Feeling Foreign in Tokyo
Getting Away From Clonealism
As much as I enjoy the comforts of home, I’ve always loved that feeling of being abroad. I’ve travelled quite extensively in the last 25 years and have been to over 50 countries; that feeling when in places like Mumbai, Cairo or La Paz is always an eye-opening and unforgettable experience.
There are many places in the world you get the feeling of being ‘foreign’, but unfortunately, it is eroding. Cities of all cultures are becoming familiarised by ‘clonealism’. It’s a sad state of corporate capitalism, forcing consumerism down us and ensuring our cities are a duplicate of every other. However, you can’t say that about Tokyo.
Of course, Japan’s biggest city has many of the cloned stores that pollute most cities, but it isn’t everywhere in your face like London, New York or Bangkok. You have to search hard for a Starbucks (if that’s your thing), and many of the big Western brands are there but not everywhere. It’s a very ‘Japanese’ city with all things Japanese, and unlike most other places, relying on your English skills won’t suffice. In fact, after all the travelling I’ve done over the years, I’ve never felt more foreign than when I was in Japan, and I loved it . . . at least most of the time.
I booked into one of Tokyo’s famous Capsules for my stay. Now, I’ve stayed in a capsule-style dorm in Sao Paolo before, and so I was expecting a similar experience, but nothing is ever the same in the land of the rising sun. Tokyo’s capsules are more like an overnight spa experience. I didn’t know this, and the receptionists’ lack of English and my absolute lack of the local lingo made it a very foreign start to my time there.
I had no idea what she was trying to tell me until eventually another customer explained there was nowhere to keep my backpack. And because all guests are only given a small locker in the ground floor changing rooms, the receptionist kindly offered to store my bag in their storage. Considering my capsule and I were lodging on the 7th floor, it made for a very tricky few days.
After a confusing hour at reception, I finally understood the protocol, picked up my capsule pyjamas and slippers and changed my clothes to fit in. Wearing the pyjamas is the rule anywhere in the complex unless you’re using the Onsen and then its au naturel, of course.
Like everywhere in Tokyo, there isn’t much social interaction. The Japanese are masters of many things, but colloquy isn’t one of them. So, for my time there, I just floated around the complex with my dark grey pyjamas on, not daring to speak with anyone. I didn’t want to be a social outcast, after all.
I won’t lie, it was hard work staying in the capsule when all my clothes were seven floors below me, but I did kind of get used to it, and after getting into a routine, I began to enjoy the experience. I even had a chat with someone over breakfast on my last morning, much to the dismay of the older Japanese guys who were busily digesting their Japanese comics.
Getting Around Tokyo
Outside of capsule life, in Tokyo Metropolitan City, the one thing that greets you is how quiet the city is. I was staying in Shinjuku, which is one of the main wards in Tokyo, but every day was like a Sunday morning elsewhere. I’m not complaining, but for one of the biggest cities in the world it really is surprising how quiet and laid back it seems.
Anyone who goes to Tokyo has to go see the Shibuya crossing. I decided to get the Tokyo Metro Subway, and so went down to discover where most of Tokyo’s twenty-odd million inhabitants hangout. It was packed, and as you might expect from Japan, very efficient. Even more efficient if you can read Japanese. All the stations and coloured line maps are, like everything else, in Japanese only, and just as I was starting to feel intimidated, a friendly Japanese woman helped me to my destination.
Shibuya Crossing is one of Tokyo’s most famous landmarks, and it became apparent that any of the twenty-odd million locals not using the metro is actually crossing the road, right there. Every few minutes when the lights change red, the thousands of gatherers shoot off to their destination in a most un-Japanese way. It’s chaotic and crazy to be part of and hypnotizing to watch, especially from one of the coffee shops that overlook it.
If you stay there long enough, among many things, you’ll see a few Mario Kart characters driving around in go-karts, waving to the crowds as they zoom by. Absurd to see and even better to experience, I imagine, but when I enquired, I was told an international driver’s licence was needed. And unlike many of its neighbours, Japan doesn’t acquiesce to rule bending.
On any trip to Japan, you have to take in some of the shrines, and there’s none better in Tokyo than the Meiji Jingu Shrine. Located in a small forest, it’s a beautiful walk to get there, and even though all the signs are in Japanese, following the crowd makes it an easy find.
The shrine is dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and like everything in Japan, it’s well kept and beautiful. It was here that I came across my first helpful sign in English: a donation box. Not only English, but Chinese, French and Spanish among other languages. The charitable thought was there so people could easily understand why parting with their money was a good idea. No thanks, I’ll keep my donation in case I need a translator elsewhere. Beautiful shrine and gardens, though.
Anime and Gaming in Akihabara
Akihabara is a really interesting place and somewhere you’ll see everything you might expect in Tokyo. It’s the ‘gaming and Anime’ district and there are gaming stores everywhere. It’s unbelievable how many there are, and the habitués were mostly grown men, sat there ploughing their money into the myriad of arcade games on offer. My Atari days are long gone, but it’s mesmerising just to watch the locals and tourists transacting their pastimes.
Anime is huge in Asia, and nowhere bigger than Japan. There are many several-story stores dedicated to it, selling all sorts of Anime memorabilia, porn included. In fact, the porn section was the busiest floor in the building I went into. Thousands of Anime porn comics, cards, DVDs etc of young-looking Anime characters being cared for by shady-looking senior citizens were for sale. I spent a fair bit of time there flicking through a plethora of comics, out of research, of course. Truth be told: it’s quite disturbing, but this is Tokyo, where things are different, but they did cater for other languages and even had some comics in English.
Back on the streets of Akihabara, there are many beautiful, J-Pop-looking ‘maids’ doing their best to enchant you into the famous maid cafés. I was easily seduced and followed my maid to my next pit stop. Walking into the café was like entering a princess’s fairy tale castle, with pink and girly décor to make you feel, erm, intrigued. Now these maid cafés are not a place where you go for sex. They’re just themed. Expensive, themed cafés, I should express.
Anyway, I was welcomed by the host maid and she let it be known I was the master, and she told me the extortionate entrance fee was for maintenance of the princess’s castle. ‘Ok’, I thought, ‘whatever you want to do with your proceeds.’ I ordered a coffee and a cake and was joined by one of the maids. She was very flirty and offered to spoon-feed me my cake. At that moment, I felt more foreign than ever, and so declined politely. She seemed a little surprised how independent I appeared, so she chose to tell me some fascinating stories about the fairytale land she and all the other maids come from.
The only other frequenter in there was taking up the offer of being coddled, and looking like he was a member was actually playing up to the overindulgence on offer. I had to be up early the next day to catch a train to Osaka and so I finished my coffee, made my excuses and left the magic kingdom for my last night in the capsule.
I know it may seem that I didn’t enjoy myself in Tokyo, but I did. It’s an amazing city with so much to offer. Yes, it’s hard work, especially if you don’t speak the local vernacular, but that’s my fault. It’s a very clean and beautiful city, and the locals, when you can get a word from them, are friendly; none more so than the maids. It has everything you need, some things in moderation, but that’s not a bad thing.
For me, the best thing about Tokyo is that you can actually go there and feel like you’re abroad.
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© 2019 Tommy Limpitlaw