My Toe in Tokyo

Illustration by Marco Mancini
Illustration by Marco Mancini

A few weeks ago, I accidentally smashed my foot against the bookshelf in my hallway at home. My two littlest toes, and then my foot, turned blue, then purple, then green. I iced it, took aspirin and elevated it. It was another end-of-the-semester exhaustion-induced injury, the worst one, it turned out, ever. When I had to proctor final exams a couple days later, my toes still throbbed with pain. So, I taped it up, loosened my shoestrings, doubled the dose of ibuprofen, and headed to work. From that day, my attitude towards Tokyo changed completely.

The great Japanese film director Yasujiro Ozu was famous for looking at the lives of Tokyoites from low-position camera angles, as if watching events while sitting down on the tatami. My new point of view on Tokyo went even lower, right down to the ground. From the point of view of my little toes in great pain, Tokyo became a different city altogether.

First, I noticed the ground. Tokyo is not a flush, level city. The city is a mish-mash of uneven sidewalks, irregular stairs, and slippery floors. Each provided a different type of pedal agony. I became aware of every little bump. Even the yellow bumpy pathways for blind people made the bruised bones in my foot contort with pain. American cities are designed to accommodate the automobile, but Tokyo is designed around human feet!

And there are a lot of feet in Tokyo, all of them suddenly threatening. I realized any one of thousands of other feet could bump my tender toe. I kept edging away from people, desperate to leave some space between them and my second smallest right toe, the one that really hurt. Women in high heels no longer seemed so sexy, but like foot-stomping menaces, their heels like threatening little kendo sticks. I kept looking down, checking the proximity of their feet to mine and the toughness of the leather of their shoes.

As if to really test me, one day the Chuo Line trains were late. Typically, that means the next train becomes doubly loaded, and the next triply, and so on, depending on how many trains late things run. But with my toe in pain, that meant triple the danger. So, instead of plunging in as usual, I waited. But the next two trains were also packed, and I knew the rest would be, too, so I decided to risk it.

Usually, when I get on a super-crowded train, I grab a handhold over eh door, plant both feet and back-push on. But this time, with only one good pushing foot, I was unmanned. I had to wiggle weakly into place, hopping slightly and twisting clumsily.

But then, as the doors closed, it dawned on me, I could lift my sore foot up from the floor safely, like a flamingo, and the surrounding pressure of everyone around me would hold me securely in place. For once, I was thankful of the crowd.

That week, I tried not to limp too obviously when a pretty girl walked by, but the rest of the time, I clung to handrails like a drunken man. I took wide berths to see around corners, kept my right foot out of traffic, and searched ahead for escalators and elevators. I could no longer deftly avoid oncoming people, since I couldn’t pivot on my right foot. Instead of neatly swerving while maintaining my pace, I had to stop from time to time to let someone pass.

I had long since learned the Tokyo skill of moving like a school of fish; but suddenly, I was no longer part of the flow, but an un-Tokyo-like obstacle! Me, the perfectly trained commuter! All my hard-won crowd motion skills were for naught. Lurching through the crowds like Frankenstein, I grasped fully just how much wear and tear Tokyo puts on the 26 bones of the human foot.

I understand now why Tokyo has more shoe stores than any other kind! Finding the right shoes means being able to negotiate the city in the way you want. Not having the right shoes means you are not able to live as you like. In Tokyo, “I walk, therefore I am.”

After slowing down, I noticed an entirely new city—a slow-paced one. I saw older people ambling through places where I used to zip along. I saw people strolling, in no hurry whatsoever, looking around. I never before noticed all the people who plan their day around less crowded trains, like the 11:32 express I discovered I could get a seat on! I joined a new Tokyo group—the non-rushers.

There were lots of Tokyoites who were not in a big hurry, who didn’t clinch their buttocks and surge every forward. Plenty of people ambled calmly, almost sweetly. I just had never seen them before. The slow-paced Tokyo had been hidden from my view because I was always going way too fast.

Now that my foot is recovered, more or less, I’m not so sure I want to go back to high speed Tokyo. I kind of like the slower pace. I can see the city differently, and feel it much more deeply, even if, from time to time, depending on how I step, I still feel it a bit painfully.


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My Toe in Tokyo essay

© 2016 - Michael Pronko
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