If the walls could talk

My favourite cafe in Tokyo has borne silent witness to my life for the past 20 years


"We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us."

No one knows who penned that quote, but it went through my mind over and over again as I sat in a Starbucks cafe in Shinjuku in Tokyo one recent morning.

I blame the InterContinental Hotels commercial, which had been playing ad nauseum on the plane's entertainment system. The quote starts the ad, amid the obligatory upbeat piano music.

The same kind of music was playing in the cafe that bright autumn morning as I looked out the window at the building outside.

Two uniformed workers were in the process of opening up the office for the day. They cleared the barriers and raised the flag of the Japanese railway company, JR East.

The building itself is an architectural classic from the 1970s, at least to my eyes.


Visually, it looks like the grid you find on Chinese composition books, with neat square spaces for the words and always a small space left between the lines.

The tableau looked familiar and comforting. That was when I realised that it will soon be the 20th anniversary of my coming to this cafe.

The cafe is in Shinjuku Southern Terrace, a short open boulevard of shops and restaurants that was completed in the late 1990s.

It was constructed two storeys above ground. You emerge from an impossibly frustrating and ugly mess of train lines below and onto a surprising oasis of calm amid the towering skyscrapers.

I visited the cafe on my first trip to Tokyo, probably in late 1997, after the Asian Financial Crisis. I was a young civil servant then working in the Ministry of Finance, fresh out of school.

The Japanese Ministry of Finance had organised some sort of goodwill training trip for their counterparts from all around the region and I had been sent as Singapore's representative.

As usual, the Japanese were meticulous in planning our itineraries. So, they were disappointed when I told them I would skip the weekend sightseeing trip to Kyoto and hang out by myself in Tokyo instead.

Except I wasn't by myself. A friend in Singapore, who worked in Mobil, was good friends with a colleague named Yuko in the Tokyo office.

When she told Yuko I would be visiting Japan for the first time, she kindly agreed to meet me on the weekend to show me around.

We got on very well, shopping and talking. It is amazing how much you can understand about someone new by observing where they go and what they buy.

By Sunday evening, as the light was fading, when we stopped for a coffee at the Starbucks in Shinjuku Southern Terrace, we were already all pensive and reflective as we talked about our families and friends, and pondered where we would be going next in life.

Indeed, life took a series of dramatic turns - especially for me.

I quit the civil service and went into journalism. I nearly got married, but pulled back at the last minute.

Yuko's life featured fewer upheavals. She continued to work with Mobil for many years, changing departments occasionally, which she said caused her much stress.

Maybe that was why she seriously took up hula dancing at some point, sometimes rushing from hula class to have dinner with me during my subsequent visits.

One thing remained constant, though. I fell in love with Japan, went back to Tokyo every year after that first visit, sometimes going as often as three times a year.

And almost every time I am there, I go and sit in the same Starbucks at Shinjuku Southern Terrace.

This is partly because I like the Shinjuku area and there is a great four-star hotel near the cafe that I keep returning to. But even if I am there on business and have to stay in other parts of Tokyo, I try to make a special trip to the cafe.

As a result, the walls of the cafe have borne silent witness to the thoughts going through my head for the past 20 years.

People so often travel in between changing jobs, or at least, changing appointments or assignments within the same company. I, too, have started my vacations with breakfast and a cup of "hotto ko-hi" at Starbucks and wondered what new challenges the coming weeks and months will bring.

Whether to leave what might have been a promising career in the Singapore Administrative Service to join The Straits Times. And then, in the struggle-filled weeks spent trying to adapt to a new career, whether that move had been the right one.

I have taken special loved ones to the cafe. In some years, we drank just as love was starting to blossom and there was a special intimacy and pride in bringing someone there and declaring it your favourite spot in your favourite city in the world.

In other years, we were a couple in a badly fraying relationship. We drank coffee, silently bored, tapping on our phones and looking outside at the cheery Christmas lights on the cold boardwalk, trying not to say the thing that would set off the inevitable start of the break-up.

I thought back to all of this as I sat down with my new colleague last week at the cafe. Like me, she is a former newspaper editor embarking on a new role in the organisation.

We were having breakfast before the start of a hectic day that would be mostly spent visiting the company's Tokyo sales office and its various clients.

"Look at that building," I said to her. "Doesn't the structure remind you of Chinese composition books?"

But inside, I was thinking of Yuko, Y., C., E. and all the people I have been here with, and that quote from the InterContinental Hotels commercial.

Today, when we say we travel for life not to escape us, we mean that travel should throw up scintillating, one-of-a-kind moments that we collect like souvenirs and Instagram the heck out of.

Yet, for many Singaporeans like myself, in order for life not to escape us, we have to sit still once in a while. Perhaps hold something constant, so that we can focus more clearly on what's changing.

If a few minutes a day spent deep breathing is good for mindfulness, then the combined hours I have spent at that Starbucks cafe is the mindfulness equivalent, except stretched over the months and years of my adult life.

In films, there are sometimes dream-like sequences immediately after death, replaying a person's life in fast-forward. I'd like to think that when I die, my after-life sequence will take place in that cafe.

Everyone that has meant so much to me will be there, sitting, smiling and sipping lattes as the seasons and the scenery around us changes in chaotic cycles.

And I will be happy and content as I slowly have my last Americano. As the famous travel author, Pico Iyer, says, we travel initially to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 13, 2016, with the headline 'If the walls could talk'. Subscribe