Tokyo Stories
by Barry Yourgrau



We’ve rented an apartment right by Tokyo Tower. To be more accurate, and spectacular, our seventh-floor rental sits practically under Tokyo Tower, separated only by a patch of trees and a mini-cemetery with a small temple. At the windows of our petit and perky main room, on our petit rear balcony, we stand and gape.

It’s astounding and disorienting, living in intimacy with a gigantic public monument. One of the tower’s enormous, intricately latticed feet is there beside us at our breakfast coffee; it’s there glowing and luminous when we totter home from an izakaya.

“Like having a cheery version of the Eiffel Tower for a roommate,” says Cosima, my girlfriend, as she puffs a prohibited cigarette in the balcony’s sunshine.

And how characteristic of Tokyo, to turn an unashamed copy of a foreign landmark into a beloved icon of its own!

“Actually Tokyo Tower is taller than the Eiffel Tower,” I note. “And much lighter cause it’s made of steel, not wrought iron.”

“Who cares?” says Cosima, admiring in wonderment.

I gaze in silence at the hulking gigantism of the tower’s lower part as it goes swooping aloft, narrowing into the sky, seeming to change from a colossal immediate physicality into an arrowing distant abstraction. In the evening it glows like a vast vertical paper lantern.

One morning I announce I’m going to climb the stairs to the white main observation deck―“up there in the middle.”

“That’s 600 steps!” says Cosima. “It says so on the website.”

“It’ll be a challenge,” I acknowledge bravely. “But I will tackle Tokyo Tower! Besides, the website says even a kindergartener can do it in 15 minutes. Though apparently it can get windy,” I add, with a laugh.

The late afternoon is springtime-mild as I stand in a crowd beneath the immense swooping arcs of the tower’s grounding support structures. Beside us sits the clunky gray touristic bulk of FOOTTOWN with all its hyper-cute and -cheery souvenirs in various modes and media. I take a deep breath. I wish myself “good luck!” I start up the bright orange steps, up through the struts and lattices.

The first hundred steps I count go well. I pause for a proper breather, grinning about happily. I always take the stairs in subway stations for exercise, so I’m accustomed to such effort. Suddenly a gust of breeze almost wrenches my cap off. With a laugh I press my cap on tighter. I resume. There were other climbers around me at first, but they’re no longer in sight. Around 250 steps I have to pause again, for real. I’m panting heavily. My heart is hammering. The view down through the tower’s orange diagonals is vertiginous. I see now a young couple stopped up ahead. Surprisingly, they wear Alpine climbing outfits. They’re roped together. I go plodding past them giving a panting thumbs up. They stare back at me, gulping for air. The wind surges―so violently, I have to grab onto a strut. Any kindergartener would have been hurled away into space! “Geez, what the hell―” I sputter. Above me a cheery poster informs me of the number of calories I’ve burned so far. The wind tears at it.

I resume struggling onward in rising alarm. There’s no elevator on the steps, apparently. I see a trio of climbers sprawled up ahead. They wear big Mt. Everest parkas with hoods flapping in the gusts. They’re sharing an oxygen cylinder! They gape at me with haunted eyes over their breathing masks as I drag myself past them. I’m genuinely frightened now, I feel the lapping of panic. The air is so thin, my lungs are burning. I’ve lost all count of steps. The wind roars savagely, relentlessly. I slump down onto the steps, in despair.

Help!” I bleat, clutching onto my cap. “Help!

Strong hands out of nowhere grab hold of me. They drag me bumping and wind-torn up some steps, up onto the main deck.

I lie gasping. My rescuer goes off and stands looking out the observation windows. We’re alone. He’s a big tall older guy, a foreigner, not Japanese.

“Arigato,” I pant, confusedly. “Arigato!

He glances over at me. The sight of his face makes me gasp. I swarm to my feet.

“Aren’t you Werner Herzog?” I stammer, approaching him. “The film director?”

“Jah, jah, it’s me,” he mutters, almost irritably, in German-accented English.

“I saw you talking up here―in Wim Wenders’ documentary, Tokyo-ga!” I blather on, coming beside him. “That was in the 1980’s!”

“Of course, of course,” he says. “I come back here every year, discreetly.” He gestures suddenly at the great jumbles of megalopolis spread below us all around. “And I’m still looking, looking,” he cries, “now as then, for a clear, transparent image in this crazy mess of Tokyo. But I can never find it―a pure, transparent image!”


He grips my sleeve, staring out past me.

“So guess what?” he squawks, and his eyes glitter, his thinning grey hair seems to quiver and dance. “I’ve decided to make Tokyo in my mind into... Paris!” He squeezes me to emphasize the cleverness of his conceit. He laughs in self-congratulation. “For me, this isn’t Tokyo Tower, understand? It’s the Eiffel Tower, pure and simple! That chaos of buildings right down there? Why, that’s the Champ de Mars, nice open greenery! Those skyscrapers over there aren’t Roppongi or Toranomon Hills or whatever the hell―they’re Sacré-Cœur and the Pantheon and Notre Dame. Okay, maybe one of them is the Montparnasse Tower, standing all by itself. But all simple and clear now! Clever, eh? Eh?

He beams, squeezing me harder.

Poor guy, he’s completely lost his mind up here, I think to myself.

“Sure, maybe,” I gulp to him. “I mean... you’re the director!

I laugh at my attempt at a movie-world joke. He doesn’t.

“Here, take this, they give out this certificate to any fool who climbs up here,” he says, producing the item from somewhere. “Use the elevator to go down. Leave me to my Paris―my own private Paris!”

I call goodbye as the elevator doors close. He doesn’t seem to hear me, lost in his brooding crack-brained triumph.

“Cool!” says Cosima, when I show her the Official Stair Climber Certificate” that Herzog gave me. “Forget stupid Eiffel Tower,” she snorts, “how could anyone not love Tokyo Tower?” She gazes up at it rapturously. “It’s so sweet and adorable,” she says.

“Sweet and adorable?” I repeat. “After what happened to me?”

From the safety of our windows I stare at it warily.

Little do I realize what lies ahead.

A day later I find selfies of her on Instagram posing at a steel orange foot of the tower―cuddling it, pressing her cheek against it, smiling adoringly...kissing it.

“Cause it’s so sweet!” Cosima retorts when I confront her. “It’s adorable!

The selfies don’t stop.

Surfing for any guidance online, I ponder uneasily the phenomenon of “objectophilia.” There’s a woman ‘in love’ with Berlin’s train station. Another who dotes intimately on―I gulp―the Eiffel Tower.

Then things grow even more disconcerting. I’m used to seeing the tower’s tapering orange-and-white spire poking up into view as I walk back toward the apartment from Akabanebashi or coming from Kamiyacho Station. But miles away now, by Harajuku, I’m suddenly shocked by that familiar slender silhouette rising over Omotosando Hills shopping center, like a long-necked brontosaurus wearing a white ruff collar.

I think the Tokyo Tower is stalking us,” I whisper dramatically to Cosima, who’s with me.

“Not stalking and not us,” she replies, turning to wave and blow a kiss. “It adores me as I adore it!”

Finally, return from an agitated, preoccupied stroll one early evening, I’m thunderstruck to find my girlfriend on our small trim couch with a four-foot high, detailed scale model of the Tokyo Tower.

Except it’s not a model.

“I’m so touched,” she exclaims. “The tower has shrunk itself to come visit me. It must have snuck in through the back of the building.”

What?” I stammer.

But it’s true. I gape out the windows at the emptiness beyond the trees and cemetery―empty but for FOOTTOWN squatting naked by itself, surrounded by police cars. Policemen swarm the area, which is taped off with crime-scene yellow.

Have you truly gone mad?” I demand of Cosima. “Make it return right this minute. You can’t do this with a public monument! And what happens if it decides to become its normal size again right here!

“Nonsense,” she retorts, “it’s very thoughtful, I’m sure.” She embraces the tower protectively.

She won’t be persuaded, even when I point out the swarms of teenage girls laying wreaths at the empty scene and then collapsing, weeping. “Apparently the tower is a beloved figure in girls’ manga,” I note, snarling.

My girlfriend shrugs stubbornly. The tower glows in its lit-up evening way beside her.

The night passes in turbulence. I refuse to allow the tower in the bedroom with us. Cosima coaxes it into our tiny spare bedroom, cooing to it lullaby-style. But it keeps banging our adjoining wall like a petulant demanding infant. Cosima has to go sit with it every two hours. Meanwhile, down below in the cemetery, ghosts drift from their graves, wailing at the great emptiness beside them.

Come morning, a haggard Cosima gives in. For long minutes she explains things to the tower in the privacy of the spare bedroom. There’s a lot of anguished banging about in emotional protest, but finally, when the door opens, the tower has agreed to resume its proper place and size, assured by Cosima’s avowals of continued devotion. We swaddle the tower in a sheet and smuggle it down out the back of the building, and leave it to make its return.

To Tokyo’s and the nation’s euphoria, the familiar great orange and white structure rises again towering into the sky from FOOTTOWN.

That night my girlfriend sits on our back balcony, smoking and gazing. An almost-full moon shimmers in the sky over the great vertical lantern that is Tokyo Tower. It’s a lyrical and moving sight, I have to admit. I give Cosima’s shoulder a soft squeeze. Her cheeks are damp. Lost in her thoughts, she is smiling tenderly. The ways of affection, I think to myself gravely, are a delicate mystery. She thumbs on her cellphone. She shows me the haiku she’s written. I read it aloud:

    Moon with my dear friend
    A doubled glow lights the night:
    Lanterns of my heart.

to be continued next month
Copyright(C)2019 by Barry Yourgrau
Originally in NAMI Magazine, 6/19

About the Author

Barry Yourgrau

“I can never remember my dreams so Mr. Yourgrau’s stories are a pretty good substitute.”— David Byrne

Writer-performer Barry Yourgrau is the author of books of surreal, funny, intensely short stories, including A Man Jumps Out of An Airplane, Wearing Dad’s Head, Haunted Traveller, and The Sadness of Sex, in whose film version he starred.He’s also written a memoir, Mess, and anti-kids’ stories for kids, Nastybook.

Barry is the only American author who’s published short fiction on Japanese cellphones (keitai shosetsu). His work has a fine following in Japan.
 As performer, he and his stories have appeared on MTV’s “Unplugged: Spoken Word” and NPR’s “Selected Shorts” and “All Things Considered,” among others. He won a Drama-Logue Award for “Wearing Dad’s Head: The Live Version” and was invited to Sundance Theater Lab to workshop Haunted Traveller. He is proud of starring in Anthrax’s heavymetal music video, “Black Lodge”.
 Yourgrau’s fictions have appeared in New, The Paris Review, VICE, Story, Bomb, Poetry, Film Comment, Monkey Business Int’l, Little Star, Harvard Design Magazine, and various anthologies. He’s also written for the NY Times, New, Wall St. Journal, Spin, Paris Review Daily, The Baffler, HuffPost, Salon, Independent (U.K.), Artforum, etc. He’s blogged for
 Born in South Africa, he lives in New York and Istanbul. And travels a lot.

Barry Yourgrau (outbound link)