My ‘tick’ happened as I walked across Shibuya crossing from the Hachiko Exit. A thousand neon lights vie for your attention like a pixelated electronic rainbow, but it’s not just any form of your attention that the pixelated electronic rainbow wants. It wants the consumer in you. It offers a sludge of polysterene candy not to you, but to your substantia nigra, the part of your brain that induces immense gratification with every ketchup squirt of dopamine (one squirt per polysterene candy). The pixelated electronic rainbow hovering over Shibuya, with its wingspan spreading across the most part of central Tokyo and with remnants of its feathers scattered across all urban cities, doesn’t recognise you. It recognises the conglomerate of customer-survey-algorithmic-functions that constitutes you the consumer, and it proposes a mutually agreeable transaction with that ‘you’.
And then I would turn a corner to enter a dilapidated ramen stall where an elderly man dished out hot broth into porcelain bowls before roughly shoving them in your direction across the long wood counter, stopping in front of you with a loud clatter. I was time travelling. Or at least, I thought I was until the elderly man jabbed a finger directing me to make my order at the vending machine outside. Social etiquette seems irrelevant when finger-punched inputs and waxy receipts are more conducive to economies of scale.
But the gleaming neon of futuristic Tokyo has somehow left little corners of the city untouched, where the scent of bread ovens waft uninterrupted out of obscure coffee shops and bakeries. The cherry blossoms of Tokyo in spring are neither neon, pixelated nor electronic. They are soft, tangible and alive. There’s electricity and exhilaration, and there’s respite from the electricity and exhilaration. There’s sludge and obscene banality, but there’s also warmth, nature and soul. I spent a quiet weekday at Yoyogi park watching pink flowers waver in the wind, children on picnic blankets underneath the wavering pink flowers and tobacco smoke drift serenely from an old man smoking in a corner.
A close friend of mine says that there’s something for everyone in New York. I don’t disagree with that. But I also think that for every person there’s a place where they feel most themselves. In spite of the cultural, linguistic and demographic differences, there will always be a place on this planet where the skin which you have meticulously built to survive as a member of the society in which you grew up just falls off and you finally feel that you’ve become the fullest extent of yourself. Because in spite of the cultural, linguistic and demographic differences, there’s a place on this planet where you simply ‘click’, where the ‘tick’ in you silently recognises that you are mutual with the place, almost at one with it, that a mistake of nature and circumstance must have been the only reason why you weren’t born and raised there. For me, that place is Tokyo.
Somewhere in Tokyo there is always a version of me waiting to be resuscitated the next time I’m there. I’ve only been to Tokyo twice, two years apart, but I’m already unable to distinguish the two visits from each other. It’s as if there’s an abstract version of me, frozen in time and space there, that shakes off the dust when I return to Tokyo and greets me, ‘Welcome back. It’s been a while. How’s your primary life been?’