Wednesday, May 12, 2010

SURVIVAL SKILLS: Being Tall (My week in Tokyo)

Sometimes you'll take some pictures, do some research, draw up an outline in your head, and then sit down to write your article only to find some other topic injected into your brain. Today is one of those times. I am not, in fact, tall. I'm 5'8". By American standards, this is somewhere around average. By Tokyo's JR Yamanote train standards, this makes me a freakish mutant.

The plan was to write my second pop culture article about anime, but here's what happened. I queued up Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex - Solid State Society on my iPod. Also, it was around 50 degrees and rainy today in NJ. The strange chemistry of these two factors made me think about December of 2006, when I spent two weeks in Japan by myself, with even less than a rudimentary command of the language. My entire week in Tokyo it was around 50ish degrees and drizzly, with various anime soundtracks (especially Ghost in the Shell) on loop in my ears.

While I was there, I took some notes about the trip and I took a surprising number of pictures. Here are the results of my strange moment in forethought.

I had recently suffered a quarter-life crisis and decided that I was so unhappy in my job, quitting and self destructing for a while seemed like a reasonable course of action. About two months had gone by since I quit when I went to Mitsu-wa in Fort Lee, NJ on Thanksgiving. I had been pondering taking a trip someplace crazy, and while I ate miso ramen with pork at the strange Japanese grocery/department store, I decided to pull the trigger. Mitsu-wa conveniently has a Japanese travel agent, and after talking to him for about ten minutes, I let Endo-san basically plan my trip for me. A week in Tokyo, one night in Hakone so I could try out an onsen, and a little less than a week in Kyoto (the anagram-lover's Tokyo).


In Tokyo, I stayed in a neighborhood called Shinagawa, and that location influenced my first impression of the country. I noticed that the trains were awesome. Back then, I wrote this about the train station there (pictured above): "Shinagawa train station is not the largest train station in Tokyo. Far from it. However, when you compare it to New York City train stations, it makes them seem like they were designed by drunken hobos to be miniature models of what a real train station should be." The JR Yamanote Line was probably my single favorite thing about Tokyo. At the time, I could not stop talking about it. Years later, I still wish other cities' mass transit could be more like it. At no time on any train in Tokyo was I ever in danger of becoming lost, or not knowing exactly where in the city I was, and this was before GPS enabled phones.

The video monitors in the train (in addition to broadcasting commercials for the newly released Wii) showed the time in minutes to the next few stops on the route, as well as showing the names of the stops in both English and Japanese. I quickly learned that my navigation of the city would be based on train stations, with my favorites being Shibuya, Shinkjuku and Harajuku.

Each day in Tokyo started around lunchtime, because between the international date line and lack of an employment-enforced wake-up time, my sleep schedule was pretty messed up. Fortunately, there was a ramen stand right below my hotel, across the street from the train station. Although the family that ran the place spoke no English, and I spoke effectively no Japanese, after my second day eating there I was part of the family. Each day, they were super happy to see me and would try to teach me how to say the names of the things I was ordering in Japanese. As with most places in Tokyo, I was always the only gaijin present. This was my daily routine: Step 1: Ramen. Step 2: Yamanote Line to a new neighborhood. Step 3: Explore. The first day in Tokyo, I let the rain discourage me, and I spent most of the day on my tiny laptop in the hotel lobby, pottering around on the internet, and flipping through the guidebook, looking for things to do for the rest of the week. Day 2, when the rain seemed unlikely to stop, I bought a sweet-ass clear plastic Bladerunner umbrella and took to the streets. And of course, the sky cleared up as soon as I got out of the train station at Shibuya.

Shibuya is more or less the Times Square of Tokyo. Or at least my favorite of Tokyo's 3-5 possible Times Square candidates. I stopped there a few times during my trip, and each time there was a strange politics-mobile parked there with either a guy in camouflage (I suspect conservative) or a guy in a business suit (liberal?) yelling stuff at passersby. For me, the main draw of Shibuya was the Tower Records, where I spent a few hours searching the shelves for anime soundtracks from the shows I had been watching on Cartoon Network. This included Cowboy Bebop, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Fullmetal Alchemist, and Eureka Seven. At the time, Eureka Seven was still pretty new, and though I hadn't seen much of it, I took the leap of faith that I would like the rest of the music from the show, and I hit the jackpot. Later that night, I spent a few hours copying all of the CDs onto my computer, wrangling up album art from the internet, and setting up the soundtrack to my vacation.

Shibuya at night was pretty majestic. Just like Times Square, it doesn't really get dark there. And even more amazing is when all of the lights leading into the super-intersection go red. A flood of a hundred thousand people pours into the street. You could easily crowd surf across the whole intersection four feet off the ground atop an army of Japanese pedestrians, though I suspect they would frown on this sort of behavior

Next up, I visited Harajuku, the home of strange cosplay and shoulder-to-shoulder shopping in a weird bazaar-like alley. Also home to Meiji-Jingu, but I'll speak more on that in part two. I did manage to see cosplayers, though thanks to the gloomy weather, there weren't many. There were, however a number of gaijin with signs offering FREE HUGS and getting as few takers as you might imagine.
There were also a handful of the motorcycle type guys you may remember from the Peter, Bjorn and John video. If you look closely in the video, you can see the giant white sign next to the entrance to Meiji-Jingu. You can also see the Yoyogi National Gymnasium and behind it, the NHK building (the boxy tower with all the transmission stuff on the roof) in the background of a few shots.

Shinjuku is the home of one of the most heavily trafficked train stations in the city. To connect to the shinkansen and the rest of the country, you must first come here. Shinjuku is also home of the Hyatt where they filmed Lost in Translation. The Hyatt is actually a pretty long walk from the train station, and while I was able to find the lobby of the building beneath the Hyatt, I could not figure out how to get into the hotel, nor could I find anyone who spoke enough english for me to ask. I suspect this was their defensive barrier against people unwilling to spend less than 100,000=Y= on dinner in the restaurant overlooking the city. I wanted a Kobe steak before I left the city, so I wound up going back to Shibuya to find one. (It was delicious. Make sure you get one.)

Tokyo has a special kind of magic that Lost in Translation somehow managed to capture. It makes you feel strangely miserable and alone and bored, and yet, you will love it. For me, this was the most fascinating part of Tokyo. The strange feeling of loneliness that literally every resident of the city seemed to share. It helped me blend in and feel like I belong, even though I was too tall, too different and couldn't communicate effectively. Still, despite that feeling of isolation, the city lives and breathes as a community. Convenience stores (known as combini) are common, but you don't buy a green tea kit kat, walk down the street eating it and then throw the trash wherever. Nobody eats or drinks while walking anywhere in Tokyo. It's really weird and if someone doesn't point it out to you, you may never notice. But you will notice that the streets are clean. There's not one piece of trash anywhere it doesn't belong in all of Tokyo. People wear surgical masks not to protect themselves from disease, but because they are sick, and they refuse to inflict their germs on others. You may be alone, but Tokyo is a team and as soon as you land at Narita, you're in the starting lineup. (Forgive me the sports metaphor, okay? It fits.)

In Tokyo, everyone is a gaijin, not just @nerdsherpa

(Stay tuned for Part 2 about the shrines of Japan, coming soon.)

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