Japan was an adventure and a half. My experience of Asia until now had been limited to a few days in Hong Kong and a slightly challenging week in Taichung, neither of which has much to do with the immersion of six weeks in Tokyo. I had almost no idea what to expect. I mean, every new city is a surprise, but I've spent enough time lurking about European cities (and, let's face it, watching them on TV) to have a vague idea of what to anticipate from, say, Oviedo or Dresden or, should fate ever take me there, Munich or Milan. But Tokyo? Pretty much the only thing I was certain of was that I really, really needed to learn (finally) to use chopsticks.
Reader, I learnt, and Tokyo won me over. Six weeks attached to an opera – even one you're not in – isn't the same as a six week holiday or tourist experience, and there are still vaste swathes of the city I never made it to. That would be true of almost anywhere, but you feel it more intensely in a city as unfathomably huge as Tokyo. I've never seen so many city centres in my life: every metropolitan train station seems to spit you out into yet another gleaming shopping district, the likes of which you'd find only once or twice in other major cities. And maybe I'm a city girl, even more than I thought, but I loved that. The endless supply of department stores, the blinding glitz of the pachinko arcades, menu after incomprehensible pictorial menu. There was plenty my brain couldn't process, but it didn't matter: there was something about this infinite metropolis I couldn't help but love.
The people helped. Outside of the theatre, we almost never had a common language, but the people I met were friendly, welcoming and helpful to a fault. I never felt self conscious or out of place and whether our conversations took place in broken English, barely existent Japanese (I arrived with two words and left with maybe five) or a language wholly composed of gestures and smiles, they were unfailingly patient with me and we almost always got where we needed to go eventually. Yes, it was a challenge discovering how few menus – at least in Shinjuku, where we were based – had English translations, but almost every restaurant provides visual aids, and besides: the range of ready made food at our local (24 hour!) supermarket left Tesco in the dust for both deliciousness and value for money.
Our six weeks weren't entirely (if you'll forgive the Grimes pun) plain sailing. The fact that I don't eat fish or seafood was as inconvenient as you might imagine in the home of sushi and sashimi, and we never did find a way to make taxi drivers understand where we were staying, so thank goodness the Hilton was near our building: everybody understands Hilton. But for me the occasional bumps and the odd privation – I did miss Craig Ferguson and Mexican food – disappeared in the midst of such a fascinating and delightful place.
And oh, the adventures. The Autumn Festival we stumbled upon quite literally around the corner from our hotel, complete with street processions and night markets. The exquisitely arrayed department stores and their overwhelming food halls, where your eyes take in so much that you forget you haven't actually bought or eaten anything. The Yamaha Centre in Ginza, with its floor after floor of musical instruments, sheet music, classical CDs and anything else a musician or music lover could want – including a whole section of adorable stationery for music teachers. Toy shopping at Kiddyland in Harajuku, which has an entire floor just for Snoopy and his friends. The serene peace and natural beauty of the Meiji shrine. The mysterious expanse of the Imperial Palace, or at least of what little one can see beyond the moat and the high walls. And remind me, if I ever have the chance to go there again, to learn the Japanese for "where did you get those ridiculously cute shoes?" because believe me, it would have been dangerously useful.
I've already written glowingly about the theatre itself: its gracious announcements, spacious lobbies and intermission profiteroles. Backstage was also delightful if only in its simplicity. No labyrinths or hard-to-find doors, no gauntlet of stern security to run, and a host of lovely theatre staff always ready to help me if I managed just the same to get lost.
Stage door was even better. Some countries have a stage door culture and some don't, but I've never experienced anything quite like Tokyo. There were fans there waiting even as we arrived, two hours before the show, and fans afterwards even when we'd been to an hour-long reception in between. They clamour for autographs and take photos, and their supply of CD booklets and long forgotten concert programmes is amazing – and it doesn't matter if you're the title role or a relatively minor player, if you're in the show, they care about you. Hey, a few of them even took photos of me, which has never happened anywhere else – and then came back after subsequent shows to give us copies of those photos, which was a lovely surprise.
I took hundreds of photos – big surprise – and could have taken hundreds more. I've posted a few below. They're not particularly great photos, just iPhone snapshots, but it really wouldn't feel right to write about Tokyo without giving you at least a tiny glimpse of its myriad colours. It was a sensory overload, this city; surprising, overwhelming, sometimes deeply confusing but I can't deny it – I was hooked.
Oh, one final thought: all opera houses should have a shopping centre, restaurants and a train station attached to them. Too brilliantly convenient for words.