Tokyo is basically the world’s most immersive and expansive video game.
This thought occurred to me as I stood in the queue for train tickets at Narita Airport. Above me, a huge screen broadcast a cartoon depicting the dangers of selfie sticks (e.g. if they touch the overhead electrified train lines, you die). To the left, people bustled in a store that sold nothing but underwear in bizarre prints (popcorn, kitten faces etc). Over to the right, several cartoon characters wandered around clumsily, guided by very serious men in suits… which I realised is because the costumes have no eye-holes, so the grave-faced suit-men would whisper to the poor bastards inside when to stop and wave for photo ops with eager kids and amused tourists.
It has to be said, Japanese people love a queue. Whether for something as tedious as train tickets, or the latest wasabi-spiced Hello Kitty-endorsed rainbow-coloured sultanas (or whatever), they will happily line up for it… Not only that, but people are actually employed whose sole job it is to manage the line, ensuring it doesn’t take up the wrong bit of pavement or whatever.
Which is very Japanese in itself. If you’re familiar with their tea ceremonies, you’d know it’s deeply ingrained in Japanese culture to manage things down to the most granular movements and gestures – very politely, very gently, but also with utmost seriousness. Hence why here, you even line up for the train, instead of just crowding around the nearest door… Because in Japan, door finds you – you line up at the designated marker and voila, there it is right in front of you, sliding open with an elegant smoothness as if to say ‘welcome sir to my carriage’.
So what am I doing here in Tokyo? Basically, I’m part of a group that’s gathered here to celebrate my sister’s 30th in her all-time favourite country. And I do mean ‘all-time favourite’ – she and her boyfriend Shane have been here SIX TIMES since popping their cherry-blossom cherry some years ago. Me, this is my third time. For the other people in our group – and I’ll introduce the whole cast shortly – this is their virginal visit to the Land of the Rising Toilet Seat.
Now, back to Narita.
Our first action upon collecting our luggage was to make a beeline for Lawson’s. Lawson’s is basically a Japanese 7-Eleven but better. We were on a very specific mission: to locate a decidedly Western foodstuff with a Japanese twist. The twist comes in the form of special mayonnaise, known as kewpie, that must tap with great force & immediacy into the dopamine-pumpers of the brain, because god DAMN – one bite of this stuff and it’s like your taste buds are getting oral sex. The legendary snack I’m referring to is Egg Sandwiches – or as my sister likes to call them, with mock Japanese accent, egg sand-he-wicho.
I don’t know why purchasing egg sandwiches at Lawson’s merits a mention, but the truth is not a day went by during our time in Japan that we did not pay our daily pilgrimage to a conveni (convenience store) for this ever-tasty, ever-ready snack… that flavour-bomb mayonnaise encased between two of the lightest, fluffiest, whitest (and no doubt nutrition-freest) slices of bread you’ve ever held in your soft, trembling hands… All for a loose-change price tag of about 200 yen (~AU$1).
But enough about egg sandwiches. We need to press on.
Right now I’m on the train to Tokyo proper and feel, once again, like I’m in a video game. Every little development along this journey – train arrives at station; train doors open; train is now departing – is accompanied by a little chiptune ditty straight out of The Legend of Zelda. Whoever made those top-loader washing machines that play a sea shanty once they’ve finished – that person was surely Japanese, coz they live and breathe that kinda stuff. And I’ve just noticed – to make things even more interesting – that there’s actually a different ditty for every station. My sister tells me this is so that Japanese salarymen who use their commute to sleep – so ~90% of them – train their brains to recognise & wake up to their station’s particular melody.
Ahhh, the Japanese. Are they actually a race of cyborgs, powered by gluteinous rice? Perhaps they are.
I should probably introduce you now to this gang of five I’m travelling with. Like I said, I’m here with my sister Matylda, her boyfriend Shane, another couple – Stef and Nicki (keep in mind Stef’s a dude – this initially threw me too) – and James, or ‘The James/TJ Bones’ as my sister refers to him with a mixture of amusement and affection.
I quickly learned why. James is a heart-of-gold kind of guy who has a refreshingly undeveloped self-consciousness – one of those characters who’ll happily say whatever pops into his head, appropriateness filter be damned. It’d only be a few more hours until I was acquainted with his left testicle, which he popped out of his jim-jams for a giggle… But what really defined TJ on this trip though was his addiction to food. I’m not saying this guy’s a foodie, coz that’s half of Melbourne these days… I’m saying he has a mental disorder; the gastronomic equivalent of a crack addiction. On more than one occasion The James put us in real threat of missing a train, coz he’d gotten a whiff of something on the way and just had to stop and try it… Usually catching up with us at the last second, clutching a paper tray of octopus balls or whatever, half-apologising, half-eating, and mostly not giving a fuck coz he got the food and that’s all that really matters. James isn’t fat by the way – just standard-issue post-30-year-old dadbod – which makes this all the more extraordinary.
To be honest though you can’t blame him. Cheap, quick, delicious food is abundant in Nippon. Pokey little ramen bars with a curtain for the front door, emanating tantilising smells and noise… Little katsu don eateries, ‘katsu’ being (as far as I can tell) some form of meat on rice (inagi, or eel, being my favourite)… And even littler sushi outlets without a single seat, coz frankly the sushi is so fucking amazing you WILL be happy to stand while you eat it, the immaculately fresh, tender morsels melting in your mouth like butter. You eventually leave not so much coz you’ve had enough, but only to be fair to the inevitable gaggle of people gathered outside, awaiting their turn to intake some of this shiny, briny mouth heroin.
These things are never mixed, mind you. The Melbourne thing of selling sushi and hot food at the same place, for example, is a big no-no in Japan. Every type of food – ramen, katsu, sushi, teppenyaki – is an art and you specialise in one only. There’s a place near where I live called ‘Wong’s Café’ that sells sushi rolls and Chinese food. To a Jap, that’s basically like having a combined brothel/ library – madness. And I tend to agree.
I should mention that the alcohol here is likewise top-notch. Most of the mainstream brews are made by Suntory – that’s the same Suntory that Bill Murray/Bob Harris advertises for in Lost in Translation – and it’s probably the best beer I’ve had outside of Poland and the Czech Republic. Now that I think about it, it’s weird we don’t get Suntory beers in Aus given Asahi’s so prominent… Asahi’s not bad by any standard, but it’s really just a Japanese Crown Lager. Suntory’s brews, on the other hand, are deliciously smooth, even slightly creamy in the way that Polish beers are… and, like Polish beers, they’re dirt cheap.
Japanese whiskey – again, dominated by the omnipresent Suntory label – is also top notch. Later in the trip I bought a fine-looking bottle of rum at a bottle shop which I thought was authentically South American, given it had a Spanish name and palm trees on the label, with no sign of that quintessential Asian tendency to misconstrue any culture outside of their own… Only to realise later it was produced in Japan. It was the best rum I’ve had to date.
The only alcohol category that the Japs fail at is vodka. There’s only one Japanese vodka label – basically an acknowledgement that they suck in this area – and instead of at least giving it a pseudo-Slavic name (like the pseudo-Spanish name for the rum), they just call it ‘Gibley’s’, as if vodka originated in fucking Wales or something. With its text-only white-and-navy label, it’s definitely no Belvedere – but this didn’t stop me and my sister from mixing generous quantities with fruit juice & downing it with Polish gusto on several occasions… For the vitamin C content, of course.
Wow. I’ve written extensively about egg sandwiches and liquor and haven’t even made it off the train to Tokyo yet. So yes, indeed – we’re all sitting in these big Gold Class-style seats whizzing at high speed through a semi-rural landscape – and speaking of alcohol, we’re all happily sipping cans of booze nestled on our fold-out trays. I’ve got a can of frothy Yebisu beer – another excellent & popular brand here – and my sister’s enthusiastically tucking into a can of ‘Strong’, a lemon-gin premix that lives up to its name in both flavour and potency. In Melbourne, of course, we’d all be issued $200+ fines and muscled off at the next station for doing this, but in Japan – completely acceptable. And they give you your change back like it’s a piece of the True Cross.
There’s actually an entire blog entry one could write about that fact – why DO we have such fascist drinking laws in Australia, and why, admittedly, are we so bad as a collective at drinking? Because don’t get me wrong: the Japanese get smashed. There’s a whole Facebook page dedicated to the phenomenon of uber-pissed Japanese salarymen passed out on in public places and transport – I saw it first-hand on a previous trip; a group of middle-aged men in impeccable business suits, faces flushed, laughing all with their ties inexplicably tied around their heads. The difference is they didn’t cause anyone any trouble. My sister told me a story, also from a previous trip, of a businessman so drunk that he had no choice but to puke… So what did he do? Opened up his suitcase and vomited all over his work papers. Not one globule of half-digested rice made it onto the floor of the train.
Whereas Down Under, getting drunk too often means acting like a moron – trying to draw as much attention as possible to you and your mates; hitting on women who don’t want a bar of you; and, depending on how the night pans out, perhaps starting a fight or destroying some property depending on what’s around. “This is why we can’t have nice things”, as the saying goes… While here in Japan, women literally walk up and down the train carriages with a cart offering you half a bar’s worth of liquor.
Yet it’s funny that here we are, all Aussies, all drinking yet behaving with utmost civility and self-control. Maybe the Japs have sent off all their fuckwit drunks to hard labour in Okinawan quarries or something, and left the rest of their citizens alone… Which, if true, I couldn’t applaud more. We should do the same instead of punishing everyone – coz who doesn’t feel like a bit of a drinky on a long, boring commute?
Anyway. Our first proper taste of Tokyo came with a stop in Shibuya. Shibuya is what probably comes to most people’s minds when they think ‘Tokyo’: it’s the district with that massive Times Square-esque intersection where, in Lost In Translation, Charlotte is lost in a sea of colourful umbrellas and looks up to see a huge projection of a brontosaurus saunter by. Me, I saw a bunch of men in suits ice-skating in ridiculous formations, for what seemed to be an ad for fruit juice. Who knows. At first you laugh, then you try to figure it out, then you give up trying to figure it out and just enjoy the surrealism. This is a country that, I think, knows it’s weird by other people’s standards and revels in it. The bizarre ads; the anthropomorphised ambulances with cat and dog faces; the eyebrow-raising Jinglish (everywhere I saw an ad featuring nothing but a woman and the words “Moist Diane” – again, who knows)… Collectively it says something pretty clear: This is Japan, and ordinary notions of ‘normal’ do not apply or matter. Reverence and irreverence, what’s important and what isn’t, is very different in the brilliant, quirky land that gave us samurai, sake and Sonic the Hedgehog.
One example that randomly comes to mind is how in Melbourne, you’ll grab a $2 sushi roll from any old joint (usually Chinese-owned) but you’d spend that lunch break catching up with someone, running errands or hitting the gym – being ‘productive’. In Japan, an adult might waste an entire lunch break reading semi-pornographic comics at a 7-Eleven or sleeping in a car, but the sushi consumption would be undertaken with the sort of thoughtfulness you’d reserve for a trip to the art gallery – careful consideration of the menu followed by full, devoted attention on the flavours in play. Sushi is not something you shove into a plastic box with a tiny plastic fish of soy sauce and scoff down at your desk while reading clickbait news on the web. It’s serious business.
And takeaway sushi is exactly what we had in Shibuya. We decided to ‘camp’ for a while at a statue of a dog that, no joke, has a photograph taken of it probably every 10 seconds during daylight hours. The dog, called Hachikō, used to leave home and make its way to Shibuya station every day to wait for the arrival of his owner, a uni professor. One day the professor died and never came home, but the dog continued the ritual every single day for almost 10 years until his own death – a moving example of dogs’ unrelenting loyalty to their master. It’s no surprise that the Japanese were impressed by this and in the words of the Wikipedia page I just brought up, to remind myself of the dog’s name – “Hachikō’s legendary faithfulness became a national symbol of loyalty, particularly to the person and institution of the Emperor.”
After our own obligatory group shot, complete with peace signs, the girls went off to a sushi outlet we’d seen on the way out of the station, while us guys guarded the luggage, observing the insane level of public excitement at this otherwise unexceptional bit of bronze, while tentatively sipping on cans of beer/Strong. I say ‘tentatively’ coz at this point, it still seemed weird to be able to drink anything alcoholic in public. The Great Southern Nanny State had indoctrinated us deeply.
Anyway, at one point I attempted to balance a pile of sushi and soy sauce on one of the backpacks and it promptly fell over, leaving a massive dark-brown stain on the hallowed ground surrounding Hachikō’s likeness… So we decided this was our cue to leave. We each grabbed our respective luggage and once again, began dragging it noisily along the concrete and bitumen onto another train, and finally – after some assistance from a traffic controller, spiffily dressed in what looked like a crisp Navy uniform – made it to our flat.
The problems started as soon as we stepped through the door. The flat, an AirBnB owned by some expat Yank, was tiny. There were two very small bedrooms – one of which smelled bad, due (we surmised) to an uncleaned tatami mat – and five of us. After much deliberation and back-of-head scratching , the pieces settled thus: Stef & Nicki in the stale-smelling room; me, Matylda & Shane in the other room (I had a mattress on the floor – #luxury); and TJ on the couch in a ‘room’ that was just a cramped walkway between the kitchen and balcony. Not quite the Sofitel Deluxe Suites, and there was a serious lack of bedding to boot – at least justifying my decision to bring my own pillow, as I’m rather fussy in the evening headrest area.
The room/bed allocation process had gotten us all a bit tense, so we did what anyone would do in that situation – step out onto the balcony and have a smoke and beer. By the time we were done, with malty breath and tar-infused jackets, watching cherry blossoms flutter off a tree like pink confetti, we felt much better. Hey, we were in Japan. Everything’s gonna be cool.
Me & Matylda at the cherry blossom tree on our street. Part 2 will come eventually – in the meantime check out my Instagram for more Japan pics!