A Horse in Tokyo

“I want a horse,” Sue Sullivan announced. She used the same tone of voice that people reserve for ordering a cup of Twinings tea or a print of a French Impressionist painting, both of which in Tokyo’s pre-burst Bubble in the late 1980s would be much more possible than the acquisition and keeping of a large animal. She was accustomed to space, a bigger home, a garden, neighbours out of earshot. Tokyoites lived in danchi or huge apartment blocks of scores of tiny units each with a balcony for the aircon machine, a few potplants and a balustrade to pin the futon and bedding on to for airing. A mini model of a horse, even a painting of one would struggle to find space there. However, Sue was accustomed to getting what she wanted, something her mother Mary well knew, often recalling ruefully the effort involved in acquiring and installing a piano. Then there was the pet dog, a schnauzer, popular with Japanese, but not so easy to house in their apartment because it was against the regulations – every time it barked Mary expected someone to complain. Fortunately, Japan’s culture was not given to complaining. 

A piano and a dog seemed small fry compared to a horse. She simply could not think how her daughter could achieve her wish, pastures for horses in Tokyo being at a premium, more likely non-existent. There were many big parks but she’d never seen a horse in them. She hoped that she wouldn’t be prevailed on to help her daughter satisfy her latest desire.

Mary Sullivan, originally from Sussex in the south of England, getting to Tokyo via two decades in New Zealand, poured her daughter a second cup of Twinings. She was not surprised when Sue said, 

“Any idea how I could find a horse, mum? I’m desperate to ride again.”

Mary replied with caution, “I’m sure if you ask some of your friends, perhaps they’ll know of someone, of somewhere, a place in the country, green fields, horses for hire …”   She well knew the only thing like open space and grass in Tokyo was in public parks, horse riding strictly not allowed, along with all the other banned activities like littering, playing ball games, shouting, running, cycling, flying drones, drinking alcohol, climbing trees, digging up plants and flying kites. 

She added, “There’ll be an accessible place in the countryside somewhere.”

Sue replied, “Oh, mum, that’s too far to go, you know what the trains are like, so crowded, and it would take all day getting there and back. I need something close to hand.”

I’ll give it some thought, dear. It’s not something you can buy even at the high-end Mitsukoshi department store in the Ginza here. Perhaps there are videos we can buy.”

To her credit and Mary’s relief, Sue said not a word, just carried on doing a lot of Twinings sipping. Mary hoped that would be the end of it.   

She was also well aware that a city like Tokyo could supply almost everything to satisfy even the most outlandish dreams and desires but the likes of a horse for hire or purchase she had never seen. The closest to it had been a day at Fuchu races, high-class thoroughbred racing. Indeed, she had witnessed the great New Zealand mare Horlicks break the race record for the prestigious Japan Cup, but that kind of memory or thinking wasn’t likely to produce a casual mount for her daughter.  

Mary and Sue lived in central Tokyo, inside the Yamanote Line, the main circle train line serving four huge main stations and dozens of others between. They were lucky gaijin, foreigners. They had good work teaching English at Japan Air Lines school for air personnel and doing proof-reading work from the comfort of their own apartment, with a regular number of private students to boost their income and keep them in touch with the outside world. Working from home a lot meant that they didn’t have to put up with the jostle and crush of the crowds on the Yamanote Line or on the subway to go to work, the grim lot of most Japanese and foreigners in Tokyo.

This is not to say that Mary and Sue’s living quarters had always been comfortable – they had been in smaller apartments, modular units, cramped one-room-cum-kitchen, box-like flats in highrises, the typical style of home in all big cities in Japan. Now they had a sizeable living-room that doubled as Mary’s bedroom (a customary arrangement in Japanese apartments with limited space), a dining area and a separate bedroom for Sue. The other bedroom was used as a workroom. They had scaled the giddy heights of a 2LDK, as the ads called their apartment, referring to two bedrooms and “Living Dining Kitchen”, in a multi-floored block, each with a steel door which had a little glass peep-hole to check who was calling, usually just an official from the post office or the landlady – neighbours and friends never called because the way in Japan was that convivial occasions took place outside the home, on the streets with shops open until late, in the myriad nomiyas or bars, in cafés and restaurants, hosting the thousands of salarymen recovering from 12-hour office days.  The “2” in 2LDK could also be a “3” if you were well off, and a “4” meant you were a company president. Mary often wondered what more fortunate Japanese families with the national average of just over one child did with four bedrooms.

Mary and Sue had steadily risen amid the high-rises of Tokyo in terms of living conditions. And now after six months in their eighth floor Seibu Lions Mansion apartment, one of eight similar apartments on each of the ten floors, they were happy. They had space! Enough even for a piano! Mary’s collection of antique clothes, gathered over 30 years of working in theatre as a professional designer, had at last found a worthy resting place. Mother and daughter had recently bought lavish furniture and decorations at a trendy and stylish Tokyo department store, this act of extravagance made possible by the none-too-easy acquisition of the store’s credit card. The application procedure for the card had been difficult with many regulations and forms. Only when Mary produced a Japanese friend, willing to act as sponsor, referee and guarantor for the not-to-be-trusted gaijin, had she been reluctantly granted the credit card. This had taken three weeks. Had she been Japanese she would have received the card at the time of application, there and then over the counter.

So Sue was living in a comfortably appointed apartment and she had good work with several private students who came in each day, paying large sums of money for the chance to chat with a blonde, intelligent, blue-eyed gaijin. One Sunday morning, however, she decided this was not satisfying enough, and powerfully reiterated her wish. 

!She almost shouted “I want a horse! I have to have a horse.” 

Her mother wondered if the store’s credit card would open the doors to satisfying such a desire in central Tokyo. Since it was a card from Habitat, a store specialising in home furnishing and beautification, she decided probably not. But she knew only too well when Sue wanted something it was best to try to provide or stand well back. Fortunately for her it would prove to be the latter.

Mother Mary had been brought up with horses as teenager in country Sussex. She knew the thrill and joy of bareback riding across the Downs. She understood what her daughter was missing. In New Zealand, daughter Sue rode four or five times a week around greenstone-green paddocks; riding was part of her being. She hadn’t wanted to live in Tokyo but decided it would be more thrilling than her home country of New Zealand, apart from which she wanted to be with her mother in Japan who was on a NZ Arts Council grant to study Japanese theatre design. For two years now she had seriously missed the riding, the fresh air and the friendly flanks of her favourite horses. Now her own loins craved the slap of saddle and leather. She just had to be on a horse again. Her mother knew that in Tokyo she couldn’t ever have the same experience of riding on the Sussex Downs; Sue knew it wouldn’t be the same as the rolling paddocks of Kiwiland. She would have to go far north into Tohoku or Hokkaido for that. Still, there had to be something nearer to satisfy her urge. There were huge stadiums for baseball and athletics, pools and ponds for people to pretend they were fishing in the sea and rivers, parks for walking, cycling and doing Qigong in, so why not something for people wanting to ride horses? She was in the grips of a powerful desire, a realisation that there had been a gap in her life in Tokyo, no matter how thrilling it was to live, work and shop there. 

Sometimes she wished that her yearning could be satisfied as easily as for those who sat long hours in the numerous clamorous pachinko parlours, or office ladies whiling away some spare time over a magazine, sipping cups of tea in cafés like Doutor, Pronto or even a Renoir. She had tried substitutes. She had gone walking and even cycling in one of Tokyo’s many fine parks, even rowed on the moat around the Emperor’s Palace; she had tried out the huge massage chairs in Akihabara, Tokyo’s “Electric Town”; she had shopped till she dropped in Takashimaya or Seibu department stores, two of Tokyo’s grandest and glossiest; she had drunk daijokies, large glasses of lager, in summer beer gardens catching warm breezes on the tops of many buildings; she had dined on a boat on the Sumida River and taken the Romance Car train out to Hakone, spending a night at a ryokan, soaking in an onsen; she had been up Tokyo’s equivalent of the Eiffel Tower, been to many famous temples and greeted the New Year with a visit to the Emperor’s Palace in the centre of Tokyo, even catching a glimpse of a white-gloved waving emperor, and seeing what looked like stables nearby – well, if he can have horses, so can I, she thought somewhat illogically. She had done courses in bonsai growing, in ikebana, in tea ceremony and art appreciation with visits to galleries in Ueno Park. She had even participated in a matsuri, a Japanese festival, helping to hold the shrine aloft among other lightly-clad sweaty bodies. Finally, her mother had organised through a martial arts contact for her to have a go at yabusame, traditional archery on bare horseback – surely that would give her the bounce she needed in life, but she soon bored of not hitting the target. Apart from which there was no thwacking saddle. Nothing measured up, nothing became a pleasurable habit, nothing satisfied her desire to leap into a real saddle again. 

She started asking her students about horses. Some interesting vocabulary came up – saddle, girth, stirrup, bridle, canter, gallop and bareback … not really very useful for general conversation, their rigid school education not able to go much beyond teaching the grammar of English, certainly not into conversation skills.  No solutions were offered to satisfy her desire to get back on a horse. 

Her students were either not into that hobby or couldn’t think creatively enough, possibly more likely the latter because there’s a way in Japan of not suggesting too much for fear of it turning out wrongly, so there’s almost a suppression of anything over-imaginative, over-creative and different. In a strange kind of way Sue felt there was some assuaging of her need to be on a horse again simply by helping her students with equine vocabulary, although she was aware of the irony that they didn’t need it and certainly wouldn’t use it. 

One day a new student arrived in class. Norio was good looking, tallish, rather dashing almost, a twinkle in his dark brown eyes. In the regular topic, “Sharing about our Lives”, he told Sue that he loved riding horses. What’s more, he knew of a riding school in the heart of Tokyo, and he gave her directions to it.  She had secretly wished that he could take her there and perhaps make an introduction to the owner or manager, but Norio was like many young Japanese people at that time trying to avoid the rigours of being tied for ever to the cradle-to-grave company culture,  and he had several part-time jobs in swanky restaurants, so he couldn’t spare the time. Besides, he said it was easy to find the riding school between Shinjuku and Shibuya, skirting the edge of huge Yoyogi Park, home to the Olympic Stadium of 1964, and the new replacement for 2020 … now 2021 because of coronavirus. Norio advised her to cycle there because there wasn’t a subway station nearby.

The following Saturday morning at about 10:00 o’clock, Sue hopped on her bike and cycled 25 minutes to the riding school. She didn’t phone ahead, feeling that just turning up would be all right, even within Japanese society with its strictures of politesse where everything was usually arranged beforehand, everything in its place. 

The riding school was a revelation, positioned as it was between the closely built-up area of Shinjuku, one of the most densely populated areas of Tokyo metropolitan region, and the immense Yoyogi Park. Sue could understand that the green space for a park was also home to the mighty Meiji Shrine, but a whole acre of land for a riding school looked out of place, positively wasteful. She wasn’t going to complain about it though. In the middle of Tokyo she was close to her dream. She knocked on the door marked “Office” and a kindly man came out. She said she’d like to have a ride if possible, there and then, she was ready to go. 

He was kind and helpful. There followed meticulous attention to every detail of riding and safety, including the right saddle, stirrups, reins, helmet, boots and, if she wished, an instructor to give tips on riding. Sue knew not to waive any preliminaries in this rule-based culture, but she almost gave up. All she wanted to do was pay her money and get on a horse.  She was glad that she had asked a Japanese friend before she went about how to behave in this kind of situation. The main piece of advice had been to exercise quiet patience. It was the way in Japan to take time over transactions, especially where a foreigner was involved because no-one wanted misunderstandings and bad outcomes. Sue was not the most patient person in the world but she held on, did a few statutory half bows, said many Arigatos and after an eternity of paperwork and advice, she paid ¥5000 for 45 minutes and got on a horse to ride around 50 square metres of track.  She was in heaven amid the high-rises and bustle of one of the busiest parts of Tokyo. 

She dreamed of keeping her own horse there, the club offering good stable facilities. Then she thought of the number of hours of teaching she would have to do to keep her very own horse at the Tokyo Riding Club. Buying her own riding gear on mum’s credit card and taking a taxi to the club would keep her happy for now, even if just a couple of times a week. Now she just had to go home and ask her mother to fork out further for her new hobby. She was hopeful, knowing that her mother was keen that she find something absorbing and lasting in this very different world. There was also one of Norio’s restaurants that she wanted to go to. Over another cup of Twinings one evening, Sue asked her mother, “Fancy going out for dinner soon, mum?”

“Where were you thinking? Please, not more sushi!” Mary stated firmly.

“One of my students, rather a dishy guy, works at La Granata, an Italian place, supposed to be really nice.”

“All right, we could ask Graham and Beth if they’d like to come, too.”

“Good thinking, mum, let’s make a night of it. We can celebrate me being back in the saddle again, I am so thrilled, it’s almost as wonderful for me as all of Tokyo.” 

  So for the time being, after her mother agreed to pay for a year’s subscription to the riding club, it turned out that Sue found her hard-to-please heart’s content in the most unlikely setting of an open-air riding club in the throbbing heart of one of the biggest metropolises in the world.   


Tokyo Riding Club near Shinjuku