Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Japan: Tokyo - the city


Unsurprisingly after such a bizarre, sleepless flight I was feeling pretty spaced while waiting at the baggage carousel, then undergoing the rigorous immigration control, keeping my eye out for Ken in case he was on the verge of some kind of breakdown. My own problems began when I arrived at the airport's subway station and had to work out how to get to my hostel in the centre of the city during morning rush hour.

Toky Subway Map (translated)

Unless you’ve assiduously studied the language before arriving, Japanese is indecipherable because of the script it’s written in, symbols not letters, so you can’t look anything up in a phrasebook. And the untranslated Tokyo subway map didn't have the most simple design, just a jumble of coloured spaghetti. Thankfully though, once you’ve made it through the gates armed with the correct ticket, you find that one of the few things in Tokyo written in Roman script is the station name at each stop, in smaller letters beneath the Japanese ones, for the benefit of Westerners. Without them we’d be in trouble.

It took nearly two hours to reach central Tokyo on a rapid bullet train, which is testament to the city’s size, and which is why I specifically booked a hostel right in the centre, as it’s better to be in the middle moving outwards than vice versa. More on Tokyo’s hugeness later. For now, I had a fresh problem to face, namely that I couldn’t check in to the hostel until 2.30pm, so had to walk the streets for the next four hours 
after dumping my rucksack there. Having just experienced the long trippy flight, this next stretch of time was to become even trippier for the very reason that I hadn’t slept on the plane and not much the night before that, had drunk copiously, and was now thrust into an alien world of futuristic skyscrapers overhead and dense swarms of Japanese pedestrians at ground level. 

bullet train

the trains travel so quickly that passengers lose consciousness

Shinjuku, the central district I found myself in, is Tokyo’s main commercial centre, housing the busiest train station in the world (more than 3.5m people passing through it daily last year. Clapham Junction incidentally is the world’s busiest based on the number of trains passing through it). It would be overwhelming to first experience Shinjuku in well-slept sobriety let alone the opposite. I started to see Ken appearing in random places, in restaurant windows, on buses and billboards, once on a street corner waving a joypad at me. I hastened back to the hostel with an hour left on the clock, convinced that Ken was in fact an evil spectre, that the seat beside me on the plane had been empty, and I would now be haunted for the rest of my travels by this game-playing phantom. 

too many people

Mercifully the receptionist clocked the wild look in my eyes and let me in early. I stumbled upstairs to my dorm, crawled straight into my capsule without thinking about it and passed out. Two hours later I was awoken by voices murmuring in Japanese and opened my eyes to find myself inside a large coffin. After a few frozen seconds I remembered that I’d checked into a capsule hostel and that this was my ‘room’ for the next five days. With living-space at a premium in central Tokyo capsules are popular, cheaper accommodation, but are pretty disorientating the first time you wake up in one, and definitely not for the claustrophobic. 


A space-hogger taking the piss by dangling his leg out
He was reported immediately to management

For me, the enclosed cocoons would prove a far better option than standard hostel bunks as you at least had a degree of privacy with the blind pulled. They didn’t prove to be much of a dampener though against the constant racket of backpackers coming and going, and as I would painfully find out: dormitories are no place for a light sleeper, and that's at night let alone daytime.

I peered out of my pod to survey the 28-capsule dorm, just as a fresh bunch of European travellers boisterously spilled in. There was no way I was going to sleep any further in there so, despite my brain crying out for REM, I was forced to bail and hit the streets again until nightfall and conventional bedtime arrived.


A sci-fi monster

If Shinjuku was surreal by day, once darkness falls it hits a new level of visual and aural pandemonium to which photos can't really do justice, a postmodern world of brilliant neon, animated billboards and pounding loudspeakers, requiring only Star Wars-style mini spaceships whistling around the buildings to complete the effect. ‘Hyperreal’ is a term used to describe central Tokyo; also ‘The Big Japple’. Piccadilly Circus is like an average street corner here – London's Japanese tourists must laugh when they first arrive at Eros. 



And like Piccadilly Circus on a wider scale, there is both motor and human traffic everywhere you look but in far greater quantities; masses of humanity sweeping along the main thoroughfares and arterial side streets branching off in all directions. At major pedestrian intersections like Hachiko Square, the crowds coagulate at the crossroads waiting patiently for the green light then flood out into the square in a 4-way cross-walk (YouTube). There are 13m people, almost twice London’s entire population, in Tokyo’s core metropolitan area alone, which is the nucleus of the most densely populated urban area in the world, Greater Tokyo (total population 35m). 



The sheer size of the monster only became fully apparent in the stark daylight of the following morning when I went to the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, the city’s tallest building at 250m. Stepping into the top floor’s observation deck it hits home that Tokyo is more a vast megalopolis – several cities merged into one – sprawling outwards in an ocean of concrete as far as the eye can see. Whereas most capitals have only one city centre, here you can see several sprouting upwards in scattered clusters of new skyscrapers. It’s an awesome sight to behold, and a daunting prospect to attempt exploring the whole of it within the timeframe of a week. 


Tokyo Metropolitan Govt Building

front door

inside foyer

at the top


But that’s what I had set out to do that very morning. The night before I'd crawled back into my capsule at 8pm and as expected woke up at the ridiculous hour of 4am, fully charged and raring to go while the rest of the hostel and neighbourhood remained asleep and in darkness. One benefit of the jet lag was having the run of the green at the breakfast area and internet stations, congested at all other times, so I could blitz my emails and photo downloads at leisure over some green tea and rice crackers. Then when 7am rolled around I hit the streets with the first throngs of early commuters to recommence my surreal adventures. Thankfully Ken made no further appearances, though I did later have a dream that he’d committed hara-kiri in the airport amusement arcade. 


Having been warned to avoid the subway during rush hour I spent the whole day just wandering wherever the roads took me following my ascent to the top of the Metropolitan building as soon as it opened at 8.30am, conveniently bypassing the queues and crowds that the day progressively attracts. After resolving not to read any guidebooks and just go with the flow, my marathon walk took me away from the built-up high-tech hubs and through glimpses of old Japan in the form of ancient shrines and the imperial gardens of Chiyoda. 
Fortuitously one shrine was holding a colourful pageant the day I turned up, which made for some cool photos: 


However the roads always eventually led back to more skyscraper constellations, some even more futuristic than Shinjuku’s, like the lustrous steel edifices of Shiodome and the pioneering Asahi and Fuji HQs. I later learnt that the buildings are all so new and innovatively architectured because most of the older ones were destroyed by the great earthquake of 1923, and any remaining ones finished off by Allied bombs in WWII. It’s doubly impressive to behold how such a gleaming metropolis rose from the ashes of complete destruction within half a century. 


Shiodome skyscraper, looks like a sword

Fuji's futuristic HQ, straight out of a sci-fi flick 

Asahi Beer HQ, in the shape of a pint, complete with strange giant sculpture


Quirks and oddities of the Japanese way

One of the greatest benefits of strolling around a city independently at your own pace is that you observe and absorb more of its social vibe. Pausing to sit and read on a bench or have a coffee at an al-fresco café takes much longer here as the people-watching is such good value. I picked up on many things that are done completely differently.

I’ll get the niggling stuff out of the way first. Firstly, during the warm spring afternoons of my visit, I and evidently thousands of office workers wanted to escape the concrete and traffic and retreat into one of the city’s numerous parks for an hour, however here you have to pay to enter them, which often means long queues and waits, killing the spontaneity of ducking into a park for a stroll or lunch break. Ok, it’s only a couple of quid, but the principle is a bit rotten – imagine a high brick wall erected around Regent's Park or Clapham Common so you can’t actually see it from the outside, being forced to queue and pay for that privilege? Fortunately the Imperial Gardens around the Imperial Palace are free for all, but that of course means they’re packed like an unending music festival. 


ridiculous park queue

That was my main beef really. There were other little niggles that can annoy you if you let them, for instance as a smoker you’re not allowed to smoke anywhere on the high street – you must stand at designated smoking stations into which scores of people can often be seen cramming, emitting a collective pall of smoke above their heads. Conflictingly though, you can smoke in McDonalds, effectively reducing the place to an ‘enter at your peril’ den of health crimes.

There are other inconsistencies with regards to manners and protocol. This is a country where most people's etiquette is impeccable, where maintaining ‘face’ is paramount, the streets are clean, and anything that sullies the outlook like littering, smoking or begging is cracked down upon (I saw a few homeless drunks shambling around but never daring to beg). People here customarily wear surgical-style masks, not because of pollution but because they have a cold or hay fever and don’t want to afflict others with their germs. 


However some things considered socially unacceptable in the West are completely permissible in Japan, eg. noisily coughing up whatever’s on your chest. A couple of times, while sitting at a bar or waiting for a bus, a man beside me would clear his throat with the violence of someone trying to eject a hairbrush trapped in his windpipe. No one else in the vicinity batted an eyelid. Meanwhile, during lunch hour in noodle bars, diners slurp down their ramen with the noise and urgency of speed-eating contestants, like their lives depended on not going one second over their lunch breaks. If you close your eyes at the right moment it can sound like a roomful of sinks emptying simultaneously. 

patient queuers - spot the hay fever sufferer

On a bit of a darker subject, there is something quite creepy about the sheer abundance of pornography on shop shelves devoted to barely legal Japanese schoolgirls, much of which is perused so casually by men old enough to be their dads. It also ties in with the craze of vending machines, which due to sheer consumer demand are everywhere and sell everything, from 
batteries and umbrellas to eggs and live fish; and yes, knickers – I didn’t encounter any myself but saw a snap of one on a hosteller’s camera (they're actually illegal now). One good thing about the machines is that they don’t charge the excessive mark-up prices you’d expect and are very handy for when the local shops close and you fancy a beer or noodle soup. 

24-hour beer machine - convenient

many restaurants display plastic replicas of their entire menu in the window - strange but handy if you want to know exactly what you're getting


Other behavioural quirks on wide display in Tokyo are the kind of things you see on TV and online so much that they become a cliché, which makes witnessing it first hand all the more significant. Firstly, rush hour trains are truly insane. Stuck as I was in a jet lag cycle of rising at unnaturally early hours meant that for a couple of days I couldn’t avoid it as I needed to get to another part of the city. Londoners may complain about crowded trains but here they stuff you into the carriages so tightly that you can sometimes only move your head and fingers, before prising yourself back onto the platform at your stop gasping for breath.


It’s the way it has to be in a city of 13m – the trains can’t arrive any faster than they do anywhere else, so the swelling crowds have to be squeezed into every inch of space, with uniformed crammers assigned to the task. I loved the collective passivity of the commuters inured to it all, a claustrophobic’s worst nightmare, which for me was the most memorable aspect of the culture shock.

Another cliché that’s evidently true is that the Japanese photograph everything, in their own country too. Their hard drives at home must creak with the millions of photo files stuffed into them. The bustle triggered by the sight of a large dog being walked was pretty comical, with pedestrians actually stopping to rummage for their phones. I guess the tiny shoebox apartments in which most Tokyoites live precludes them from keeping dogs bigger than a pug, so seeing a Great Dane is akin to spotting a rhino in central London.


Safe city, cool people

Tokyo has one of the 
world's lowest crime rates, so you feel safe wherever you are, even in the sleazier parts. There’s a pervading sense of discipline, no lager louts or druggies hanging about anywhere. The youth are mostly modest and respectful types whose chief preoccupation seems to be their appearance – everyone dresses stylishly, almost too stylishly, with strong Western influences. I was saddened to discover, as in every capital I later visited, so many youngsters rocking the same drainpipes-with-arse-exposed look. 

Another interesting demographical point is that the entire population of Tokyo seems to be 99% Japanese or SE Asian, with only a smattering of caucasians, blacks or hispanics. Yet you don’t see that many national flags flying compared with other Western capitals, debatably as if the guilt of its warmongering past has repressed any sense of patriotism. But modern Japan has so much to be proud of 
 Tokyo the living embodiment of it, the vanguard of technological innovation illuminating a clean and safe urban environment. 

only one shopper spotted the mystery photographer

they love their 'Pachinko' slot machines

Ginza skyline

Some visitors complain about expensiveness, but it isn’t that much different from many other Western capitals, where if you explore beyond the tourist traps you’ll find places that don’t decimate your budget. One thing I did note was that concerts were prohibitively dear, charging to see an Idlewild club gig the price of seeing Muse at Wembley. Booze was also one of the pricier commodities, so I didn’t do much drinking, 
conscious also that I was headed for the livelier Bangkok the following week. The only waterholes I visited were hotel and jazz bars where I sat with a whisky affecting sophistication like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, watching the same pianists crooning “Fry me to the Moon”. 

And on the subject of ‘Engrish’, it was always entertaining chatting to locals who were keen to practice theirs – to be able to speak English at conversational level is seen to be ‘cool’. One hostel dweller from Osaka told me to look out for the "brootiful cherry brossom" around the city, which I did see a lot of, and it was indeed brootiful. 


chelly brossom

spot the yawn

I later had much fiendish fun teaching her how to pronounce the troublesome Ls and Rs with the improvised example “Lionel the locust loves lice”, which came back to me as “rhino verucas rubs rice”. And before I'm accused of cultural insensitivity she found greater humour in my Japanese attempts so we were square on that front. I later encountered some excellent examples of Engrish that I defy anyone to find funny: 




A conclusion


My final couple of days were spent on random pursuits like visiting the hectic squirmfest that is the world’s biggest fish market at Tsukiji, where forklift drivers speed around a hangar-sized warehouse filled with crates of every variety of seafood – some still flapping around in blood, and tentacles dangling menacingly over the sides. I also attended an auction of giant tunas which looked a bit like small missiles. That evening I sated my inner nerd at 
Akihabara aka Electric Town, home to the famous 8-Bit Café celebrating the glory days of Sega Master System and Megadrive


And so randomly concluded my week in the hyperreal other world of Tokyo. As much as I was awed by what I saw, it was also kind of relieving to leave a city that makes you feel almost insignificant, especially if you’re on your own, a tiny moving part in a giant 
finely-tuned machine of a billion smaller components functioning as efficiently as each day before – maybe not so efficiently in recent times of recession but it’ll soon hit optimum performance again. And the nature of the beast is that because everything is so densely packed within, it must be meticulously disciplined to prevent malfunction and shutdown. 

It’s an overwhelming experience for the lone traveller with only a week to play with but still a fascinating snapshot of an eccentric culture, and a compelling glimpse into the future, of how megalopolises will all look and function one day. To maximise the experience I’d advise visiting with a partner (as long as they’re ok with crowds and enclosed spaces), allow for a bigger budget, and prepare for a culture shock you won’t forget in a hurry. And whatever you do, don’t take the tube during rush hour…