Tokyo, the citiest city of them all; Eel neckties and tuna auctions; How to feel old, ugly, poor and unfashionable; Giant robots, but no Godzilla; Lantern festival and fireworks

It was barely dawn when we arrived in Tokyo. We had an invitation to stay with our friends Jun and Sayaka. We’d met them on a bus in the middle of India and joined forces for the day. We hooked up with them again in Chandigarh and a third time in Varanasi, and afterward they’d invited us to visit them. After negotiating the labyrinthine tile and aluminium tunnels under Tokyo Station (echoing and nearly empty that early on a Saturday morning) a short ride on an elevated rail line brought us to their station. They led us to their house through a confusing maze of twisting little streets - we’d never have found the place on our own. Their house was bigger than I was expecting, given everything I’d always heard about housing costs in Tokyo. What they’re paying for a little house wouldn’t be out of line for a two-bedroom apartment in Toronto, though I think that says more about Toronto than it does about Tokyo.

We settled into life in Tokyo quickly. We were both sick for the first couple of days, with what I desperately hope is the final word from Nepal, so weren’t good for much at first. Jun and Sayaka were very patient, generous hosts and life at their house was very comfortable. So much so that we stayed for three weeks rather than the three days we’d originally planned. They had signed up at after we told them about it in India, and so we weren’t the only guests while we were there. A Swiss woman and her two teenage daughters stayed for three days, and a Polish hitchhiker named Jacek was there for the last few days of our stay. Things got a little crowded at a couple of points - their house is small - but it kept things from getting stale with just the four of us.

Jun and Sayaka fed us well, too. Sheryl and I haven’t had the opportunity to cook very much during our travels, and we’ve mostly forgotten how. Both Sayaka and Jun are good cooks, though, and we were happy to take care of the shopping and leave the cooking to them. Unagi (that’s eels, to you) is one of my favourite Japanese foods. Jun’s father has an eel farm (no, really, an eel farm) and sent some over one day. Sayaka tells me that I shouldn’t, strictly, use the word unagi for these eels, since unagi are saltwater eels and these were freshwater eels. Unagi or not, we all had an idiotically good time playing with them before Sayaka cooked them. The people who say that you’re not supposed to play with your food have clearly never heard the phrase eel necktie. There was one Japanese specialty I’d never been exposed to back home - fried eel spines. The eels had come with their spines all neatly separated in the box and, fried, they’re crispy and addictive like potato chips.

Japan is a nation notorious for its insatiable appetite for seafood, and early in our visit Jun and Sayaka took us to Tokyo’s most famous fish market. Tsukiji market is a chaotic bedlam of screeching carts, forklifts and crazy vehicles that look like trash cans on wheels. And fish, everywhere fish. There are a thousand stalls selling every possible thing that comes out of the ocean - fish, crustaceans, octopus, urchins, and all manner of unidentifiable spiky, slimy or squishy things. There was even, to my horror and nausea, a stall selling whale meat. The place is mostly a wholesale market and, though tourists are allowed to visit, they’re expected to look after themselves and narrowly escape death by speeding trash-can while not allowing their dodging to interfere with the operation of the market. The strangest part of the visit was the morning tuna auction. The thought of a tuna auction still makes me laugh, but it’s deadly serious business there. In a huge, echoing freezer of a building each headless, tailless, frozen fish is solemnly inspected and graded before being put up for a brief and frenzied bidding war, and then it’s hooked and dragged unceremoniously across the floor and out the door. Possibly some of them found their way into our breakfast that day. I’ve never had sushi for breakfast before, but the best sushi is made with the freshest and best fish, and the sushi restaurants at Tsukiji market are famous. The hour-long wait in line and the dismaying ¥2500 price tag at one of them, a tiny counter with maybe twelve seats, was worth it.

Tokyo, I may have mentioned, is a big place. It’s really a city made up of cities that have grown together. There are 23 special wards that make up the megalopolis, each one a quasi-autonomous city in its own right. Overlaid on this amalgamation, though, is a patchwork of real neighbourhoods - neighbourhoods in the sense that I know them. Jun and Sayaka live in an area of Shinagawa ward called Nishi-Oi - it’s a residential district of quiet, crooked streets and dog-walkers. We came to know the characters that represent its name very well, though it took us a week before we stopped getting lost between their house and the train station.

The map of Tokyo’s train and subway lines looks dauntingly like a multicoloured tangle of spaghetti. There are nearly twenty main rail lines and it’s easy to be overwhelmed at first. Once you’re even a little familiar with the system, though, it’s the easiest city to get around I’ve ever been in. You’re never more than fifteen minutes’ walk from one of about ten thousand subway or train stations, the trains themselves run with split-second precision and all the signage and many of the announcements are in English as well as Japanese. It’s very easy to get lost in the crowded, rushing labyrinths of the bigger stations, though. We never went anywhere at rush hour. Mumbai’s trains had been enough for me and Tokyo’s are even more legendarily crowded. I’d always heard that there are white-gloved station workers whose sole duty is to physically push as many people onto the trains as possible - and it’s true, Jun used to have a part-time job as a subway pusher, he told me.

Sheryl and I thought that we’d rotate through the neighbourhoods of Tokyo while we were there, one every couple of days, and Shinjuku was the first place we visited. Shinjuku is what the rest of the world thinks of, when they think of Tokyo. The best view is from the observation deck on the forty-fifth floor of each of the municipal government’s twin towers. My god, Tokyo is huge. I’ve never seen anything like it. The gigantic cities of India, which come close to Tokyo in terms of population, house a great deal of their population in concentric rings of slums and aren’t very impressive as modernist or futurist artifacts. Tokyo is decidedly so. Mount Fuji made a rare appearance through the haze in the distance, and the glittering forest of skyscrapers seem to spread all the way to its base. Perfect concrete parabolas of pedestrian walkways curl around their bases of the buildings and squares of dense green parks provide a counterpoint to the steel and glass. I was almost surprised not to see flying cars and shining airships gliding between the tops of the towers.

All this glitter is reflected on the east side of Shinjuku where the shops, quirky theme bars, pachinko parlours and nightclubs are stacked ten stories high, concealed like waterfall caves behind cascades of glowing vertical signage, and all the pretty people come out to play when it gets dark. If you ever need to feel old, ugly, poor and unfashionable in one easy step, a visit to Shinjuku is the answer. Tokyo is not a cheap place to live, and the shiny young things here are very shiny, very pretty, and very rich. Sheryl and I drifted, dazed, through the crowds of hyperactive people half our age and wearing more money than we spend in two months. Nobody looked at us - their eyes just slid over us in our patched and faded travelling rags and disintegrating shoes. I felt like a skid-row bum. It was my first experience with Tokyo’s legendary culture-shock, and it was too much for us.

Maybe we’d acclimatized a bit after that, or maybe we just tried to stick to places that made us feel less like assholes. I certainly never felt like we belonged there, and I never felt like anything other than an ignorant barbarian. It’s a gift that the Japanese have, this power to make you feel awkward and uncomfortable. There are so many rules here, and almost all of them are unspoken. The problem that I had, coming from a more direct, straightforward (that is to say, barbaric) culture, is that nobody here will ever tell you when you’ve broken one of those myriad rules. They’ll just smile politely and tell you how wonderful you are, in a way that somehow makes it subtly, indefinably clear that you aren’t really very wonderful at all. I was strangely grateful to Jun, the sole exception, who informed me gleefully and sadistically, in great detail, about every faux-pas I made.

We managed to visit a lot of the city before we left. Akihabara is a geek’s dream of surplus electronics shops. Shibuya is another hectic downtown quarter with a notorious scramble crossing less relaxing than some riots I’ve attended. The famous Ginza didn’t impress me, but then I’m not much for conspicuous consumption and the Ginza is just one pretentious storefront after another. Harajuku was more to my taste - crammed with bizarre little shops spilling out onto the pavement, gothic frills competing with candy-coloured dresses and costume jewellery - a place for the dress-up princess in all of us. I spent twenty minutes looking through one shop with a zombie-cat theme for a hoodie I could fit into. I really wanted one but it couldn’t be done - lord knows I’m not a big man, but a fifteen-year-old Japanese girl I’m definitely not. Jun was irredeemably humiliated even to be seen with me afterward.

Odaiba is a huge stretch of land reclaimed from Tokyo Bay and built up with green-space, shopping centres and amusement parks. We reached it by subway but we left it on a high-speed elevated monorail that arched above the water and the glittering nightscape of the city. That was a fun night, but the star of the show was certainly the full-scale animatronic robot statue built in honour of the 30th anniversary of the comic Gundam. It blared stern and incomprehensible Japanese, turned its head and shot blue-lit steam from the jets on its back. I never read the comic or watched the cartoon when I was a kid, but it’s impossible to have grown up in the eighties and fail to recognize it, and the ten-year-old in me loved it. Like ninjas and Godzilla, it’s iconically Japanese and universally known. Godzilla, sadly, never made an appearance while we were there. Jun and Sayaka suffered through my endless Godzilla jokes with weary patience - the rich vein that is Godzilla humour was mined out in Japan long ago.

Toward the end of our visit we returned to Odaiba for the annual midsummer lantern festival. Thousands of coloured paper bags had been arranged in bands and swirls on the beach, each with a tiny flickering candle inside. It was enchanting. The muted pastels and earth-toned colours of the lantern-lights wavered and glimmered in the warm air and the sand felt cool under our feet as we wandered among them. From the ground, I was lost in the details, but from above it was possible to see that the lanterns had been laid out in abstract representations of athletes - the theme of the festival was Tokyo’s bid for the Olympics in 2016.

An hour’s train ride to the southwest of Tokyo proper is Yokohama. Sayaka brought us there to a barbecue party given by some friends of hers. Most of them were young, affluent professionals and I’d have felt out of place without the sprinkling of more eclectic types. The group met at the train station and walked to the host’s apartment complex. While we were walking I excused myself a moment and dodged out into traffic to take a picture of a good manhole cover. I know that my obsession with manhole covers mystifies and annoys nearly all of my long-suffering readers. I’ve never offered an apology for this, and I never will now, because when I got back to the sidewalk the prettiest girl at the party grabbed my arm and started talking wildly about how she collected pictures of manhole covers too. Just like me, she had thought she was the only manhole-cover enthusiast in the world. I’ve been unbearably smug about it ever since. Japan is heaven for the true connoisseur of manhole covers, by the way. Each city and often each neighbourhood has its own unique design. Family crests from Japan’s feudal era were all circular, and I think the proliferation of beautiful manhole covers reflects a continuation of this design trend.

Tokyo is famous for its summer fireworks - something I’d never known. There are huge displays almost every weekend. One Saturday night while we were there was a minor festival, and Jun and Sayaka got word that there would be a big firework display out in one of the western wards of the city. Tokyo’s easy to get around, but it’s still a long way from the southern wards to the western outskirts, and it took us an hour and a half. It seemed like the rest of the city had heard about the fireworks too, because the closer we got the more crowded the trains were. Off the train the chattering, cheerful crowds streamed toward the river, and we were swept along with them. Most of the women and even some of the men were wearing yukatas (a wide, robe-like garment belted with a sash, like a less formal, summer-weight version of the traditional kimono). The crowds had settled by the river in a vast, dense sea of people stretching as far as I could see. Everyone had brought mats to sit on, and people were crammed so tightly together that not a single blade of grass showed between.

My home city, Toronto, is known for its fireworks too - it hosts an annual international fireworks competition, in fact - so I reckoned I knew fireworks. A good fireworks display lasts, what, fifteen or twenty minutes? But given the scale of everything else in Tokyo, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that these lasted a solid hour. I kept thinking they were over every time there was a slight lull, and then they’d start again even bigger. I’ve never seen so many fireworks in the sky at one time, either. Often there were ten or twenty huge ones exploding at once. I found out later that there were twelve thousand fireworks set off in that single display. And that’s not even big for Tokyo, it seems. The biggest display that summer was slated to have twenty thousand. The funny thing for me was that there seemed to be no real composition or planning - the fireworks were just set off with joyful abandon and no care for how they’d look together. Toronto’s displays are invariably precisely and carefully choreographed affairs, tightly synchronized to a musical score, and the fun incoherence of the Tokyo show made me laugh - it seemed so… unJapanese, somehow.

The last couple of days in Tokyo were dedicated to planning out the rest of our time in Japan. We had a week of unlimited travel on Japan Rail already paid for (paid for in more than one sense, I’d braved 45°C temperatures in Delhi to get them). Wanting to see as much as we could, we plotted out a route through seven destinations over seven days and made reservations for all the trains and hostels we’d need along the way. I hate travelling to an itinerary, but the rail pass covered seven consecutive days and didn’t allow any breaks in between days. Sayaka got interested during the planning and decided to join us in Kumamoto in the west of the country and spend a few days travelling with us.

Tokyo is an incredible place. There are so many things, small and big, that I haven’t written about here, but this dispatch is already too long. I couldn’t live in Tokyo for the rest of my life like I could in Kyoto, but I could happily have spent all summer there. But Sheryl and I are too poor for Tokyo and still too footloose to stay anywhere for too long, and we had to go before we put down roots. I’ll always have wonderful memories of Tokyo. It’s one of my favourite places, and I’ll be back someday. We had a fantastic time there, and a lot of that was due to Jun and Sayaka. They’re the best kind of people, and there wouldn’t have been a tenth the magic without them. Thanks, guys.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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