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Keeping calm and carrying on in the world’s largest city

How can a city of over 37 million people be a peaceful place to live?

Yet certainly where I am living, right in the heart of Tokyo, everything is quiet. Everything is calm. No raised voices. No car horns. No screaming kids. No-one in a rush. In the words of Bjork…it’s oh so quiet.

OK, so the area we live in is more residential and not the neon spectacular that comes to mind immediately you think of Tokyo. However, even walking across the Shibuya crossing at rush hour – a scene you will have seen played out in numerous films and TV documentaries – there is a sense of calm. Everyone knows where they are going. No rushing. No pushing. And no bumping into each other.

How can this be?

I was pretty naive about Tokyo when we arrived last summer, my mind full of neon, robots, kooky outfits and crazy fads. I now realise this is only one side of life here. The other side incorporates zen gardens, shrines, ikebana (an artistic and highly considered form of flower arranging), tea ceremonies, tai chi and meditation. The Japanese are centred.

One example that brings this calmness to life was our building’s earthquake evacuation drill. We knew what time the drill was and so we waited for the siren to blare out. No siren. Then a calm voice came over the internal intercom announcing the drill. So confusing was this, we didn’t know whether to leave. I kept saying “do we wait for the siren”? Anyway, we headed off to the stairwell where lots of men in hard hats with batons had appeared. They smiled and calmly waved us down 17 flights of stairs to the meeting place where chairs had been laid out so we could listen to a short presentation on fire exits. And this being Japan, we also got a little survival goodie bag to take away with a smile. More to come on men waving batons another time…they are everywhere! But, for now, back to calmness…

I’ve been musing that among the traits of the British and the Japanese, perhaps it’s a love of queuing where we have a meeting of minds but it’s fair to say it’s on another level here. People like to queue in Japan. For ages. For anything. I get the sense it makes people feel the destination will be more special because of it. I rather like that idea.

Even toddlers seem able to queue for over an hour for a fairground ride without complaining. Speaking of which, surely these special little beings are the one thing that can shatter the peace anywhere, right?

Well, so far, I have witnessed only two toddler meltdowns which is saying something as, having a wee one myself, I hang out with toddlers a lot. When mine is having a ‘moment’, I am generally found counting to five in a firm voice and talking about consequences whilst feeling slightly mortified when my attempts to calm things down fail to work. I then start wishing I have one of those teleportation devices ala Star Trek to beam me up Scottie. So, you can imagine, I was secretly fascinated to see how these tantrums were dealt with here. I watched (subtly). I waited to see the response. Nothing. They just calmly waited until the child ran out of steam. Of course, I don’t know what was going on in their minds but they didn’t look stressed or even mildly frustrated.

This calmness is something I am hoping will rub off on me (and my toddler!). On a weekend trip out of Tokyo, I spent a long time looking at the serene face of a giant Buddha who has withstood typhoons, earthquakes, tsunamis and war for over 500 years. My mission is to become as centred as this guy. Aim high.

How is the mission going? Well. Baby steps. I am definitely a little calmer than when I arrived. Yet, I still find myself shouting out instructions to my kids down the street and legging it to pick them up on time from school. Which leaves me with a question I am yet to solve. How is it that everyone is always perfectly on time here but no-one is ever flustered on arrival? I need the secret!

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