The Nature of Place

THE INTERPLAY BETWEEN old and new is more than palpable in Tokyo. This interaction of holding on to the past while prioritizing a modern Japan is the bedrock on which the city is built.

It’s early spring; the cold air blows from the mountains, through the valleys, and into the silvery and pristine city streets of Tokyo, one of the greatest cities in the world. There’s no other city that compares to its breadth of food, of the blending of modernity and ancient tradition, of temperament and style.

One could spend weeks in a single neighborhood and barely scratch the surface — one could spend a lifetime exploring the varying neighborhoods which proliferate as one escapes the city center and ventures into Tokyo’s innumerable suburbs. On this cold and dry spring morning, I’m in Akasaka, following my curiosity through the dim city streets before my first meeting with a company that will hopefully employ me to teach English to anybody willing to learn.

I hear the reverberating sound of a bell coming from somewhere up the narrow street which unfurls before me. With about an hour to settle my nerves, I follow the sound. The sun ascends above the white tile apartment buildings, inch by inch, as I climb closer to the emanating noise. No other movement fills the surrounding space, none that I can sense, anyway.

Until a burst of wind blows through the street — it sends a shiver down my spine as the cold clings to my face. I’m awake, I’m here. It hits me. I’ve been moving so quickly for the last several days — now, for the first time, I feel slightly more settled and able to perceive what’s truly taking place.

I’m in Japan, my new home. Several spring flowers blow past me in a sort of spiritual conjuring; they spin in the air and dance with the cold, descending towards the freshly paved road to then be brushed back into flight, like a bird that coasts atop the crest of a wave, yet never touches its surface.

A smile breaks out on my face; then a laugh, then my eyes begin to fill with water. The beauty that surrounds me is surreal; I knew it would feel like this, but it’s different now that I’m here. This is my home. The edges of the road is lined with potted plants that embody the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi and add color to the monotony of the white, modern homes. Unlike the buildings, the flowers aren’t perfect.

That’s what makes them beautiful — they stem and twist in ways that are unfamiliar to me; they hang in an asymmetrical balance, as if the delicate leaf hanging from one branch holds enough weight to counter-balance the fullness of the other side. These plants, which bloom in colors of white and pink, are meaningful, for they possess the spirit of the past. These flowers prove how integral the simplicity of nature must be in our lives; even amongst the fast-paced Tokyo streets, you’ll seldom find a road without beautiful flowers and plants, budding, withering, and blowing in the wind.

I make it to the top of the hill and am greeted by a dilapidated, yet elegant, bridge. It isn’t long; just a few steps over a small, trickling stream. Even amongst all of this — towering skyscrapers, endless apartments and high-rises, one can find beauty, stillness, peace, if they’re willing to look.

The bell gongs again; it’s becoming louder and rings through the crisp morning air. I cross the bridge, turn a corner through a garden of full green leaves, and find what lured me from the streets below. A shrine in the middle of a square, empty, save an old man and woman, bowed low from the hips with their hands pressed together. The ringing bell crescendos and becomes a low, profound noise until it fades away completely. I close my eyes, put my hands together, and bow my head.

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