My earliest impressions of Japan were, sadly, mainly influenced by Hollywood cinema; namely by the relatively recent blockbuster smash hits Memoirs of a Geisha and The Last Samurai. Which is unfortunate, as one’s impression of another culture should never be influenced by a Tom Cruise movie. However, these images stuck in my memory: a severe, warrior culture, the painted faces of demure women, and a country intent on preserving a historical way of life.
Flashforward to 2011 and change the setting to Tokyo, the world’s largest metropolitan area and a city renowned for its architecture, fashion, food, and entertainment. This is where I decided to take my vacation last October. I met up with an old friend, Jennifer, who is an English teacher in Sendai through the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) programme . We spent five days in the mesmerizing capital city, taking in the impressive sights and the beautiful fall colours. And while we did see some of the historical elements that have influenced modern Japanese culture, I found that at its heart, Tokyo is a city where people come to play, where traditional restaurants can be found alongside bars, clubs, and themed cafés, and where conservative politics are tucked away under brightly-coloured anime-inspired costumes.
Jennifer and I started in Asakusa, visiting the beautiful, grandiose Senso Temple, had a delicious lunch of okonomiyaki (meat, vegetables, eggs, and cheese cooked in batter), and ended the night with a visit to the Tokyo Tower in the Roppongi district, ominously pegged by Lonely Planet as a former “den of sin”, although I think a more apt description would have been “den of darkness” – seriously, governor of Roppongi, invest in some street lamps so your district doesn’t look like the setting of Hostel.
There was nobody in sight, sinners or otherwise, when we arrived, and the narrow streets were dark and foreboding. I was so exhausted from lack of sleep and from my early morning flight that I was terrible company for my friend, falling asleep whenever an opportunity, no matter how public or embarrassing, presented itself – on the subway (drooling on my embarrassed friend’s shoulder), at the restaurant, and in the elevator on the way up to the Tokyo Tower. I am officially THE WORST…
The next day was jam-packed with activities. We cycled around the Imperial Palace, although I didn’t realize that you weren’t allowed to enter the palace, so it was a slightly underwhelming experience. I guess I had imagined a light-hearted and jovial scene from a French Nouvelle Vague film, minus all the jump cuts and the awkward dialogue, where we would explore the inner grounds and mysteries of the palace on bike in the sunlight, with a cool breeze blowing our hair back at unnatural angles. That wasn’t our experience at all, but I wasn’t entirely disappointed, as the lush greenery and the peaceful moats surrounding the palace were a beautiful sight for the eyes, and the warm, sunny weather was a pleasant change from cold, windy Seoul.
We then visited the Tokyo Dome City, intending to watch a baseball game, which I’ve heard is a unique cultural experience that cannot be missed – and then we missed it. Oops! But I did purchase a hamburger there that cost the equivalent of CAD$18.00 (due to a serious miscalculation on my part of the conversion rate), so that was similar to attending a baseball game in that I was confused by all the numbers and then angry when I realized it was all over and I’d lost. The day ended with a visit to the posh Ginza shopping district, the Rodeo Drive of Japan, where Jennifer dropped about Y6,000 (about CAD$80.00) on some jam and juice for her co-workers. You might have thought that the jam was made from freshly squeezed gold, but no, it was just pomegranates.
That night, we had dinner at a famous ninja restaurant, the acclaimed Ninja Akasaka. We were whisked to our table – which was in an enclosed, dark grotto – by black-clad waiters who appeared from nowhere and could be summoned immediately with the push of a button – but not by telepathy, as I had assumed. The food and drinks were excellent – delicious sushi, imaginitive cocktails, and savoury meat dishes – although I guess I had hyped up the idea of a “ninja restaurant” in my mind, and was expecting slightly more than a few card tricks and nice costumes. Is it really too much to ask that your waiters to do some acrobatics while serving your sushi, or engage in a sword-throwing competition while mixing your cocktails, or even just swing down from the roof carrying your dessert? I’m not being unreasonable, am I?
Over the next few days, we visited the famous Meiji Shrine, Tokyo’s largest Shinto shrine, walked around the Aoyama neighbourhood to see some of the world’s most bizarre architecture, and spent a few hours in the Harajuku neighbourhood, known for its crazy fashion trends, but even more famous in recent years because of the four Harajuku girls that Gwen Stefani essentially kidnapped to be part of her entourage.
Harajuku is fascinating because of “cos-play” (costume play), where easily identifiable teenage girls dress up in their favourite anime character’s attire. Fashion is a big deal in Japan, and nowhere is that clearer than on the streets of Harajuku, where we saw girls dressed in brightly-coloured, contrasting patterns, gothic vampire wear, “Lolita” outfits, and anime character costumes. Sporting jeans and a T-shirt amongst Harajuku’s well-dressed crowds, I felt self-conscious and embarrassed, an awkward underdressed party crasher that nobody invited.
On our last day in Tokyo, we walked around the skyscraper-ridden landscape of Shinjuku neighbourhood. If any of you have seen the film Lost in Translation, Shinjuku is where Bill Murray gets his first glimpse of Tokyo. No picture could possibly convey the extraordinary height and magnificence of some of these buildings, which we had to crane our necks to see even from kilometres away. After satisfying our visual appetities from the observation platform of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office, we headed over to the nerdy Akihabara neighbourhood, which is known for its electronics – mainly its robots. They seemed to be scarce when we visited on a Tuesday evening, though. The only robot I saw was on a Transformers poster.
The last and most bizarre experience we had in Tokyo was our visit to a local maid café. These cafés are everywhere in Akihabara, and seem to combine the Japanese love for anime with its love for cutesy-girl fashion. I am convinced that a maid café is what prostitution would be like if everyone was five years old. In the café, there are strict rules – you cannot touch a maid (or, rather, the waitress dressed in a stereotypical French maid costume), ask her to leave with you, or talk to her if she is busy.
But, you CAN pay her to do things for you – like play Jenga, or take a picture with you wearing cat paw gloves, or give you a souvenir, such as a keychain. Sooooo weird… All around us was an oddly puerile scene of men and women playing Battleship or Tic-Tac-Toe, giggling and talking, sipping cola, and eating chocolate ice cream with their waitresses. And if it sounds like your worst, creepiest nightmare EVER, it actually wasn’t; it seemed surprisingly innocent, at least in my optimistic eyes…
Unfortunately, it was our last night in Tokyo, and we returned to our guesthouse, culturally satiated by the experiences of the past week. Jennifer was ready to return to her home base of Sendai, and I was ready for my adventures in Japan to continue in a smaller, more “authentic” Japanese town. We left Tokyo overwhelmed but satisfied, reeling from the spicy taste of ramen soup, the visually inundating sight of glistening metallic skyscrapers, and the energetic sounds of J-pop ringing in our ears.
Here are more photos of my trip to Tokyo from my flickr account. Enjoy!