As I sit down to write this on Tuesday, March 17, I am feeling uncomfortable. In truth, that’s mainly because I am overly full. Earlier, I cycled across town to a neighborhood I’ve never visited because a friend and I absolutely had to eat matcha cheesecake. We had been ogling it salaciously on Instagram and decided today was to be the day.
Nowadays, lunches or café visits are done in small groups – normally just one-on-one with plenty of hand sanitizer. Home parties are on the rise. Uber Eats is apparently doing major business. I just passed a delivery man sleeping in the sun in the park. Exhaustion perhaps? Or making the most of spring, which is finally here?
We were banking on the café being quiet on a weekday afternoon, especially with coronavirus concerns, but we were wrong. Unfortunately for us, around 30 or more people were already queuing, clearly prepared for the hour or longer wait to realize their picture-perfect sugary dreams. Most of them were young – they looked like high school students.
In fact, as I cycled 7km south through the city, I passed several other popular stores, many with young people queuing outside. They’re not at school since Prime Minister Abe “requested” schools to shut down from the beginning of March until the new school year begins in April. The kids aren’t supposed to be going out, but lunch is lunch. And there is currently no official advice against going to restaurants, just against large gatherings. People are urged to exercise “self-restraint.”
We diverted to another store and discussed the difficulties of procuring toilet paper, which normally wouldn’t be a topic of conversation when enjoying perfectly presented coffee and cake in a quaint café. My friend had arrived at the supermarket 10 minutes before opening that morning, but over 50 people had already beaten her to it.
But I am uncomfortable writing about enjoying cake, because it highlights just how Tokyo is relatively calm compared to other places. Naturally, there have been changes: school is out, events are canceled, museums are shut, crowds are a sea of masks, and trains are unusually empty. Most of my friends are working from home. Edible goods are now all plastic wrapped. Many cafés have done away with water dispensers and staff are almost always masked. Stores are out of toilet roll and hand sanitizer, but others now have new “telework” sections offering headsets, keyboards and webcams. While you can’t count on a rapid government response in Japan, commercialism always speaks volumes.
However, aside from minimal gatherings and avoiding very crowded places, life is going on as normal. That means queues for Tokyo’s eager café-going youth. I, too, was sat in a café, wearing incongruous leggings because I just came from kickboxing. It’s a small class of five people but it is about as opposite as you can get to social distancing. If coronavirus were kickable, I’d definitely kick it.
Of course, there have been some strange and tense incidents. An emergency button on the train was pulled after somebody coughed. A few days later, a young person who coughed without a mask received the wrath of an elderly passenger. My closest Japanese friend has purchased an “I have asthma” badge to avoid people treating her as an infectious danger. However, in the grand scheme of things, there is not much room for complaint.
By contrast, I have friends witnessing fights in the supermarkets in the US; I’ve seen terrifying photos of the queues outside the gun stores. Others are locked away in their apartments in France or Italy, their cities eerily quiet, shops shuttered.
I find myself messaging my family back in the United Kingdom more frequently. As I write this, I learn my father has just shut his office; he is one of the most vulnerable groups to the virus. In our rural patch of the UK, my mother is facing empty shelves and aggressive shoppers, horns tooting in a scramble for parking at the local farm shop before she even gets inside to the empty shelves. My brother is also struggling to find supplies. My sister’s university graduation has been canceled.
I am uncomfortable because I wonder if I should fully self-isolate. Almost no one is doing that here in Japan, but the rest of the world seems to be headed in a different direction. I’ve started taking my temperature twice a day, but could I be an asymptomatic carrier?
With conflicting advice, evidence and priorities, how does one balance sensible, reasonable behavior with retaining some semblance of normal life? This is the challenge facing most of us as we find our lives changing bit by bit, or sometimes drastically overnight.
As someone who is passionate about the food and drinks industry, and eager to support it, I have become increasingly anxious for its future and all the livelihoods that depend on it. I am reading saddening messages from New York restaurants forced to close and Instagram posts of absolute confusion from UK businesses. In Tokyo, some foodies are reporting their surprise at the difficulty of getting reservations, whereas others write that neighborhood stores are adopting a range of creative responses, from limiting the number of customers, to dropping drinks to rock-bottom prices, or even offering free surgical masks with a bowl of ramen. Visible or not, almost everywhere is reporting that business is sharply down.
My profound sense of unease has built up over time and has only begun more persistently knocking at my door. The past week I have been busy entertaining a close friend visiting from the UK, which gave me little time to properly absorb the impact of the pandemic on the city. During that week, small things accumulated until a sense of change settled over me like a cobweb I can’t see or brush away.
Like places across the world, Tokyo is in flux. This is how our past week unfolded.
It begins with a wonderful serving of complete normality, which doesn’t seem particularly wonderful at the time because, in all honesty, I don’t even think about it. One of my favorite neighborhood curry stores has a queue so long we can’t get in. We head to Yoyogi Park, which is full of people relaxing, walking their dogs, playing with their kids like any other sunny afternoon. My friend snoozes through jetlag while I practice “remote working.”
That evening we stop by my favorite standing sake bar, Tachinomi Nagi, which specializes in Fukushima sake. People are crowded round tables as usual, and I translate for a couple who can’t read the menu. I tell the owner, Riki san, I am taking my sake expert’s exam soon. He jokes that if I pass, he’ll give me a job. My friend samples the wagyu tataki (seared slices of Japanese beef) and declares it a life-altering experience.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, my friend heads to Kyoto and sends me photos of stunningly empty temples and shrines. The city is renowned for over-tourism with queues hundreds long, but he ambles through the streets like the place is his own. Meanwhile, in Tokyo, a couple of ex-colleagues and I hit up a well-renowned yakitori restaurant for a farewell meal. The place is packed despite the late hour. Everything is normal except we don’t hug hello or goodbye; instead, we enact the “footshake.” Tip: It’s easier if used as an initial greeting rather than a farewell post-sake.
On Thursday, I am guiding guests on a Culinary Backstreets food tour (we have temporarily suspended our tours since as a precaution for the health of both our guests and the people we visit). Our neighborhood places that are frequented by local clientele seem as popular as ever. But a sharp reminder of the situation comes in the evening, when I head to sake class. I have my temperature taken and hands sanitized, an experience that feels mildly affronting despite complete acquiescence from the logical side of my brain.
The following day, I head to work at a national organization, sanitizing my hands on the way in. My boss approaches my desk. “I am afraid I have to ask you to wear this,” he says, handing me a mask.
Later, still sporting my mask, I take my friend to Shibuya Sky, a new viewing platform approximately 230m tall offering a 360-degree panorama of the city and beyond. People are milling about, taking selfies, lying on the fake grass, laughing and chatting as the sun sets behind Mount Fuji and the city lights start to glitter.
We head for a Friday night out in Tokyo with friends but I’ve only recruited two other diners, bringing our total to four. I’m keen to keep numbers low as much as people are keen to not head out; our izakaya is definitely on the empty side for a Friday. No one feels like karaoke and so we sit in a café, drinking coffee and eating tiramisu pancakes, surrounded by young women eagerly chattering into the night.
On Saturday, I am feeling increasingly at a loss for what to recommend for my friend to do: Almost all museums are closed and a freak day of March snow is not conducive for strolling the beautiful parks.
For the evening, I have booked a teppanyaki restaurant where you can watch your food cooked on a hot plate in front of your eyes. We turn up half an hour earlier than our booking to see if they can squeeze us in but the place is deserted. The waitress says they are relying on their regulars, and people do trickle in. But their business is sharply down. At this time of year, they would normally have a lot of welcome parties for companies as the new recruits join the workforce in April.
We order more than three people’s worth of food, from fillet steak to kimchi pork and soy sauce scallops, culminating with me obsessing so much over fried rice that the chef makes me a special off-menu version.
My friend’s final day is spent hiking 12km along the shore of Lake Ashinoko at the volcanic area and hot spring destination of Hakone, which undoubtedly counts as great social distancing – we see about three other people the entire time. However, there are still plenty of people riding the cable car and scrambling to try the famous black eggs cooked in the sulphuric volcanic vents.
We head to Gora Brewery & Grill from renowned chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa for dinner, and our hands are sprayed on entrance. “Ninety percent of customers are usually from overseas,” says one chef behind the counter, slicing vegetables. “But they’re not coming.” The restaurant no longer closes in the afternoon, but stays open just in case customers turn up. We give them plenty of business, working through shrimp tempura, saikyo miso black cod, soft shell sushi rolls wrapped in daikon, and succulent grilled lamb, rounding off with a sake-infused matcha tiramisu for dessert.
That evening, we’re sitting in a Starbucks at Shinjuku Station before my friend catches the last train to the airport. We conclude it is just as well he is leaving; now is not the time for tourism.
“But it was a good week,” he affirms. “And I can say one thing: I ate very, very well.”
One morning later this week, I will cycle to my favorite garden, the expansive Shinjuku Gyoen. Perhaps I’ll munch on my favorite kare pan (curry bread) and drink a large latte for breakfast, as I take a solo stroll and soak up the morning sun, admiring the cherry blossoms that have just started to bloom. The usual hanami (flower viewing) parties where thousands of people gather and picnic and drink have understandably been canceled. But the cherry blossoms will bloom again next year, too.
Editor’s note: With the coronavirus (Covid-19) crisis rapidly and profoundly impacting many of the cities we work in, we’ve asked some of our correspondents to file dispatches detailing how they and the places they live in are coping with this new reality. Our fifth report is from Tokyo, where life is going on as normal for many.
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