Travel to Japan, Part 5: Tokyo

09/18/2011

Day 10

Today I left Kyoto and returned to Tokyo for the final leg of my trip. I was pleasantly surprised upon arriving to find the weather much cooler than Kyoto. Fog rolled in, and I was grateful that my last-mile walk to the hotel didn’t require a change of clothes.

At the recommendation of a few friends, I booked a hotel in the Shinjuku neighborhood in West Tokyo. The city is really a lot of smaller cities all mashed together, with a main train station terminal as the central hub of each one. Shinjuku is one of the most crowded areas, full of young people, shopping, dining, entertainment, and sky scrapers. It’s where Lost in Translation was set, and at night is largely indistinguishable from Bladerunner.

I set about exploring the neighborhood after getting settled at the hotel. Osaka was crowded and dense, but Shinjuku was like Osaka on steroids. After getting a feel for the busy shopping/dining areas, I set out to the business parks where many of the larger skyscrapers are concentrated. Among them are the twin towers of the Tokyo government building, at the top of which is a public observation level. From the 43rd floor, you can see in almost every direction, and the sea of skyscrapers surrounding you is a real marvel. Similar to Osaka, the city seems to extend forever.

It was in the Tokyo government building that I encountered some of the effects of the earthquake and tsunami from earlier in the year. Tokyo runs on a different electricity grid than the rest of the country, and the nuclear power plants that were now offline as a result greatly reduced the  available electricity in Tokyo. The government was encouraging everyone to conserve as much electricity as possible, and were setting the example in their own facilities. Most of the lights were turned off, the air conditioning was off, the vending machines were unplugged. The observation floor was uncomfortably warm as a result, so I didn’t stay long.

After finding something to eat for dinner, I continued to explore the entertainment districts in Shinjuku. It was now dark, and despite the conservation efforts the city was alive with lights. I wandered through the endless streets soaking everything in, and taking lots of photos. On one street, I attracted the attention of a man who approached me, and in very broken english tried to sell a “massage and job hand.” He had a brochure with photos of girls who could provide these services.

“You like whiskey? All you can drink in here” motioning into a shady night club. I told him I really wasn’t interested, I was just out exploring. He eventually relented the sales pitch when I told him I might be back later.

Shortly there after I was approached by a Jamaican man who wanted to hook me up with similar services. “Japanese women are amazing, mon! Do you have any idea what’s going on in there?” The implication was that there was much more available than a “massage and job hand,” which is something I’m not into paying for at home, and especially not in a foreign country. Again, I tried to explain that I wasn’t interested and managed to escape his grip. It was at this point that I realized I was in the wrong neighborhood for casual exploring. Foreigners came here with money and services in mind, and being a foreigner with a camera in hand I was attracting a lot of unwanted attention.

I put the camera back in my bag, but still had several solicitors hassle me. After the 4th or 5th I suddenly remembered that I didn’t speak English, only Spanish, which the club promoters didn’t seem to speak or understand. I managed to find my way out of the area eventually; it was the first time since I had been in Japan that I felt like I was in a genuinely dangerous situation – these guys would not take ‘no’ for an answer.

Day 11

Today I took the long route towoard Tokyo bay. I took the train over rainbow bridge and into a penninsula where the Miraikan Center for Emerging Technology resides. It’s a super cool museum of science stuff – there’s an International Space Station module that’s been signed by several dozen astronauts, a section on climate science, life science, deep sea exploration, robotics, and more.

The centerpiece however is this giant globe suspended from the ceiling, which looks like a disco ball covered with 10,000 OLED screens which display an animated earth across the entire 360 degree surface. It can dynamically display all sorts of climate data and other information, and was simply awesome.

I was a little disapointed that I only got to spend about an hour there, as it took me a long longer than I expected to figure out how to get there on the trains. Definitely a fun place to stop if you’re into science stuff.

After the Miraikan closed, I walked down the road to the shopping centers that were near by. There’s a very large mall that was very dark; more conservation I assume, but it actually set a rather cool mood. It was similar to a mall you might find in the US, with lots of trendy clothes shops, a packed Starbucks, and Katy Perry and Lady Gaga blasting throughout. Outside the mall was a boardwalk area along the beach overlooking the Rainbow Bridge, along with many restaurants facing the bay.

I hung out on the beach for a while watching teenagers build sand castles and dinner boats arriving into the small bay. As the sun set, I stopped in an Italian restaurant on the 5th floor of the shopping center that had a nice outside deck facing the water and watched the sun set over the bridge. Despite being by myself, it was pretty romantic. I come up with great dates when I’m by myself!

Day 12

Today I went exploring another popular area of Tokyo, Shibuya, which in my head gets yelled, like “SHE BOOOYAAAAHH!” That is an accurate pronunciation in fact.

Before getting on the train to head down, however, I went searching for lunch in the Shinjuku station’s shopping mall. A friend tipped me off to the restaurants usually being on the upper floors of these malls, so upstairs I went. I found an American restaurant called “Shane’s Burg” that was just too kitchy to pass up. It had a western American theme, with the staff dressed as cowboys, and the walls decorated with toy guns and american flags. They served “steaks”, but of course in a very Japanified fashion – very thin, and with a side of rice. It wasn’t great, if I’m honest, but what did I expect? The experience for me as an American (from Texas no less) must have been similar to what a visitor to the US would feel like visiting Benny Hannas or Pei Wei. Somewhat familiar food modified to fit the local tastes. A Japanese visitor to an American Japanese restaurant would probably wonder why he couldn’t get a raw egg on top of everything, much like I was wondering why there didn’t seem to be any potatos in Japan.

After lunch, I hopped on the train to Shibuya and went wandering. I had heard about “love hotels” in Japan, and it was in Shibuya that I finally ran across some. Love hotels are very popular in Japan as a private place for couples, especially parents, to have sex. Apartments are small, with thin walls, and when shared with a family there is virtually no privacy. Love hotels can be rented by the hour, up to an overnight stay, and are often “themed” in elaborate ways. I didn’t rent one to find out. Despite being a great date for myself the night before, I thought it might be a bit presumptuous for a second date.

Given the reputation, I was a little disappointed in them from the outside – they were very discreet, and difficult to spot not reading Japanese. The “job hand” district in Shinjuku was not at all shy about advertising it’s services on the street, but I suppose love hotels are more mainstream, and require a more discreet presence that doesn’t shout “people exiting here just had sex!

In addition to love hotels, Shibuya is famous for being the home of the “worlds busiest crosswalk.” And they’re not kidding. I took some video exiting to train station out to the crosswalk, which shuts down a 5-way intersection in all directions for a full minute, which is then just flooded with people going in all directions.

After exploring Shibuya for a while, I returned to Shinjuku for my final night in Japan. After dinner, I decided I would try a local bar, and settled on one with an english name on the top floor of one of the midrises. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but figured it couldn’t hurt to just hop in the elevator and see where it went. It opened into a tiny 10-15 stool bar. It was dark, covered in wood, with a wall full of whiskey. My kind of place, so I took a seat.

The young bartender spoke no english at all. I went with something easy at first, pointing at a bottle of Makers Mark on the wall, and then played a game of charades to say “small pour, neat.” There were about 5 others in the bar with me, all of whom were happy to ignore the gaijin in the room. After I finished the Makers, I pulled out the Google Translate app on my iPhone to ask what his favorite Japanese whiskey was. He laughed a little (I’m not sure how accurate the translations are, but probably not very), and then pulled down a couple of bottles of Miyagikyo and Hakushu. I ordered a small shot of each (both were good). Eventually, a much older bartender came over who spoke rudamentary english, so we were able to chat a little. He asked where I was from, and got a kick out of “Texas.” I asked him if they got many foreigners in the bar, “No, never.”

Others at the bar who were snacking on small food plates had whet my appetite a bit, so I asked him what kind of food they had available. Feeling sorry for making him struggle to translate, I went with the “cheese and raisins”, which was a tiny little serving. The food was the only thing that had prices on it, and my tiny serving of brie and goat cheese was about $18, so I figured I should tab out at this point. The bill came to about $70 for my 3 shots + cheese. Ouch. So lesson learned – the higher up you are in a building, the more you’re going to pay!

I returned to my hotel, and hit up the bar there hoping there might be some other foreign visitors. There were not, but there were some reasonably (relatively) priced peanuts and sake. Another pro-tip: sake is the inexpensive thing to drink in Japan, whiskey is not. After the sake I was feeling a bit tipsy and the bar was closing, so I decided this had been a successful final night in Tokyo.

Day 13

This morning I got everything packed up for the trip home. My flight wasn’t till 4:30, so I got checked out and left my suitcase at the hotel desk while I killed some time before heading to the airport. I decided I’d go check out the large electronics store nearby to see what Japan had that we didn’t. I was a little disappointed to find that “not much” was the answer. It was basically a lot like what you’d see at Fry’s in the US. But I had time to kill, and it was air conditioned, so I started exploring the upper floors of the store. Like many large stores in Japan, this one covered mulitple stories, with different departments on different floors. Computers on the first floor, home theater on the second floor, etc. I took my time on each floor, watching all the demos, and even sitting and watching clips from some hollywood movies in the home theater department for a while. I had figured the store was 3 or 4 stories at most, but after exploring each floor, there were always stairs going up to another floor. Fifth floor – appliances. Sixth floor – personal electronics, such as hair dryers and electric razers. Seventh floor – kitchen appliances (the counter top dishwashers were new to me!). Finally I reached the top at the eighth floor – lighting.

Having exhausted my time killing ideas, I retrieved my suitcase, and set off for the Narita Express train that would take me back to the airport. As I approached the train station, I noticed a man trying to hand out packages of tissue, and what looked like a comic book to people passing on the street. Women especially were recoiling, refusing to accept the books, and trying really hard not to make eye contact. I decided this was something I had to have, so I went up to him and asked for one. I think I was probably the only person to willingly take one from him that day, and he was just thrilled! I had heard about the tissue paper being handed out, which is done by advertisers because the train station bathrooms don’t have toilet paper, but the book was a mystery to me. I flipped through it quickly, and it looked like a lot of advertisements. Judging by the way everyone was shying away from it, I figured it wasn’t something I wanted to go through in public, so I stashed it away in my bag for later. After I arrived home I was able to work out that a lot of the advertisements were for the types of ‘red light’ establishments I had been avoiding, and many of the ads were to recruit women to the ‘massage’ parlors, some of which assured the girls that work would involve “hands only.” No wonder they were all ducking.

Once at the airport, I finally found the post office that had eluded me when I arrived, and got my 3G internet hotspot posted back to the rental company, and found my gate. I had packed a clean shirt in my carry on which I put on upon arriving at the airport, figuring I would be sweaty by the time I got there and not wanting to get on the plane that way; for my own benefit, and for those seated next to me. I spent the last of my yen on ice cream to help me stay cool in the non air conditioned terminal, and then remained as motionless as possible while waiting to board so as to not get all sweaty again in my clean shirt. Finally, we boarded the plane and set off.

Reverse culture shock

I arrived in Toronto an hour earlier than I had left Tokyo that same day. It’s a strange thing arriving in an english speaking country after having been away from anyone who speaks english for a couple of weeks. In navigating through immigration, I answered one of the customs officer’s questions with “hai! …I mean yes.” This actually happened several times the first couple of days I was back, as I was so used to pulling from my small bag of japanese phrases to get through basic interactions with people. Even a couple months later as I write this, when I want to get around someone I have to hold myself back from saying “sumi ma sen!” (“excuse me”).

After buying a giant slice of pizza (cheese!), I went and sat at the gate for my final flight back to Dallas next to an African man. He struck up a conversation with me, and told me he was from Nigeria and was going to visit his sister in Dallas. He asked if he could call her with my phone, as his didn’t work in Canada, to let her know when he’d be arriving, to which I agreed. We had the normal small talk about where you’re from, and what you do. “So, what do you do in Nigeria?” I asked.

“I’m a prince.”

He said it completely seriously, and I was struggling not to laugh. “A what?”

“A priest.”

“Ooohh!!! I guess the collar should have tipped me off, huh?” I think my brain probably filled in the first answer for me knowing he was from Nigeria, but I could have sworn he said prince!

After finally arriving home, I think I slept for about 2 days. I’m not really sure how to sum up the whole experience, other than to say that Japan is a much more complex place than the stereotypes we all have about it. It’s both the future, and the ancient past, both modest and flamboyant. In a way, it’s just like the US and the rest of the world. A diverse bunch of people trying to make their way in life as best they can. The common thread I have seen in my travels is that though the world is large, and we all have different cultures and histories, we are all more alike than we are different, and this proves true even in the most foreign of countries.