I am in Tokyo. At pretty much every point in my life up until the moment I clicked confirm on a booking form that accompanied an itinerary that contained the words ‘Tokyo Narita International Airport’ in December 2015, that is not something I thought I’d be saying until much later in my life. I had always been under the impression that Japan would be an exotic pipe dream until I’d actually bothered to not be unemployed any more, but no; I currently find myself sat in K’s House Backpackers Hostel Tokyo, mug of instant coffee in hand at 1am, writing a blog post about the most insane 24 hours I’ve ever experienced in a new country.
I know it’s incredibly trite to describe Tokyo – or Japan as a whole – as ‘crazy’ or ‘intense’, but once you set foot in the Land of the Rising Sun, you quickly realise that those labels come with concrete backup. Evidence of Japan’s unrivaled insanity flows through every sidestreet, hangs from every luminous facade and permeates the walls of every 7/11 that sells spaghetti carbonara in a vacuum pack with soy sauce.
Flying in to either Hanida airport or the far-less-conveniently-located Narita airport, you are treated to an endless stream of magnificent vistas, ranging from tropical islands forming stretches of dots to the horizon, to the indisputably obvious grandeur of Mount Fuji, to the neverending skyline of Tokyo itself. From the sky, it’s clear that Tokyo is practically a country all of its own; rather than the classic centre/suburb structure of pretty much any major city on Earth, Tokyo is a blurry jigsaw of cities smashed together to form a whole that, in all honesty, doesn’t really stand together as a whole. For instance, I’m currently staying in the Asakusa neighbourhood in the northwest of the city, but I don’t have to travel for anything – Asakusa has its own chain shops, its own tourist sights and its own centre, as do all the major neighbourhoods of Tokyo. In fact, so far I’m not entirely convinced Tokyo has a ‘centre’. I’ll attempt to find out tomorrow, even though I could quite easily just look it up now.
After landing at Narita (thanks Jetstar), I had to navigate my way through the Tokyo subway using only a Japanese-language map, which, to put it lightly, was nearly impossible. I somehow ended up catching an express subway to Aoto station, at which point I jumped on the next train in a total gamble which luckily paid off, and I ended up at Kuramae station, a 200m walk from my hostel. I trudged in and to my room with my oversized suitcase, and immediately turned round and headed back out the front door to track down some food. On Edo Street, right outside the hostel, there’s a McDonald’s, a KFC, a Burger King and… a random little hut with a name and menu entirely in Japanese. I know which of those I’m gonna choose. I headed in, sat cross-legged on the floor at a shin-high table, and was handed a menu. And so began one of the oddest meals I’ve ever eaten. We can all agree that sashimi is a highly popular dish all over the globe for good reason, right? Well I guarantee you, whatever kind of sashimi you’ve been served at any point in your life, it may have been delicious but it’s some inauthentic bullshit, because there is no justification or place in the modern world for what I got given when I ordered an assorted sashimi plate in what I subsequently discovered was an actual sashimi restaurant in Tokyo.
My beer, which was for some reason poured by a beer-pouring robot that sits in the corner, arrived first, so I chugged it down to get myself mentally and physically prepared for what was on its way to me. About two minutes later, a remarkable sight; a wooden board laid out in front of me with an assortment of different shimmering, raw seafood items. I recognised my good friend octopus on the right, and the big chunks of salmon next to it, but the rest was a total mystery. There was a pile of grey-brown fish slices, then a few rolls of strangely transparent flesh next to that, then some prawns, and finally an awkwardly-placed fish head/tail combo at the far end. First, the octopus, which I mistakenly smothered with wasabi before taste-testing, and I had to sit there wincing, tears dripping into my beer for the next two minutes. It was the most intense wasabi I’d ever been in the vicinity of, let alone having put in my mouth. I pushed it to one side and continued with my marine quest. Raw octopus is kind of bland and tough, so I moved onto the salmon which was extraordinary – easily the best salmon I’ve ever eaten. However that was in short supply, so I picked up the strange transparent thing and gave it a go. It was chewy, flavourless and rubbery, with a strip of thick fat running through the middle. I called the waiter over to ask what I was eating, and he flipped the menu over and pointed at ‘whale bacon sashimi’. Right. I’d been in Japan about two hours and had already accidentally eaten whale. Onwards and upwards. Next was the brown-ish fish, which was also excellent, though very pungent. And then the prawns. I don’t know if you’ve ever eaten prawns totally uncooked, but there’s two things you’ll have noticed about them if you have done. One is the fact that when you take the head and tail off, there’s blood. Like proper red blood. I don’t know why but I found that really odd. Second was how utterly revolting they are. They can be categorised as slimy, squishy and leaving a nasty film over the inside of your mouth.
I called the waiter over again and pointed at the only two remaining things on the plate; the fish head and tail. I made a hand gesture as if to ask ‘do I eat these?’, hoping to God he would turn around and laugh me out of town, which is kind of what he did. He said ‘no no no no no!’ and took the plate away, much to my relief. However, about three minutes later the head and tail was returned to me, having been shallow-fried. I froze for a second and looked up at him. I slowly raised my hand to my mouth, apprehensively making the ‘do I eat these?’ sign again, to which he nodded, said something in Japanese and pointed at the kitchen. I turned all the way around and saw that the two chefs I had walked past by the entrance had come all the way over to my table to serve me this plate of fried Japanese fish head and tail and wanted to watch me eat it. Talk about pressure, man.
I went for it with my chopsticks but the guy told me to eat it with my hands. I broke off some of the gill and ate it. It actually wasn’t that bad, and seemed to satisfy the two chefs, who bowed and went back to their sweatbox kitchen. However, the waiter hung around like a cloud of intestinal gas made a ‘eat it!’ gesture with his hand. I hope you’re all proud of me cos I just f*ckin’ went for it. The whole head down. Boom. Sure it was bony, but really I felt like I got off kind of easy; it was just like… fish. It actually was kind of nice. Anyway, I rewarded myself with another robot beer, paid up and left, at which point I discovered that the waiters at this restaurant follow you outside as you leave, and bow as you walk away. That was kind of cool.
Next day I woke up and set out into the world of Tokyo, just to see what was up. No plan, no nothing. I ended up navigating the painfully weird subway system across town to Tochomae and went up the government building which famously has great views, and the observation deck is free. Suck on that, Tokyo SkyTree. I saw the Meiji Shrine in the distance so walked over there, did the whole handwashing ritual and went inside. The shrine is a really awesome place, and is a tiny little beacon of quiet in an intensely noisy city, but it’s also jammed full of tourists, which is odd. There are guards telling everyone to be quiet, so you’re surrounded by hundreds of other people, none of whom are making any noise. It was surreal to say the least.
I walked across to Shibuya to see ‘The Scramble’; the famous intersection featured in every band’s music video if they persuade their label to allow them to film it in Tokyo. It’s not much to shout about, it’s just a very busy junction. I assumed it would be surrounded by a wall of restaurants and bars that look down onto it, but no – the only thing that sits up high and looks down on Shibuya is a goddamn Starbucks. Thanks but no thanks.
To me, the most notable tourist attraction in Tokyo is Tokyo itself. Rather than walking from one amazing sight to another, the surprising and culturally baffling sights present themselves to you as you make your way between destinations. There are obviously the clichés we all know; every street coated in neon lights, every man wearing a black suit, every girl wearing the most over-the-top plaid school uniform. Then there are other things that pop up unexpectedly. For instance, one example is that nobody in this city locks their bikes up. Obviously bike theft is just literally not a thing in Tokyo. Rows of hundreds of bikes, bunched together, and all totally open to just… taking away. Another is that the subway has ‘women-only’ carriages on their trains on weekdays; a fact I learned when I accidentally ended up in one while travelling to Asakusa. However, the Japanese are much too polite to make a fuss, so I just sat there with a lot of uncomfortable gas-mask-clad women giving me glances out of the corner of their eyes until I slunk off.
It’s just random little differences like that, that seem so inconsequential in the long run, that are the most troubling as a foreigner. I’ve been here for about 48 hours, but trust me, culture shock is no joke. The hostel I’m staying at is populated mostly by Japanese people, so there’s limited scope for meeting people who I can hang out/go out with due to the lack of English speaking natives. As a result, I’ve spent the last few days totally alone, 6,000 miles away from my home, with a time difference that means I can’t really communicate with people in London very easily, in a country where nobody speaks English and has an alphabet I can’t read. While intense and visceral and insane, Tokyo is simultaneously wearying, alienating and, surprisingly, lacks warmth. That’s what has hit me the hardest since I’ve been here. Everything is so clinical and, really, rather cold. It may sound like a good thing that the streets are freakishly spotless, the people are efficient and determined and everything you could ever want is available in every shop at all hours of the night, but somewhere in the middle of it, Tokyo is just so crazy that, to an outsider, it’s more of a performance piece, Synecdoche New York-style, than a real functioning metropolis. It’s the kind of place it’s absolutely mindblowing to visit, but I could never in a million years envisage myself living here.
And on that note, I’ve seen Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation about 50,000 times in my life. It’s been one of my all time favourite movies since I first saw it in 2003. I’ve read a number of theories about both its popularity and how accurate its portrayal of Tokyo is, and the more outspoken views tend to come from one group of people; self-righteous westerners who have never set foot in Japan. Seriously, the amount of shit this film has gotten for being ‘offensive’ towards the Japanese is not only total bollocks, but also totally misses the point of the film. Take, for example, these two quotes about the film from North American publications;
“[The film] says, as racists often do, that foreigners, in this case Japanese, are inherently comic and stupid. Of all the Japanese in the film, not one comes across as much better than a cretin.” – Robert Fulford, The National Post
“[The film] is an ethnocentric compendium of unpleasant stereotypes, indicative of the way foreign workers often view Japan.” – Steve Burgess, Maclean’s
The first is plain wrong. It is not a film of mockery, it’s a film of observation, and – whether you like it or not – accuracy. At no point does it say or do anything that may be even misconstrued as overtly offensive toward the Japanese, it merely shows Japan as a country that developed at the same rate (or perhaps faster than) a country like America, and so stands as a monument to cultural differences and their impact on the growth of a nation. Americans have supermarkets that sell cheese in an aerosol can, while the Japanese have supermarkets that sell – as I discovered yesterday – sandwiches that contain strawberries. They’re both weird to me. It’s not a detriment to Japan, nor its people, nor its culture. Also, the insular perspective of the film is down to its two main characters being deeply flawed people who are noticeably introverted and unwilling to blend in. That in itself is more of a slight on American tourists than it is Japanese natives. The whole point is that there are no Japanese characters in the film, so how, as you say, can they be portrayed as ‘cretinous’? Sounds to me like you’re the one that extrapolated that conclusion.
The second quote is just bizarre. Isn’t that the whole point of the film? In fact, by saying that Lost In Translation is ‘indicative of the way foreign workers often view Japan’, doesn’t that technically mean that the film succeeds in exactly what it’s trying to do – portray the confusion, exhaustion and constant state of comparison to home that accompanies spending time in Tokyo?
I could write so much more but I know nobody wants to hear it. I’ll move on.
So I was in this bar last night after heading out into town on my own, and after knocking back a few Suntory whiskeys (yes that is the brand that Bill Murray’s character is advertising in the film – this was coincidental), I called the bartender over and pointed at the menu. ‘Shochu’. What on Earth is that? I know Japanese whiskey is big these days, and sake is obviously very famous, but shohcu is not something I was familiar with. He spoke no English, so he brought a giant bottle over (I mean literally the size of his torso) and put it in front of me. It was all in Japanese. I couldn’t read it. The guy next to me then went ‘potato’, but in an accent that was quite strong, so I asked him to repeat it. I also wasn’t expecting him to speak English so I was a little taken aback. ‘Potato! Potato potato potato potato potato’. I was sat at a bar with a man saying potato at my face. At this point I realised he may not have been able to say that much in English. I, foolishly, said ‘potato?’, to which the bartenders and the guy again piped up with a grin-laden chorus of ‘potatopotatopotatopotato’. I said ‘potato!’, and pointed at the option to mix it with oolong tea.
Just as it arrived, the guy next to me attempted to ask where I was from. I said England, to which he went ‘Ah England! You know Dad Bakaim!’. Dad Bakaim? I asked him to repeat himself. ‘Dad Bakaim. Football. Football football football’, each repetition partnered with an upward flick of the head. ‘Ohhhh David Beckam!’, ‘Yes Dad Bakaim yes yes’. He pointed at my drink. ‘Potato?’. ‘Yes it’s very good!’. It wasn’t. It tasted like unsweetened oolong tea mixed with potatoes, probably because that’s exactly what it was. ‘Barry!’ he then exclaimed. I didn’t know what to think. Was he going down the football path again? Was it Gareth Barry this time? Of all the players. ‘Barry?’. ‘How say? Barry?’. I said ‘Yes, Gareth Barry’. He got his phone out, did a quick Google search and opened a web page in Japanese. He point at the title and said ‘Gareto Barry’. I couldn’t read it so I said ‘English?’. He hit translate and so opened a translated English page about barley. Oh shit. I said ‘Ohhh you meant barley? In my drink?’. ‘Yes, barley’, he said, pointing at the glass. ‘No potato?’ I asked. ‘Yes, potato potato and Gareto Barry’. What have I done to this poor man. I left, stepped outside into the pouring rain and looked across the road to see a big advert for H&M featuring Dad Bakaim.
This is kind of a ‘Part I’. I have so much to say, so more to follow once I finish my pile of egg mayonnaise with prawns and onions. Genuinely delicious.
ALSO I’m meeting up with an old friend tonight so THAT should be fun. Though I don’t know why you’d really care.