After the 11 hour flight on the rather pleasant Airbus A360-600, Tokyo airport welcomed me with the customary efficiency everything operates under here.
Passport control no longer uses an antiquated ink stamp but instead places a unique computer generated sticker in your passport after the electronic swipe, and the baggage carousel automatically placed bags in the available gaps avoiding any unnecessary clustering. All every elegant.
I took the 1 hour Skyliner train from Narita to the city proper, which winds its way through the homogenously, neat suburbs outside Tokyo. Train rides into a major metropolis are usually a grim reminder of the income divide which forces the less well off to live out in the sticks, but the houses amongst the England-esque green countryside, all looked rather pleasant and cheerful, and the narrow streets meant that every house had a car tucked up nearly inside a drive way.
Upon arriving at Uneo subway station, the hard culture clash of Japan hits you immediately. Even in London, the ticketing systems are now multilingual, yet the Tokyo subway is less friendly than even Beijing. The electronic ticket dispenser may have well as been a fruit machine for all the sense it made. I managed to find an option with some Arabic numerals next to it and picked the cheapest one figuring I could do my dumb foreigner bit at the other end if it didn’t work out.
Comparing subway users between countries always turns me into an amateur anthropologist and the Tokyo subway offers a wealth of differences to note and a great way to study the locals. Japanese people seem to be much more mixed in appearance than in China. The skin colours are more varied and the facial types range from some which look almost Caucasian to dark, skinned, refined looking faces with thin noses. Whilst there is a definite Japanese type face, there are many which I would be hard pressed to tell from Chinese. The boyfriend/girlfriend couples on the subway seem to eschew all public displays of affection other than sitting close to each other. This extends beyond the subway to any public space at all. No kissing anywhere. The cliche of the suited business man, the sararimen, is totally true though I note they all seem to be wearing pretty good quality suits, indeed everyone appears well dressed; where as one can usually discern class from how a person dresses in England, there again appears to be no delineation visible from a person’s aesthetic. For an inveterate nail biter as myself, I notice that all the men, and indeed the women too, have immaculate hands. No short clipped, stubby or bitten nails anywhere. Given the milk free diets they all have, I wonder where they get their calcium? The fish I suppose.
Above all, the most striking thing about the commuters, are the total lack of ethnic mixture at all. Everyone is Japanese. Typically, you will be the only white face in the carriage. Despite this, I don’t seem to draw the stares of anyone which I find curious. The singular un-cosmopolitan nature of Japan is clear for all to see on the metro. More of this later.
So, after successfully navigating the subway system, I arrived at Asukusa where my Japanese guest house, or Ryokan, was located. Asakusa is built around a large temple called Senso-ji and had a bustling market around it, the narrow shop filled alleyways making it feel like a cross between Camden Market and Chinatown in London. The alleyways evoke pictures of post-war Tokyo I’ve seen before… red lamp lit narrow streets with wooden fronted restaurants, their doors obscured by pieces of cloth.
The question of how to handle the jetlag was answered when I was told I could not check in before 3pm – a sign of the infamous strict rules of the ryokans, which even put the anti-customer qualities of the English B&B look like carefree, flexible places to stay. I took a brief stroll around the area, marvelling at my first experience of a pachinko parlour, featuring the ubiquitous zombie like stares of the players, lined up like rows of androids, all motionless except for the repititive movement of their arms, feeding the steel balls one by one. The immediate thing I notice about the neighbourhood though is that it really does look like Tokyo as depicted in anime. Not the futuristic, neo-Blade Runner setting, but the gentle, quiet, residential streets you see in less advanced anime. There is no other word for; things really feel zen.
Remembering it was a Sunday, I headed down to Harajuku, the area famous for young, counter-culture Japanese kids parading around in goth, punk and cutesy clothing. Unlike the sneering, miserable punks of Camden, the mainly female extroverts seemed all to ready to have their photos taken, and rather than looking unfriendly and moody, the beaming smiles and moon faces made them all look like manga characters.
Harajuku itself is the Camden of Tokyo, with crowds of young kids buying fashions which look like factory leftovers to me. My Gap uniform of khaki trousers and a plain blue shirt mark me out even more so than my Western appearance. I quickly flee to the nearby garden grounds of a nearby Temple before I am forcible ejected for lowering the cool level. Whilst cool is a devalued term by its overuse in the West, there really is no other word for how the Japanese kids look. They all look stylish and different without resorting to the middle class white boy dressed as a black rapper that is the norm in Europe.
Harajuku sits on the overland (ie not metro) Yamanote line which does a loop of the major areas in Tokyo as is the cities main commuter vein. Where as the metro stops were written in English, for such a major artery, the Yamanote line appears to be fighting a determined effort to avoid any Roman characters at all. After staring at the pretty characters, I give up and execute my outward journey in advance via the slightly longer metro route.
Closely fading to black sleep wise, I managed to interact with a small sushi restaurant near my ryokan, which thankfully featured a sushi chef who spoke some English, although I was still herded into the corner of the restaurant, presumably out of the way of the families also frequenting the place. The arrival of every diner in a Japanese eating establishment is greeted with loud calls of welcome (as are your exits – I later learn as much to alert the waitress in case you haven’t paid your bill as for any politeness) which for us attention avoiding British types can be a bit unwelcome. Nice to see my concerted effort to eat Japanese in London as often as possible has given me the basic vocab to order things with, but was even more impressed with the electronic device the waitress used to measure the height and colour of my stack of sushi plates in order to calculate the bill.
Checking into my Western style room, it is a study in compactness and efficiency. The single tap knob controls the shower, bath and basin water in the tiny cubicle, featuring a tub rather than a bath, in that it is deeper than it is wide. It would seem even the toilet paper is single ply to save space, a feature I notice in all Japanese toilets.
A banging on the door at 10.45 shows that my attempt to force route myself onto GMT+8 has failed and a 10 minute toilet seems me out of the door. In tribute to Nick Fine, I head over to Akihabara, the electronic district of Tokyo.
It is not as crowded or impressive as Hong Kong though the low level of electronic items on display perhaps a testament to the more hardcoreness of the Japanese. More impressive are the numerous manga/anime toy and comic stores lining the street, a sign of the more mainstream acceptance of comics and science fiction that endears the Japanese to so many geeks. Similarly, the more noticeable and more atmospheric is the nasal Japanese being shouted through megaphones at the passing pedestrians. For a rigid, private people the volume and insistence seems very
alien but the now familiar postfixes on all the words hint at the relentless politeness of the communication.
I discover a 6 floor arcade which shows that public gaming is not dead as Nick and I had assumed in the UK. Most popular appears to be a multiplayer game with players seated in front of a console with a flat surface in front of them which they are pushing trading card like objects around which appear to control ships on the screen. It would appear you can buy these cards which act as ships in your fleet, presumably off different levels. It’s very loud and noisy and even has a dedicated commentator at the front. I have no idea what is going on but similar games are available on other floors.
Finally managing to work out how to get myself on the Yamanote line, despite the help of some random fellow trying to assist me for the sake of 100 yen, I sit and goggle at the knee high booted, short skirt ladies who populate the train carriages. I am very much glad to be here in the middle of this particularly fashion, I must say. Despite the clement temperature, almost no one is wearing, as I am, a short sleeved shirt or tshirt. though the skirts leave nothing to the imagination.
I disembark in Shinjuku which is the west end of Tokyo, featuring the commercial heart of the capital, in the both the business and shopping flavours. Inevitably I can’t help but compare the skyscrapers of West Shinjuku with HK, with HK winning out by far. The buildings are less varied and less clustered than in HK but I resolve to return at night to do some photography.
Heading over to East Shinjuku, the supposed inspiration of Blade Runner, I realise this refers to the neon corridors of the shopped line streets, which feature large screens advertising indecipherable products rather than the tight warrents of streets I was expecting. East Shinjuku is an odd mixture of up market department stores, both above and below ground, and a neighbouring red light district which for some reason featured clubs with pictures of men outside rather than women, in various cheesy poses, Vegas cabaret style.
I pop into a 8 floor book store which features a tiny English language section on half a floor and the voluminous, indigenous cultural output of Japan is really brought home to me. In films, TV, books and music, Japan appears to be totally self sufficient and immune to any cultural import, with the odd Americana exception. Whilst the economic prosperity of Western European and American countries has allowed them to attain a cultural security which sees them welcome new inputs from ex-colonies which in turns changes and evolves the local culture, Japanese culture appears to live in a hermetically sealed vacuum. Its economic success seems to have had the reverse effect and allowed them to generate an indiginous output, the likes of which France which it could emulate, away from the overpowering presence of Hollywood. Whilst there may be the odd Gap store, Starbucks or MacDonalds, these appear to the exception rather than the rule to a shopping street, and I realise how totally England has succumbed.
Exiting the book store, there is a tiny little girl operating the lift. Every floor she has to repeat a long winded, formal greeting and thank you. The relentless protocol of Japanese communication is quite claustrophobic. I suspect that 19th Century England operating under similar overbearing, rigid communication. I later learn that there are 3 or 4 different types of saying thank you, based on whether the action is about to happen, in the middle of happening or has happened. How ornate!
I am not happy with the night shots I take in Shinjuku. Is it me, the camera or the scenery?
After a night swatting mosquitos, I manage to get up on time despite not being able to get to sleep until 5am. Taking the metro to Shibuya at the opposite end of the Ginza line, I am beginning to realise that although the area my ryokan is in has character it is rather stuck out on the far east of town. Shibuya is another dense pack of shopping malls and bright neon. I am beginning to believe that all of Tokyo consists of endless neon lit 7 floor shopping malls, further enhanced by visiting Ikebukero in the afternoon. Avoiding the pressure to consume, I undertake a 30 minute walk to the Tokyo Metropolitan Photography museum. The outrageously priced ticket provides me with access to a top floor of about 30 interesting photos, a middle floor of some modern art-wank which these days are called an ‘installation’ but as ever looks like a fight between two teenagers over a garage sale of their belongings waged with prit-stick and too many card board boxes, and finally a basement of 50 photos of a dance troupe. So much for trying the cultural option.
Lunch at the train station once again introduces me to the impressive processes of the Japanese when it comes to food. The girl behind the counter takes a clump of udon noodles, weights them, washes them, washes the bowl, quick heats the noodles in hot air and adds the various green and pink condiments to the soup in about 12 seconds flat. Why does it take Wagamama 15 minutes to prepare the same dish I wonder?
My American friend, Boyd, gave me a friend of his to contact, Brad, who works in Tokyo for an investment bank. Brad is one of those Americans who have got Japanese culture. Being fluent in the language and having spent a number of years here, he explains all of the cultural practises I have picked up on so far such as the ryokan curfew (allows them to handle the numbers?) and ones I haven’t (how to date Japanese girls for example). It is easy to understand the cultural fascination of Japan to outsiders, it being so discrete, impenetrable and so ordered, yet Brad
reminds me of other ex-pats I know. Without going native, they study their host culture to such an extent that they divorce themself from their own culture and begin to reject it. As such they are left in a limbo of comfort, enjoying the allure of their host country, whilst never fitting in and at the same time being unable to return home. It must be hard not to feel the attraction of such a well ordered and well run society as Japan. For a pseudo-obsessive compulsive like me, the rigid protocol that governs everything here should appeal, yet it comes across as claustrophobic (perhaps I am just annoyed I can’t sleep in) though the attraction of a crime free society is quite overwhelming.
Brad is also one of a number of Americans who, to use a semitic paraphrase, are becoming self loathing Americans as a result of Bush. It’s a dangerous trend that seems to affect both democrats and even some traditional Republicans. However, they all seem in danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water. In attempting to distance themselves and reject their current government and it’s policies, they seem to denigrate America at every opportunity.
A stimulating evening of more amateur anthropology.