I LOVE TOKYO. I’m couchsurfing with a woman named Elena who is originally from Russia but works here as a translator. Her apartment is in Shimokitazawa, a newer neighborhood full of vintage clothing stores, indie bars and shops, quirky streets and narrow alleyways — in essence, it is the aesthetic Urban Outfitters wishes it could authentically cultivate but instead overcharges like no other to merely mimic.
Elena took me to a sushi place with really cheap food. We ordered on a machine at the table, and then the food was delivered via conveyor belt rocket to our booth. It reminded me of that episode of “Drake & Josh” which was parodying an episode of “I Love Lucy.” Classic.
Instead of taking the train to Shibuya, I took the 40-minute walk so I could see more of the city on my way there (and because I haven’t gotten a Pasmo card yet for transit). I was surprised by how many quiet residential streets there are; I read that Tokyo sort of sprawled out from the main center and spilled into the suburbs. When I used to think of Tokyo, bright lights, vibrant color, and sleek technology most readily came to mind. But I love this tranquil, simpler side of it. Also, no matter how off-the-grid you think you are, there’s always a vending machine around, ready to dispense hot coffee, tea, cold pop, water, peach Coke, etc. Elena said she went hiking once and got turned around, but somehow — off-the-trail, ostensibly disparate from known civilization, like a fevered mirage — there stood a vending machine, waiting to provide her with liquid sustenance before she found her way back.
Shibuya is technically bigger than just the famous Shibuya Crossing, but today I focused on this area. The ward itself has the two busiest train stations in the world: Shinjuku, which I used when I arrived from Narito Airport, and Shibuya, which is right by the Hachiko monument. It was made to honor Hachiko, an Akita Inu dog who came to the station daily to meet his human companion as he was returning from work. When the aforementioned human passed away while at his job, Hachiko continued coming to the station every day for nine years, until he himself passed away… I miss my dog.
Hachiko guarding two cats
Shibuya Crossing is what I used to picture Tokyo as before actually coming to Tokyo. It’s essentially a frenzied, neon-lit, packed, scramble-style intersection. Traffic on all feeder roads (more than just four) halts so people can cross in any direction, at any angle. After experiencing it as a pedestrian, I saw it from above in a building with large windows. I watched the mesmerizing scene unfold again and again like clockwork. After a while, the sky darkened and it started raining, but the finely tuned machine did not slow. Now, colorful umbrella tops were wading just as fluidly through the streets. Surrounding the intersection are tall, brightly lit buildings with giant TV screens blasting brilliant images to onlookers. Through the glass, with the glowing light reflecting off the rain and the hypnotic procession flowing uninterrupted below, it seemed like the organized chaos of Shibuya Crossing was encased in a dazzling, starry snow(rain)globe.
Not the best depiction of the crossing, but to give you an idea of it
Elena recommended I visit a digital art exhibit today. One of the best recommendations I’ve gotten throughout my entire trip. I kinda wish I didn’t bring my phone, but I’m also glad I had it because the pictures are cool, even though the brilliance of the exhibit was hard to capture on camera.
I moved from room to room, each door leading to a new sensory-visual experience. I started off walking up a ramp through knee-deep water into what I call The Dimly Lit Bean Bag Floor Room. It was a fun struggle to walk across the squishy terrain, and many people took breaks on the ground since it was, you know, made of bean bags. I fell a lot, but the very floor that thwarted me also cushioned my fall. There’s a metaphor for life in there somewhere.
I’m just gonna post pictures of the rest now:
The last two depict a room that was essentially a giant ball pit, but because it is Art, it’s okay for adults to play in it.
In conclusion, the best part was all of it, and the worst part was when it had to end.
A convoluted and fun note on the trains since I had a convoluted and fun time figuring out how to get to the exhibit: I took the express instead of the semi-express, and as a result missed the stop of my transfer, but as it turns out, the train I would’ve been on was actually ending at the station where I switched to backtrack, and there it turned into the train I had to transfer onto (just a later stop on the semi-express that I should’ve gotten on), so instead of going backwards to start over, I could’ve just gotten on the transfer train (previously the semi-express), but alas I spent about half an hour going back and forth like a buffoon, BUT I genuinely had a good time learning about the intricate subway system here. And if you followed that, congratulations because I barely do and I did it.
It occurred to me today as I was climbing with Elena and her friends at their favorite climbing gym: part of what allows me to love Japan so much has to do with the stability of living in a home, the friendships I have here, and a “routine” that is structural enough to be functional and flexible enough for spontaneity (read: I have no responsibilities here, but there are things I like enough to do on a daily basis). I realize that’s a lot to say for being in this country about a week; although Bonderman has altered my current perception of time passing, and coupled with the unfamiliar comfort and ease I feel, it’s like I’ve lived here for much longer. Besides, time in a cumulative sense is hardly a determining factor in whether a connection is made and/or remains.
It seems acceptable to make such lofty postulations when trying to literally climb to lofty heights
After climbing, we went to an underground izakaya, which seemed like the Japanese version of a dive bar (which is to say that it was the clean, refined, well-kept version of a dive bar. I mean, they gave us hot towels to clean our hands before we ate). Everyone insisted I try sake; it was strong, served chilled. I was lucky to be surrounded by Japanese translators because the menu didn’t have pictures or English (most restaurants don’t, actually). We also ended up doing karaoke since they have special karaoke places where you dress up like a banana or popular anime characters in a room you can reserve for your group.
Miscellaneous Japan-related thoughts
- People are very skilled at maximizing space while minimizing unnecessary possessions
- How is it SO clean when there are zero trash cans anywhere??
- Japanese photo booths (purikura) are so kawaii and fun-ner than any other photo booth
- Even though I stick out a lot more here, no one stares. Everyone is so polite and so helpful if you ask them a question. Stunning
Purikura. Can’t stop laughing. Why are my hands so long?
Recap of the past week and a half:
- Left Tokyo, and did the Hakone circuit (Odawara → Hakone → Lake Ashi → Hakone-Yumoto → Odawara).
During this time I ate lots of mochi and visited a natural hot spring spa (called onsens). Onsen visitors aren’t allowed to have visible tattoos most of the time, and you are NOT allowed to wear bathing suits…. This part was a little odd for me, even though they gender-separated the spa facilities. And since everyone else was Japanese, no one stared, so after the initial shock of being naked around a bunch of other people who were also naked, I actually felt pretty okay. Plus, the springs erase all tension and stress and the outdoor ones have a front-row view of the stunning forestry surrounding the springs. Plus plus, no cameras/phones/electronics are allowed in the bathing area. Plus plus plus, there was a dry sauna room, and they did a special hot rock treatment in there, and it completely cleared my sinuses and scorched my airways in a pleasant and curative way. By the end, I felt super serene and luxuriated.
- Then I went to Hiroshima and met up with Mara (who I met in Thailand at the Muay Thai gym I was staying and training at) in front of the A-Dome and Memorial. There was a man outside encouraging people to talk about what happened during WWII. He said he was a survivor of the atomic bombs that the U.S. dropped on Japan during the war and invited us to attend a survivor talk and Q&A. At the meeting, him and another survivor, Maki, explained that authorities were trying to obfuscate the truth and reality of the bombing in order to soften Japan’s mistakes during the war and win over the public. That’s why it was important to him to share his story with others. Every time the War Memorial Museum is renovated, he said they make the mannequins of what people looked like after the bombing (flesh literally melting away, bloodied faces, missing portions of body, and on) less traumatic which in this case makes them more inaccurate. Along with educational censorship, they say this is covering the horror to control the populace. Unfortunately, I was not able to visit the museum to corroborate his claims. Maki said “it doesn’t matter who was badder, America or Japan. War is bad, that is the point.” When he asked everyone to introduce themselves, there were some Canadian, some Japanese, and others. I felt weirdly guilty when I answered American. It was a heavy talk, but Maki emphasized the importance of forgiveness. It took 10 years to rebuild Hiroshima, and during that time, he said the Japanese public became very anti-war. There were some who resented the U.S. for their actions during the war, but most were focused on rebuilding. He said the main thing was making sure something like this never happens again. Maki was incredible to listen to; it’s life-affirming how resilient, forgiving, and brave people like him are. The city of Hiroshima recovered strongly and beautifully; walking around the bustling, yet immaculately clean, downtown, you would never suspect something so horrific once happened here…
- Mara and I decided it would be therapeutic to visit Rabbit Island (real name: Okunoshima Island). We bought carrots, celery, and cabbage from a Family Mart and took the ferry. The island had been used for clandestine production of poison gas, weaponry, etc. for 15 years before it was shut down after WWII, and all the warfare materials were buried, incinerated, or sunk into the Pacific. Then they introduced bunnies to the island and now it’s known as Rabbit Island. There are about 700 bunnies on the island, and each one is cute and loved by me. It seemed so strange but poetic to take something that was once associated with destruction and doom and replace it with life and bunnies. It wasn’t crowded at all, besides for the rabbits, and me and Mara were able to explore the entire island without running into anyone. I really appreciated bunny/former-site-of-illicit-gunpowder-production island.
Me: You know what’s ironic? I feel really peaceful here.
Mara: Me too.
moodDon’t forget to give your deer ones a kiss.
- We took another day trip from Hiroshima to another cute-animal-filled island: Itsukushima (also known as Miyajima) Island. Amongst the frolicking deer, we climbed Mt. Misen, viewed the tide wash over the famous “floating” Great Torii Gate, and visited historic Daisho-in Temple. The bright vermillion shade of torii gates and shrines are thought to be protective against evil and disruptive spirits. It seemed to be working; Miyajima was a perfect bubble of tranquility.
- The great thing about Japan seems to be that wherever you go, it’ll be amazing. So even though it was sad to leave Hiroshima, I was ready to see Kyoto.
Due to a combination of basic-ness and also a desire to experience new things, I visited the tatami mat Starbucks in “Old Kyoto” where most of the buildings were wooden and reminiscent of faraway times. It featured sliding panels, cloth tapestry, and mainly natural lighting. I feel like this is the kind of place where samurai warriors might gossip over a cup of tea in ancient, feudal Japan.
Yokai (Monster) Street. At first, it seems like you’ve turned onto just another quiet street. Then you notice that it’s quiet because there are very few people around. Then you see the monsters. Tons of them, some hidden in plain sight, others taking a more in-your-face approach. Business owners make these creatures to represent the ones in Japanese folklore and legend. Yokai street and its outlandish creatures are meant to cater to local clientele and aren’t considered a tourist attraction, surprisingly. I had a spooky time trying to spot the 30 monsters in their respective haunts.
Yokai street monsters
Kinkakuji Temple, Golden PavilionArashiyama Bamboo ForestArashiyama Monkey Park
The beautiful Fushimi Inari Shinto Shrine; walking through thousands of Torii gates. The path leads to the forests of Mount Inari.
I’m glad I did Russia first because it makes most of the other countries seem relatively less intimidating. If I had started in Japan, it would have skewed my perspective what with its ubiquitous convenience, heated toilet seats, easy/reliable/frequent transport, openly kind denizens, glorious vending machines, and strong cellular signals no matter where you are (I could FACEBOOK video call someone from inside a volcano and there wouldn’t be a lag or pixelation) to name a few. Russia set the bar high for enjoyment, and also challenges. And I’m so grateful that my ignorance on what Russia would be like ended up making me stronger and more ready for challenging countries to solo-travel in. Because of that, Japan feels like taking a breather from all of it. It almost feels like cheating, that’s how lovely and convenient it is to travel and to exist here.
Mara and I took a shinkansen bullet train to get to Nagoya so we could visit Shirakawa-go, a small, traditional village that is only accessible via very infrequent buses or if you drive yourself. The shinkansen was a sleek dream (the speed!), and I felt as though I was on an airplane. Shirakawa-go is full of wooden farmhouse-type structures and devoid of rampant technology. Because of the heavy snows in this area, it is truly reminiscent of a winter wonderland and the village holds semi-frequent winter light-up events to showcase this splendored sight. You have to reserve a trip far in advance for this, though, because it’s extremely popular.
It’s charming how Japan is a technology giant that is constantly advancing, but a large portion of its culture comes from preserving more old-fashioned practices: letter writing and pride in quality stationery, the principle of honor, and a respect for older things to name a few. Maybe that’s why it seems to attract more mature tourists; I’d guess the median age of travelers I come across here is 28-30 whereas in other places, it was more like 24.
Village of Shirakawa-go
As a traveler, Japan has exceeded all expectations, but I was curious to know what people who moved to Japan from other places thought of actually living here. A common sentiment I heard was that it can be very challenging to feel like you belong if you’re not Japanese. Many said that they speak perfect Japanese and have lived there for years, but they’re still viewed as foreigners. A lot of expats also said that it’s hard to form deeper friendships because much of the time, it’s not socially acceptable to talk about personal troubles or “deep stuff.”
Back in Tokyo. Explored Ginza today which seems to be the 5th Avenue of Tokyo. The opulence moved me. I wanted everything in this huge stationery store, Itoya, but I settled for a tiny mechanical pencil shaped like a pig, and you had to push the snout in to get more lead out. Solid purchase.
I’m settling back into my Tokyo “routine”: wake, coffee, read in Hanegi Park (where the plum blossoms are blooming — the heavenly scent permeates the air, and it’s basically impossible to be anything but happy), explore new things around Tokyo, then back to Elena’s apartment in Shimokitazawa. At the end of this month, I have to leave Japan, and I don’t think I’m ready for that goodbye.
Photo montage of stuff I’ve done the past few days to experience as much of Tokyo before leaving:
Rainbow BridgeTakadanobaba neighborhood in Shinjuku, TokyoArisugawa-no-miya Memorial Park in Minato, TokyoHarajuku: a neighborhood filled with unique confectionaries, colorful everything, street art, and wild & creative fashion. It is the physical embodiment of a sugar rush
Bar and restaurant in Shimokitazawa
I will never forgive Hong Kong Airlines for forcing me to make a quick decision:
When I was checking in for my flight to India, they said I couldn’t get on the plane without an exit flight booked. BUT, I wasn’t sure where I was going next and when I would be going. I’m terrible with decisions, but the drawn-out mental grappling and despair it evokes is part of my decision-making process. And they just made me decide right then and there, without any of the aforementioned despair — I couldn’t believe it. I’m only being partly facetious.
As I’m waiting to board my flight in the Hong Kong airport, I came up with a list.
Things I already miss about Japan
-heated toilet seats
-the intuitive layout of everything
-the unspoken agreement that burping around others is simply unconscionable
-everyone always stood to one side of the escalator, so if you want to manually walk down or up, you can easily do so — this really doesn’t happen often elsewhere
-even though there are real pitfalls when it comes to being too reserved about emotions in service of being dignified, I appreciate that the general atmosphere is one of cordiality and positivity
One day, I’ll come back when the sakura (cherry blossoms) are in full bloom.
Now I’m on the plane. I can’t help but think of the last time I was on a flight to India, a decade ago almost exactly. I watched “The Uninvited,” and I had my entire family with me. Tina (my sister) and I sat next to each other and synced our movies, so we could watch together.
Everything is so changed.
As we approached the gate in Mumbai, the pilot’s rich timbre reverberated through the aircraft, the words he spoke sent chills through my body:
“To all our passengers from abroad, welcome to India.
To our fellow Indians, welcome home.”
India posts coming soon…