|by Brian Mckay
I’ve always had a fascination with Japan, a curious sense of romanticism for that country that has always stuck with me. Looking back on my childhood and adolescence, it seems that many of the things I loved had come from that mystical land of the Rising Sun: Godzilla flicks, Speed Racer cartoons, video games, and most important of all, Samurai movies. Every time I’d see a movie where a scowling Samurai or a beautiful Geisha strolled against a backdrop of cherry blossom trees and Buddhist shrines, I always felt a curious, sudden longing to be there.
I finally got my chance when some friends of mine started planning a trip to Tokyo. I wanted to go, but having just been laid off at the time, I knew I couldn’t afford to go. And yet the more they talked about it, and the closer the date drew near, the more I knew that I couldn’t afford to NOT go. I couldn’t miss this, and looking back now, I wouldn’t miss it - for anything. When my curious longing for the Japan of my imagination came face to face with the reality, a new world was opened up to me.
Although I have admittedly seen very little of the planet, I am thoroughly convinced that Tokyo is the most amazing city on the face of it. From the minute we touch down at Narita International, something feels different. There’s a lush canopy of trees just past the edge of the landing field, and the air feels a bit more humid, but it’s more than that. It’s the sudden realization that I’m finally here. I am in Japan! Amazingly, I get through customs and get my luggage in about ten minutes flat. When I comment on my amazement, Nozomi, the Japanese girl who sat next to me on the flight, smiles and says “We are known for our ultra-efficiency”. A college senior living in Houston, she’s back home for a few days to visit family and go on job interviews. She slept through most of the ten hour flight, but we did have some nice conversation in between. Turns out we both like the Japanese chick-stalker flick Audition. “That movie was fucked up, but good” she says. Her statement pretty much encapsulates my review of that film.
Having said my goodbyes to Nozomi, I hop on the train for the hour long ride into the central region of Tokyo. The city is simply huge. Looking at a map of it can only impart the slightest fraction of just how immense it is. If you go up to the Tokyo Tower (the Japanese version of the Eiffel tower – only much bigger and better, especially since it’s not in France), you will find nothing but city as far as the eye can see in every direction. Of course, Tokyo Tower is still at least five days away in my journey, but just from the train ride, it’s starting to dawn on me how big the place really is.
The train ride alone is surreal. For one, the trains are pristinely kept. No graffiti, no stains on the seats, no trash on the floors. And this is not because they detail each train every night, but because people don’t leave their garbage behind in the first place. It seems like every free space is used for advertising, a curious mix of English product names or slogans and Hiragana and Katakana text. People on the train are very quiet, often reading and listening to music or dozing off (yet always waking up just in time for their stop). I find myself surrounded by impeccably dressed businessmen, and housewives back from a day of shopping, and I am fascinated by every face and every conversation that is 95 percent unintelligible to me.
When I finally make my way out of the subway and onto the Meiji Dori (the main street that passes my hotel), I am suddenly overwhelmed with sensations. The city is an intoxicating mix of Eastern culture sprinkled with Western influences, a mish mash of the ultra-modern and the spiritually ancient, a hypnotic pairing of the familiar and the completely alien. The closest thing I can relate it to is stepping off of the shuttle on some distant planet, and realizing you’re home.
Why this feeling hits me, I can’t say, but it’s undeniable. I am in a city where everyone is of a different race, speaks a language that I still, after weeks of study and lessons, barely understand, writes in a code that I can’t decipher, drives on the left side of the road, and in general just looks, walks, talks and acts completely different than I do.
So why do I feel like I belong here?
Surely I’m not the first gaijin (“foreigner” or “outsider”, mostly reserved for white people) to be swept off his feet by the place’s inexplicable charms. But the effect is no less profound. As I get closer to the hotel, a man stops me and asks me in broken English if I’m heading to the New Koyo hotel (where all gaijin on a budget stay!). I tell him yes, and he offers me a ride. I don’t want to put him to any trouble, but he insists, so I agree. On the way over we make small talk and I wonder if he’s going to pull some kind of scam on what is obviously just another gaijin tourist. But no, he drops me off in front of the hotel a moment later and even helps me get my suitcase out of the trunk. He doesn’t ask for money, and in fact would be offended if I offered him any. Instead I bow and thank him in Japanese.
The New Koyo is nothing fancy. In fact, it’s probably about the only place you can stay in Tokyo for what works out to be a little over 20 bucks a night. The rooms are small, with just enough space for a futon and your suitcases. The bathrooms and sinks are all communal. The doors and walls are paper thin. But if you’re there to see Japan, and not just sit around ordering room service, then the N.K. is the place to be. It’s a place to crash and take a hot shower, and that was all I needed. They also had a nice Japanese-style bathing room, complete with the steaming hot tub. The N.K. is a great place to meet people, not only fellow tourists from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, and the States, but from other parts of Japan and Asia as well. You can usually meet someone interesting down in the tiny lobby, or just walking around the halls. However, it’s not a place for people who are anal about shared bathroom facilities or who require lots of privacy, and a few things I can suggest you bring if visiting the N.K. are earplugs, insect repellant (I never got a single bite, but many others complained of mosquitos), and a comfortable pillow. Oh, and like Towlie on South Park says, “Don’t forget to take a towel!”
The next morning, I sleep in. My friends have already left for the day. Where did they go? Tokyo Disneyland. Hey, that’s cool. We all love the House the Mouse built, and so do the Japanese. But I came here to see Japan, not a bunch of singing animatronics and log rides. My first stop is Asakusa. One of the spiritual centers of Tokyo, the avenue leading to the Asakusa Jinja and it’s neighboring Five-Story Pagoda is thronged with shops selling all manner of trinkets, clothing, and souvenirs. The main area in front of the shrine hosts a crowd of tourists and worshipers alike. I tag along with a bus tour group (the best way to pick up free information about a place) and follow, past the incense pit where visitors wave smoke towards them for good fortune, and the fountain lined with ladles where they can wash before climbing the steps to the temple. Inside, for a modest 100 Yen donation, you can draw a fortune from one of the Kanji-labeled drawers after drawing a stick with matching Kanji from a metallic can. You match the stick to the drawer, and pull out your fortune (part of which is conveniently printed in English). If it is a good fortune, you take it home with you. If it isn’t, you leave it tied to one of the racks by the entrance, and it stays in the temple.
Surely it’s an odd practice from the standpoint of western religion. But hey, the temple needs to be funded somehow, and at least they give you a little something fun back for your hundred Yen rather than a dull sermon. Unfortunately, the main garden is closed that day due to a ceremony at the neighboring Dembo-in Monastery, but still, Asakusa is a fantastic place. I spent hours wandering around there. As I strolled through the shopping and entertainment district just west of the shrine grounds, I found a theater with a huge poster for the new Zatoichi film starring Beat Takeshi, based on the 1970’s films that showcased the adventures of Zatoichi, the blind swordsman (originally played by Shintaro Katsu). When I see the poster, I excitedly ask the cashier “Zatoichi ima koko deska?” (Is Zatoichi here now?). He shakes his head and points out the release date at the bottom of the poster, which I hadn’t noticed nestled in amongst all of the Hiragana text. Not out for another month.
Afterward, I went to check out some of the nearby shops, with one specific item on my mind. My favorite Samurai films of all time are from the Lone Wolf and Cub series, which in turn are based on the wildly popular Manga comic books by Kazuo Koike. Well, at least they were wildly popular here when they came out in the 70’s. But at every manga shop where I stop to ask “Manga Kozure’ Ookami wa doko deska?” I get
confused looks. Half of them have never even heard of it, and the other half clearly don’t carry it. One guys tells me it’s very old and will most likely have to be found at a specialty shop. What the hell? I thought it would practically be a national treasure and readily in print over here. Apparently, however, the manga market has moved on the way of the Sailor Moon crowd. Oh well, since I don’t read Hiragana, a Japanese LW&C book wouldn’t have been much more than a keepsake. But damn, what a keepsake.
After a full day of Exploring Asakusa and everything within a 2 mile radius, I head back to the hotel exhausted and with hurting feet, and I feel terrific.
Kamakura, the Buddah, and a little angel
One of the places Nozomi suggested I check out is the town of Kamakura, about an hour’s train ride south of Tokyo and on the coast. Known mostly for its collection of shrines and temples, and the impressive Daibutsu, a 20 meter tall and 120 ton statue of the Buddha, it sounded like just the kind of place I was looking for.
On the train ride out, I get the usual curious glances from people that I am already becoming accustomed to. Japanese people will often ignore you (or pretend to ignore you, then look away when you catch them sneaking a furtive glance at you), but when you finally talk to them and make that crucial first contact (having learned some Japanese greetings, and remembering to bow), then they suddenly transform into this warm and friendly people, often helpful and courteous almost to a fault. A couple of cute girls smile at me on the train, and wave goodbye when they get off. Shit, when does that ever happen in the States, unless you’re Brad Pitt?
Kamakura is a bit of a disappointment at first. I was hoping for a quaint little seaside village, perhaps some strange holdover from the late Edo period. Instead it was much like just another suburb of Tokyo, a thoroughly modern coastal resort town complete with Denny’s, MacDonald’s, and KFC. And it’s hot as hell, hotter than the inland area, with humidity so dense, you almost need gills. Still, I don’t complain a bit – I’m in Japan, beotch!
I head for the beach first, a nice 20 minute stroll from the train station. It’s a light day, not many people - mostly families with little kids or small groups of teenagers. After walking the beach for an hour or so, I head back down the main road, stopping in at a “Freshness Burger” for lunch in spite of my vow to avoid American food while there. I’m hungry, dammit, and I don’t see any other restaurants down the street. I step inside, and the girl at the cash register speaks perfect English. “Yeah, I went to High School in Santa Cruz” she says. Great, I think She can tell me how to get around.
“You know how to get to the Daibutsu from here?” I ask. She gives me a blank look.
“So, I’m guessing you’re not from around here,” I say.
“Actually I grew up here. I’ve just never been there.”
“Must be just for tourists,” I say with a smile. Just then, another girl comes up to me speaking English that’s about as nearly unintelligible as I’m sure my Japanese is. Her name is Chiei, and although I can barely understand her, she’s one of the coolest people I will meet on this trip. Not only does she go out of her way to walk me to the train station that will get me to the Daibutsu, she even shows me how to work the ticket machine (which is different from the ones I’m used to from the Tokyo subway system). After getting a text message on her cell (from her boyfriend, maybe?) she seems very excited about going to see some fireworks later on. I later find out that this is a big month in Japan, time of the Oban festival, and that there are fireworks just about every other night. Still, it’s hard not to be excited for her. With a “Hajememashite” and a “Domo Arigato Gozaimasu”, I hop the train.
When I finally get to the Daibutsu, it does not disappoint. The bronze statue is massive, and impressive. Not the biggest one in Japan, so I’ve heard, but big enough for me. After taking far more pictures than is necessary (and we make fun of Japanese tourists!) I make my way toward the 3 mile hiking trail that connects the Daibutsu with the Engakuji temple. Chiei had told me about the trail, and since I mentioned that I wanted to see Engakuji, she recommends I take the hiking trail to it rather than the train back, since it’s the most direct route (at least, that was what I gathered from our very spotty but pleasant conversation). What she forgot to mention is that it’s almost an exclusively uphill hike from this end of the trail, and I mean UPHILL. Three miles later, I am sweaty and mud splattered, but I’ve taken some great pictures of all the shrines and such along the way. At the end of the trail, as promised, is the temple of Engakuji. The place is huge, and look, more stairs! Lots of them! However, the sights are fantastic, from the towering temple gate house to the manicured gardens and Koi ponds, to the quiet, tucked away cemeteries and the large ceremonial bell that is only rung once a year at New Year. With all of the steps leading up to it, it’s easy to see why they only go up there to ring it once a year. That little trek is a bitch – but like everything else I’ve seen so far, well worth it.
The most fantastic thing seen at Engakuji, though, is an archery dojo. A group of older men and women quietly practice the art of the bow, using the traditional Samurai longbow that is a good foot taller than me (who is, in turn, a good foot taller than them). Each member of the dojo takes only two shots at a time, and only fires their shot after a slow and elaborate ritual in which they kneel, rise, knock the arrow, hold the bow up high in front of them, then slowly pull it down toward their chest as they draw the arrow back. It’s the kind of slow, precise, methodical, and fluid motion that I recognize from my brief stint in Iaido (Japanese sword technique), with the kind of ceremony most westerners wouldn’t have the patience for. I watch them for about an hour, while the occasional handful of tourists comes in, watches for thirty seconds, gets bored, and leaves.
After a long day of walking, hiking, and climbing stairs, it’s beginning to grow dark and I’ve still got a long train ride back. I board the train at dusk. There are a few other people in the car, including an attractive mother with an adorable little girl who is wearing a pink “Minnie Mouse” T-shirt. She’s adorable in spite of the fact that she’s looking at me like I’m the Great White Satan, and is hiding behind her mother’s arm. The mother thinks nothing of it and quickly dozes off, while the girl continues to stare at me with what looks like a mixture of awe and fear. It’s a look I’ve seen a lot on the faces of Japanese children since I got here – they are the only ones who will make no effort to hide the fact that they are looking at you, and they usually do so with expressions that are openly uneasy if not downright terrified.
“Okay,” I think. “My mission for this train ride is to get that little girl to smile. I’m not asking for much, but just enough so that she doesn’t look at me like I’m going to cook her up in a pot or something.”
For twenty minutes, I occasionally smile, wave, and make goofy faces at her. She stares at me with a face as stony as that of the Daibutsu. I am getting zero play from her. But then, just when I’ve about given up, she finally cracks a little smile.
Suddenly, I’ve created a monster.
She begins making goofy faces back at me and bouncing around on the seat, much to the annoyance of her half-asleep mother. With each new antic, she looks up at me and smiles, as if to say “Look what I can do! Aren’t I funny?”. She is the cutest damn thing I have ever seen, and suddenly I’ve gone from being the Great Satan to a Golden God. When she finally gets off the train with her mom, she keeps looking back at me and waving. I wave to her, and her mom glances back at me and smiles as the doors close.
When I get back to the hotel, my friends bombard me with tales of the technological wonders of Tokyo Disneyland. But while they are exuberantly going on about the ultra-realistic visual effects, all I can think about is the feeling of wet sand beneath my toes, quiet shrines tucked away in shaded woods, the extremely nice young lady who walked ten blocks out of her way just to show a gaijin the way to the train station, and most of all, the once-fearful little girl who I was briefly able to become friends with, without having to speak a word. That moment alone was worth every bit of effort it took to get here.
Won't you take me to, Electric Town!
Next day, I’m tired as hell from the almost non-stop walking of the first two days, so I sleep in. It’s the last time I do so for the rest of the trip, and dawn will usually find me awake and down in the lobby, planning out that day’s activity. I’ve heard about how rough jet lag can be, but for me it doesn’t seem to exist. I must be running on pure adrenaline, because once I get off the plane back at S.F.O. the dreaded jet lag is going to come down on me like an anvil and I will know the joy of being on a constant see-saw of narcolepsy and insomnia for several days to come.
One of my friends comes knocking on the door and wakes me up for the trip to Akihabara, a.k.a. “Electric Town”. What started out as a postwar collection of tiny shops selling old radios and various salvaged electronic parts has now grown into a staggering collection of stores selling all manner of tech, some of which won’t even be seen in the States for at least a couple of years – like digital cameras that are damn near credit-card sized, for example. At night, the place is lit up as brightly as Las Vegas (much like many other parts of Tokyo), and the selection is truly staggering. Though we check out a ton of shops, we agree that AsoBit City is our favorite. Unless you’re looking specifically for components or gadgets, it’s your one-stop shopping place consisting of seven floors. First floor, every gaming console and video game accessory known to man – including several game titles we’ve never heard of in the States and probably never will. Too bad they won’t work on Region 1 consoles. Second floor houses a staggering collection of CD’s and DVD’s, both American and Japanese films and artists. Third floor consists of every Manga book in existence (except Lone Wolf and Cub, of course). Fourth and fifth floors are full of toys, and the fifth floor includes a firing range (more on that in a moment). Sixth floor is PC games, though you may need a Japanese OS installed to play most of them. Seventh floor is porn. Lots and lots of porn. Everything from your typical spank magazines, to Hentai books (schoolgirls, tentacle sex, ultra-bondage, that sort of thing), to videos and computer software. Due to some strange Japanese laws governing the porn industry, all activity in the genital area is blurred out or covered up (although just barely at times). Yeah, it’s okay to show a 14 year old schoolgirl having sex with an alien sporting a seven-headed penis – but for God’s sake, make sure you put a little black bar over her clitoris first! How bizarre, how bizarre.
They have an Eighth floor, but it’s currently closed with a big red sign in Japanese. I’m dying to know what’s up there. Jet packs? Particle beam weapons? Cybernetic love slaves? Or maybe it’s just empty floor space – but what fun is it imagining that?
Back down on the fifth floor, we spy a wall that is lined with what look like very realistic assault rifles of all shapes and sizes. Upon closer inspection, we realize that they are in fact mere pellet guns, but ones so authentic looking from a short distance away that they would surely get you shot by an American cop if you were seen holding one. Here, however, they are perfectly legal. I found a 9mm Beretta 92F model that looks almost identical to the real thing sitting in my closet back home. And it suddenly dawns on me how a film like Battle Royale (in which mere high school kids are dropped onto an island and forced to kill each other in vicious blood sports) can be released over here, but never find a wide release or DVD issue in the States. Nobody owns guns in Japan, and a fourteen year old kid can’t just get a hunting rifle out of his Grandpa’s study and kill a bunch of his classmates with it. Violence in a Japanese movie like Battle Royale or the edgier Anime’ films tends to be extra-bloody and hyper-stylized – but as far as I know, they’ve never had a schoolyard shooting like Columbine to put things into perspective. Therefore, you have an entire corner of a toy store that looks like a repository for a S.W.A.T. team.
That being said, we naturally rented a few of these guns (500 yen will get you 300 “rounds” on the firing range) and tried them out. They were surprisingly accurate, considering there is little to no recoil and all they shoot is a BB-sized rubber pellet. I switch mine to full auto and hose through my last 150 pellets, putting a good fist-sized hole through the center of the target at 30 meters. Yeah, baby! For a minute we each entertain the insane idea of trying to take one of these babies home with us. Then reality sets in, and we speculate that if we were to try and take something like this back through Homeland Security, we’d end up in a tiny room full of irritated customs agents sorting through every inch of our luggage while one of them slaps on a latex glove and asks us to drop trow. No thanks! Guess I’ll just have to settle for real guns back home – although these are a lot more fun.
Shibuya, Battle Royale 2, and the funniest drunken Japanese guy I've ever met
Having seen everything of interest for the moment, we hop the train for Shibuya, a trendy shopping and clubbing place on the Tokyo map. Many parts of Tokyo are crowded, but nothing in our experience rivals the sea of humanity encountered upon exiting the Shibuya station. Thousands of people crowd the area, which strongly resembles a marriage between New York’s Times Square and the set of the movie Blade Runner – complete with miles of neon and massive video screens hawking a barrage of products. It’s no secret that the streets of Tokyo inspired the look of that film, especially districts like Shibuya and Shinjuku – loud, thronging places full of futuristic-looking high rises, brightly-lit shops, restaurants, theaters, J-pop clubs, and of course a not-so-discreet array of Gentlemen’s clubs or “Pink Salons”. Throw in some darker skies, incessant rain, a few flying police cars, and a noodle shack topped with a neon dragon, and you could easily believe that you are in Ridley Scott’s futuristic and dystopian version of Los Angeles. Who’s up for a game of “Spot the Replicant?”
As we’re walking around looking for the big 100 Yen store (all the rage in Japan these days, even if most of what they sell is total novelty crap), we come across a theater showing the one Japanese film (besides the yet-to-be-
released Zatoichi) that I’ve been dying to see: Battle Royale 2. The next show is in a half hour.
“Guys, guys, whoa. I’ve got to see this movie.”
“Why? It’s going to all be in Japanese. You’re not going to understand anything.”
“Dude, who gives a damn? It’s BATTLE ROYALE 2!”
I won’t understand most of the plot, that’s true. But the language of exploding neck collars, arterial blood spray, and flying body parts is universal. Since my friends are loathe to pay to see a movie that isn’t even in English subtitles, I bid them adieu and buy my ticket.
Now, a word or three about going to movies in Japan. For one, they’re not cheap. The Tokyo region has surprisingly few movie theaters, considering the fact that about a quarter of the country’s population lives in and around the capital. Ticket prices range from 1000 yen (a little over 8 dollars) for a matinee’ to a whopping 1800 yen for normal show times (that’s 15 dollars American to you and me, folks!). We bitch about the high cost of movies here, but when was the last time you dropped fifteen bucks for just one ticket?
Another surprising thing is that at least half of the screens in Tokyo are showing the latest American blockbusters. Matrix Reloaded, Terminator 3, The Hulk, and Pirates of the Caribbean – all present and accounted for. Especially Pirates of the Caribbean, which had far more of a media presence via billboards, posters, and subway ads over here than it ever had back home. They love American movies – and after sitting through some of the previews for Japanese films before Battle Royale 2, I can see why. While a couple of the offerings looked promising, most of it looked like 17 year old teenybopper romance novels on celluloid, extremely bland and generic-looking anime’, or the latest in a long tradition of action movies that look cheaply made with production values slightly above those of a Saturday morning or after school episode of Power Rangers . Still, it’s nice to see that one of my childhood T.V. buddies, UltraMan is still alive and kicking and shooting lasers out of his kung fu chop over here.
Just the act of going to a movie in Japan is an entirely different experience in and of itself. As with pretty much everywhere else in the nation, customer service is impeccable. The art of actually smiling and greeting a customer in a friendly manner seems all but lost back home, and it’s good to see that courtesy and good manners are still alive and flourishing somewhere in the world. But what impresses me the most is not the courtesy of the ushers and staff (since courtesy is, after all, part of the job description), but of the patrons themselves. The crowd lined up in the lobby consists entirely of teenagers or twenty-somethings. Therefore, I have the distinction of being both the oldest AND whitest patron in attendance. In the lobby, they act like pretty much any other crowd of teens, college students, and young professionals. There are animated conversations and plenty of cell phone chatter, and most of it continues after the theater doors have opened and everyone has gone inside. However, once the lights begin to dim, it’s a very different story.
I can’t speak for every theater in Japan, but in this one they didn’t merely dim the lights and start rolling film. First you hear a musical tone, very similar to the kind that announces arriving trains on the subway. Then a pleasant female Japanese voice comes on and makes a fairly lengthy announcement. I don’t’ understand most of it, but I hear a lot of “Kudesai” and “Arigato Gozaimashita”, so I imagine it’s something along the lines of “Please don’t talk, leave garbage, or use cell phones during the movie. Thank you for your patronage.” The only real difference between such admonitions here and in the States is that here people actually pay attention to them. The theater, a small but plush affair, is already clean when our group goes to sit down. Like the subway cars, the seats are free of stains, and the aisles are clear of trash – save for the errant kernel of popcorn or the fallen ticket stub, which an usher quickly stops by to sweep up. No spilled 46 ounce Mountain Dew, no scattered bag of half-eaten popcorn crunching under your feet. Why are Americans such frigging slobs?
Once the announcement ends, the lights slowly dim in stages as the curtain draws back. There are a ton of previews for the mostly unremarkable aforementioned titles, but no commercials. Then the movie actually begins, and for the next two hours, I hear something I have never heard in an American theater – complete silence, save for the film itself. Not one cell phone goes off. I don’t hear so much as a peep out of anyone. Even during the film’s rousing finale’, there isn’t so much as a clap or a cheer. The crowd is blissfully silent. When was the last time you heard that in a theater full of mostly teenagers? I’m guessing never, that’s when. Western audiences know that a pack of teenagers are the bane of the movie-going experience. They never pay attention to the movie, never turn their cell phones off, and never seem to know that you’re supposed to shut the fuck up once the movie starts playing. Take, for example, the four upstanding young men sitting behind my friend and I when we went to see Pirates of the Carribean Stateside. For the first twenty minutes of the film, this was all I heard.
(ring . . . ring)
“Yeah, whatup? Yeah, I’m in da movie right now. Hit me back later, dawg”
Wait five minutes. Repeat. Hey, “Dawg”, I’m about ready to hit you now if you don’t turn that goddamn phone off and shut your cakehole. Finally, after several exhortations to do so from myself and others around them, they take the hint and shut up. Then they walk out of the film halfway through it. Okay, granted, I wasn’t a huge fan of Pirates either – but why in God’s name did they even bother showing up? I can only conclude that it was just to thoroughly annoy everyone around them. Congratulations, assholes, mission accomplished!
The movies in Japan may not be cheap, but I would gladly drop my 1800 yen to see a film with a house full of Japanese teens any day
After the movie, I wander around Shibuya a bit. It was crowded before, but now that it’s after dark the place has really come alive. The streets are pulsing with life, and the women are out in full force, dressed to the nines. The women. My God, the women.
A word about Japanese women. They are the most beautiful, graceful, exquisite, and fashionable creatures I have ever seen. Naturally, not every Japanese girl has supermodel looks, and in fact some of them are rather plain, but still – if you want to see some stunning examples of feminine beauty, You won’t have to look very hard or wait very long. Especially in a place like Shibuya.
As my luck would have it, though, I am invited out for dinner and beers - not by one of these stunning young ladies (and maybe a friend or three of hers as well), but by a Japanese guy who has started up a conversation with me in English. He introduces himself as “Eric”, and has obviously a)spent some time living in the States and b)is happy to have found someone to converse with in English. Of course, he’s already about a sheet and a half to the wind, and by the time we leave the bar later on he will be three sheets at full mast. As it turns out, though, Eric is a pretty funny guy. When I tell him I’m from San Francisco, he exclaims “I love that place. That’s where you get the best weed!”. He also urges me to “Pick up a Japanese girl before you go. You have to try one!” Thanks for the advice pal, but believe me, it’s already on the itinerary. However, he feels the need to elaborate further.
“Not every Japanese girl will sleep with you, of course,” he says. “But I can tell you one thing . . . they are all curious about the Golden Bat.”
“Golden . . Bag?” I ask, not understanding. “You mean moneybags? You mean they all want a sugar daddy?”
“No, no, no,” he replies, waving his arms for emphasis. “The Golden BAT. You know, like baseball bat.”
I’m still not following him, even as he pantomimes holding up a bat.
“Bat,” I say. “Golden bat . . . you mean penis?”
“Ah, so!” he exults, snapping his fingers as I laugh my ass off. Did I mention he was a funny guy?
When we part ways, we exchange addresses and emails, and he tosses out a final exhortation of “Send me Marijuana!”
So, even though I didn’t end up hooking up with a Shibuya honey that night, I got to see a cool movie long before most gaijin will ever lay eyes on it, and I got to drink and hang out with one of the locals – and really, isn’t that the kind of thing I came here for in the first place?
The one time I was bored in Japan, The Tokyo Tower, and The Oban Festival
The next day, Sunday, we take a long train ride out to Fusa, an area where one of my friends spent some time growing up on the U.S. Air Force base there. An old friend of his father’s, Mr. Ichikawa, has been the chief of the local liaison force that provides most of the base security for over fifty years now. Ichikawa-san is kind enough to give us a quick tour of the base, and although the tour itself is quite dull, his driving skills are truly harrowing. He is careful to point out, several times, that most of the base as it exists now has been “built by the Japanese government.” That will become the running joke for the rest of our stay.
“See that tree over there?”
“Yeah, what about it?”
“Built by the Japanese government!”
Okay, so the airbase tour wasn’t my scene. Maybe if I could have caught a glimpse of some F-16’s or Stealth Bombers, I would have perked up a bit (Although now far subdued, my fascination with military hardware has remained with me since childhood). However, since it is primarily an airlift support base, the traffic it sees are cargo-laden C130’s and precious little else. Moving right along.
Back in the city, we stop to check out the Tokyo Tower. It’s an overpriced tourist trap, to be sure, but the view from the top is worth the 1600 yen, where all you will see for miles in every direction is Tokyo’s dense and vibrant cityscape. We get there at dusk, which is the best time to see the city lights coming to life. The floors at the tower’s base house a cheesy collection of attractions, such as a “trick art” gallery full of 3D and holographic artwork, and a wax museum which features a “chamber of horrors” that looks like a medieval dungeon, but sounds like the set of a porno movie. What are supposed to be the sounds of prisoners crying out in pain sounds more like the throes of ecstasy, complete with a boom-shacka-lacka soundtrack to really drive the impression home. Okay, the place sucks, but it’s good for a few laughs. Especially the display of Lon Chaney in full vampire garb, topped off with a sign that reads “Count Dracura.” Meanwhile, the gift shop decor reeks of a San Francisco head shop, complete with plenty of hippie paraphernalia. When I jokingly ask the counter girl “Mari-jana, koko deska?” (Is there any marijuana here?), she gets a shocked look on her face and shakes her head in the negative (The chronic is very illegal, expensive, and difficult to come by in Japan – as my newfound friend Eric will sadly attest). I assure her I’m only kidding, having foolishly forgotten that the Japanese, in spite of their wonderful sense of humor, don’t really get the Western notion of sarcasm.
On the way to the tower, we had passed through the grounds of a Buddhist temple and noticed strings of brightly colored paper lanterns and tables being set up, along with a tall platform rising up from the middle of the square in front of the temple steps. Obviously something big was going down here tonight, so we decide to stop back after the tower. July is a big festival month in Japan, primarily that of the aforementioned Oban festival. Traditionally a “festival of the dead”, the Oban is in fact a very lively celebration complete with fireworks, traditional dancing, and many lovely young women dressed in kimonos or yukata (a light, summery style of Kimono). Festival periods are about the only time you can really see people in traditional garb, so it’s fortunate that we happen to be there during a big festival month.
Back at the temple, a celebration is in full swing. A drummer stands in the tall platform, banging away with the piped-in music being played over Bose speakers. At least a hundred men, women, and children are dancing in unison in a circle around the platform, while at least a few hundred more watch. The dance moves look relatively simple, yet extremely graceful and elegant. It’s a fascinating spectacle, and we sit on the temple steps with several Japanese people (and a few other gaijin) and stay to watch. The dancers are a joy to observe, especially the children. As a beautiful little girl and her kid brother dance past, decked out in their little kimonos, I snap a picture of them. I will later find out that this picture, along with every other one I took of the festival, did not come out. Despite all the colored lanterns and the four spotlights shining down from the tower, it’s still too dark for my crappy camera to pick up much of anything. Like so many other moments of this trip, it will have to remain preserved only in my mind, or on paper. The festival was a beautiful thing, though, and not something I’m likely to forget in this lifetime.
Tired, we make our way back to the hotel. As I sit on the train while it’s stopped at the station, I glance out the window and see a beautiful woman in a Yukata strolling across the platform. She stops and stands with her back to me, waiting as the inbound train blows past her and slows to a stop. As I sit there watching her, I realize that this moment, this image, perfectly sums up what I love about Japan – that mix of delicate beauty and ancient traditions harmoniously merged with a thoroughly modern society. She could have walked into this subway station from half a millennia ago, and I wouldn’t know the difference. It’s this kind of culture that imbues the place, the kind of culture we never see in the States. As a nation, we are too young and too scattered to have a culture this rich. I fumble in my backpack, looking for my camera, but by the time I retrieve it her train has pulled to a stop and she has been swallowed up by it and the crowd of disembarking passengers. Another moment that will have to be preserved primarily in my mind. That’s okay, though. Usually things are better kept in the mind’s eye, rather than on the impartial and often harsher medium of a snapshot.
Ueno Park, Katanas 'R Us, Roppongi washout
After having had the shit thoroughly bored out of me by the half-day spent at Fusa, I decide to return the favor by insisting that we go to Ueno Koen (Ueno Park). It’s a lively place full of shrines and fountains, storytellers excitedly regaling small groups of kids with tall tales using hand-painted pictures on easels, a large marsh full of Carp and Koi fish that are so damn big they look mutated, and a collection of museums – most notably the Tokyo National Museum, our final destination for that morning. Well, my final destination, since my friends got bored and decided to go to lunch at T.G.I. Fridays (yes, they have them over there as well, sadly).
Inside, there are some exquisite pieces of work – and I’m not just talking about the very pretty and uniformed female ushers who watch over the place. But the first thing I ask one of them is “Samurai Katana wa doko deska?” That’s right, baby – just point the way to the swords! Surprisingly, their collection of ancient weapons and armor is nowhere near as large as I’d hoped. It is, however, impressive. Blades hundreds of years old and once stained with the blood of who knows how many warriors are now preserved beneath plexiglass, polished and glittering brightly as if they had just been forged yesterday. The craftsmanship, the fine grain in the steel, the signatures in Kanji on the exposed tangs (the part of the blade that fits inside the handle) – I have seen plenty of swords in the Samurai flicks, and plenty of factory-made replicas, but these . . . these are the real deal. I try to take some close-up pics through the plexiglass, having to suppress my flash because it might set off the alarms or something (or so the usher told me). None of them will come out worth a damn in the museum’s subdued lighting.
Still, there are other wonders to behold. Kimonos and fans so rich in detail that they tell a story on their own. But most impressive of all, some artist from way back when painstakingly carved scenes of an entire village into a tiny cube of sandstone that would easily fit in the palm of your hand. As I lean in and squint, I can make out the shapes of trees, houses with peaked roofs, and a tiny man standing on a bridge over a waterfall. It’s the smallest and most intricate piece of art I’ve ever seen.
You could spend a good day or two exploring that place, but my feet are getting tired, so I bounce. That night, my friends and I are supposed to go to Roppongi, the infamous gaijin night spot. My friends puss out on me, though, so instead I head out with a couple of guys I met at the hotel, a Canadian and a Brit. We hop the train into Roppongi, only to find that there ain’t much shaking there on a Tuesday night. And we learn a lesson the hard way about night life in Tokyo. On the weekends, of course, the place would be bouncing. But on a weeknight it’s slow. Not a lot of girls out, and in front of every bar you pass, you are verbally assaulted and annoyed by a Japanese or Black guy (the Black guys don’t speak English much better than the Japanese, so I assume they are from various parts of Africa) trying to get you to come into their joint. Some of them will follow you for a block or more, as one did to me until I told him to step the fuck off. However, after sampling a few of the bars, it’s not hard to see why they’re so aggressive. Business is sloooooow tonight. Even at GasPanic, one of the sleaziest and most famed gaijin hangouts, there are no more than twenty people inside. Disappointing.
Of course, things might have picked up, had we been willing to stay all night. See, in Japan, most people either don’t have cars or don’t use them much because parking is such a pain in the ass (the one place on the face of the earth even worse than San Francisco). However, the trains only run until midnight and don’t start up until 5 a.m. So, if you really want to do the nightlife scene proper in Tokyo, you need to be prepared to hang out all night long.
However, Shibuya turned out to be the exception. Shibuya is always hopping, always insanely crowded, and never dull. Live music can be heard from several upstairs bars (even if it’s not particularly good music). Beautiful women are everywhere. It’s a carnival atmosphere. Vendors sell a variety of “Engrish” shirts laid out on the sidewalk. I will see several hilarious ones in my wanderings, but none in my big-boned 5’11’ gaijin XL size. One would make a nice keepsake, but I’m not spending 2-3000 Yen ($20-30 dollars) for a keepsake I can’t wear.
A word about “Engrish”. The Japanese love the English language. Most of them have a tenuous grasp of it at best, but phrases in English are always in demand. When one of my friends later asks a Japanese girl why they have all the shirts with English phrases on them (phrases that usually make little to no sense), she simply replies “Japanese doesn’t look cool. English does!” For them, English phrases on shirts are less about literal meaning (which is a good thing in their case) and more about aesthetics. English has a look and flow to it that can’t be reproduced in Hiragana or Katakana, and it catches the eye –which is also why so many advertisers use it in their product descriptions. The result is a myriad of T-shirts and posters bearing some of the most wildly nonsensical and hilarious sayings ever known to Western man. Some examples:
“Words from New Heaven: It’s Tuesday Night.”
“Spread Beaver: Showing the Vaginal Area” (I’m not kidding, folks).
“Everyone must be Dreaming a Happy”
“Everything must be Activated”
And still my favorite,
“No Worry: 0.0 Confidence!”
The list could go on, but there are too many to remember. In fact, most of these items are probably cranked out by a myriad of sweatshops and we never saw any two that were alike. Of course, before we poke too much fun at the Japanese, ask yourself if you have any idea what those T-shirts in Kanji or Hiragana that they sell in the States read. Do we have any clue? No! We buy them because they look cool. Sure, I’d buy a black T-shirt covered with Kanji because it looks tight, but for all I know it’s saying something very similar to “Spread Beaver: Showing the Vaginal Area”.
Not that I wouldn’t be down with that.
Imperial Gardens, a not-so-nice side of Japan, Last night.
As I’ve tried to cram in as much living as humanly possible into the week, one stark realization has slightly soured my mood during these last few days.
“Damn. I have to go home soon.”
Usually, I’m not into the long vacations. Usually, after a week or so, I’m done. Ready to go back to sleeping in my own bed and just the feeling of being at home in general. But this time, I was not eager to get back on that plane. Before my final stab at the Tokyo wild life in Shibuya that night, I need to see one more epic, grandiose place. Where we end up going is the Higashi Gyoen (Imperial Garden). This is the Emperor’s front yard, where the people are allowed to play. If you try to pass the barricades to the sacred ground beyond, however, you’d probably be shot. The place is surrounded by wide moats that have been there since the Edo period, if not before, and that once staved off feudal invaders. Acreage that once housed armies is now dominated by perfectly sculptured trees and lawns – and unlike most parks in Tokyo, these are free of the camping homeless.
Yes, you heard me. Homeless. While the Japanese try to downplay the existence of the Homeless, they do exist. Occasionally you’ll see them sleeping in subway entrances, but mostly you’ll find them camping out in the parks. Unlike the American variety of homeless, however, they don’t stalk you and beg aggressively for a cigarette or your spare change. They quietly keep to themselves. They’re not homeless because they’re insane or addicted, they’re homeless because they are old, without any specialized job skills, in a country whose economy is suffering. So yes, not everything in Japan is cherry blossoms and pretty girls in kimonos and super hi-tech cleanliness. As with all places, there is a darker, sadder side. But let’s not linger on it for now. I hate to be a buzzkill.
As you enter the East Garden, you will first come across a wide pathway that leads to the barely-recognizable foundations of a five-storey castle keep. It is here that I came across a small plaque that described something huge. If I understood it correctly (even “official” plaques are sometimes written in vague or confusing English wording), this path (now paved with concrete) once was covered with straw tatami mats – and it was here that the 47 Ronin took their revenge.
The tale of the 47 Ronin (“Masterless Samurai”) is one of Japan’s greatest, and has been told more than once in Japanese film. 47 loyal Samurai, who were unable to defend their master against the treachery of another lord, took their vengeance here. Once their lord had been avenged, they all took a sword to the belly in the indisputably unique Japanese ritual of seppuku. And it looks like this is the place where it went down.
But the most spectacular sight is to come, as we walk down the hill and spot the most exquisite Japanese garden I’ve ever seen. A waterfall spills into a pond full of fat Koi, watched over by stone lanterns and manicured banzai trees. It’s the kind of place where you can just sit and look around for hours, and I wish I had the time to. Instead I take a ton of pictures – and at least these ones do come out.
After that, I went home and took a nap and then took my last soak in the Japanese style bath before heading out to Shibuya. My last night in town was a bittersweet feeling. I felt more alive than I had in a year, hell, maybe years. Yet it was all tempered by a dread of going back to the familiar and banal. Who the hell needs Disneyland when every day in this place is just like being at Disneyland for the first time?
But when all was said and done, I was happy to be going home the next day with everything on my “To Do” list checked off.
The long plane ride home
How can I describe the feelings I had that next day? As the plane cleared the tarmac with the thud of retracting wheels, I felt a kind of hollowness in my gut. Like the feeling you get when you’re going away from someone you love, and you know you won’t see them again for a long time. It was a fantastic week, but a week wasn’t enough. Not nearly. I want more, and the next time I go back, I intend to stay awhile.
I can’t explain how you can feel more at home in a strange country halfway around the world then you do in the places you grew up – but that’s how I felt. For all its differences and even some very negative aspects, I was happy there for a brief time. Who knows, maybe I was a Samurai in another life (or probably nothing so grand). People talk about leaving their heart in San Francisco, but all I left there was a job and rent to pay. I may never know the life of a Samurai, but I’ll always have my Samurai movies. And I’ll always have Tokyo.
Now if I could just fall asleep when I’m supposed to . . .
Jet lag sucks.
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originally posted: 08/07/03 15:11:39
last updated: 09/23/05 14:58:05