Saturday, October 13, 2012

Surprises in Tokyo: Mad swan, bird punt

TOKYO -- In the last few weeks, I have gone on runs in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire (through a rough slum area); Pretoria, South Africa (around the majestic Union Buildings on a cold morning); New York City (three wonderful at-dawn loops around the reservoir in Central Park); Seoul, South Korea (in such a daze I barely remember); and numerous runs around Chevy Chase, my home.

I’m not running all the time. But I am moving all the time. My new job at the World Bank has me traveling in short intensive bursts (four days to two countries in Africa, one day to Seoul, five now to Tokyo). I was concerned that with this kind of travel, I wouldn’t be able to run much. That hasn’t been the case. But I haven’t found much time to write about running.

I have almost an hour this morning in Tokyo, where I’ve run the past four mornings, and I have a bit of a story to tell.  I’ve found a Starbucks to sit and write and drink black tea, and where a Japanese man with a wispy beard and a heavy pack on his back just walked in and started telling me, in rapid English, about his 10-day bike trip to Tokyo, a narrative interrupted by the kind clerk, but as he left he said over his shoulder, “I look forward to seeing you again.”)
No running by the Palace

Everything here is a little hard to comprehend at first. Maps are impossible. Rules confound me. (About crossing streets --I’ve been chastened by a couple of policemen already for jay walking, and have since stopped; about running near the Imperial Palace -- it’s apparently illegal in certain sections; you have to walk.)

But it’s been wonderful to explore a completely different city and culture, and the runs have been a huge part of that. For three mornings, I ran around a park near the Palace for 35 or 40 minutes, but today I took a chance and ran a longer loop around the royal estate, hoping I wouldn’t get lost.

You don’t actually see the Palace. But in the midst of a landscape of skyscrapers, the Palace grounds are an oasis of green, rimmed by a wide moat. When I grew up in Vermont, I was always told when in the woods to “keep the river on your right.” Here, in order to not get lost, I just kept the moat on my left, which did the trick.
Menacing fish
The moat is full of large coy fish, and I stopped in one section to look at them but quickly backed off. The fish seemed pretty menacing, their huge heads rising well above the surface to open and shut their mouths at me, almost as if they were saying, “Feed me, feed me.” I scooted away but then moved close again to see a majestic swan.

The swan, like the fish, moved to the edge of the canal. After a few seconds, the swan started squawking at me and snapped its beak in a kind of menacing fashion. These moat dwellers apparently are used to being fed upon demand, and upset when not. I bid farewell, and made my way around the loop.
Bird in flight
I had another unusual animal encounter – not what I expected in Tokyo. I came upon a grouping of tiny sparrows and thought nothing of it, but I felt my right foot strike something, and suddenly a little sparrow shot up in the air. I had punted the little thing, not unlike a football kicker. The sparrow seemed to right itself after a momentary wobble, and shot off to the left. I was so stunned that I stopped. I have run for 30 years and it was my first punting of a bird. I kept my eyes out for other birds after that, just in case other Tokyo birds were asleep on my path.

As I finished the loop, I ran down a hill and a vista opened up: the moat wide below me, the Palace forest to my left, the city skyscrapers to my right. It was a moment of natural beauty, only the latest of surprises.

I’m off. Hour’s up. Maybe I’ll run into the man who biked for 10 days to Tokyo.

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