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Saturday, Aug. 26, 2006

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

In the heat of the city


My son calls it "air you can wear."

He forgets to say it is not a fashion of choice. We all wear it. We have to. Each and every one of us -- the 30 million sweltering inhabitants of the Kanto Plain.

Plus most of Japan's other 90 million as well. We live these August days laminated in the clinging layers of summer.

Few places are as dismal as the city when it sizzles. But Tokyo doesn't sizzle. It steams. And the air that you wear can wear you down.

Morning. You rise from clammy sheets to towel off a night of toss-and-turn stickiness from your neck and chin. A peek from a limp curtain reveals a new day already ugly with sun. Nothing moves. Not even birds. The sky is fire bright and pains your eyes. Close them and your senses adjust at once toward smell.

Your own smell. All you have done is sleep, but your body cries for a shower.

Which splashes you with glorious relief. You stand with your mouth open and watch the water rope from the nozzle. And think: "Why even leave? Why not spend the whole day here?" Yet your workday beckons. Ten minutes later you stand dressed in the kitchen, but in need -- already -- of another shower.

The summer engulfs you as you crunch over silent streets of gravel. Movement helps, as your brain can be tricked into believing the flow of air over your damp skin is a sort of breeze. On either side stand the walled castles of Japanese suburbia, sidings of gray, beige and brown, French windows, sliding windows, bay windows, all sealed and curtained tight, shiny roof tiles of sherbet orange and charcoal gray, the houses all different and all alike. From each one you hear the groan of air conditioning.

And inside? Faceless people you do not know or ever will. Doing what? Toweling off their nighttime grime? Or standing with their mouth agape under a morning shower?

You pass a woman out walking a poodle. Or maybe it's a dachshund with its hair frizzed by humidity. The woman's skin seems pasted to her bones the way her clothes seem pasted to her skin. Both she and the dog shuffle along the road with their heads heavy in the morning haze.

You pass a man on a bicycle, the same middle-aged man you can find on any Japanese road at anytime anywhere -- one with a face that has been punched red by years of brutal sunshine. On his noggin sits a ball cap, one with plastic mesh in the back, and across his chest rides a short-sleeved polo shirt with the collar fanned wide to show the thin T-shirt beneath. A T-shirt that fails to save his polo shirt from perspiration. The bike doesn't even squeak from the moisture in the air.

Nearer the station you meet and pass more pedestrians, appearing one by one out of the vapor that rises from the sun-baked roads -- women blocking the sunshine with their parasols or waving their makeup dry with their hankies, and men with their suit coats draped over gleaming forearms, with always some dull-eyed fellow still fully cloaked. Everyone wears the same swarthy stains as you -- under their arms, along their necks and down the smalls of their backs, with the waistbands of slacks and skirts absorbing the drainoff like sponges.

The crowd waits on the griddle of the concrete platform. Men and women beat the air with paper fans or newsprint. Others wipe their scalps with handkerchiefs. Exposed skin glistens, with the cleavage of young women being the slipperiest of slopes. Everybody sucks air. Air that the approaching train swallows and then returns in a blast of engine heat. The doors pop open and the crowd presses forward. Soon you are glued by your own sweat to a living mass of hot and wet human beings.

Inside the train is freezing. The blast of winter refreshes, but exposed skin soon starts to shiver, and those who can manage it struggle to slip on protective wraps.

Yet the heat does not give up so easily. Soon even the air conditioning seems to sag, as if the car was being cooked from above. People wilt in place -- grandmothers with gruff and grumble faces, office girls with baggy eyes, salary men with generic suits and generic lives, college kids in thick wool caps and the overheated complexions to match.

Where do they all come from? The millions and millions. Do they have real homes and real families? Or do they exist just to keep you company as the train flames along the rails, racing over the baked and pulverized souls of so many millions more who have flourished and died here through the teeming centuries.

And what does it look like from above? An enormous swath of buildings throbbing like a heart, with the train lines all veining in, and the entire muscle of steel and stone writhing under the glare of the morning sun. In the summertime the city is best observed like this, from far above on a light and fluffy cloud. It is not a place to enter.

The sun butters you as you plod from the train toward your office. Yet inside is so cool you welcome even hot coffee. You spend your day in this artificial icebox, where no one dwells on the sins of greenhouse gases as long as the company is paying.

When you push through the glass door at 5 to head home, the oven of air almost shoves you back. Clothes hang on every passerby. Faces shimmer. Water pumps from your pores and your steps melt into the afternoon shadows.

But the day has hours to go before night will tease you with a comfort that never truly comes.

You need a pool. Or a long, cold drink.

But you'll settle for that shower, where -- you know now like you'll know tomorrow morning too -- you really should have stayed all day.

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com


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