The man behind the counter glances at me through a haze of vapor rising off hot dishes. His gaze says, “well go ahead then” while his mouth remains motionless. I look down at the cream colored paper in my hands. Black lines twist across the page, hand drawn. I see the lines of a river, a koi swimming slowly, a busy sidewalk threaded with people. I want to congratulate this man on his work, ask why it is sitting on a greasy counter instead of framed in his house. Holding the paper, I see everything in the artwork except what is really there: the words of the dinner menu I’m supposed to be ordering off of.
Twenty minutes before, I shut the door to our cold Tokyo apartment. D sleeps off our twenty four hours of travel. I’m scared of this giant city, but my stomach screams for a reminder that food can be more than potato chips and microwaved airplane meals. As I walk, a woman rides her bike past me, two small children trailing behind. The houses I pass are crowded together but orderly. The street looks like it has been vacuumed clean. There is a silence I have never heard in a city before, as if the cement, plaster and asphalt is holding its breath. Only the faint smell of sewage reminds me I am surrounded by 35 million sweating, shitting bodies. The train, passing through too quickly to mind its manners, breaks the silence of the buildings with a low rumble.
I pass a 7/11 and almost fall into the siren call of snickers bars and pictured packaging. But there’s a little storefront down the street with a few english words on their sign and Christmas lights blinking against the steamy glass. Without anyone there to watch me embarrass myself, I slide the door open into a small bar. A few patrons look up, then turn back to their plates. I slowly take off my jacket, trying to understand where to sit and how to order.
The man says a few words and I shake my head, not understanding. “Biru?” I ask feebly. The man nods, then motions towards the paper in my hands. He speaks again, as I stare at him blankly. “Nihongo…” I say, then make an x motion. “Beer and “Japanese”, and I have exhausted my dictionary. Nearby a woman is eating meatballs, soup and a plate of vegetables. I wonder if I am desperate enough to point, when she smiles at me and says, “Would you like me to translate for you?”
The woman orders me meatballs, a beer, vegetables and a buttery piece of cod. She and her boyfriend keep me company for the hour while I eat and help me understand how to pay when I am finished. She shows me how to tell the chef it was a delicious meal, and his expressionless mouth forms a smile.
I’ve never liked cities much, but somehow Tokyo feels different. As we wander, however, I begin to wonder if I have misjudged Tokyo to be quiet. Petit women in high heeled boots and heavy eye makeup shout at us through paper cones as we pass their stores. Advertisements line billboards and Japanese text is everywhere. Friends laugh and chat as they ride their bikes down the winding streets. But when you don’t understand the words someone is speaking, they become a background music. When the symbols that compose words have no associated sounds, they become background art. Tokyo is loud, but in a way I can’t comprehend. Through my foreigner eyes it possesses a stillness, though if it comes from the city or myself I’m not sure.
I think of all my friends who love being in the wild. I think of how many of those same people also love to travel, even when it puts them in cities of 35 million people, far from trees, flowing water or sandstone rocks. I’ve never really understood it. But I wonder if it isn’t that same type of stillness of being in a foreign place, from city to wild, that we all crave. It’s the triumph of a cold beer or a hot meal, whether the difficulty is a whisper lite stove or a language barrier. It’s a sense of wonder from coming around a corner, whether a city block or a single track trail, and seeing something completely new. It’s relying on the kindness of others, whether a businesswoman in a Tokyo bar or a fellow river runner, and knowing you will someday pass the favor forward to someone else.