The man of Tao remains unknown. Perfect virtue produces nothing. “No-Self” is “True-Self.” And the greatest man is Nobody – Chuang Tzu (399 – 295 BC)
This restaurant really smells bad, there’s a ventilator that pours out this stink that smells like what I imagine TS Elliot’s yellow fog that stands in drains smells like. There’s something acridly animal and industrial about it. It’s a strange restaurant all the same. There are no windows, only a door and a small strip of glass which shows a suffering and faded rubber plant inside the hallway.
The restaurant sits at the corner of the street which leads to the local temple. The side which gives onto the temple road is all concrete except for a collection of belching pipes which I only noticed when escaping from the whirling turbine like extractor fan at the front of the building, I darted down the side street hoping to escape the smell, and started breathing freely and heavily after holding my breath. Thinking I’d escaped from the smell, I choked, disgusted that the pipes on the side were churning out the stink with more efficacy that the ventilator at the front. Now the smell was stronger than ever and inside me. That smell that must have something to do with fish for only fish can, in special circumstances, create a level of malodorousness that is truly frightening.
The sound of the ventilator and its motion struck me as something sinister too. Like the fish processing plants back in Grimsby whose decaying corrugated husk spewed out with the creaking and whirring onto an iron conveyer belt, the useless detritus of what were once fish, and shat it onto a skip piled high below.
The regularity of the movement, a robotic gracelessness, the syncopated creaking call of the machine and it’s excreted odour hanging over the town, such are the macabre but evocative memories I have of my life up north, but here out east, there was the same tableau, something unpleasantly animal and mechanical, decay and metal from which one instinctively recoils. Such were my feelings about that restaurant.
Who would eat at such a place that was so unappetisingly advertised outside? A place that smelt like biological chemical warfare. I peered inside from a relatively safe distance, past the faded rubber plant I could see nothing. Was this one of those high class joints in Tokyo where they keep fireflies in glass cases to evoke a summer evening, or was it a run down bottom of the pile joint? For a foreigner it’s often hard to tell.
Was that awful smell in fact the aroma of a prized Japanese speciality, as exotic as gufu and as malodorous as natto. I hung around for a bit to see who went in and came out, but there was no visible activity apart from the ceaseless turning of the ventilator fan.
The rubber plant looked back at me from the eerie distance of the restaurant interior. I held my breath and passed by the restaurant once more; the vents on the side wall were pouring out so much of this warm stench that half of the street was bathed in it. The bricks around the vent were tarred with it, That night I cooked myself a meal and went up to my tower to eat it but I found that the whole room was full of the stink, it had hitched a ride on my clothes or was it in my mind? I ate without appetite and slept still smelling that terrible acid sharp animal smell as I dozed off to sleep.
In my dream I remember finding myself standing opposite that restaurant, the sound of the ventilator was the same, as if my mind had captured a perfect sample of it and was now playing it back, the smell too, I’m afraid to say had also been faithfully sampled and now perfumed my dreams.
The strange thing about my dream and the only thing that differentiated it from reality itself was the fact that apart from the whining of the ventilator, there was no other sound whatsoever in the street. In fact there were no other people or cars, the streets were utterly deserted. Tokyo’s ordinarily thronged streets were absolutely empty and soundless except for the creaking purr of the restaurant fan.
I looked at the front window of the restaurant, the faded rubber plant and saw that the restaurant was full of people, not only that but that the whole city seemed to be crammed inside, I saw huge crowds shrunk down to sit on a chair. The tables were full of food that was brought up from downstairs and the smell was everywhere, there must have been a couple of million people in that restaurant that night city blocks sat on chairs. When the food arrived they leapt upon the table and swarmed over the hot plates and bowls. They spoke and told stories, jokes, they smiled and charmed and tried to get laid, but due to their reduced size I heard only a high scratching sound as the millions caroused and feasted on the food. The plates were black with the moving buzzing forms of the little people. I couldn’t see what they were eating but the smell of the food was as nauseating as ever and combined with the smell of beer made it even worse and more than a little stomach turning. I wanted to leave the restaurant but I couldn’t remember coming in. I looked out of the door onto the street outside and saw myself watching me with a nose wrinkled in disgust.
Suddenly, and this was where the nightmare really began. I felt gravity tearing at me, pulling me from one side then the next, tugging at me with incredible strength, I buckled down to the ground and found the world of chairs and tables covered in black moving creatures getting bigger and bigger until they became visible as human beings and I could hear what they were saying and suddenly I was talking to them and I was one of the millions stood on the table eating the revolting food. I looked out one last time and saw that I was gone. Then happily, I woke up.
Tokyo is home to many extraordinary and breathtaking sights, there are also many new ‘trades’ which don’t exist back home. The people who cram people onto underground trains with white gloved efficiency and politeness during the rush hours.
The uniformed little lego people who kindly give direction around road works, the shouters who like their market stall cousins back home, bawl at the top of their voices selling everything from hifi equipment to internet connections. The strangest of this new collection of exotica, however and the lowest paid is the man who is paid to do nothing, or very nearly nothing; he must stand still holding a shop sign, he has a cousin in Istanbul who stands frozen in an attack stabbing posture in army uniform outside that nation’s palaces, he is almost indistinguishable from statues.
The Tokyo sign holders have adapted to their calling, everything he does is slow, like he has slowed down his perception and metabolism. He smoked a cigarette making it last half an hour, slowly raising it to his lips like the raising of a great drawbridge drawing for what seem like minutes, then lowering it again with the same ceremony.
He lives in a blur of bikes and bipeds, he is an island of stillness, frozen in the midst of the Japanese brand of chaos.
There are many new jobs in Tokyo, there seem to be many people who are being trained to some undefined or indefinite post. I see them, not many but a substantial minority. They are usually too scared to leave their homes and when they do they look like they’re being hunted. You strike up a conversation with them and you see them take a step back, they search you with their eyes, their ears prick and the take in your intentions.
“Keep away, I’m being trained,” they say, or sometimes they say nothing. They avoid direct questions as if afraid of compromising world security.
“What’s your name?” you ask.
They mumble a reply, designed to be unintelligible. While you’re trying to decipher the mess of letters they try to creep off to the shadows again and before you know it they’re at the other end of the bar like a cockroach that you’ve been stalking around the kitchen, that finally you think you’ve got cornered and that you’re about to admit a sound slippering, until you raise your slipper arm and find it gone, but then you hear the patter of roach feet behind you and roach laughter reaches you ears and the Demon King passes behind your back in a cloud of sulphur with dirty mocking roach laughter.
And so it was with my trainee roach, I saw him scuttle back into his dark corner. Once they’re trained it’s a different story. These odd roaches have the caterpillar’s gift of self transformation. At some point between the end of their training, the roach finds a particularly dark and remote corner, under a bar stool or in the pages of a book of Japanese grammar, they creep there, tired, battered a dust blown ball of defeat, hiding from friend and foe alike, scared even of their own name, until one glorious day, they emerge, a metamorphosis, transformed, they burst from their lair shining strong and sleek spreading metallic wings that will soar and cross continents and all social barriers. They are beautiful proud and strong, but the roach is still inside them, it rattles about inside their new skin, trapped forever. You see instead of one person there are now two. Still, like they say, you’re never alone with a schizophone!
I’m not sure what they’re being trained for but I saw one of them after the transformation on the telly looking like a grinning Gaijin goon, another one I saw floating high in space, shooting across the sky, yet another I saw, squashed flat as a splat of gum on the road, under the turning wheels whose teeth chewed him and spat him out. They keep trying to train me too. It’s a pain; I don’t want to be a grinning Gaijin goon or a mangled splat in the wheel’s cog mouth.
I don’t particularly want to be rich loved and respected or feared. I don’t want to be that strange metallic shining butterfly creature with the cockroach trapped inside. No I just want to live my life and do a bit of work. I know that if they trained me I wouldn’t work anymore. They’d break me, maybe my wheels won’t turn their so they’d have to force them until they break.
Then it came to me. Someone said to me, very casually:
“The meaning of existence is use this life to prove that you are worthy of a better one. Smile at adversity and frustration, your good name is on the line.”
Inspired and shamed by this revelation, and sick of the acrid contempt which welled in me for smelly Japanese restaurants and ex pat spies, I loved all men and women, whole crowds, cities nations. As is often the case you have to give love to find it and then it happened, something amazing.
Amid the blur of Tokyo’s automated teenage Shibuya shopping pack, I spy three girls. Somehow they stand out among the boyfriends, girlfriends, cruisers posers and shoppers. One of them has a huge pink hearing box that doesn’t attempt discretion or much camouflage. The other wear glasses and seem to have trouble walking and the last is in a wheelchair. I’m no expert, I don’t know what’s wrong with them, that they are disabled is clear from the look of happiness on their faces. Not the empty headed happiness of a J teenager who’s just bought a new Hello Kitty make-up bag, or the J lady whose just bought a new Louise Vetton something. Their happiness was something else, something quite unfamiliar to these shallow streets, their happiness had been earned and they knew its worth. They shone with open hearted happiness even in the midst of the difficult task of getting into a coffee shop, they hobbled and stumbled but never stopped smiling. It was the single most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
Then again, it could have been some crazy new Harajuku fashion statement.