Tokyo in 24 hours

June 20th, 2008 § 1 comment

I’m writing this on my flight to Beijing. I’m glad I got a day layover in Tokyo. It gave me an opportunity to recall our year long voyage of to the United States from Russia in 1989, through Austria and Italy. Other immigrants, after 1990, had stepped on the plane in Moscow and disembarked in New York, receiving the full impact of the cultural transition at once, and at the same time the illusion of a seamless transition.

I had the same opportunity now, to prepare for the culture shock of Beijing, by getting a dose of culture shock in Tokyo.

As I rode the escalator to baggage exchange, I saw a couple that were on the same plane as me from LAX speaking Japanese. The guy made a long drawn out exhalation of relief inserting the English phrase, “Well, back to reality.” For me it was the other way around.

The first amusement was in the airport bathroom. I had expected the bidet — the buttocks washing contraption. But I didn’t realize they had thought of adding a button to electronically generate a masking sound for “embarassing bathroom noises.”


I met up with Lei and Michael, other EAPSI-China Fellows, and we took the JR express train from Narita Airport to Tokyo Center. It was around 30$ for the hour long ride. We rode through rice patties in the country side, through lush greenery where many plants plants play nicely together, dense ferns with bamboo, and farmers gently tending to their plots. The country slowly gave way to neatly tended single story homes, stone gardens, parks; as we progressed further into the hive, it was now neon, a monorail, and finally emerged at Tokyo Central station.

My housemate Laurel put me in touch with her fellow UN peacekeeper from Liberia (more on this later — as he told me some nice stories) who is currently stationed in Japan. He met us with his friend Lindsay, Amanda (an EAPSI-Japan Fellow I had emailed) and together we made up a crew of 6.

Our first destination was Shibuya, which is the like Times Square in the neon sense. I took a few videos there to relay the density of people. It’s a neighborhood the young, specifically designed for engaging in non-specific activities, such as gawking at others, and showcasing their own stuff.

Here’s a video of the human/car phase transition at the main intersection:

We ride the metro where all the trains are running like clock work, with second precision. A bulletin board announced that one train will be delayed however, listing “earthquake” as the reason. I read about that in the papers the following day.

We hit up a bar, small, standing room, tapas style and we got our first less on in etiquette:

Whenever you want something, like beer or a side of squid, you scream something like /shebu-sen/ (Jon, please correct me) and a waiter appears. This convention applies everywhere. The waiter won’t dote on you and check in if you’re ok — you have to yell for their attention. People do it vigorously. It’s an excuse to scream. But magically, they appear.

Michael is really good at meeting people. He turns around and makes friends with Tomo and Yuki (Y-oo-ki) who end up hanging out with us until 5am.

I need to work on this skill. Too much status quo, Peretz. Find the least familiar thing and set your keel for it!

Tomo is in a suit, a young “salary man” working in Shibuya real estate development. He describes the goal to be “more better, more connected, more people intersection.” Yuki works in information technology for the fashion industry (if we understood him correctly). They are young, cheerful, outgoing, skinny. When they sit next to each other it’s as if one is always climbing over the other and their faces, facing us, end up on top, besides, slightly diagonally, or with Tomo’s elbow on Yuki’s head … hard to parse this mythical creature.

We’re hungry and they suggest a traditional place around the corner. We walk through a short door, take off and check our shoes in the shoe locker and slip into a booth where we yell She-bu-sen, and the two that appear instantly, use their touch response portable electronic menu pads and the food — sushi, squid, … overall indeterminate yumminess — arrives shortly.

Mike asks Tomo and Yuki what they know of Obama. They say, “Obama is for change.”

The bill is not small, as to be expected for Tokyo, but Tomo and Yuki, our friends of a couple of hours, offer to cover it. Tomo says, “Yuki is rich.” We refuse, of course, but make note of the gesture.

The night moves on to an underground Club Yellow. Several floors, intense lights, rave atmosphere. However, when it comes to the bar, all the people are queueing nicely. They know where the end of the queue is and gently wait. No competition for the fist to get the bartenders attention. I think they forgive our cutting since we are foreigners.

Outside the club, we stumble on a small ramen shack and recover the calories. It’s 4am so the subway isn’t running and the cabs are expensive. Everything is new, so we can’t mind the walk. Stumble on a little shack with electronic music playing. People are grilling outside and there is some VJ’ing going on. Everyone’s friendly so we dance for a bit. The sun starts to rise.

At 5am we walk Amanda back to the first train and then as a group of four (Mike, Lei, Jon and me) to our hotel. Since Lei and John reserved the room as two people, Mike and I sneak in the back up eight stories on the fire escape. The room barely fits us. Mike sleeps on the floor. Almost like a “coffin hotel” experience. I get a 4.5 gram single use toothpaste container as a souvenir and wash my rear.

Compactness and efficiency have many guises. There are no parking lots, just car shuffling machines, and gas stations have pumps suspended from the air, to save valuable square footage, neon signs stack one on top of the others as do the establishments they advertise, and instead of hiring a cashier, the ordering at or breakfast joint is done through a machine. The whole menu is in pictures — you just hit a couple of buttons: rice bowl with beef, miso soup, green tea, insert the moneys into the machine, collect change and a receipt and sit down. The order is already displayed for the chef, who is the single employee and can handle several dozen customers with this method.

I ask Jon why occasionally we see people wearing face masks. I’m surprised because it’s not dirty, and there’s no known epidemic spreading. He says people wear masks out of politeness when they are feeling sick — to protect others.

I get the feeling of kindness, interconnectedness from people, a combination of reservation and yet a very vocal (but silent) expression of emotion. It’s amazing how long people hold my gaze. I can usually win staring competitions, but around here they’re putting me to shame and no one turns me down.

Cute characters pervade all signage, from trash directions to behavioral instructions, to metro advertising. You shouldn’t do it because the sign says so, but because the little character would get upset if you don’t.

People are reading manga intently. As many people are playing video games or watching media on their mobile devices. We go to _____, another neighborhood where punk youth go to strut their stuff while being completely dolled up. Clothing is revealing. The parts covered are elaborate in fabric, technical in construction and neatly worn. Facial expressions are emphatic, often in anticipation rather than in response.

I get another vibe, that we merely happen to be organic objects in the material world, but there is a parallel mythical plane where life is actually conducted. I start to make out the souls of inanimate objects as furry creatures, and even the human beans sprout magical appendages and change form.

Our time is coming to a close. Back on the JR train to Narita Airport. Before boarding I spot a troupe of Japanese boy scouts. They are so happy to take a picture with me, that I don’t know what else to say but wish them a happy accent of Mount Fuji. Before long we are again aloft, due-west towards the far-east

  • http://www.tolerableinsanity.com/blog/ peretz

    This is a video describing how bike parking works in Tokyo — a building sized bicycle jukebox! shuffling the bike into the building to vend it out when you need it back — all at the push of a button: