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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Man on the Piki Piki, a Rubber Neck in Kyoto

Late last year while in Kabula in Bungoma in southwest Kenya, I hopped on a piki piki (motorcycle) looking to meet up with friends to watch the sunset atop nearby Sangalo Rock. After learning that drivers, whether in a matatu (overcrowded glorified mini/utility van) or on a boda boda (bicycle), could be cavalier with directions, I repeatedly asked the man on the piki piki to assure me he could get me to Sangalo Rock. Emphatically, the answer was, “Yes, I’ll take you there, no problem!”On the road I learned that he had grown up right there in Kabula his entire life, couldn’t attend college because it was too expensive, and was part of a crew of twenty drivers. I also learned that he had never left the small circumference around his hometown. Twenty minutes into the ride, I got the impression that we were lost. He admitted he did not actually know where Sangalo Rock was.

We stopped and summoned a man sitting outside a local butcher shop and asked if he knew of my destination’s whereabouts. Soon enough there were three people on this motorcycle, me and my bag squished between, as the new guy confidently barked directions from the back. The initial frustration that had steamed up receded just as quickly, as something hit me. I had asked other Bungoma locals what Mombasa, a twenty hour bus ride to the east coast of Kenya, was like. But, most had never been. I felt stupid. There I was, not long after having ripped up my JFK airport baggage tag, asking a piki piki driver half a world away to take me to Sangalo Rock, right in his backyard. But, he had never been. He hiked up to the top with me and shared the experience with us. For all of us— a first time. For me— a new vantage.

It is true that urbanization will move over 700 million people by 2050. The urban shift that has stirred China and India in the past twenty years has registered as the world’s largest migration. But, what is also true is that over 90% of the world’s people will never see beyond the small area where they grew up. In fact, in a world moving from an organizing principle of ideology in the 20th century to one of identity in the 21st, our close surroundings may play more than second fiddle, and a potentially contentious fiddle at that.

And, while international relations scholar Parag Khanna, for whom I have an untold respect and admiration for, speaks of remapping the world, a “borderless world,” borders and surroundings will continue to play central roles, animating hearts and fashioning perceptions. Most importantly, they punctuate our fortune and our broader responsibility, our identities playing as much traps as wide eyed liberators. The luckiest sliver of the world that many of us represent is impossibly tiny, yet still the biggest thing that any of us carries. Race scholar and civil rights activist Cornell West emphasizes, “Humility is the fruit of inner security and wise maturity.” It’s hard not to be humbled by the encounter with the man on the piki piki.


Walking down Shijo Dori (Street) in Kyoto will undoubtedly leave you with a sore neck. As I walked down the luminous Shijo at night, every side street and alleyway slyly glanced back at me. Invariably, my feet would move forward a bit while my neck would rubber around for my eyes to feast. Kyoto, three hours southwest of Tokyo by Shinkansen (bullet train), remained the capital of Japan for most of history, passing the torch to Tokyo only fewer than 150 years ago. Gion, the old geisha district, is bridged to downtown Kyoto over the Kamo River, analogous to Cambridge linking to Boston over the Charles. There, a long stretched history mingles with a fresh faced modernism, a papered, lanterned, and even-tempered past converses with a sprightly, white lit, and precocious modern lilt. Walking down Taramachi Dori and Kawaramachi Dori, streets sprouting off Shijo, you will walk passed an infinity of shops, as well as sounds of Lady Gaga and Japanese pop. Soon enough, you can settle into an unassuming jazz bar overlooking the water, sip Suntory Hibiki 17 year (Bill Murray’s choice in Lost in Translation) and listen to vinyls of Buddy Rich while a live quartet sets up. The city houses Shinto shrines and is jeweled with shops and slurping ramen noodle houses, tastier in reality than those conjured in the famous New York Times Tokyo ramen culture piece. The word enchanting comes to mind. So does Paris. In Kyoto, it dawned on me that memories and experiences are not fixed things like Vonnegut’s fly in amber to be retrieved over drinks or Sunday brunches. Memories are permanently embedded as much in our gait and sights as in how we order coffee and excavate vast tracts of our imaginations. A broken love is instilled in how we mend. I know, there’s nothing profound about this and this is as obvious as it comes. But, Kyoto has a knack for morphing the obvious into the profound and the mundane into the romantic.

I’ve come to size places not by what they offer, but what they evoke. Japan is a country free of asymmetries. From a tea ceremony in Kyoto to the majesty of the Daibatsu Buddha in Kamakura, the surfers and black sand beaches on Enoshima island, the peace and sanctuary of Miyajima and Hiroshima to the incredible urban cadence and dazzle of Roppongi, Shibuya, and Shinjuku in Tokyo, everything is seemingly perfectly ordered. Reverence and consideration are the orders of the day with everyone showing utmost respect to all spaces, personal and public alike. Markets are as tidy as the clothes are sharp. You’ll be as hard pressed to find a trash bin outside anywhere as you will someone drinking a coffee on the street. Eating and drinking is done where they’re meant to be done. The tidiness above ground is surpassed only by that below. Tokyo’s privately owned and operated subway reveals all, so if you find yourself there, buy a “Pasmo” card and go for a ride. Use a bathroom four stories underground, and you will think you are on the tenth floor of a corporate complex. The trains are always on time as you can see from digitally displayed times all around. Bright vending machines offer a technicolor fanfare of hot and cold drinks. Look down at the rails and even the stones are clean and seem placed almost intentionally. In Tokyo, for such a dense city, you do not feel crowded (except for the morning rush).

For designers, photographers, and cultural anthropology junkies alike, Japan is a dream. Even Mt. Fuji seems to be sculpted and sloped by a designer’s hand. Equally striking was the balance between Shinto and Buddhism with most Japanese practicing both for differing reasons (although most in this generation would not tie themselves to either). In Shinjuku, looking out of the 52nd floor of the Park Hyatt of Lost in Translation fame (sorry, my favorite movie is not everyone’s cup of tea), I saw an ocean of city and development as far as the eye could see. In fact, everywhere I traveled where humans lived from Tokyo southward was developed, connected, infrastructured, and serviced to the maximum. Despite all the order, harmony, and urban wonderment, I found Tokyo and Kyoto still a bit distant. It is hard to find the social and engaging life experience permeating cities like Mumbai and New York. Japan is a somewhat of an escapist place. You can feel this in the eerily silent subway ride or walking past smoky pachinko arcades. I could hint a note of sterility, as well as a lack of diversity, fellowship, and social vibrancy. A sense of rawness was missing.

Coming back, I missed traveling across Japan, but It felt good to be home. Shortly after, taking the 4 train home from Grand Central, thinking back to Tokyo’s “JR” subway line, now I felt the floors to be blackened and the turnstiles cumbersome. I waited for a train for about ten minutes, not sure exactly when it would arrive. Getting on the train drew a smile. I could feel the elixir of the city, of vibrancy and vitality. The drumbeat of uncertainty. Here, things in parentheses do not stay there. I could feel a diversity of ideas and lives flowing in untold arrangements. I could hear a group of kids fifteen feet away arguing about their pickup basketball game and a professor squeaking his highlighter across his Renaissance lecture notes. Two people entered the car to play their djembes (African drums). The drumbeat of renewal. There are things you can’t buy a ticket for or erect from a blueprint. After growing up in America for nearly the whole of my life, I am still perpetually enthralled by it. I was awakened to what F. Scott Fitzgerald, of Great Gatsby fame, wrote, “For a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”