Mar 22, 2007

Edo Euphoria: Elvi, Celtic-ness, Buddah, Tokyo Tower, Sleazy Hard Drive Guys, Cherry Blossom Simulacrums, etc.

I've allowed myself to be unrestrictedly and self-indulgently long winded in this post. You have been warned.

Douglas Adams (a very smart man) once said that space is really quite big. Space, he said, is really unimaginably vast. Huge. Breathtaking. Everyone knows this, and everyone talks about it, but no one really appreciates how mind-bendingly huge its proportions are.
Tokyo is kind of like that. So, I've decided, is the rest of the world.

Day One
There's a certain amount of weird adrenaline one gets, I think, being awake at an unusual time. As difficult as it was to peel myself out of bed at 5:30 A. M., once I was out and about in the cold sunrise, I was what one could call "psyched." Making my way to the station, various taxi drivers were asleep behind their wheels and a few people filed out of seedy sex shops, the last dregs of a saturday night. On the shinkansen, I attempted to sleep a little. Mostly, though, I just gazed out at the landscape.
After Tokyo's Shinigawa station, I tranferred twice and met Kori. It was unusual seeing someone from Eugene- So far, everything here, the language, my job, the people, has been new. Other than online communication, I really don't have any remnants of my "old" (or maybe "real") life around here, so it was both jarring and nifty to see someone from that life.
We dropped off my stuff, and headed out to. First stop: Meiji Jingu, rock 'n roll, dancing elvi, and weird goth girls.
We ate lunch in a Yoyogi Park near the Meiji Jingu, and I was struck both by the sheer amount of people and the rather large number of foreigners. In Okayama/Kurashiki, seeing more than four foreigners outside one of the gaijin bars is something of an event. In Yoyogi Park, there were swarms of them. I actually tried to count them- and couldn't. We watched a rock band play in the park for a bit, and I was reminded that I missed live concerts. Around here is where I started gawking like a wide-eyed country boy, and didn't really stop for the duration.
The Meiji Jingu surprised me for the sheer amount of green space around it. My mental image of Tokyo was that of a huge, gleaming, neon metropolis. And Tokyo is that. But, there's a lot more than just that- the Meiji shrine is a shaded, wooded area that reminded me a bit of Portland's Forest Park. Several people were out strolling, and I couldn't help but rather shallowly think of what the real estate value of such open space was in one of the world's biggest cities.
There was a wedding going on at the shrine, and given the huge mob of Japanese people who were taking pictures, I didn't feel particularly voyeuristic about snapping a few of my own.
Coming out of the shrine, we saw a clutch of Harajuku girls flocking and posing for pictures, many of them with quite elaborate plumage on display. Whilst we were snapping pictures of the sundry quirkily-adorned goth girls, a crazy man started talking to us.
I'd sort of forgotten about crazy street people. In my time in Okayama, I've met not a one. Back in Eugene when I worked at a dysfunctional (but charming!) local bookstore, I had no shortage of colorful characters who would come in looking for, say, books about making bombs or crystals. You know- standard paranoid hippy stuff.
But this guy, though, randomly walked up to us and launched into an invective against the various fashion goths around us.
"There is nothing intellectual here," he said, gesturing at the crowd of preening youngsters. He then proceeded to rant to us about his, shall we say, concerns about the prevalence of Japanese girls dating western guys (I've yet to see such a thing in Okayama- so I imagine this might be mainly a big city thing). This guy wnet on for a bit about how shallow such pairings were, about how the people in them really couldn't communicate well, and how dating in general was dangerous. He asked me if I had a Japanese girlfriend ("No") and if I liked Japanese girls ("As much as any other girls") and was just another crazy weird guy until he started talking about how he was once brought up on rape charges in LA.
You want to make people feel really, really weird in a conversation? Say, "I was brought up on rape charges." It basically kills whatever talk is going on. The crazy street rapist then attempted sell us some of his haikus. We made our excuses, and met up with another English teacher, a rather jovial friend of Kori's.
Strolling in Yoyogi Park for a bit longer, we saw Elvis. Lots of him.
They appeared to be some kind of Tokyo rockabilly club- about ten or so guys (as well as two women in poodle skirts and one in leather like the guys) were blasting old style rock-'n-roll into the park, each taking turns to dance about in the middle of the circle with a collection of breakdancy/rock-esque moves whilst the others gyrated hips and shoulders to the guitar-laden beat.
I found myself summoning up a weird amount of respect for these guys. They had moves. They pulled off leather pants. They were strutting about in huge sunglasses and getting people to applaud them. The three of us decided that "Elvi" was a suitable plural for "Elvis." So, I can say unquivocally that these guys were the best Elvi I'd ever seen.
Here's a video, courtesy of Kori-

Next Up: The Tokyo St. Patrick's Day Parade!
Yes. There was a St. Patrick's parade in Japan. Probably just one, in Tokyo, but nevertheless it was there. It was pretty much what you'd expect a St. Patrick's Day parade to be like- all manner of Celtic regalia and heraldry brought out to on display- but with more Katakana. Also, there were several bagpipers. "Nothing says 'Ireland,'" said our jovial companion, "like 'Scotland.'"
"True," I replied, "much like nothing says 'England' like 'Wales.'" He and Kori actually laughed at that. It was a relief to hang out with people who appreciate that sort of humor. After the parade we wandered a bit through the Harajuku and Shinjuku areas, espying all manner of weird shops and outlandish fashion places. Regrettably, many of the shops in Harajuku had approbations against cameras, so I don't have much in the way of pictures from there.
Then, in Shinjuku, my brain had an orgasm.
Like many a brain-gasm, it came along because of a bookstore. A really, really big bookstore. A bookstore where the English language section was larger than some bookstores back home. There were even non-manga comics, something that the local Maruzen in Okayama sorely lacks.
I could have spent the whole day and all of my money there. I wanted to make an impropmtu list of all the books I planned to read in Japan, I wanted to raid the Japanese history section for Samurai tales, and I wanted to get just one more Japanese language book.
There was even an English manga version of Hamlet which tempted me for a few moments.
Somehow, I managed to keep myself from blowing my entire Tokyo budget on Japanese history and language books, and settled for a copy of Embracing Defeat by John Dower to fulfill my Japanese history lust, and well as House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski as a fun read. (So far, Embracing Defeat is highly nifty.)
After getting books, wandered around a bit more and Tokyo turned from day to night. Around us, crowds of people in suits emerged from their offices and began to fill out the street, and above us the various sign and buildings began to glow with neon. Gigantic screens filled with advertisements, news reports, and bits of anime. The archetypical image that I had of Tokyo, that of a neon-lit megalopolis, was confirmed and surpassed.
I was sort of in bliss.
Our jovial companion said something interesting- He said that in a way he was glad that he couldn't understand Japanese, because that way he wasn't able to understand all of the various advertisements around him. Without knowing Japanese, the ads were just abstract images, just glowing things on the skyline. But, if he was able to understand the language, he'd be able to divine every bit of consumerism around us, and that it would be even more obnoxious than the constant press of ads in the U.S. I thought his opinion a rather interesting one.
Our jovial companion left us, though, and we proceeded to find a rather nice Thai restaurant where the main centerpiece was a giant golden Buddah in the main room. Or rather, it was painted gold. I imagine that if it was actual gold it would have crashed through the floor. In any case, we were eating dinner, and there was a giant golden Buddah.
Now, I'm pretty sure that the proprietor or founder of the restaurant found the Buddah first, and then decided to build the place around it. I can imagine the thought process- "I have a big, gold, Buddah statue... What can I do with that? I know! Buddah bar!" Seems logical to me.
The rest of the restaurant was lit up in a way that was simultaneously gaudy and nifty, with all sorts of candles, chandeliers, and mirrors bouncing red, flickering light around the room as we devoured (no nearly spicy enough) Thai food.
I wondered where the other bars with giant golden Jesus, Moses, Mohommed, and Confucious were. Surely Buddah can't be the only regligious figure with his own flickery Thai restaurant? Now that I've had curried chicken in the shadow of Buddah, can I have pad Thai at the feet of Jesus? I think Jesus would like pad Thai- he seems cool like that.

Day Two
So, we tried to go to the Imperial Palace, but apparently it's closed on mondays. Disappointed, we walked away.
We did walk around the city for quite a while, though, including Ginza. Ginza seems to be the type of place where people with boatloads upon truckloads of money go to have fun- Nothing quite like says "decadent" like multistorey Ralph Lauren ads, methinks. So, we wandered through streets and parks, saw a cool science exhibit, and in the evening I looked out across the Tokyo Bay.
Now, there's this certain style of writing that I really, really, hate. That's the style of writing that takes something really trivial and particular (like, say, a view of Tokyo across the bay) and tries to apply it to something big, interesting, and complicated (for instance, Japan). I'm going to try to avoid that as best as possible here.
Looking out over Tokyo Bay, out over the skyline and the rainbowbridge and the replica of the Statue of Liberty, I couldn't help but think how very, very different this all was from Okayama, and what that said about Japan. Actually, nevermind that. It doesn't say anything about Japan, it says stuff about my perception of Japan.
Okayama is a city, certainly, but it's also sort of in the middle of the sticks. Okayama has a population of 676,283 and Kurashiki 433,477, according to Wikipedia. Plus, there are several small towns and such scattered about these two towns. So, I definitely live somewhere urban, but Okayama is by no means a reflection of the shiny, bustling Japan that one sees in popular media. It's just a normal, modern city.
So, I sort of had this impression that various American perceptions of Japan- as this big, insane, crazy, consumerism-drenched, place- were overblown and inaccurate. I was, for a while, mistaking Okayama with the rest of Japan, and I was beginning to slide into the misapprehension (even though I knew intellectually that it was incorrect) that Japan is this nice rural place with rolling hills and efficient trains. Really looking out at the Tokyo Bay, and seeing the Rainbow Bridge lit up in the twilight blew all of that away. Tokyo, if not the rest of Japan, really is that enormous, insane, futuristic city. It shines and gleams with technology, it fills your eyes as you try to look at it all from a distance, it's full of crazy shit that will make your brain explode, and it seems endless.
And with good reason. Greater Tokyo has a population of 35 million people- that's like three Belgiums, or half of all France. That's about 2 million more than California. Looking at the Greater Tokyo area is like looking at an entire country's worth of people all at once.
Do I sound like a complete wide-eyed country boy yet? Okayama seemed damn puny in comparison.
We got on the train, crossed the Rainbow Bridge, and I saw from each side the massive skylines facing each other. It was like someone had taken a pair of Chicagos and put them on opposite sides of the water. I think that Kori was a more than a little amused at me marvelling at the scale.
Then, we got to Tokyo tower.
Sure, it's a big, shiny, tourist trap. But it was a fun big, shiny tourist trap. And, being up there was no shortage of continued mental overstimulation. We could see, all around, the various buildings and and streets lit up. Their lights blocked out any view of the stars, and below the streets gave an appearance of a bright, electric day.
I just sort of reeled, and was reminded why I'm here in Japan- I'm here to see things that I've never seen before, do stuff that I've never done before. I'm here for the adventuresness of it all, or the "adventure-gasms" as Kori liked to call them. The whole time had been a really, really big adventure-gasm- really. The whole time had been a really, really big adventure-gasm. The kind of adventure-gasm makes you forget about five minutes ago and five minutes from now, the kind that demands all the attention possible from your perception. I think I went through a hell of a lot of seratonin.
Later, there was sushi. It was awesome.

Day Three
Kori had to work out in country, so on day three of my wanderings I was left to my own devices. She'd been basically the best tour guide ever, but I was also looking forward to wandering about one of the biggest cities in the world by myself. I dropped my stuff off at my hostel, and decided that I'd see the Imperial Palace, as it should have been opened on tuesday.
First, though, I stopped for a bit in the Ueno district, and strolled for a while in Ueno Park. I really wanted to do this for a really dumb reason.
On one of the Japanese language CDs that I have, the segment about asking where things are is a dialogue between two people asking where Ueno Park is. "Ueno Koen wa doko dessu ka?" goes the dialouge. "Koko dessu!" (it's here!) "Asoko dessu!" (it's over there), etc. So, for the entirely stupid reason that I learned about locations in Japanese using Ueno Koen as a reference point, I really wanted to actually see it. "Koko dessu!" I thought to myself as I walked towards it. It's a nice park. Like Meiji Jingu, I was again surprised to find so much green space inside Tokyo. I hung out there, read for a while, walked next to the water, and then got on a train for an entirely different, but nearby section of Tokyo- Akihabara.
Akihabara, "Electric Town" is a big, sleazy, geek-pit. It's the sort of place that I could probably only enjoy when I'm in a certain mood, but I did like it. I spent most of my time searching the various electronic stores for a cheap external hard drive, something that was harder to find than I initially thought.
I eventually found one in a makeshift-looking storefront with the rather simultanerously promising yet weirdly inauspicious name "English Computer." The guy at the store was this sort of hurried-looking nerd type, and when he said "I can't give you a receipt," I was very, very suspicious. But, the thing was cheap. I thought that maybe it was a bit too cheap at the time, but I was feeling adventurous and decided to go for it. (The HD is fine- it's now humming beside me.)
I made it back to the Imperial Palace, hoping to get a dose of history and culture. In front of me various crowds of people, both foreign and Japanese, walked up to the gate and turned back. I was wondering if the place was closed yet again.
It wasn't. Instead, one of the gaurds in a snappy uniform said to me, "Hello."
"Konichiwa," I said, "is the palace open to the public today?"
He informed me, in perfect English, that any tourist who wants to see the Imperial Palace must fill out an application and have a background check. He also mentioned that it was mostly a formality, and took about two days. I thanked him, the guard did mention that the palace's eastern garden was open to the public, and, he added smiling, that it was free. He'd probably given this speech to loads of people that day, and probably some people complained about it. I think I'd hate his job.
The garden itself was nice, though not as picturesque or as large as the Korakuen. Neverhtheless, it was nice to sit and read for a while in the greenspace. I cracked open the Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura and sat for a good hour or so.
I left, and winded my way back to Asakusa, where my hostel was located. In the evening, I took some time to wonder around Asakusa as it was a well known tourist stop.
For a tourist trap, Asakusa has all the trappings. While the Thunder Gate was indeed nifty looking, as was the Sensoji Temple, the path between them was lined with several shops selling various cheap souvenires, the path above them decked out with artificial cherry blossoms. Between the gate and the temple, everything was red paint, cherry blossoms, Hello Kitty, inexpensive Japanese robes, and silk prints. It all seemed to scream "Holy shit! Look how Japanese this is!!!!"
Now, there were plenty of westerners (including myself) strolling along and looking at stuff, but it seemed that there were far more Japanese people engaged in the buying of cheap plastic crap than anyone else. So, this got me thinking- how much BS must a given thing have before it's rendered "fake?" I mean, Asakusa's a real place- That's a real, live Buddhist temple there, and the Thunder Gate is a real, live piece of nifty architechture. But, both of them are surrounded by sleazy stalls selling cheap shit and decorated with plastic cherry blossoms. Does that make the temple and gate any less real? Does that render the whole thing into a simulacrum and mockery of itself? Or is it merely that something real and cool has vestigial bullshit, but is real and cool nonetheless?
Or am I just a big, pretentious wanker for asking questions like this?
I found what looked to be a cheap restaurant and ordered some udon. The waitress looked at me incredulouly- "Udon," she said as if I'd said something wrong, "It's thick, it's white."
"Hai. Wakerimas. Kare Udon o kudasai."
"Ok," said, with a worried look on her face. It wasn't like I'd ordered something off-menu. It said in a mix of katakana and hiragana "kare udon" (curry udon) right there on the wall. But the waitress seemed to have an attitude that udon was something so weird and Japanese that a westerner would hava hard time enjoying it.
But I did- I love curry, love udon, and the combination thereof. I sat there for a while, finished Okakura's book, wandered about for another two or so hours, and headed back to my hostel.

Day Four
The next day, I had to be checked out of my hostel by eleven, so I didn't have too much time to do things in the morning. I did content myself with a walk through Asakusa, and I regret that I didn't bring my camera. I found, of all things, the corporate headquarters for Ban Dai.
Given that there's a shiny Ultraman statue out front, it was kind of hard to miss. In addition to the big red and silver dude, there were a few other statues of Gundam, sentai, and sundry other anime and superhero characters.
There were also several toys and products on display in their window, though the office was closed as the 21 (the spring equinox) is a national holiday here in Japan. It was sort of odd to look inside and see how many things I recognized from when I was a kid. It was also sort of odd to think "this is where the Gundam guys work." Or, at least the guys who produce and distribute Gundam stuff.
I don't want to go too much into the realm of generalizing about the general from the specific, but it occured to me that Sentai and Kamen Riders are sort of like salarymen. Think about it- salarymen all wear more or less interchangeable suits, work in groups, and oftentimes seemingly subsume their identity in favor of their job. Japanese superheros, also, wear more or less interchangeable suits (seriously- you try to tell the Kamen Riders apart), work in groups (which sometimes turn into giant robots), and subsume their identity in favor of their job (do you know what the Green Ranger does on his off days? Does it matter?)
I eventually had to make my way back, get my stuff, and catch a Shinkansen for Okayama. I sat on the bullet train, ate a bento box and read Embracing Deafeat. I was, as the hippies say, blissed out. It's a big, nifty world out there.
I want more.

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