There is great freedom in standing in one place, randomly picking a direction, and commiting to it.
Isn’t that how all of life is, really? There are a million options and you decide to choose one and then you try to make it the correct one. No choice is ever correct until after you make it.
I am staying on a street without a sign in a residential area of Minami Ayoama. This is home for a while but I don’t even understand how the light switches work. The toilets do whatever they want and seem to even be communicating with each other while I sleep in a secret water language.
Before I left America I got a list of places to go and things to see. I did not write any of them down because there were simply too many and I didn’t want to just have an overwhelming list of impossible to complete activities. My memory, I think, has retained the ones it finds most valuable, starting with what seemed like the perfect place to have breakfast: Ramen Street.
Tokyo Station is 100 years old, but has been newly renovated. It’s basically a giant marble labyrinth the size of most small American cities. There is a dessert store in it the size of Fresno.
"Just go downstairs to Ramen Street. You can’t miss it."
Oh, really? Well, I found Kitchen Street. I found a place where 450 Japanese women in matching cardigans stand in concentric circles. I found a store that sells miniature plastic versions of ramen.
And then a miracle happened. His name was Koji. He was wearing prestine blue overalls, a yellow helmet, and sparkly white gloves.
"Ramen Street?" I mumbled for the hundredth time as businessmen looked anywhere but at me.
Koji was the first person I heard laugh loudly in public. “I take you,” he said. So I began to follow him. He was pushing a cart with several empty green plastic boxes. He asked me where I was from and took off one of his gloves to shake my hand.
I complimented him on his English and he complimented me on my ability to grow hair out of the bottom of my face. Koji is now my best friend in Japan.
15 minutes later he pointed me down a side alley (I use this term loosely because the “alley” is just another marble avenue that is kept cleaner than anything I’ve ever seen) and said “Ramen.” And with that, he was gone. I had lost my only friend.
It was 10:40am and the shops don’t open until 11:00. There is a small line outside every door and inside you can see the staff meetings taking place, everyone preparing for another day.
One shop, Rokurinsha, is different. The staff is lined up and someone is giving very loud instructions. It looks as if they’re preparing to go to war. And they are.
I turn around and I see the enemy combatants. 50 men in black suits are waiting in a line that snakes around to the entrance. This place must be good.
I walk to the back of the line and step behind the last man. A quick tug on my sleeve lets me know that something is wrong. A small woman points and directs my eyes towards a staircase across the way. That is where the rest of the line is. Another 30 men in suits are waiting there. There are maybe 20 seats in this place. I ascend the staircase, nearly a flight and a half, and stand behind the last man. No women. Not one. 80 men, black suits, newspapers, flip phones, and me, scraggly, hungry, wearing a torn deep cut V-neck, looking like a mad muppet in a disitinctly human world.
At 11:00 precisely the line begins to move. No one talks to each other. I’m glad to see that they’re not only not talking to me. They’re talking to no one. It’s the most accepted I’ve felt all day.
40 minutes later I get through the front door and am directed to a machine on the wall. There are four pictures of food. They are four varieties of Tsukemen ramen (the kind where the noodles come separately and you dip them in the broth yourself). I can’t figure out what is what so I just push a button and scan my subway card, which is the only way to pay, against the pad. I have now paid and am ushered to a seat between serious looking men.
I am given a plasticized paper bib and tie it around my neck. Ten seconds later, my food arrives and I get the sensation that I have exactly 2 minutes to eat this gigantic pile of food before I’ll be violently thrown out. So I do. I slurp and slurp and try to outdo my neighbors.
These noodles are perfect, by the way. Somewhere right between what we consider “normal” ramen noodles and udon noodles, they are perfectly firm and chewy and dipped in pork broth, they just enter your stomach and dance and around and make you cry happy salty tears.
I spend the next 13 hours wandering around Tokyo. Imperial Palace. The bar at the Palace hotel where martini olives are skewered with solid gold toothpicks. Omotesando Koffee, where a single barista makes one drink at a time out of the basement of his home. Tokyo Tower, a horrible tourist trap out of TomorrowLand. Roppongi Hills, home of McDonald’s, Forever 21 and Zara.
After 13 hours, I have finally worked off the ramen and find myself pretty lost. I see a street that looks particularly inviting and I walk down it.
And then I begin to laugh because I realize that I have accidentally walked home.
I had picked a direction in the morning and committed to it and something brought me right back to where I started.
I guess what I realized today is that “home” is a relative term. I may feel displaced and almost like an invader here, but this is my home, at least for now. And there is great pleasure in feeling like you belong somewhere, even if you don’t.