I had finally made it.
What began as curious wonder aged 4 years old after exposure to Sonic the Hedgehog on the Sega Megadrive had manifested in a flight to Narita airport and me writing this on-board a Shinkansen (bullet train) speeding at 200 miles per hour.
I nearly got here 6 years ago during my solo backpacking adventure. But having realised that I’d not saved nearly enough, I had to change plans. Had I realised the dire state of my finances before I boarded that flight to Hong Kong, perhaps I wouldn’t have needed to live with a stranger in Bangkok while I desperately waited for my account to approach more than 0 Baht. But I digress. I was in the world’s original megacity and I was damn well going to put those Japanese lessons into practice.
Truth be told, we were delirious with jet lag for the entire time we were in Tokyo. But given its scale (it houses 32.5 million people, including the metropolitan area) and the sensory overload, I’ve broken down my experiences into the various districts we visited.
Our first two days were spent in Shinjuku, a major commercial and entertainment ward in Tokyo. But before we’d even got here I was vocalising my Nihon-go (Japanese), much to the disdain of the locals, by reading out the name badges of the 7-Eleven clerks in the airport. It is here where I will take a sentence to celebrate the konbini (convenience stores). Dear Japan, whether its 7-Eleven, Lawson or Family Mart, your convenience stores in their abundance, inventory and hospitality are wonderful.
I realised we were in Japan when our check-in was assisted by a Pepper robot, marketed to have the ability to recognise human emotion. This realisation was reinforced by the Shinjuku skyline, a vibrant jungle of neon lights. Given our delirium, we could do nothing but be lost and awe-struck by this urban metropolis.
We paid our respects in the serene shrine of Emperor Meiji, the man responsible for the modern-traditional hybrid Japan is known as today. After centuries of enforced isolation, Meiji decreed that Japan would embrace the best of the West, whilst preserving the best of Japanese culture. Samurai swords were replaced with matchlocks, top knots were banished for crop cuts.
We then nearly lost our self-respect in the fluorescent labyrinth of Kabukicho, Tokyo’s Red Light District. As the hostess bars lured in the drunk salarymen, we were lured into the robot cafes and arcades, where we discovered our favourite Taiko no Tsutsin (Taiko Drumming – this became our mascot throughout the trip) game. With the omnipresent smell of ramen, takoyaki and teppanyaki in the air, we tasted our first real katsu curry, and dipped our toes into Japanese cuisine.
Harajuku and Shibuya
Cosplay and the Rockabilly Gang had to be seen. In Tokyo’s hub of subculture and youth fashion, Harajuku attracts teens in anime costumes and enthusiasts keeping The King’s name alive in the form of greaser jackets and pompadour haircuts. Alas we saw neither, but we walked Tokyo’s Fifth Avenue, squeezing through very trendy locals to find the famous Shibuya crossing.
Shibuya crossing, emulated to a lesser extent in London’s Oxford Street, epitomises the term ‘organised chaos’. When the green man shines, hundreds of people stampede omni-directionally. This is one of the iconic sights and activities Tokyo is known for and best of all, it’s free. For the best viewpoint, there’s a panoramic Starbucks where people pretend to sip lattes for this privileged photography spot. But this wasn’t what surprised me.
Diverging away from the main streets, it doesn’t take long to encounter Japan’s notorious love hotels, and Shibuya is surrounded by them. The concept is simple; rather than pay for a whole night, couples enter the shielded entrances and spend a few hours in a themed room of their choice. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination, but let me guide it somewhat; We didn’t use them.
Adding to the surprise was the sight of 8 people dressed in Super Mario onesies, sitting in sparkling go-karts. For around 9000 yen, in the homeland of Nintendo, you can play real-life Mario Kart by taking a tour of Tokyo at 60 km/h, wearing Yoshi’s face on your head.
Ueno and Asakusa
We eventually changed hotels to move to the less-expensive metropolitan Ueno. This essentially meant we’d moved from one box to another, as is the charm of Tokyo accommodation. But to get away from the glitzy city centre and see how regular Tokyoites lived was the goal.
Station alighted, it was only minutes before we watched a pack of yellow-capped school children making their way home. Interestingly, Japanese children are encouraged to make their own way to school as young as possible as a means of fostering independence.
We had a couple of nocturnal adventures too. Our circadian rhythms weren’t syncing, and so a walk in the backstreets at 3am sounded wise. A taxi pulled up and out stumbled three suited salarymen. As they parted ways, I noticed that one was so intoxicated that he was comically swaying left to right as he attempted to walk. He urinated in the street and then laid on some boxes with briefcase at his side – he was in bad shape. I couldn’t leave him there and with an “OK desu ka” (“Are you OK?”), he scrunched his face into a wink, gave a strained “arigatou” (“thank you”) and resumed his journey.
I have no idea if he made it.
This was every bit the Tokyo I had spent years reading about. White-collared work culture in Japan is brutal and emotionally stifling. 12-14 hour days are the norm and overtime isn’t appreciated, it’s expected. Naps at desks are well-received as a means of showing dedication to the company. Added to this, sub-management employees are obligated to socialise with their bosses, and this almost definitely involves drinking copious amounts of alcohol in izakayas (Japanese pubs), hostess or karaoke bars.
Ueno is close proximity to arguably Tokyo’s best temple: Asakusa. When I was a teen I used to watch a short video on repeat of people milling around its red and gold pillars and gigantic paper lanterns. None of the magic was lost as we pushed through the surging crowds to shroud ourselves in incense smoke and partake in omikuji, a Shinto form of fortune telling. Throughout every holy activity, locals were more than happy to guide us and translate the kanji that I couldn’t. Spiritual or not, it’s hard not to be heartened by such a broad demographic, young and old, venerating their ancestors and praying for blessings in such an ornate place nestled between dense urban towers.
One evening was spent walking through Ueno Park to find the parade of market stalls that supposedly inspired the opening scenes of Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away. There was a certain mystique in this place where hundreds of catfish slinked under giant lily pads to gawp expectantly at passing nightcrawlers, the humid air punctured by the sound of crickets and waterfalls and the neon glow from the phones of businessmen playing Pokemon GO.
Akihabara and Ikebekuro
As a gamer, I couldn’t miss Akihabara. Growing up I’d fantasised about gaining access to the rare titles that didn’t get translated. Import emulators, digital downloads and eBay would eventually bridge the gap, but I was well aware of this gaming mecca. Sadly it’s the latter, along with other e-commerce platforms, that through well-minded economic democratisation have effectively killed off the boutique stores that served this purpose a decade ago. Super Potato still exists, along with Mandarake, Friends, etc, but I was slightly disappointed by how homogenous the labyrinthine malls felt. This feeling was short lived and turned to alarm when I was invited for coffee by a blue-haired adolescent girl wearing a French maid costume.
To conclude our city days (or nights, more accurately), we sought out a matsuri, or festival. These number in the hundreds in Japan, but depend entirely on your location and time of year. It just so happened that in nearby Ikebekuro, another neon-lit commercial hub, the Tokyo Yosakoi festival was in full swing and we rushed along the Yamanote line (Tokyo’s circular subway line) to catch it. With a few “sumimasen”s (“excuse me”) we nestled between an elderly group sat on the street to watch the parade of hundreds of kimono-clad ladies, young and old, move in choreographed fashion for their representative dance and song. Some moved feverish to a Latin-style beat, while others motioned ocean waves, their outfit a dark blue, to a traditional array of flutes. I broke into conversation with a local man who explained that over 100 teams participate from four shop associations.
By this point, the country (and by this I mean Tokyo) had both challenged and confirmed my expectations. As soon as I left Shinjuku station to find my hotel, eyes dazzled by neon skyscrapers, I knew I’d both made a dream come true and still had much to learn.
All of this in five days. The rest was yet to come.