One of my most distinct memories of Japan (of which there are many) is standing in the above ground train stations – in Kyoto and Hiroshima and maybe a couple of other places, but I don’t remember exactly – and noticing all the little birds flying around. Finches or sparrows or something – I’m not really sure, but they were tiny little things, and flew about energetically and ceaselessly. I was in awe at the presence of so much birdlife in the middle of these big cities. And walking down the streets, there were birds everywhere. Not just common pigeons, but more of these little birds, and different types too. Maybe not so much in Tokyo, amongst the high-rises and towers, but Tokyo had its parks and gardens – lush and green and well-kept, even in winter – and there were birds in these.
I remember one day walking down a street in Kyoto and, thinking of the streets back home, lamenting that we only had pigeons and crows and ibises. I’ve been noticing more curlews around, but they stick to the parks; and now and then you might see a kookaburra or a tawny frogmouth, but they don’t tend to stick around long before moving on.
When I was a kid, I remember seeing lots of willy wagtails around. They’re the kind of birds you’d expect to see in an old school Disney movie, merrily chirping and singing, maybe daintily perched on a delicate finger of the story’s princess. Over the years, I stopped noticing them – they weren’t around to be noticed.
But I saw a few willy wagtails late last year and earlier this year, and I was delighted. It was like seeing an old friend. It was a small glimmer of hope.
The other week, I was at Roma Street train station (one of the main/central train stations in Brisbane), waiting for my train to work, when I looked up and noticed all the birds flying around. Tiny little birds. Finches or sparrows or something. I smiled in awe and wonderment and gratitude. I felt almost as if I was back in Japan, marvelling at the birdlife.
As I watched their erratic flight about the train cables and the roofs of the platforms, I realised that these birds had likely always been there. I’m sure I had noticed them before; I’m sure I’ve watched them before. How and when did I stop noticing them? How could I have forgotten them?
The answer, of course, was in my hand, and in my pocket. Whenever I’m commuting somewhere, I read a book, or I’m on my phone, checking emails and social media. Waiting for the train is a good time to read because they announce the trains as they come, so you can read to your heart’s content without worrying about missing your train. (And how could you miss a noisy train stopping right in front of you anyway?)
I’d simply stopped looking at the birds.
On holidays, though, in new cities, new places, I hardly ever read, and hardly use my phone except to take photos. Even on the long distance trains between cities in Japan, I spent most of the trips staring out the window, taking in all the scenery, the countryside, the mountains, the small towns we passed through. I always carried a book, but the compulsion to look and observe and just to see was so much stronger.
At home, I suppose I got to thinking that I’d seen everything before. How many times have I been to Roma Street train station? Too many to count. Too many even to calculate or estimate (no, I’m just too lazy to do the maths).
Sure, when I walk somewhere (to and from the station, perhaps), I look everywhere and watch everything, but maybe I’m not always seeing. Maybe my mind is somewhere else, or my gaze is too fixated on one thing – the sky, most likely, or the street itself. Perhaps on houses and doors.
But it’s like what Kyo Maclear wrote in Birds Art Life Death, about how if you look for birds, you will surely find them wherever you are.
How silly of me to think my city lacked something that I’d stopped looking for.
This also reminds me that you don’t have to travel far to feel like you’ve travelled far.
And what a joy it is to see your own city through the eyes of a tourist!