The next morning, we went out to find North-American-style food for breakfast. Since there’s usually a McDonald’s on every second block in most metropolitan areas, I picked a random direction and assumed that we’d come upon one within a few minutes. I’m probably the only person in the world who could take twenty minutes to find a McDonald’s in Tokyo. Mr. Blond finally spotted one down a side street after we turned off the main road. We arrived right as breakfast was ending, and they forgot to give me cutlery and syrup for my pancakes and Mr. Blond had to wait a few minutes for his hash browns. The lady at the cash register was obsequiously apologetic about the whole thing, but I sometimes find it distressing how the service industry here requires one to be incredibly servile.
Mr. Blond was only staying in Tokyo for three nights before heading to Sydney and then New Zealand. He needed to call Canada to find out some details for his stay in Sydney, which required my first-ever use of a long-distance phone card. After fiddling for a few minutes, then reading the instructions on the card and tearing off the corner as directed, then fiddling for a few more minutes, then reading the instructions on the phone, and then fiddling for yet another few minutes, we came no closer to contacting anyone overseas. We asked the clerk what to do and she dialled the number for us, adding 001 at the beginning. I’m not sure how we were supposed to know that; there was probably a notice someplace obvious.
My bus had passed by the walls of a large castle as it had neared Tokyo station the night before, and I decided that I wanted to go take a better look. The “castle” turned out to be the Imperial East Garden. I had grabbed a pamphlet in our hotel to use as a general guide for things to see, and it described the Imperial East Garden as a 250-acre fortress, home of the Emperor and Empress. As we entered, a guard said, “Excuse me” in brusque English and cursorily searched Mr. Blond’s bag, which was the tightest security I’d seen anywhere in Japan.
The Garden gates were very similar to those of Sumpu Castle in Shizuoka, although they seemed a little bigger: about twenty feet wide and high, with a thick interior gate at 90 degrees to the first, both topped with heavily shingled roofs. We each took a free token from a booth inside the gates, which the signs told us we had to return before we left. I guess it’s how they limit occupancy. There were a few modern buildings on the ground level, including a small gallery we checked out later, and on the left, beyond a fence in what seemed to be a restricted area, we could see a wonderfully traditional-style dojo, from which we could hear the thwacking sounds of kendo practice. I wondered what I would have had to do to be allowed to train in there.
While only a few flowers were still blooming, the real attractions for me were the ascending levels of ancient walls, all of them incredibly massive, made of impossibly large pieces of stone. As we looked down forty feet over one of the two moats from an observatory position on the vast interior bastion, we considered the effort and coordination involved in creating such a thing. I could just picture the emperor going, “I want you to build me a big hill over there. Then stick these huge stones around it. Ready? Go!”
I saw more gaijin in the Garden than I have since I arrived in Japan. In Shizuoka, gaijin tend to greet each other on sight, but I feel stupid waving at people just because they’re other foreigners. Sometimes I embarrass myself because I don’t realize until it’s too late that I’m refusing to acknowledge someone I actually know. I had the half-urge to wave to people in Tokyo, but I had to quickly get over it. Many of them were just tourists, anyway, so they expected to be accorded as outsiders. I sometimes get frustrated with Japanese people for being so enthralled every time they spot a foreigner, but I guess it’s not entirely unreasonable—I react differently to gaijin, too.
Unfortunately, the most interesting areas of the garden were all off-limits, and there were very few of the traditional white-walled, arc-shingled buildings remaining atop the walls. As we descended, I looked up thirty feet of giant stone blocks and pondered what it must have been like to see an imposing three-story building atop those walls in place of the trees that now adorn them. I have to go to Kyoto.
We walked around the exterior of the garden in the hopes of getting a better look at some of the off-limits areas. The place was absolutely huge, and we’d only seen a corner of it when we’d entered. Even the paved area that looked like a parking lot dwarfed everything else on the landscape. The garden spanned at least five city blocks in width, and the vast low-lying area seemed to invert the arc of the hemisphere down toward it, the surrounding buildings of downtown Tokyo looking like insignificant twigs barely able to approach the sky.
Things Not To Do In Shinjuku
I hadn’t really seen Tokyo Station last time I was in Tokyo since I’d only used the side and underground entrances. The building looks like something out of a late-19th century photograph, set at the end of a double-width roadway leading directly to a bridge and moat associated with the East Gardens. It looks like a perfect model railway station expanded about four million times.
Next was Shinjuku. All I knew of it was that it was noteworthy enough to be required vocabulary in my Japanese class—I can even write it in Kanji—and that it was best to avoid an area called Kabukichou. Mr. Brown once repeated to me two pieces of advice from a tourist’s handbook regarding Kabukichou:
1) Don’t go.
2) If you do go, pretend you don’t know any Japanese and get out as quickly as possible.
Kabukichou, apparently, is an area where the local Yakuza duke it out with foreign gangs at night and most arguments are settled with the business end of a katana. It has a bit of romanticism about it in Japanese crime dramas.
We got out of the station and quickly spotted an area below the main roadway that was completely unlike the wide, open streets we had seen near Tokyo station. Shinjuku’s streets are cramped and dingy, crammed full of squalid pachinko parlours and strip clubs jammed between restaurants and other shops, all topped by giant three-story signs advertising products of any and all types. We descended an outdoor escalator as we watched a large, building-mounted TV promulgate the marvels of the latest chart-toppers from the US.
While waiting for a light to change, I read the name of the area we were about to enter. Kabukichou. I was a little concerned, but as there was a huge crowd of people with us, I figured we’d be okay. It didn’t look any different from the rest of Shinjuku, anyway.
Mr. Blond wanted to eat something Japanese, and given that he’d had a poor reaction to our tempura the night before, I picked a random street down which to search for a bento (lunch box) shop. You can buy bento at any convenience store, but the only way to get it fresh and hot is to buy it at a street-side bento shop. The buildings beginning to subside ahead of us, we decided to turn down a side street and continue the search. With another turn or two, we quickly found ourselves all but alone in the midst of what was effectively a series of back alleys with the flashing-lighted entrances to strip clubs representing the only recognizable shops. As a grimy man invited me into his establishment with a leer, I got a little anxious and decided that it would be a good idea to head back toward a more populated area.
And then I realized that, for the first time, I was legitimately concerned that I might have been lost in Tokyo.
I had no idea where we’d come from and all directions seemed the same. I’d generally figured that, assuming I could find an entrance to one of the ubiquitous subway stations, I’d be okay—but I was starting to worry that I’d never find my way out of Kabukichou, much less find a station. It was the closest I’d come to panic in a long time. Naturally, we exited without incident, unless being beckoned to enter three or so different strip clubs counts as an “incident.”
Passing a half-dozen mocking McDonald’s outlets, I started to look for a non-Western restaurant where I would be able to order food. This was more difficult than one might think: if I can’t point to what I want on a picture or hand it to the cashier, I’m pretty much buggered. The only food-related kanji I can recognize are “fish” and “baked,” which aren’t very useful in distinguishing one dish from another.
We finally ended up grabbing lukewarm bento in the basement of a department store and sitting on the unusually existent public seating to devour our meals. For some reason, department stores usually provide food but no place in which to eat it. Food courts don’t really exist here.
Stepping outside, we discovered that we were within sight of Shinjuku station. As we ascended back up the escalator, I literally felt like I was emerging from a pool of water—or maybe it was more like being lifted out of a dunk dank.
In retrospect, I considered using the following words to define Shinjuku: “Intoxicating Shithole.” I’m not yet sure if it’s totally appropriate.
A Little Shibuya
We took the JR line to Shibuya. Most of the area between Shinjuku and Shibuya was raised above the ground, and the train tracks seemed to cut a gigantic hole out of the middle of the city. Shibuya was Tokyo as I’ve always seen it depicted—it started like Times Square, with two huge building-mounted TV screens and a third building that seemed to consist of nothing but televisions beyond its third floor, displaying commercials to the massed consumers below.
We walked up one of the main streets as it curved up a gradual hill, entranced by the vertical shop signs cycling into view on the sides of the four-story buildings. We spotted an archway labelled with a sign I could only partially read that led up yet another hill, and we decided to investigate. After making a left at a pachinko parlour, we quickly found ourselves alone in an alley with poorly-identified clubs and strip joints, so, with visions of Shinjuku cavorting in my head, I turned us back to more populous regions. The sheer quantity and variety of strip clubs in this country never cease to amaze me.
We took a slightly different route of return and passed half a dozen small hotels that advertised two different rates: one for the night, and one for a two-hour “visit.”
A veritable sea of people separated us from Shibuya station. It was, again, a classic image of Tokyo. I’ve never seen so many people trying to flow past one another in so many different directions at the same time. Mr. Blond stopped to take a picture.
Mr. Blond insisted that there must have been a more efficient way to get back to our hotel, so we took an alternate route and ended up at a station that was quite close to our destination. I was happy to have someone prodding me to take a navigational risk or two. My directional skills were improving, too: after we got out, I only had to cross one street before I realized I was going the wrong way.
While Mr. Blond napped off some more of his jet lag, I went to the hotel lobby to ask if there was an izakaya in the area with a pictographic menu.
Izakaya are great places to go with a large group of people. You order round after round of small, shared dishes while typically ordering accompanying round upon round of drinks. These places often feature the wonderful Japanese word, “nomihodai”: all-you-can-drink.
Mr. Blond and I had wandered Tokyo for about eight hours, but the hotel clerks seemed concerned that the nearest izakaya was an inconvenient ten-minute walk away. I failed to accurately express my staggering lack of concern.
The izakaya actually had the same menu as a place I’d visited in Shizuoka, so ordering was rather easy. Unfortunately, however, we couldn’t get nomihodai with less than five people. That didn’t prevent me from introducing him to the wonders of warm sak, though. But the idea of ordering random small dishes is far less fun when you have only two people, so we didn’t stay very long.
I’m told there are multitudinous fun things to do in Tokyo at night, but given that I neither had any idea where to find them nor any energy to look for them, Mr. Blond and I just collapsed into our respective beds and went to sleep. The next night, shortly before I had to leave, a friend of mine called and advised me to go to Harajuku, where I’m told the young, oft-times strangely-attired people hang out. I need someone to take me out in Tokyo so I can do a proper job of showing it to other people.