Tokyo: Bright Lights, Drunk City

14 Jul

Tokyo is an enigmatic beast. Like the dragons of Shinto myth, it is huge, fierce, beautiful, and deadly. And by deadly I don’t mean to say it’s not safe – I mean if you want to die by alcohol poisoning, Tokyo would be pleased to help you with that.

With a population that swells to twenty million during the day, it’s bar none the largest and most densely packed city I’ve ever visited. You could spend a lifetime there and never even scratch the surface. Luckily, Kurisu and I had our friend and gracious host Mike to show us around, and he’s got a special talent for finding the diamonds in the rough. With decades of experience as a gaijin in the big city (and, it must be said, a not-inconsiderable amount of yennage to throw around), Mike was our smiling sherpa up a mountain of cool sights, incredible food, and a level of intoxication that was new even to this seasoned university arts graduate.

IMG_1615Kurisu and I had an afternoon to kill before meeting up with Mike, and we chose to spend it in Akihabara, Tokyo’s world-famous geek Nirvana. Jam-packed to the gills with hobby shops, arcades, hostess parlours, and every other purveyor of niche satisfaction you could imagine, it was a portal into a strange part of the Japanese psyche. I got yelled at more than once for taking pictures, and the reason didn’t take long to sink in: there’s a whole lot being sold in these places that they probably don’t want advertised. There’s a whole lot being sold in general – I have never seen so many tiny plastic things in my life! Squeezing through the aisles of one of these claustrophobic little nerd dens, with thousands of small colourful things so crammed in that they make it difficult to move, reminded me of something like Diagon Alley (where the shelves are so impossibly crowded that they must be held up by magic). And then you remember there are four more shops on top of this one. And eighteen more on this block alone. And then you realize that, once again, there just isn’t anything like this back home.

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I’m not sure I would advise zooming in too closely on any of those shelves.

IMG_1584Chris and I took this attitude to heart, and made it our mission to find a souvenir that was both delightfully nerdy and singularly Japanese. Being the avid gamer I am, I knew almost immediately what I wanted: a Super Famicom (which came to North America as the Super Nintendo, or SNES). It took us most of our evening and several detours – notably to a Japanese Denny’s – but we eventually found a second-hand video game shop, and by God, it was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. It was meticulously organized, gleamingly clean, lit with soft white halogens, and stacked floor-to-ceiling with gaming treasures. I walked over the threshold and felt like Indiana Jones in the map room. I was Leo on the Titanic’s prow. Seeing those shelves was a wave breaking over the sun shining on my heart. God, it was so awesome it destroyed my ability to use metaphor.

And I didn’t get any pictures.

You can imagine it though, right? I got the Super Famicom and some wicked Japanese games for a bafflingly low price, and walked out sad – not because it wasn’t exactly what I wanted (spoiler: it was), but because they were closing and I couldn’t shuffle around anymore, peering and sniffing and fondling like some frenzied museum patron. Then, it was arcade time.

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Yes, that’s a 180 degree display, surround sound, MECH PILOTING CAPSULE.

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Can something BE more Japanese than a Dance Dance Revolution-style taiko drum game that plays j-pop? THE ANSWER IS NO.

Oh mercy, the arcades. They’re like nightclubs – loud, smoky, and crowded – but instead of charged-up club hoppers, they’re filled with dead-eyed, chain-smoking youths and aging businessmen. They will sit there for hours, pumping coins into the cabinets, perfecting their Street Fighter technique against a never-ending rotation of opponents. Chris and I were defeated horribly at a Gundam game and only afterward realized we had our white boy asses handed to us not by the computer, but the schoolgirl at the end of the row. These people are just as zealous about their leisure time as they are about everything else, and the arcades of Akihabara are a perfect microcosm for that Japanese intensity.

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Our host, Maiku-san.

We finally met up with Mike and travelled to his place in Roppongi for our first night out. Roppongi is a fascinating place with a binary heart. There’s Roppongi Hills, Mike’s own stomping grounds, which he described as “the Japanese Hollywood”, full of steep hilly side streets, neatly packed apartments, stylish shops and cafes, and expensive cars; and then there’s Roppongi proper, which as one of Tokyo’s best-known bar districts is a wretched hive of scum and villainy if I ever saw one. We spent our night at two different places – I think, anyway; I distinctly remember a darts bar, a random encounter with some boisterous Americans, and finding a Rubik’s cube in my pocket – and made it home in time to pass out and recharge for the next’s day’s adventure.

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One of the things I knew I wanted to do even before I got to Japan was to visit the Studio Ghibli Museum. If you’re not familiar with the film company, their incredible work, or their visionary director/creator, Hayao Miyazaki, allow me to summarize with the following comparison: Miyazaki is to Japanese animation as Walt Disney is to Western animation. The scope and influence of these movies is almost unparalleled and the worlds they depict are fantastical, beautiful, and deeply emotional places to visit. So the museum seemed like a no-brainer for my trip.

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You can’t buy tickets at the door; you have to visit a specific combini (called Lawson’s) and purchase them at a machine, then exchange them at the door. Kurisu and I woke up and stumbled our way across town to Shibuya to find a Lawson’s and grab our tickets before heading to the museum in Mitaka. We found the combini we needed, and managed to navigate through the Japanese ticket machine, but we were soon to be met with crushing disappointment. They were sold out.

They were sold out. Sold out of tickets. This is a museum we’re talking about. And they were SOLD OUT FOR A MONTH SOLID. How is that even possible?? This isn’t a limited-time event at a limited-capacity venue, like a theatre performance or something! It’s A MUSEUM! COME ON!

I am continually lucky to have Kurisu as my host and guide, because at this point I probably would have just gone home in a huff and grumpily figured out something else to do. Ever the optimist, he advised that we head down anyway and see if they’d let us buy tickets at the door, and though our efforts were inevitably fruitless – we were spurned at the entrance like filthy vagrants – the journey into Mitaka was well worth it anyway.

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The Ghibli Museum is nestled in the embrace of a wondrous, sprawling park, several kilometres in girth and full of delightful diversions tucked away in the folds of lush greenery and water. Temples, shrines, shops, and open-air restaurants would appear every few hundred metres as you walked the path. The only downside was the heat, which was unlike anything I have ever experienced in its total domination of my body. Holy bejeebus it was hot. But it was also gorgeous.

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Alright, parts of it weren’t that gorgeous.

The evening that followed was easily the wildest night I’ve had in a very long time. After zipping up for an overpriced pilsner to the 24th floor of a fancy hotel (which afforded a great view of the city and the nearby Imperial Palace), we kept it going at a bar, and then a Chinese restaurant, and then Roppongi itself. The place is like a cyberpunk Mos Eisley and we streaked through it from top to bottom, starting at a bar tended by Maiku-san’s friend and ending…well, I know the sun was coming up when we got home. Further details are…fuzzy.

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I remember jumping up and down like a total idiot in some sweltering nightclub with locals pawing at me and screaming like I was some kind of Gaijin Lord of Dance. I’m told the place was called “Jumanji”, and I’m pretty sure there was a full-size Predator statue guarding the door. I’m also told that later, we were accosted by women who tried to literally drag us into their “massage cafe”. I don’t really have any pictures and to be honest I’m kind of glad, not only because taking my phone out of my pocket would have been a surefire way to lose it, but also because I don’t think I want the record of this trip to be like the end credits of The Hangover.

We got home all right, and made our way back to Nagoya the following day. We scraped through without major incident: no lost passports, no broken phones, and not a single yen wasted. It’s really remarkable how something so memorable can come out of something you can’t really remember. Thanks for the “memories”, Tokyo. It was a blast.

Things I’ve Learned So Far

  • Tokyo is chaos and glossy decadence. It’s loud and beautiful and full of people. It’s a staggering metropolis on a scale I’ve never seen, and likely never will again – that is, until I go back. Watch out, other “big cities” of the world – the bar has been set.
  • It’s key to have someone with you who knows their way around; I managed to avoid all the touristy claptrap and skip right to the city’s beating heart. I owe my incredible time in Tokyo entirely to Maiku-san and Kurisu, and without their guidance and expertise I would have been utterly lost in more ways than one. Kanpai, boys.
  • You can eat like a king on the cheap in this country. I have never, ever had food like this before, and I paid half of what I would have back home. We ate Japanese, Chinese, Singaporean, and Western, all of it was transcendentally good, and I stayed well under budget. If you’re ever in Tokyo, get the bakukte soup at Singapore Seafood Republic in Shinagawa. Trust me, dude. Change your life.
  • You don’t know perversion until you’ve visited a sex shop in Akihabara. Nevermind the items on sale – those places are bustling! Packed with people! You imagine a sex shop to be a seedy, shady, downcast place, tucked in the dark corner of some strip mall as if in embarrassment. Not in Japan, baby. Here they’re bright and loud and popular. Not exactly respectable, but there might as well be signs outside reading “WE’RE PERVERTED AND PROUD!” Well damn, it’s not like I can read the signs. Maybe there were?
  • Do yourself a favour: don’t go to Japan in July. Just don’t. Absolutely visit the country, as soon as possible – but come in the spring or fall, for God’s sake. It’s like Satan’s butthole out here.
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