Pedalling my way through the eastern Tokyo lanes in January was a brisk and ruthless experience. Brisk because the air, windless and below freezing, parts around me like water making my cheeks numb and my eyes wide. Ruthless because cyclists own the lanes in Tokyo but this isn’t always an acknowledged right. The roads are very different, mind you.
I’m cycling between Arakawa-ku and Taito-ku, neighbouring cities that my daily commute straddles, in order to get to school. These lanes won’t fit more than 4 people walking abreast and the houses seem like a patchwork of equally measured squares where nothing matches but everything is the same size and shape. As it’s Tokyo, there are clearly painted lines on the tarmac, indicating where the cyclists should ride. No one adheres to them.
I cross the train track which I have decided functions as the halfway point for my commute, although I’m still not quite sure which train line it hosts, and pedal my way towards a Junior School. This isn’t the school I work at but it is where I slow down to nod deeply, the general stand in for a bow, and call ‘ohayou gozaimasu’ as loud as my morning sleepiness will allow me to that day, to teachers I’ve never met and will probably never formally meet.
They turn and cheerfully return the call. One, the man who is always there, waves with big thick black gloves on. He’s bald and always smiles when he sees me. As I cycled away I heard the teachers continue to call the morning greetings over the heads of the arriving children and to all passing adults. They’re waiting outside the school to welcome the students as they come in, to get them practising their all important greetings, a basic mannerism that the Japanese believe will get them far in life. And, so far, I don’t disagree.
The first time I cycled by the school on my way to work it was that same smiling man who had called out to me. I jumped in my saddle. I hadn’t been in Japan very long and I still hadn’t shaken off the uptight, walking-on-eggshells feeling that foreigners arrive in Japan with. After a few more tries I got the hang of it and started to call back to them.
On Christmas Day, as I miserably pedalled my way to school for the day-long closing ceremony, the smiling man, who may or may not be the principal since he’s there when the other teachers rotate , stopped midway through welcoming a child. He stood straight and shouted, in English, Merry Christmas!
None of my co-workers wished me a Merry Christmas as it’s just not an observed holiday here. And, really, why should they remember it? But that man did, and it made my day.