48 Hours in Tokyo: My Dramatic Introduction to Asia

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Wow.

There reaches a certain point when your life takes such a sudden dramatic turn that you stop caring what’s ‘real’ anymore, when you stop pinching yourself and you let everything wash over and take hold. I’m underwater but I’m not drowning.

I’ve never had such a dramatic leap forward. To take a cue from part 1, only hours after that sun rose I was on the plane with a bunch of twentiesomethings I’d met maybe twice but who were about to become my new best friends. I thought I’d be able to catch up on some sleep on the plane, but as it turns out the adventure already began before take-off: when it’s Japan Air, it’s like you’re already in Japan, already immersed their world of fastidious service (you cough and they’re there with a tissue), luxury (a proper three course meal for economy—say what now?), and of course the unexpected mechanization of everything (be that the robot bathroom or the windows which electronically regulate light intake). It’s the comfiest and yet least relaxing flight I’ve ever been on, and everything about it billboarded change; everything tingled in its newness.

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But, 10 hours later, as our bus drove into the eye of the megopalis, there was something about it all that seemed distinctly familiar. Driving up the curling freeway into the growing tsunami of concrete blocks and piercing red-eyes of heli-pad rods, it was like we were driving out of reality and into science fiction. But science fiction with a distinctly retro twist, a Blade Runner or Akira vision of the future back when Tokyo was everything anyone could hope for in the day after tomorrow. It’s the dream of a city, if that dream had gone and consumed everything around it. The city other cities dream of being (nightmare or fantasy).

That being said, there’s something dreadful about a vision like that. Driving in from Narita, the last of the bloody sun drawing off the edges of the concrete, the immensity of the city opens up around you. Before the city, a number of miles are taken up by power plants, iron refineries, and electrical towers as tall as they are numerous; entire coastlines filled to budging by roaring iron freighters; and the crowning orb of the world’s tallest tower visible from any distance away.

This is what happens when you grab all of Canada and you squeeze it into a single city. Standing on the Tokyo metropolitan building, there’s no end to human activity. I don’t think Canadians can ever appreciate the immensity of what we’ve done to this planet on our own; I think you need a city like Tokyo, staring at you with its neon hunting mask, its Kanji characters scrolling down the reflection of your own, to tell you why we’re so fucked in the first place. It’s so terrifying and exhilarating.

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From that point on, the whirlwind of the Tokyo orientation never really spun down. I probably only ever slept four hours each night, since my brain never let me forget that each moment of rest was another chance lost exploring the jungle. It’s why I was never completely mentally ‘there’ during any of the teaching sessions (ie, the reason we were actually in Tokyo) even though one or two might’ve actually been useful for my job. Oh well. It’s why I even ducked out on a couple of them: first just to take a quick walk around the corner, but each time that ‘break’ stretched out longer until it began to spin out of control.

It’s easy to lose control here. As you walk through Shinjuku, your senses are assaulted from every corner: flashing rave-like lights, gigantic dissonant noises (screams, ding-dongs, voice overs), the stench of millions of cigarettes being consumed every second of every day of this city’s life, all while thousands brush past you as they sprint towards the next train. And that heat: the moment you step off the plane you’re submerged into a sauna, heavy-handed tropical breathing. If things were a little more similar to everything I’d ever known, I could pace it out—make comparisons to get through the day, feel my way through Japan and the Japanese. Instead, every time I started walking through the heart of the heart of Japan, there was always that point of saturation where my cognition was just like, “Mmmmm, nope! I’m outta here! You’re on your own, kid.” And I was left to feel my way through the city.

And I became a kid again. In Paris I desperately tried to understand what was going on and what was happening to me; in Tokyo I just let it happen, washing over me with about the same concern that I’d suddenly found myself in some sci-fi fantasy that five year old me would have shown (which is to say, very little concern: I was pretty much 90% imagination back then). Tokyo in part is made for the big kid in all of us, something which is made very apparent with a walk through one of the many mega-arcades of the city: nine floors, each with its own head banging theme—floors for coin toss games the sizes of gymnasiums, floors for photobooths capable of completely transforming your image, floors with games so immersive you wonder “well hey, what’s even the point of distinguishing reality anymore?”

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And all these people people people, some twice my age, devoting all their free lives to these machines: Dance Dance Revolutioners who can dance like they’re in the Barishnakoff, who probably could’ve been real dancers if they’d only put so much time into it. It’s a uniquely Tokyo dichotomy: either you’re being drilled at both ends as a salaryman for one of the city’s many gargantuan companies, or you’re spending that precious little time left on a game which will, at most, get your name on some board somewhere further upstairs. Why? What’s the point of anything anymore by then? That’s certainly an aspect of the culture I’m excited to delve into in the coming months/years.

I can make a single guess, and that’s that Japan—at first glance, at least—manages to ‘capitalism’ so much harder than we Canadians do. To stand in the center of Shibuya Crossing is to gain a new understanding of consumerism: as hundreds rush past you to work (more people during rush hour, in fact, that anywhere else in the world), you’re bombarded by ads stacked on adds for just about any product imaginable. Or, sometimes you probably couldn’t imagine that product until that moment, be that an amazing new toy or electronic device (this is the birthplace of video games after all), or a giant black pacifier you’re supposed to use to give yourself better jaw muscles. Yeah, Japan also takes body objectification up to a whole new level—if you’re a girl (or even a guy, often enough), get ready to start feeling a whole lot shittier about yourself (yeesh, and I thought Paris was bad!) Products for every aspect of your life, and don’t forget to grab it now, because soon enough the new model’s coming out—and don’t forget to grab that too!

More people here than anywhere; anywhere else
More people here than anywhere; anywhere else

Like I said, you reach a certain point when you stop questioning things. In that regard it’s similar to hallucinogens: you’ve just gotta go with it, let yourself travel through strange stoplights in comprehension. Go with le flow, as the French are wont to say. And perhaps that’s exactly what ‘they’ want you to feel—these big salarymen up top, dark suits darker shades—perhaps you’re not supposed to question why you need to work to the point where you can’t even have time to enjoy the products you’re working hard to buy in the first place. In many ways these are exactly the kinds of criticisms launched at America from Europe for almost a century now, things I gained a new appreciation for in my last big journey. But maybe that’s exactly why the states became so afraid of Japan in the eighties and early nineties: Japan took America’s inherently perverted system and did it bigger, flashier, and ultimately better. (As a side note, these are all themes I’ll probably end up exploring much more when I finally get to China, which of course jumps to an even-higher level of insanity on this one).

And even though I was only there for a total of two-and-a-half days, that spirit of not questioning things already came back to bite me. Each time I ducked out of orientation, the time I spent out in the city grew a little longer, until finally I decided to skip a session all together and make my way towards Shibuya and Meiji Jingu—“it’s fine, they don’t even check in those big ones anyway.” By the time I’d reached the big crossing, the combination of excitement, heat, iced green teas, and immense sleep deprivation combined to make me feel light and free as a leaf scattered by the wind currents; wandering, I was caught by a guy with a video camera and interviewed for twenty minutes on what Gaijins think about love. Yes, this really is Japan! (and God, I wonder how I came out once he edited it and likely dubbed me over with rapid Japanese commentary). Shortly after this, standing at the station all ready to swing back into the session, I felt around my pocket and realized there was no room key in there.

So wait: you’re telling me you’re now locked out of your room and you’re standing there in street clothes, when the conference is conducted in strictly formal attire? And you can’t even ask the front desk for help with the key, because to ask would be to call out your own flippancy? Fuck dude, you’re on your own.

The view from my hotel room: not bad hey? Too bad I couldn't get in now
The view from my hotel room: not bad hey? Too bad I couldn’t get in now

And thus, once again, my brain went and sayonarra’d on me, left me to sprint from clothes store to clothes store, all of whom didn’t open until 11 when the unmissable session started at 10:45. Well as it happens I did end up missing it: there’s always that point, hiding in the hotel bathroom so you can steal the Wi-Fi and message your colleagues for details, when you realize it’s time to give it up. By 11:30 I’d bought myself a new wardrobe on the money that was supposed to last me the first month, helped into them by an uber-polite clerk who delicately ignored the number of Gaijin faux pas I was probably currently committing. I made it to the next session, and there were no repercussions for my excursion beyond my own sheer embarrassment.

But the rest of the day trudged on, the longest day of my life. I’ve never appreciated what it means to live in a state of pure exhaustion, but I realized then that it typically means it hurts to think, and every nerve in your body is brittle and fit to break. When night came around, I couldn’t find the energy to go out with all the Vancouver JET’s, knowing that I needed some measure of composure for meeting my future boss the following day. And that killed me: in the last 48 hours we’d become a surrogate family, and were already planning through the hoops it would take to try to get all of us, from across the country, back together again. Not getting the proper time to say goodbye to all of them, in the guise of one last barroom brawl, is the first true regret of my JET life.

Tokyo beat me folks. Sucked me in and chewed me out, all in record time. Paris, for all its personal insanity, never managed to ring me through the way Tokyo did in one hundredth of the time. But when stimulation flows from these streets, drips off the billboards, drains through you all neon and crackling, it’s easy to see why I got a little lost. With thirty five million people all existing together at one time, I know I’m not the only one, heaved and ho’ed in the jostle of this restless ceaseless energy.

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And yet, at the heart of this sprawl, this insanity, is the Meiji Jingu. Just on the shoulder of Shibuya Crossing, it’s a shrine dedicated to Japan’s first modern emperor, a massive gardens and a central temple, complete with rows upon rows of ceremonial sake. You can barely hear the city in the center. The sign at the foot of the central temple explains that “the feelings of reverence and yearning of the people for the Emperor and Empress are ever increasing,” along with about thirty further hyperbolic platitudes which proclaim the everlasting greatness of Emperor Meiji. And I was honestly a little floored: Emperor Meiji was a puppet for the Samurai who ruled and in turn modernized Japan, and however you want to view the rapid and brutal industrialization project, Meiji cannot be credited or criticized. And yet here were hundreds of Japans visitors bowing and giving offerings; here was a reverence I’ve never seen in North America or Europe, coming from a people who proclaim to be the most secular on earth. In what might be the most market-focused, capitalist country out there.

What exactly is happening here? It’s an enchanting paradox—and, well, welcome to Japan eh? In the past seven days (oh my God it’s only been seven days—ohmigod I landed seven days ago…), I’ve been hit with more contradictions than I’ve ever known. But they’re not contradictions, not necessarily: I’m just a Westerner, using his Western mind to try to understand a place that never ever needed acceptance from me. Because Japan, for all its modernity and all its diplomacy, is very clearly not what you might call ‘the West.’ And now I can, in some strange measure, call it home.

Wow.

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