So the Egg and I finally hit Tokyo. There’s a lot that’s been said about this city by a fair number of informed and articulate commentators, fortunately I have the distinction of being an idiot and so am approaching it from a competently different angle.
The first thing that strikes about Tokyo is the scale of the place – it’s an absolutely sprawling concrete labyrinth and I doubt you could even claim to fully understand it if you spent a whole year there, let alone a few days. It does share at least one obvious common point with London though – increased pace and population pressure does tend to make everyone a little bit more of a arsehole than usual. Though that also means that the effect of tourists in Tokyo dampens considerably – there are already so many damn people here that a bunch of sweaty sandal-wearing schmucks from overseas can’t really make much of an impact on it.
Sadly the increased urbanisation meant that there were no animals ready to attack Egglet within the city limits. Not sure how I kept my spirits up in lieu of this.
Has an almost legendary status. Electric Town. Nerd City. It deserves every inch of its title and then some. In many senses this seems to typify Japan at the crossroads between its past and its future. It’s the ultimate mecca for odd, kitsch, or morally dubious tat, and in Japan that’s saying something. There are floor after floor stretching across multiple department stores dedicated to just about every socially marginal hobby or interest imaginable. It’s like a different culture, complete with it’s own gods, their sacrament delivered by the silver hands of the hundreds of UFO machines that crowd the lower floors of the town’s arcades. Graven idols adorn every available space, from bizarre Freud-bothering statues behind glass display cases, to literal idols in the form of AKB48 – a band specifically headquartered in Akihabara as its resident ‘group’. AKB48 are a madness unto themselves and I won’t even try to untangle that particular mess. And Akihabara can be a total mess sometimes, the sort of mess only a critical mass of nerds can make.
Arcades here are alive and kicking and just as excellent as I remember them from the halcyon days of my misspent youth. The games are awesome, the lighting Stygian and the air tinged with smoke. Like if Satan had a rumpus room. It’s fucking brilliant. The Arcades are also home to Japan’s UFO machine culture, which is so advanced compared to its UK counterpart that it’s like trying to compare the Grecian republics to Neolithic man. The prizes are way more lucrative than the garbage grill rejects you might have come to expect from pier side amusement parks and range from the traditional cuddly toys all the way up to music CDs and vinyl statues and crucially, IT’S ACTUALLY POSSIBLE TO WIN THEM. Attendants can be summoned to effect the difficulty of winning a prize, or even swap out them out altogether if you are unhappy with the present offerings. And if you fail 5 times in a row, a gigantic demonic claw descends from the ceiling , plucks out your soul and adds it to the run of prizes. Truly it is an industry bathed in a perpetual golden age.
My personal favorite however, has to be the Gasopon, or ‘ball-toy’ subculture. Similar to the 20p bouncy ball dispensers you occasionally see chained outside newsagents back home, in Tokyo this simple concept has been elevated to the height of an art form. Each machine is filled with a small, randomly selected, collectible toy and cover every conceivable theme and subject, from Japanese folklore, to bullet trains. Rows of these machines stand two or three tall and span the length of entire corridors and patrons wander the aisle with an air of the connoisseur browsing the chateau’s wine collection. There are even entire stores devoted to the reselling of particularly rare individual toys, with corresponding price tags. It’s utterly mad and I love it to bits.
Here’s one I acquired earlier – a scene from traditional Japanese feudal history featuring a noblewoman in repose and in traditional warrior costume.
Constructed on the backs of some historical, man-made, island fortresses, Odaiba is a bit like a Pleasure Island constructed for Japan’s middle classes. It’s a particularly clean looking place, but not just clean sanitized. It has all the bright-lights and gaudiness of Tokyo’s red-light area’s, but with none of their bite. It’s peculiarly alienating, like gazing into nightmare vision of the future where everything is ferris wheels, shopping malls and office blocks, all holding the same amount of personality as wrap of cling film.
J. G. Ballard would have had a field day here, as the whole island is effectively doing a spitting impersonation of Highrise at the point just before the breakdown. It’s like it’s perpetually teetering on the edge of catastrophe. The odd thing is that I could imagine the Highrise experiment working in Japan.
Odaiba, come for the Gundam statue, stay for the culture shock and schlock literary analysis.
It was so bloody cold and wet in Tokyo that we could hardly manage the resolve to do any tourist gawping that was restricted to the interior of shopping malls and their blessed environmental controls. We did, however, bring ourselves to brave the sodden rigors of Yoyogi park in Harajuku to visit the Meiji Shrine (Needless to say all the Harajuku kids were keeping well out of the rain that day). The Shrine serves as a monument to the Meiji Emperor and Empress, the father and mother of modern industrial Japan and who hold the status of gods in the Shinto pantheon. The shrine is definitely worthy of a visit, the path to it passing through Tori gates and alongside a colourful wall of offerings from the nation’s sake distilleries.
It seems worlds away from tourist trap Miyajima, despite its equivalent size and grandeur, as being in the park means the experience can’t fall prey to the hordes of commercial outlets that surround the other large shrines. Still, although it’s impressive, it seems to miss a certain connectivity that I felt at the smaller wayside shrines, which I think may be down to the increased formality of the whole experience. Plus the rain was too bloody cold to stand there that long and Egglet was finding it difficult to resist the siren-like song of her own nearby temple, Tokyu-Hands (Don’t ask).
Japan, eh? There are a dozen things we’ve seen and experienced, but remain undocumented here – I haven’t even spoken about the pickles, good god, but I could sing about the pickles there for hours. Onoyo with pickled plum on top is THE BEST. Plus there are a thousand more we missed and await our return – pachinko parlours! How did we miss out on pachinko parlours? So I’m going to leave this as is and use my remaining space to thank the academy – they’ve been great:
A big thank you to all the ALTS and their friends who hosted us in Kagoshima (particularly the ones I tormented with endless questions about Yokai Watch); the random Aussie who we met briefly on the platform, passing like trams in the night; the young salaryman with the superb English in Hiroshima station; the young Brightonians who were sadly eaten alive on the fetid hell-jungle of Okunashima, the lovely obasan who helped us navigate the complete nonsense that is the Tokyo monorail interchange; Egglet’s school friend who we missed on Odaiba; the other schoolfriend who we found at the KISS building; the strange Ham-beast and it’s handler who we met in Narita; and all the countless others who sacrificed so much to help us bumble our way across this fascinating country.
One last MASSIVE thank you to all the animals that attacked Egglet. God bless each and every one of them.