Vignettes of a vibrant city

Walking through Tokyo's back alleys, this traveler saw the threads of everyday life a tourist might miss.

Issei Kato/Reuters
A pedestrian walks past neon lights reflected in a Toyko street on a rainy day.

One day, for no particular reason, I walked across Tokyo.

It was my second visit to Japan, but the first in which I had the chance to educate myself about the country's people and culture. And there is no better way to discover the fullness of a locale than to walk its streets.

The words "sole" and "soul" may not derive from the same root, but trust me – there is a connection. Relying on your feet rather than cars, buses, subways, or trains is the most satisfying way to engage a new place – the only way, in my estimation, to understand it truly.

So I set out from my hotel early one morning, just to see what I could see.

First, I stopped to buy an apple at a local grocery, where I waited a few minutes in front of the store until opening time. Precisely at 9, the manager and entire staff unlocked the glass doors and formed parallel lines on either side of the entry. As I stepped forward into the store the employees bowed deeply, welcoming a slightly astounded first customer of the day.

Even the preamble to my amble had borne fruit.

Once under way in earnest I began to encounter novelties at every turn. Outside a train station, I saw a young businessman bowing frequently as he spoke to a superior – an entirely unremarkable situation, except the bowing young man was talking to his boss on a cellphone.

Now this, I marveled, is a degree of respect one could never encounter in New York. What a privilege to be able to peer through the window of happenstance into the inner workings of a culture so different from my own.

During my walk I avoided tourist venues and veered often into the alleys of Tokyo, which are quiet, safe, and lined with homes and small businesses. I came across one of the latter on a corner: a print shop, in which the owner worked alone and in silence with a simple hand press.

Transfixed, I watched surreptitiously as he produced I knew not what – party invitations? advertising flyers? It didn't matter. I stood for nearly 20 minutes, absorbed in his precise, almost ritualistic movements as he brought to each task all of his expertise and attention. Here, I realized, is a living definition of professionalism – not to mention a testament to the Japanese approach to work and life.

And so it went across the city: a delivery man running – running! – to present an express package to its intended recipient; a tiny grandmother using a straw broom to sweep fan-shaped gingko leaves from the sidewalk in front of her door lest a neighbor think her a poor housekeeper; the varied aromas of Japanese cuisine wafting from restaurant doorways; a barker at an open market, clapping his hands and happily singing the praises of his pearlescent daikon radishes. Each vignette was an opportunity for enlightenment to a visitor who was open to its meaning.

And then came what I call a "flash friendship" – the briefest of brief encounters, comprising an ephemeral intimacy shared with a total stranger one meets in passing. On my walk that day I came upon an older couple fishing in the Sumida River. As I approached them the husband reeled in his line to reveal a fish that, while no bigger than a sardine, was to him a trophy. He was holding it up proudly for his wife to admire when, hearing my footsteps, he turned in my direction.

"Sugoi!" I said, which can mean "Wonderful!" or "Amazing!" or just "Wow!" Grinning from ear to ear, my new best-friend-for-three-seconds offered a brief but courtly bow to acknowledge my compliment as I walked on. We would likely never meet again, yet we had managed to share inordinate pleasure in his fleeting instant of simple joy.

One cannot buy such episodes at any price, nor experience them fully and deeply from inside a moving vehicle. They are distinctly face-to-face encounters – the very kind that enrich the spirit and broaden the mind. And that is, after all, what travel is supposed to be about.

Was I tired at the end of the day? You bet. But Thoreau wrote that "true and sincere traveling" requires "a long probation to be broken into," not by "those that travel sitting" but by those for whom a journey is "life for the legs."

No one ever made a more elegant argument in favor of pursuing a cultural education in foreign lands through the simple expedient of walking.

Push the pedal to the metal? I don't think so.

In my world, two feet trump four wheels every time.

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