpacked. Close though, with a tiny balcony and decent light, on a side street without too many visitors. Private and central. How much more space would I need?

In a Saitama apartment not unlike my own a decade earlier, I think this is enough, this may be too much. With two bedrooms, almost three, the tendency is to acquire things, a larger screen, a computer, a collection or two. To invest in a place like this, with balconies and room for friends, would be a call to remodel completely, move walls and consolidate closets. This is an apartment to rent, not a space to own. As I did in Yono Honmachi, I want to see inside the neighbors doors, to learn if anyone else has taken to the space like a beaver, damming and redirecting the flow of traffic in their residency.

In a hotel in Fukuoka, overlooking a river, the windows are the most important thing. They open, letting in huge gusts of weather, and run floor to ceiling, allowing in light and neon in equal measures. Across the water a parking garage, invisible in daytime sun and billboard-lit evening, shines starkly through the night, bright enough to wake those bothered by light. Power plugs are everywhere in this room, a central point of convenience, and a huge mirror guards the entryway to prep visitors for their excursions. A wooden half table slides quickly away when not in use, leaving two chairs that become a sofa in front of the windows. This is a space designed for tight occupancy from the ground up, and welcoming with its futuristic feel. For two days we enjoy each perk, save for the fridge, which has its own on off switch separate from the room’s key-card controlled power. This trick sits undiscovered until the second evening. A brand-new building, this hotel displays the benefits of designing from scratch, and impresses with the feasibility of small-space living. At least without a kitchen.

In Kagoshima, the southern end of our journey, the hotel is likewise new and completely purpose-built. With textured flooring in place of carpets, a bathroom on the outside of the building, windows to the bedroom and tiny, custom-built clothes hanging spots, it is an excellent example of re-thinking space. This is the kind of thing I’d like to do, if not exactly how. A kitchen is a challenge. The living space needs windows, and yet the bathrooms need air and light to dry. Wrapping all these separate uses into a tiny square requires compromises, requires settling on one use or another, discussing our needs.

This, here on the southern tip of mainland Japan, may not be where we decide to settle down. These islands may never be home again. But from the constant reinvention of space, from the dedication to cleanliness and the attention to detail and maintenance that ownership rewards and requires, we learn so much. We learn with every hotel and apartment, floor and bed, balcony and bathroom.

For the time is coming, one way or another. We will settle in to a space, be able to reorganize, reconstruct and utilize. Exactly where is hard to say.

Out the window in Kagoshima the rain is falling. In our tiny hotel box we look at the architecture and discuss the future. It is a wonderful break from the rest of our lives.