But no, I wandered left, towards Shinjuku san-chome, where I stood beneath a traffic light and watched its colored lights tint the swirling snow. Eventually I reached Mitsukoshi and the other department stores, each big enough to occupy an entire block. Further west, across from the station, the gaudy lights, billboards and neon of Kabukicho had become soft pastels. On small side streets, I passed darkened yakitori-yas, convenience stores and round red akachochins topped with snow and ice. The quiet. The cold. The feeling of being immensely alone. And lost. Lost, lost, lost. Delightfully so.Flower garden. A French friend and I went drinking near here one night and he told me that the Chinese characters carved in the monument now before me mean Flower Garden. Hanazono Jinja. Hundreds of years ago, the Hanazono family built this shrine , one dedicated to Inari, the androgynous god of fertility and worldly success. Inari, the god of the arts.
I walk forward, between two dull grey buildings. At the end of the passage, a torii; waiting like a strange goal post, or a letter from an alien alphabet. Tubular, wooden and orange, the torii is a relic from a ceremony of whispers. The people of Tokyo are warm in their beds and sleeping; I am in the cold and dreaming.There is a stone basin for washing one's hands and rinsing one's mouth; the ice within it protected by lace made of wire mesh and snow. The ema, the small, thin wood plaques covered with neatly written hopes and wishes are bunched in rows, nooses connecting them to the display stand. The temple grounds are barely lit and surrounded by modernity.Then! The clouds part and—for an instant-- the sun rushes in like a spotlight. Below the dark blue snowy sky, golden light strikes the temple's black tortoise shell roof, the white frost on the pine trees, and the stone foxes standing guard. The fresh vermillion paint for Oshogatsu, the corridor of red toriis, the simplistic arabesques of gold trim, the precise and clean concrete stairs; the sun is behind me, throwing itself forward everywhere. The gigantic shrine vibrates like a massive, noble flame of Japanese architecture. The vividness of details, the vividness of the whole... Then--just a glimpse-- the full moon. Asahi! I stood alone in that quiet heaven of color until the threat of the freezing cold be ignored no longer. My feet and hands were paralyzed. I vaguely recognized the steps at the back of the shrine, thought they'd be a shortcut to the Dunkin Donuts on Shinjuku-dori. At the top of the stairs, however, I saw that I was overlooking the two-story wooden shacks and alleys of Golden Gai. Somewhere in there was Shunchan's. Like a wounded cowboy I limped down the stairs into that little white Japanese ghost town. Golden Gai: one of those places that teen aged Western boys imagine they will one day find themselves in. Prostitution, gambling, rendezvous spots, cheap drinking places, yakitori shops, bars specializing in all kinds of music; all connected by very narrow walkways lit by red paper lanterns and old cheap plastic Suntory signs. I was sure Shunchan wouldn't be there. I was wrong.
“Irrrashai!” He said it not with the loud bellowing mechanical style of most shop owners, but as though he were sharing an inside joke. It was 7AM, in a frozen and snowbound Tokyo, but Shunchan smiled at me like it was late on a Friday night after payday. Both serene and slightly nervous, Shunchan is the perfect host. He stabbed the chunk of ice in his hand with an ice pick while I thought about my order.
Was Shunchan a great friend of mine? No--but he was an anchor, a touchstone. Regular. I was a regular in Shunchan's bar; he and his little bar provided a regularity in a city full of extremes of many kinds. There was always always an interesting crowd. Whether they were Japanese, Russian or Australian, Shunchan made the hostesses feel relaxed. He treated the English teachers and backpackers like locals. Celebrities, artists and musicians brought in great mixtapes, his drinks weren't that expensive and Shunchan laughed a lot. He was good friends with the young woman in the bright orange dress.
The next section is here.