Finding Nemo

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Tokyo Nights

What a crazy few days its been.  There is the constant threat of quakes and radioactive fallout hanging over Tokyo, but still the city moves on.  So many stories, I barely know where to begin.  I arrived Wednesday and was so jetlagged, drained from the culture switch (signs are unreadable and noone speaks English), and freaked out by the state of things, that I pretty much just passed out as soon as I got to my bed.

When I awoke Thursday morning, the first thing on my mind was the nuclear meltdown up north.  I immediately called my travel agent and put a Plan B in place (jumping a bullet train to Osaka and flying to Manila).  That sorted, I figured I only had a couple days to see Tokyo at most, so I felt rushed and overwhelmed.  I was still reeling a bit from how messed up my hasty departure had left things.

Subway guards packing in the herd
Tokyo is huge!  It reminds me of New York, lots of very cool different neighborhoods that all need explored if one wants to truly get a feel of the city.  Thursday I was on a mission, jetlag and noodle-numbed as I was, to see as much as I could.  Luckily the city is very easy to get around once you get the hang of it, subways and elevated trains connect everything really well.  The problem is that "getting the hang of it" part.  Very few people speak much english, so a lot of times you are on your own staring stupidly at some weird kanji characters that are hopeless to decipher.  At the end of the day its a lot of pointing, Jap-lish, guess-work, and forehead slapping.  And more fore-head slapping.  (The red mark hasn't faded yet.)  Eventually, I got the trick down.  Basically you touch the lowest number on the ticket machine and feed it some yen coins.  Then, after getting lost and circling around 5 times like some kind of rain dance, you get on what you hope is the right train.  If you are fortunate enough to be headed the right direction, from there it gets much easier.  Tokyo subway cars are clean and comfy (when people aren't packed in like sardines), and there are flat screens announcing the destinations in English, a life-saver.  You jump in the exiting pack by performing what one guy I met called the "Gaijin Crash", basically bowling Japanese over to make sure they don't out-flank you by swarming underneath.

When you get up the stairs, you can pay any fare difference at the exit gate.  This method ensures you never overpay your ticket.

Takeshida teen gang
Picking a place to start is hard, there are so many things to see.  But I tossed a dart and started in Harajuku (hey Gwen Stefani must have been on to something).  I was hoping to see some "harajuku girls" even though I wasn't even sure exactly what that meant.  The main drag is Takeshita street, packed with swarming Japanese teenagers looking for the latest trend.  Its hard to describe their look, but the best I can do is that its some kind of fuzzy neon punk that is on cute overload.  The brighter the better, and there are tons of fake leather studs and spikes, chains, skulls, bling, and rhinestones.  The patterns are outlandish.  And its not cool to have regular ripped jeans.  They have to be ripped in at least 20 or 30 places, but patched up neatly each time.  Its like the cast of Jersey Shore decided to start a heavy metal band, and then dyed everything in neon.

Painful ramen.  I think they meant 'spicy', but maybe not...

I was constantly smiling, its just so weird and funny, but its all so PG and harmless too.  Its like they really really want to be cool and different and individual, to break out of that strict Japanese upbringing, but then they realize they might be late for dinner.  The funniest part of the whole thing are T-shirts and slogans in English, with just a slight mis-translation that makes it hilarious.  One night I was with some of Saber's friends and everyone pulled out their iphones and shared the day's latest.  Its a constant source of amusement even for the gaijin that have been here for years.

Cosplay girl in Harajuku

There weren't many harajuku girls that day, I later found out they come out more on the weekend.  The locals call them Cosplay, which is Jap-lish for costume play.  It was a lot bigger 10 years ago, but now its less common.  But that said, I did see a few people wandering around with tails sticking out of their skirts, wigs, and other stuff.

Meiji Shrine entrance
After getting my fill, I wandered over to the famous Meiji shrine.  Wow, it was the last thing I expected.  Right across the train tracks from the frenetic action of Takeshita is a huge stately forest of old trees.  Right in the middle of Tokyo.  I couldn't believe it.  Suddenly I was wondering down a gravel-strewn path in the shadows below the trees.  It was very peaceful.  Halfway to the Shinto Shrine, I came across a huge wooden Torii that you have to walk under.  When you come up to the main shrine, there is a little awning off to the side, with water running into a basin.  Wooden spoons are placed across.  I watched as a few people went up, then used the ladle to rinse their hands and mouths.  I later read its a form of cleansing required before entering the shrine.  I gave it a go, but skipped the mouth.  Tokyo water wasn't known for its purity even before radioactive Iodine began to show up.

Shinto Shrine Cleansing
The main shrine is large and nice enough.  It was during the week so it was quiet.  Overall though, I guess I wasn't floored by anything.  Japanese will go up to the entrance to the inner shrine, then clap, bow, and pull a rope that sounds a gong to alert the spirit, or kami,  inside of their presence.  I didn't think anyone would appreciate it if I gave it a go, so I bit my lip and kept control of my desire to jump on and swing from the gong rope.  Inside the inner shrine are huge Taiko drums, that I also had to refrain from beating on.  I was leaving when I noticed a young girl in full kimono coming up the path.  I stopped and surreptiously took a few pics on my way out.  There's always the risk of getting busted, but its almost impossible to get those kind of pics otherwise.

On the way to the shrine

(to be cont.)

1 comment:

  1. everyone in japan takes english lessions in junior high & high school so every young person there knows english but they are just like us and our foreign languages 1 year out of high school it is all promptly forgotten.

    pro tip if you want to find someone that speaks english look for one of the japanese brats they will be able to help you.