On any given day, you never know who you’re going to see when you’re out and about in Tokyo. On a rainy weekday, it might be a group of Japanese kindergarten children on their way to an educational event, all wearing bright yellow rain slickers. On a Sunday afternoon in the off season, it might be a couple of gargantuan Sumo wrestlers dressed in their blue and white yukata, and wooden geta, heading back to the stable after a day in downtown Shinjuku. You might catch a glimpse of a Buddhist monk, head bowed under his straw lampshade of a hat, or a company baseball team in matching uniforms on their way to engage in the harmony of spirit known as wa.
The traditional Japanese lifestyle is a serene and conservative one, in which conformity and group mentality is key. At opposite ends of the contemporary spectrum, some individuals still live within the bounds of the strictest of classical tradition and dress accordingly, while many members of the younger generation strive to declare their independence with a bold fashion statement. Most of the population falls somewhere in between, dressing stylishly yet conservatively in western-style clothing. Still, the extremes are there to be observed on occasion.
One day, while riding the Yamanote, I was struck by the beauty of a Japanese woman in full kimono, one of deep blue floral silk, bound at the midriff by a bright orange obi. Her hair was meticulously coifed, her face was powdered to perfection with pure white rice dust, and her lips were painted with brilliant red precision. She was stunning and although I tried not to stare, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She was like a rare and exotic flower, and I could only wonder who she was and where she was going dressed like that.
The seat next to her was empty, and at the next station, a young man boarded the train and sat down beside her. In all my life, I have never seen such a contrast in humanity. The young man was dressed in what the Japanese call panku stairu, an expression literally borrowed from the English term “punk style.” He was all black leather and chains from his knee-high boots to his skin-tight pants and open vest, and he wore the requisite studded bands around his neck and wrists. His costume was unoriginal, and certainly nothing that I hadn’t seen dozens of times in San Francisco’s Castro District, except that this young man’s crowning glory was a bright orange Mohawk, varnished with hair gel until it stood straight up from his scalp to an altitude of at least a foot. He was magnificent.
So there they sat, the Geisha and the Punk, side by side on the Yamanote, neither taking any particular notice of each other, but creating a snapshot that will live forever in my mind’s eye.