12/02/2014 10:28 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Tokyo Tripping


Jet-lagging my way through nights of little sleep and subdued hotel lighting feels like an upgraded Twilight Zone. Elegant chocolate brown and dusky grey walls leave me tapping them for the elevators which within seconds transport me to the soaring heights of skyscrapers and helipads or down to the pristine depths of a subway line.

Perpetually clicking my head with inclinations of reciprocated greeting stirs my awareness of others in a way that mosques calling everyone to prayer do not. Heated loo seats with inbuilt cleansing sprays leave me sitting on them for far too long, contemplating the beautiful stone floors while trying to remember my name as 3 a.m. turns to 4, 5 and 6 a.m. when I finally pad my way to the hotel gym in an attempt to further exhaust myself into sleep. I have got used to looking like Bill Murray, eco lighting and bloodshot bleariness dispensing with make-up while I seriously consider using a white face mask with sunglasses. I have become rather partial too to the Darth Vader visors elderly women use to trudge through their daily quota of perambulation.

Navigating my way through a meal of foraged forest vegetables coaxed into tastes of startling supremacy by Buddhist monks in a room of sliding doors and beige has left me wondering if I will ever return to a Mediterranean diet, my beloved olive oil difficult to conjure after the deep satisfaction of umami's salty and low-fat purity.

And I coo too at the bewildering variety of hand-made paper and silky-smooth round edges of lacquer, or at the interwoven bamboo reeds of Kyoto basket-ware. And a daily array of vegetable juices with the perfect texture and balance of sweet and savory make Whole Foods versions taste like baby slop.

I ask a sales assistant at the cash till if I can keep a few sheets of the pad customers use for ordering paper from their store, so beautiful is its design and clarity. I am met with reams of unintelligible and smiling verbosity, notes of galloping staccato which, Manga-like, jump in the air in front of me. After a full minute I turn to my guide, my brows arched questioningly. "No.", comes the answer. I stand with a look of western disbelief at the rejection of something so menial, especially after seriously investing in their products. Suddenly the sale assistant looks sheepish and under her breath mutters something very short which turns out to be a lengthy explanation of the store's privacy policy. Perhaps I planted a remote but growing seed of the absurd because she seems to change her mind and she furtively tucks two sheets of the order sample paper in between my tissued purchases, her head practically inside the plastic bag while muttering further explanations under her breath. I bow with gratitude at what seems to be her own personal livelihood she has risked.

By contrast, and thoroughly liberating, is the dearth of pickpockets in a city of 11 million, knowing that I can dangerously dangle a camera and handbag while my iPhone temptingly protrudes from a wide open trouser pocket. As I vacate my subway seat, swapped with zero prompting by a stranger so that I can sit next to my guide, vaguely perceived movements of solicitude make me look back and I find myself locking eyes and bowing at those who remind me that I have left my camera behind.

And staring out of our plane window into the darkness of Narita's International airport tarmac, sheets of typhoon tropical rain splashing heavily on gathering inches of water - the kind of rain that Vietnam veterans will never forget - I feel sorry for the four ground crew who scurry below to ready our plane for departure. I squint at those lone, wet figures as they gather in a row facing our moving sky-bound behemoth and bow to us in unison. It is a slow and deliberate bow, and raising their heads wave us goodbye. Incredulously I wave back. This does not feel like servitude; quite the opposite, their body language is one of pride while wishing us a happy onward journey.

I might be leaving under the cover of Asian darkness and returning to the daylight of the west but enlightened we are not when it comes to social co-existence on a crowded planet.