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Rosie Dastgir’s Letter From Tokyo

April 19, 2020
by Rosie Dastgir

Contributing Writer Rosie Dastgir sent me this despatch with photographs from Tokyo

‎⁨Yoyogi Park⁩, ⁨Shibuya

There have been hints for days that the virus is coming to Tokyo – the thinned-out crowds along the Meguro River, banked with cherry blossom, the usual sakura celebrations eerily damped down. On the ten minute walk to Nakameguro, my subway station, I pass shuttered cocktail bars under the railway arches that stretch along a brightly lit street. Normally it thrums with people heading home from work for beer or piling into the many little ramen and sushi restaurants, and Spanish, Mexican and French bistros. A hasty shift from sit down service to takeaway is underway.

I arrived here in Japan in February to visit my husband who is working in Tokyo at present, not expecting to outstay the arrival of the blossom that heralds the arrival of spring. It is now past full bloom as I wait in abeyance, my flight home in March cancelled by the airline. We have been waiting for days for the government to announce a state of emergency and for lockdown in the world’s most populous city. But I do not know what is happening. I speak no Japanese and know barely anyone here. My Google Translate app is a slippery and unreliable friend when it comes to interpreting the written signs and warnings springing up on store fronts and lampposts.

At dusk, I walk outside to see what is still open. The young couple who run the miniature Italian bistro round the corner from our apartment wave through the lamplit windows where I ate a perfect pizza last week. I pause to peer through the blinds into the amber light. The folded-in air about the place has been been replaced by something else. There is a spirit of readying and preparation, with plastic boxes and dishes being lined up in cheery precision. On the blackboard outside, the only English word standing out is ‘takeaway’, giving me a pop of joy. Carbonara risotto and pizza margherita to go, which in Tokyo means beautifully cooked and then sculpted in Saran wrap.

The pink moon rises over the little graveyard beside the busy highway and I head to the 7–Eleven, the local convenience store that is my second home. It glows with possibility, the jingle soundtrack tinkling Cheer Up Sleepy Cheap as I drift round the shelves to see what is missing. The gaps speak of pragmatism rather than panic, I tell myself. The emptying began a month ago when semi lockdown was implemented in Tokyo, and schools and municipal spaces were closed. An extreme step for this orderly city which produced a quiet rush on hand sanitizer and face masks. Tylenol has fled the shelves. The anti-bacterial floor wipes are in peculiar demand. I try not to become restive.

Here are the boys gathered around the magazine section, lost in manga comics. There is the cute girl printing out documents at the photocopier. A mother wrangles her knee-high charge in school uniform and a floral face mask. Oh, they are back to school then. The masked cashier greets me jubilantly with “Irasshaimasé!” as she scans my carton of milk, a bag of sesame crisps and the pale pink mascara wand I have chosen from the make-up section. In February, I bought a can of Sakura-themed Asahi beer here, shiny pink with blossom and still emblazoned with the doomed Tokyo 2020 Olympics. That is all over and hanafukui time is here now, flower snow drifting onto the paths and the river.

In the Tokyu Store, a supermarket close to the station, I stare at a blank space where I believe toilet roll once was and I angle my Google Translate at the label. A woman notices and knowingly advises me that Japan will not run out. “We have plenty,” she says and I do not doubt her. This is not what I fear.

Needling messages arrive – shot through with panic – from a friend in New York. The fear has gripped him now, as if he had not noticed what was going on for months in Wuhan and South Korea. It has come to Europe and the United States and friends are understandably terrified. On WhatsApp, I still glimpse reassuring frames of life from our home in London – the freshly washed cat, a glossy tuft of grass, a bowl of hummus, one of my daughters revising for university exams and an oil painting by the other.

Distance stretches out between us. My family is bifurcated in two cities by the coronavirus. I am nearly 10,000 km away from London. I watch a video of flight patterns around the globe. From tomorrow, British Airways will cease flying from Tokyo to the United Kingdom. I flinch at a feeling I have resisted until now. I weigh up the odds. If I need to get back to London, I can fly via Qatar through the Gulf. It would take twenty-four hours. It is just possible – I tell myself – if there is an emergency. If? The emergency is already here.

You may like to read these other stories by Rosie Dastgir

At Tjaden’s Electrical Repair Shop

Gulam Taslim, Funeral Director

The Lahori Chefs of Whitechapel

A Walk in Whitechapel

9 Responses leave one →
  1. paul loften permalink
    April 19, 2020

    Thank you for showing us these photos of the streets, houses, and daily life in Tokyo. A sight which most of us rarely see Yes it’s a long way from Spitalfields but a reminder of common experience that all of us will, unfortunately, have to share wherever we are. I worked for a Japanese company in Bread Street in London from 1969-73. I sat alongside young Japanese staff , brought over, straight out of university from Tokyo and got to know some well and often wondered where they are now. Most of them would have aged by now I hope that they are safe and well. They were a delight to work with kind and courteous. My work colleague Mr. Nishimura even taught me a bit of aikido, being a black belt himself. If I would have worked there for 10 years I would have had a free trip to Tokyo

  2. April 19, 2020

    Thank you for the lovely photos. I have many work friends in Japan. So far they are staying safe. I enjoy reading your essay. I hope there are more.

  3. April 20, 2020

    Thanks Paul, that’s so interesting to hear about your experiences working for a Japanese company in the 60’s/70’s. Your well wishes are kind and so heartfelt. It’s a shame you didn’t make the trip back then!

  4. Ralph permalink
    April 20, 2020

    Dear Rosie,

    Sudden greetings. I am an American living in Sapporo, in northern Japan. I have just read your interesting posting about life in Tokyo during this current “plague”. I have personally lived in Japan for over 30 years, so I an helped by some knowledge of Japanese when trying to figure things out. I can commiserate with you for trying to figure things out without formal study of the language.

    There are probably many things I could try to help you with, but for now allow me to send you some links to Japanese news sites in English. Click and Enjoy!


  5. paul loften permalink
    April 20, 2020

    Thank you Rosie. I hope you enjoy your stay in Tokyo.
    It was indeed a great experience and privilege working for Mitsubishi at that time. I have so many memories. I would have loved to have gone on that trip to Japan. I was aged 19 when I started working there and 23 when I left.

  6. sarah cullen permalink
    April 20, 2020

    Hello Rosie
    Thank you so much for your post from Tokyo. I lived in Naka Meguro in the late 90’s and still look forward to being able to return one day. Some things may have changed greatly -google translate for one- but the blossoms along the river that I cycled past every day, is exactly as it is in my memory. Again, thank you- just what I needed.
    Many best wishes

  7. Gemma permalink
    April 21, 2020

    Thank you for the beautiful article and pictures. It reminded me of the melancholy that Orhan Pamuk describes with the word ‘huzun’ in ‘Istanbul’. He says it’s a state of mind that ultimately is as life affirming as negating. We’re all living in a strange time, and trying to grapple with living in a big city in a way that we have never experienced before, looking forward to the unknown and remembering the recent past too.

  8. April 24, 2020

    Thank you, Sarah, I’m really glad the piece chimed with you and brought back happy memories.

  9. April 24, 2020

    Dear Ralph,
    I really appreciate that tip, thank you! Thanks for getting in touch.
    Best wishes,

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