Tokyo Reflections

5/15/08  4:45 a.m.

    Two days have passed since I returned from Tokyo. The jet lag is somehow keeping me awake through my first shift back at work.  I’ve been up for about 18 hours and yet I feel strangely awake.  I’ll start this recollection and maybe that will help me to relax and sleep this morning after work. 

    Tokyo is a maddening cacophony of light and sound.  Your ears and eyes are assaulted at every direction with advertisements for EVERYTHING.  As your head is spinning round and round trying to absorb all this information, your body has to contend with the sometimes overwhelming crowds of shoppers/pedestrians/bicyclists,  most of whom are embodied in the same person.  And yet not once are you troubled that someone will steal your purse or wallet.   On the Metro, though, reality is different.  Here, no one talks on their cellphones, rather they quietly text or surf the Internet.  The only talking happens between people and even then the volume is low.  People of need are always given a seat by those of healthier stature.  Everything just seems to work in Tokyo.  The crowds are an ever present problem, but it’s fun to feel like a sardine for a short time.

     I arrived in the early afternoon on Sunday, May 4th.  After checking in at my hostel, I decided to take a walk around the Asakusa neighborhood.  I instantly spotted a McDonald’s and right next to it was a Japanese Denny’s, which I later came to know was not actually affiliated with the US business.  Ignoring these staples of western influence, I wandered the narrow side streets that seemed to be branch off like so many threads on a spider’s web.  I saw vending machines on almost every corner, sometimes even next to temples that appeared in between apartment buildings and small cottages.  Not knowing any Japanese, I felt like a mute as I walked by people.  A few times, I would bow slightly just to see how they would react.  Usually it was answered with indifference and stoicism.   I kept walking and taking pictures in an attempt to stay awake for a few more hours.  When it finally grew very dark, I went back to the hostel, stopping by a 7/11 first.  I was instantly amazed by the pride that was taken in this shop.  Everything was clean and bright and all the merchandise was neatly displayed.   It seemed too good to be true, like it was a setup for a hidden camera show.  At the hostel, I met a few travellers, but was so tired that I don’t even remember their names.  I think they had left the next day anyway.

     On Monday, I went to visit the Sensoji Temple nearby.  It was Golden Week still, so I was told that the place would be packed with visitors.  There was such a crush of people at the main gate, that I had to stand across the street to take pictures.  The shrine was incredibly ornate and was home to a gigantic paper lantern that adorned its main gate.  I mixed in with the crowd and watched as patrons threw coins at a screen, behind which, monks were praying in front of a statue of Buddha.  With a clang of metal on wood, the coins fell into a large trough.  I wish collection at Catholic mass would have been this fun.  I had some spare coinage, so I threw a few for good luck.  I think a yen hit someone in the head, but thankfully I just disappeared into the crowd.  Probably bad luck, though, huh? 

    Outside the temple were food vendors, so I decided to see what passed for “fair” food in Tokyo.  I saw a lot of mochi balls, yakitori (skewered, barbecued chicken pieces) and expensive fruits on sticks.  I wasn’t very hungry, so I just kept moving and eventually found myself in a unfamiliar part of the neighborhood.  Here I found a nice grocery store, a couple of bookstores and lots of kitchen stores.  Later in the week, I realized I was in the “Kitchen” district of Asakusa, where restaurants get their supplies.  I still felt like a mute and hadn’t had much luck talking with many Japanese people.  It was afternoon by then and I was still tired from the time change and flight, so I went back and took a nap.  Very exciting, I know. 
      

    That evening, I visited Akihabara, which was conveniently located about two metro stops from my hostel.  Once I found my out of the labyrinth underground station, I emerged to see a giant Sega sign on a building across the street.  I stood there outside the station for a few minutes, trying to absorb the entire scene.  Everywhere I looked, there were advertisements telling me to buy this game, or this cell phone, or this camera.  Outside the stores, men and women were barking sales pitches over megaphones, like modern siren songs tempting hapless consumers to dare to resist the low, low prices.  Of course I understood nothing they said, expect for “thank you, very much”.  I began wandering through the thick crowd.  Once again, I must stress, that I was still a mute and just walked and walked and gawked and gawked at whatever was in front of me.  I found the video game store quickly and picked up some cheap DS accessories.  Next, I went to the Sega arcade next door and explored all the video games that I didn’t understand how to play.  I did find some Tekken 5 machines and had a few good anonymous one-on-one battles.  Back on the streets, I perused many stalls full of all kinds of electronic bits.  I even found the light switches my friend requested I bring back.  All in all, I enjoyed Akihabara, but realized that I had outgrown much of what it had to offer.  I’m very happy to have seen it, but it lost much of its legendary status in my mind.
    That night, I visited Roppongi, which is a relatively recent addition to Tokyo.  It is a city within a city and houses apartments, high-end department stores, a movie theater and a ton of restaurants. I honestly didn’t care too much for this whole area, because I felt like I was back in Seattle or San Fransisco.  There was little charm there for me.  On a positive note, I got to spend a good amount of time on the subway and was getting much more comfortable with the system. 
     Before I went to bed that night, I met most of my roommates, who I would hang out with for the next couple of days.  Steph and Cara were two British girls on holiday.  Dan was also a Brit that had been travelling for about 4 months already.  Michael was a German, who had been on the road for six months.  I had a couple of beers and went to bed.

    I awoke Tuesday morning to a very active dorm room.  It was 4:30am and everyone was going to the fish market.  I was already awake, so I joined them.  After a short metro ride, we arrived.  Walking along a normal looking street, we turned a corner to see the building that housed the fish market.  Good lord, this thing was huge!  Signage for visitors was minimal and getting any help from the workers was pointless.  This place was like a human beehive.  The worker bees were either carrying fish, pulling carts of fish, or driving these vehicles called “Mighty Car”.  I came to both loathe and fear the Mighty Car!
We follow Micheal to the back of the building where the tuna auction took place.  I didn’t really see much, but then again, I was quickly becoming very conscious of the fact that I was in EVERY ONE’S way.  I was winged twice by a damn Mighty Car and repeatedly shoved aside by people on foot.  I wasn’t really enjoying myself, but I needed to stay with the group, so as we made our way into the heart of the market, I would squeeze myself into some small space so to stay clear of traffic.  I saw some really interesting fish very close up and had the privilege to see how a large tuna is butchered with traditional Japanese knives and saws.  Very cool stuff. 
      Trying to exit the fish market was akin to being transported into a game of Frogger. Mighty Cars flowed in and out of the building.  Faster and more agile scooters dodged in between them, honking their little horns.  I think it took us 5 minutes to find a hole in the traffic so we could cross.  Then we found ourselves in another giant building full of non-fish products.  We found our way out of that maze and decided to have some sushi in one of the few restaurants nearby, but there was an early morning rush and none of us had the patience to queue up in line.
      Once back at the hostel, we disbanded for a while to take naps or just relax.  We had all planned to go to Roppongi for drinks and dancing later in the evening.  When the time came to leave, everyone was disorganized.  Steph and Cara were still asleep at 7pm.  Dan was AWOL.  Lisa and Nick, a couple from Brisbane, Australia who had decided to join the group, were waiting with Michael, Adam (a new Brit) and I in the lounge.  (On a side note, the Tokyo Metro shuts down and midnight and taxis are god-awful expensive.)  By the time everyone showed up, it was 8:30pm.  We decided that it was too late to go to Roppongi, instead we would try to find a bar in the neighborhood.  But it was the last night of Golden Week, so nothing was open.  Adam spotted a liquor store and we all decided to have some drinks on the roof deck of the hostel.  The drinking games lasted until 10pm.  We moved to the lounge area, where more drinking games commenced.  The party started to get a bit loud and a little out of control, so Hiro, the desk person that night, told us where we could sing some karaoke.  And we could bring our own booze!
      We made our way to ShidaX, a 6 story karaoke palace.  We procured a room and pack ourselves inside.  Some food was ordered and the drinks flowed.  Like drunk monkeys in laboratory, we fumbled with the controls for many minutes, but soon the songs began to play. 
      There were many atrocities committed to many a song that night, especially “I will survive”….I can’t say anymore.  Suffice it to say, we had a lot of fun and I converted all of them into karaoke lovers.
      The next morning Steph didn’t remember singing karaoke at all.  Cara got up at 8am to try to get a plane ticket to Bangkok.  Michael was up as well to try to get his visa for China.  I was a little hungover, but decided to try and get a ticket for the upcoming Sumo tournament. 
      

       I was alone again, but not for long.  On my way to the Sumo stadium, I came across a beautiful shrine that was built to honor those who died in the 1923 earthquake, which destroyed most of that that part of the city.  School children were playing all around the park.   As I was about to take a picture of the shrine, I spotted Dan and Adam.   They had been to the stadium and bought tickets for later in the tournament.  It was a beautiful day, so we decided to sight see.   We went to Harajuku first, which is the hip fashion district.  It’s known for its narrow side streets that house all sorts of funky clothing shops.  This is the same place that Gwen Stephanie found her “hollaback girls”, if that means anything to you.  We walked around and admired all the fashionable people, then started towards Shibuya, the MEGA fashion site in the city.  This is where an almost iconic crosswalk exists.  It’ s hard to express in words, but I’ll try.  The crossing at Shibuya runs diagonally across a large intersection which is flanked on one side by 3 giant video screens.  The two smaller screens show commericals, while the large, main screen shows people crossing the street in real time.  If you look up, you can cross the street just by watching yourself in the third person.   Very trippy.   When a mass of people cross, you can’t help but to be mesmerized for a second.     While there, we found the famous dog statue.  The story goes that a professor at the nearby university would walk with his dog everyday to Shibuya.  In the afternoon, the dog would always be waiting for him.  One day, the professor had a heart attack on campus and died.  The dog was waiting for him and then eventually left, but he came back the next day and the next and the next, etc.  For 7 years this went on until the dog died.  The people were so smitten with this story that they erected a statue of the dog.  Ever since it has become the place to meet your friends in this extremely busy area.

To be continued…

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