I have been in Tokyo for five days at the time this column will go online, in a time zone so different to Ireland that I can’t think about it for too long without feeling nauseous. I have taken a long morning inside to write, as opposed to walking slowly and steadily through the city, which is like nowhere else I have ever been. I hesitate to say this, but I feel like to pretend otherwise would be criminal – I am having a really, really great time. I don’t think I’ve ever felt like this in my entire life. I should feel ashamed of using the internet so much, of clutching my phone in my hand – but for once it doesn’t feel heavy, or like a burden. I think I am finally using the iPhone and the internet in an idyllic, utopian manner: not as a dark vortex to transfer my heart into, but rather as a supernatural tool. It is helping me, not harming me – in fact without it my experience would be significantly more challenging and possibly even frightening.
As I write, I am hiding in the tiny bright box in the sky that myself and CB are living in for the fortnight we are here, taking shelter from the intensity of the city outside. I cannot imagine how massively stressful navigating would be without this miracle object: it has opened Tokyo to me in a way that I can not take for granted. Certainly there is a romantic notion of just getting ‘lost’ in a city, moving rhythmically with locals and just hoping for the best – as a traveller I prefer to just wander about and not obey some river outs checklist of must-do’s too. But there are such challenges as a westerner here: primarily the different alphabet, beyond the entirely different language. Even the simplest act, buying a bottle of tea from a 7-11 (affectionately called a ‘convini’ by locals, for ‘convenience store’) – takes just that minute longer for the want of western letters. Parsing the landscape here requires a lot of extra processing – and having an app that I can feed photos of signs into and have them loosely translated does help. It gives me a shard of confidence in a place where I am entirely out of my depth.
Tokyo is a hundred cities woven into one expansive, complicated system: it at once holds an ancient set of traditions and feels so modern that it could almost belong in a kind of utopian future. I’m also well aware that my experience – from my awe at the serenity of shrine environments to my delight at the 1970’s style futurism of the architecture is clouded by western fantasy, by my whiteness, by innumerable bias and lack of experience in Asia. This obvious sense of ignorance doesn’t make me feel frustrated in any way though – more curious, more delighted, more happy to just stick on my sneakers in the morning and walk into the towering infinity of this place.
After two years of flying in and out of European cities for work, staring into my iPhone for comfort and cultivating an addiction to the internet that felt like it was numbing my ability to feel pleasure in reality, I couldn’t have imagined how good it would feel to go on an adventure proper. Equipped with a camera, a perfect Japanese speaking robot within translation apps, and most importantly of all, a functioning interactive palm-sized map. It doesn’t make Tokyo feel easy to be in, but it makes me feel brave in the face of the total unknown. It lets me FaceTime my parents from the labyrinthine corridors of Tokyo station – it lets me broadcast snippets of my experience to my community. If I never get this far across the world again I will have bottled memories inside this brick. I am kind of fixated on how something that can and has caused me such emotional turmoil over the years could immediately become so helpful – but maybe it’s me that’s changed.
This week I feel hopeful, and positive, and full of query in a way that I don’t think I have in a very, very long time. I don’t feel as though I have to peer down the dark pathways of the internet – I don’t want to foster anger or jealousy or watch the catastrophe of global politics like a sport that only serves to make me sick. I might not be able to understand Tokyo but it is making me feel alive and present in the world. It has disconnected me from the fantasy landscape of the internet, by offering me a challenging, complicated world to reckon with: it could be the light, the meticulously square white tiles on the buildings all along the road by our hotel, the quiet that hangs over even busy streets. But something is keeping my chin up, even if my hand is wrapped around my phone.