Friday, January 31, 2014

Imperial Palace

When I awake it's still dark with not even the hints of light cracking the stout shadows cast down on my building by neighboring skyscrapers. My apartment smells stale, like medicine and sweat, and I throw open the window over my bed, which pops with an audible suction gasp as bad air escapes.

I shower and dress in near-darkness, only allowing for yellowed light from the bulbous lamp on the dresser across from my bed. It doesn't adequately do the job, but I don't want to let my neighbors or passers-by on the street that I'm already awake. That sort of knowledge breeds questions that I'd rather not have asked in silence while people stare at the door to my complex. The man in 302 was up before the sun, they think, playing detective in their minds. What does that gaijin do while others sleep?

While I peel on clothes I boil water for my instant coffee, and when it's done I sip it on my unmade bed and listen to the garbage trucks begin their runs on nearby alleys, the cracking of metal on metal serving as an alarm clock for anyone within earshot. The coffee tastes like wet dirt, so I add some Suntory Yellow from the bottle conveniently kept next to my bed. The sickly sweetness evens things out, the mix of caffeine and alcohol holding hands as they slide down my throat and shoot into my veins.

Sunrise means Saturday. Saturday means I go to the Imperial Palace. I leave my apartment and descend into Bakurocho station just as streaks of sun first reflect off the glass of the apartment buildings behind me. In my backpack I have a thermos of more instant coffee mixed with Suntory, a cap for when the sun rises high enough to beat on my thinned hairline, and a notepad with several ball-point pens if I decide I want to take notes. I hop the JR Line and the air's just as stale as in my apartment, only this is a prolonged staleness, pushed around by trains to the point where it smells and tastes normal while you huddle between salarymen leaving for another day in the office.

I get off the train about a mile from the Palace. Although I could end up closer, I like the brisk walk; it helps me wake up and gives the sun time to fully take its place -- although, as usual, the financial district skyscrapers adjacent to the Palace grounds snatch daylight and give everything a sickly pallor. The salarymen who got off the JR Line with me push their coats together and lean into the breeze funneled between pillars of glass and stone, their briefcases held behind them, lugged like it's cuffed to their hands and weighs more than they can manage.

Water encases the Palace grounds in an old-fashioned moat. I sit on a stone guardrail on one of the many bridges over the water and picture a scenario involving the financial salarymen banding together and retreating into the palace for safety in the case of some ineffable disaster or a stock market collapse. In either case, I sit on the stone as they rush along, drinking my coffee mixture. As they pass I'm sure one Samaritan stops and shouts something at me in hurried Japanese that I don't understand. His tie is undone and he never quite stops moving away from whatever terror sets out against him. I wave him off and light a Seven Stars cigarette. He runs off as I blow smoke and the sun finally crests one of their monoliths and embraces my face in warmth.

I eventually continue into the Palace, and that's when I hear it. Beginning as a dull whir not unlike a low-flying airplane, the noise gets louder the farther I walk. I light a cigarette and inhale deeply. A colored blur between the trees and my smoke catches my eyes; my pace quickens.

The road before the Imperial Palace is a a long, narrow oval loop of more than a mile filled with men and women on bicycles of every conceivable shape and size. Many are sporty and fast, piloted expertly by individuals forcing bodies into stretchy spandex clothes and hunched over handlebars, leaning into turns trying to gather as much speed as possible and show off for each other. Others are unwieldy, steered by wobbly-handed children on training wheels while their doting parents amble behind and laugh. Together they are a harmony of color and noise that you can't see during the week because the road's open to normal traffic.

I close my eyes and lay on the grass under a massive zelkova tree and nothing's in my mind. Not salarymen fleeing unknown horror. Not the garbage trucks banging around outside my apartment. Not any judgments against a gaijin cramped away. I just smoke and sip my coffee mix and listen to the sound of the bikes as they blaze past, the chorus of shifting gears and spinning wheels on asphalt.

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