Saturday, May 22, 2010

Tokyo then, Tokyo now, and coming to Japan

Ah, Tokyo. The biggest city on earth. For years I stared at photos of the Hachiko scramble crossing in Shibuya, longing desperately to just walk back and forth along the zebra stripes under the dazzling neon. I watched "Blade Runner" and fantasized about how incredibly advanced and how very 1980s Tokyo must be. I read the "Fruits" photo books, drooling over each and every mismatched and too-brightly-colored outfit. Spent hours lying on my bed with my eyes closed listening to J-pop - so foreign and so futuristic somehow. Developed highly detailed fantasies of the night when I could finally walk the streets of sacred Tokyo. I would have Sennheiser or some other unaffordable brand of noise-canceling headphones, and through said headphones would play the 1991 "The Mix" version of "Computerliebe" by Kraftwerk, "Rydeen" by Yellow Magic Orchestra, and "Depend On You" by Hamasaki Ayumi. I was to be 100% alone. Just me, the music I love, and a brand new megalopolis straight out of that Daft Punk anime movie "Interstella 5555."

When I applied for and was accepted into the JET Programme, a gateway into Japan through which all new English teachers would first stop in Tokyo, the reality of it all struck me. I had previously held similar fantasy-feelings about Berlin, and they were fulfilled 200% and then so much more; Berlin is my favorite city on earth. And so I went to Manhattan and pretended it was Tokyo, walking up and down Times Square after dark with my music and hyping myself up for the Big Pilgrimage.

The morning of my departure, I woke up next to Walter in a friend of a friend's spare bedroom. We kissed "see you later" goodbyes and I took a car service to JFK, which is possibly the worst airport of all time. I smoked a few nervous cigarettes with a gaggle of beautiful Saudi Arabian flight attendants and went inside to check in. As I always do no matter where I go, I made a friend who suggested we drink beers for breakfast. And so I boarded the flight completely flushed with inebriation, passed out before takeoff, and woke up about an hour and a half later with a hangover. No more sleep for the remaining 12 hours of flight, doped up on Dramamine, flight attendants tried to give me the Japanese customs forms, almost 100 new JETs on the plane but it was hardly a social butterfly experience.

Needless to say, I was feeling posthumous by the time we landed in Narita; in fact I have no memory whatsoever of the customs and immigration procedure. I remember a bunch of overenthusiastic greeters in obnoxiously bright colored t-shirts shouting "WELCOME TO JAPAN" at us, I remember dashing to the smoking area, and I remember boarding a bus that would take us to our hotel. It was 3 pm or so but I wanted the Tokyo fantasy to begin. Over the excited chatter of folks on the bus, I blasted "Rydeen" and stared at the beastly concrete overpasses and skyscrapers against the sandman's wishes. It was too daylight and I was too tired. Fantasy fail.

Fast forward through the orientation with its lectures and vegan lunch meats, somehow all my friends who were studying in Tokyo had contracted food poisoning and couldn't come out to play. This left just the professor, Hiraku Shimoda, who was the indisputable heartthrob of the history department at Vassar. He swung by the Keio to pick me up, and we wandered around with no particular objective. I said I wanted to go to Shibuya, so to Shibuya we went. Japanese summers, especially in concrete jungles, are oppressively hot and humid. I remember sweating my way across that scramble crossing while trying to get Prof. Shimoda to take flattering pictures of me and also snapping stalker photos of people I found interesting on sight. It was not unlike the first time I saw the Eiffel Tower: "Oh, so this is it."


I've been in Japan for almost two years now, and I do not "know" Tokyo as a city. I've been back twice since JET orientation, and I am not terribly eager to get back. The futuristic paradise of promise, robots and gothic lolitas is now synonymous with "transportation clusterfuck," "boring people," and "shitty nightlife." If I have money to spare and a free weekend, you can bet that I'll be spotted in Osaka, not in Tokyo.

Tokyo is the loneliest place on earth. I spent an hour or so alone in Shibuya last May, and it was such a long hour. It's not "Lost in Translation" lonely since I have been here for a while and the language barrier isn't a big problem - it's just lonely in the same way that New York City is lonely. No one knows you, no one has your back in case of an emergency, no one is going to approach you who isn't selling something, and there is no way you are going to run into someone you know unless God has been proven to have a bushy beard. Tack onto this the impossible-to-navigate system of trains and subways and the sheer number of neighborhoods and stations, and it's quite discouraging to "explore the city" when you have some time to yourself.

Loneliness aside, in being so massive and all-powerful Tokyo seems devoid of personality or defining characteristics aside from the fear and wonder surrounding it. There is no flavorful local dialect, most people range from lukewarm to frigid, and there are too many tourists and visitors. The freaks and goth kids on Takeshitadori in Harajuku are so well-known that there are now large Nigerian men hawking lolita outfits to rabid hordes of overweight white girls with lip rings. Go out for a night on the town, hit up Atom or Womb, and you will find unpleasantly strict doormen and a bunch of party people who are totally disinterested in speaking to anyone they didn't show up with.

Unfortunately, the magic of a place dies when you live in it. I am about 500 miles from Tokyo here in Tagawa, but Japan is the same all across the nation. Now that I understand Japanese people, I understand Tokyo well enough that it has ceased to be the fight scenes from "Kill Bill," Ridley Scott's 2019 vision of Los Angeles, or even a Yellow Magic Orchestra song.

Sometimes I hold a small funeral in my imagination, remembering the innocent days of yore before I ever laid foot on Japanese soil.


  1. totally feel the same way about tokyo. that's why i've only been there once after tokyo orientation. it's so....flavorless imo. the rest of japan is much more flavorful!!!

    so come visit osaka! :D
    i'd love to meet you again.

  2. And you will. I want to go to one of Territory's goth nights. Your job is to do the research (I am basically illiterate), my job is to shell out 26k and get there, and it shall be both of our jobs to go nuts and have fun!

  3. Interesting, fun, insightful read.


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