Someone once said, you can’t keep a wanderer from wandering, or something like that. I started planning my next travels even as I was swimming in the warm Pacific waters in Savai’i, Samoa. Which part of the world calls me, I meditated. Japan or South Korea were on my list and May seemed like a good time. Just before the non-stop, tiring days of winter when my appointment diary is full at least a week in advance. I enjoy visiting Asia, any part of Asia. It is home and yet I am an outsider, and I like that feeling. So that was a no-brainer. Until my friend Stephanie called. We met in New Zealand but she is from France and when she went back she would call me randomly on weekends because from France you can call any part of the world and talk for up to three hours, for free! So one Sunday morning, Stephanie called to chat and nek minnit I booked my ticket to France. But you have to go through Asia en route to Europe. Air New Zealand has a direct flight from Auckland to Tokyo and so I had at least ten hours before my next flight to Amsterdam.
The Tokyo of my imagination was a high tech city. Flash, futuristic, hyper-urbanised. It is all of that and more. It is old, cranky, creaky and unique.
A friend’s brother, a South Asian from Auckland who now lives and runs a business from Chiba, picked me up at Narita airport and drove us into Tokyo. The plan was to hang out and get a teaser of this great city, sleepover at his house and take the train back to Narita airport next morning.
My first lesson in local history-Narita airport was built on agricultural land where the farmers were forced off by the Japanese government. More than forty years later, the protests and resistance continues. I love such stories. It reinforces in my mind and heart that progress and development as we are taught do not happen as a consequence of ‘modernity’ but on the backs of human beings that are sucked into the vacuum of eroded history. How do nations and their polity plan their movement forward without considering the consequences? Mostly it is a momentary achievement for the capitalists who lobbied for it and make their money.
So we went towards Akihabara over the various highways paying toll along the way. This is the electronic district of Tokyo. There are fancy shops, little holes in the wall packed with all kinds of electronics and SEGA video game parlours. It is really old-fashioned. We parked the car near the station and took the train to Harajuku.
There was a gaggle of girls outside GAP in Harajuku. I suppose they were waiting for a celebrity to show up? There were onlookers looking at the crowd and then there was us, looking at the onlookers looking at the girls. :-) A fancy popcorn shop had a long queue just to buy popcorn and young men and women browsed through a very eighties style, garish shopping centre that has mostly local brands displaying wares in an unusual way. It is a mixture between kawaii and classic European. At the main crossing were three head banging youth and others holding up posters that said ‘Free English’. Ah, protesters, I thought. They want free English lessons from the government? Nein, nicht, no! They were evangelising rockers from a church called Free English! And right across the road was a shop called Condomania :-)
Dinner was sushi at a place where you can order the food via an electronic board and pick up bits from a train. I love sushi and this one was as yummy as it gets. There are restaurants on every street. Harajuku has at least three Italian restaurants within a diameter of one kilometre and for every Ramen noodle joint there is a McDonald’s.
By the time we walked to Shibuya the shops were closing and people were either going into clubs or seemed to be going home. The main crossing outside Shibuya station is a large scale demonstration of Barnes Dance and as we waited to let the surge of humanity pass us we came face to face with a South Asian threesome, one woman holding hands with two men. They stopped short, as if shocked to see fellow ethnics and their expression changed to ‘wanna-join-us?’ before they were pushed on by other pedestrians. ;-) Then there were the African-American dudes checking out the Asian girls and trying to guess who was Japanese and who was Korean. But mostly they are Japanese. From school girls in their knee length socks and mini skirts to middle aged office workers in their black suits. As if staying out so late at night before a hard day’s work next morning was just what they do.
You could tell the office workers coming out of the little restaurants, the men tanked up with saké, staggering on the streets with drunken stupor; the women still demure, or so it seemed to me. I don’t socialise with my work mates because I don’t want to see them outside of work but I suppose that is the reality for many people or how else can human beings interact in a fast paced existence that has ‘non-traditional’ social structures?
The unique Japanese fashion sense is visible everywhere. That Japanese women have different take on Western clothes, sui generis, is obvious, if you care to know, and I have been a fan and follower for a long time. Japanese men too dress like none other. Not only is there the genre of the pretty Asian, metrosexual male but the middle aged suits too, in their samurai testosterone mode, I noticed, were carrying female office bags. Yes, not man bags but feminine bags. An almost imperceptible shift of gender symbols. The Japanese wear haute couture and designer accessories casually without seeming aspirational like the Indians and Chinese.
The train rides on the Tokyo Metro were the highlight for me though. I love trains, I love train stations. And this metro is better than the London Underground or the Paris Metro. The trains are not fancy and the stations and bridges are old. Everything is clean or someone is cleaning it. But then the Japanese are inherently polite, patient, quiet and orderly (I say at the risk of stereotyping), so that makes the difference?
Once more in my eternal quest for place I discovered I could easily live in Tokyo. It is Asia but I don’t have to belong, multiculti, transculti, polyculti that I am. And that is the joy. Only wonder what I would do for a living.