a day in Tokyo
It is late September in Tokyo and the typhoon of the previous night has passed away over the Pacific. It is Autumnal Equinox Day and a rare public holiday so people can have a day off and visit friends or do some sightseeing. It’s still hot and sticky though on the subway by the Maranouchi line to Shinjuku and then the Yamanote line to visit the photography museum at Ebisu; here I saw two exhibitions; the first of working class Tokyo folk and the other of Pacific islands where 50 years of peace had left untouched remains of people and equipment since the end of the war in 1945.
After coffee and a bean cake in the cafe there I took the Yamanote line back to Shinjuku and not for the first time I got lost in Shinjuku station which is itself the size of a small town. There are about 40 platforms here and all are linked through a complex system of subways and tunnels and just to make it more interesting you can’t always leave or join at any exit because the lines are run by different companies so your ticket isn’t transferrable. I wandered round for about 25 minutes trying to get out and in the end I had to give in and ask the eki-san to let me out through his barrier but he was more concerned that he could credit the correct exit charge back to my Suica card so I wasn’t going to be out of pocket.
I was getting tired now and ready for some lunch. The platforms at Shinjuku have these tiny noodle bars on them hidden behind a curtain which comes down to about chest height. Originally these were for workers to wipe their hands on before going in to the bar but these days they are just simple modesty screens. In front of me was a huge vending machine with around 40 different types of noodle dishes in colour photos; behind this machine was a chef sitting reading the paper. The were perhaps half a dozen other people in there happily slurping away at their bowls of steaming noodles.
There was no pictorial instruction on the machine and the chef didn’t seem interested in helping me so I tried to work out how it worked and was getting nowhere fast until someone came up behind me and said “Can I help you ?”. He showed me how to choose the dish, find the price and put your money in. You then get your pot noodle dish out of the tray at the bottom and take it to the chef who opens it and adds the boiling water – very hi-tech system !
I turned round to say thanks to my helper and he was beckoning me over to sit at his table with his wife and son. They were clearing a space for me already so I went and joined them as the chef brought over a tray with my heated noodle pot, some cold green tea and a bright pink electronic timer set to 3 minutes. You have to wait until the beep and then your pre-packed noodles are ready to eat. My friend explained that they lived in Yokohama and had been up to Tokyo on the train to take their son to one of the sights and were now having some lunch before going home. They were very impressed that I was able to use a pair of chopsticks to guzzle down my noodles, pork and bright pink and green dried vegetables – this is a frequent source of amusement for Japanese people.
They politely waited until I had finished slurping and we chatted about what I had seen in Tokyo and what he had seen in England when he had lived there as a child. I cleaned up my pots and cups and tray and he went back and bought me another noodle pot which they gave to me as a farewell present. As we left he took out his notebook and wrote down his home and work telephone numbers so that if I needed any help while I was in Japan I was to ring him immediately. I also got my loyalty card stamped for the noodle bar which I still have in case I go back there.
We said goodbye and bowed and shook hands on the platform and they waited dutifully and waved until I was out of sight. As I walked off to find the gigantic Tower Records store all I could think about was how this family had so willingly helped me and probably missed their train home to make sure that I was able to get some lunch and not get lost again in Shinjuku. I saved the pot noodles for when I got home as a reminder of my meeting with this Japanese family and their friendliness and hospitality which is so typical for visitors to experience.