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Letters from Tokyo by Roland Kelts, February - May : What a Long Strange Spring It’s Been 


The February night I returned to Tokyo from New York felt like spring had landed ahead of me. I shed my jacket in the unusually long taxi line outside Haneda, watched two teenage boys order an Uber and promptly copied them, stepped over the ropes, skipped the line, and settled after five minutes into the backseat of my driver’s minivan, rolling down the windows on both sides.

The weather during my two-week stay in New York had been alternately mild and frigid, but the air was so dry that Tokyo’s subtropical humidity embraced me like a mitten. Body parts that shivered at departure were sweating on arrival.


This couldn’t be February, I thought. But my watch said it was and as soon as I got home I slid open more windows and sat on the balcony, watching the red aircraft warning lights on Shinjuku skyscrapers blink against sleep.



Spring is a transitional season and not my favorite (I'm an autumn guy, soft color and fading light), and this one has felt especially long because I flew to the US twice, to New York and Los Angeles, to be interviewed for doc series on Netflix, the History Channel and PBS. In between I spent a week in Niigata to write about a new international film festival. On the Joetsu Shinkansen we rolled north from the whites of Kanto's Somei Yoshino through the gray snows of Gunma to the Sea of Japan blues and back again--a reminder that Honshu hosts several seasons at once.



The cherry blossoms bloomed earlier than ever. They were out before I flew to LA and after I flew back, prompting relentless sakura pics on social media taken from every angle at every hour through whatever filter fit the whim. Hanami revelers carpeted Yoyogi Park, and the blossoms above them were tenacious, clinging to limbs through breezy rains as if they, too, needed a post-Covid coming-out and meant to milk every minute of it.


But flowers were not the only blossoms in town. For the first time in more than two years, overseas tourists sprouted from every curb and corner, brandishing smartphones to keep the unknown at bay. In March, newspapers recorded Japan’s highest “post-Covid” surge in visitors, rising to over 65% of 2019’s peak, though quite when the virus had gone passé and postal remains unclear. Covid was still happening in March, at least by all official measures, and in Tokyo we wore masks and sanitized and tried to follow the government’s soft-core 2020 advisory to avoid the “Three Cs”—closed spaces, crowded places and close-contact settings.


One of the clerks at one of my local Lawson convenience stores—there are two roughly four-minutes’ walk apart, but only one has the tall, paunchy, garrulous clerk—complimented me on my mask-wearing as I purchased a tub of yogurt. I’d been in LA for just a couple of weeks and at first I thought he’d forgotten who I was and mistook me for a tourist. Then he added that masks were so troublesome, weren’t they? And they made it hard to breathe, didn’t they? And it was very good of us to continue wearing and bearing them, wasn’t it? And I nodded, relieved.


Relief overwhelms me when I return to Japan. It wasn’t always so. For years “returning” meant going back to New York, arriving home from my overseas life. If I had a window seat and caught the jewel of Manhattan’s skyline upon descent, I felt a familiar surge in my chest, a tightening of selfhood and resolve: My home language, my sense of space and energy revived, my food smells, street-stench and signage. Ah.



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