Rambling Tokyo, Breathing Tokyo

Note: as with last week’s post on Kyoto, today’s post doesn’t follow my traditional blogging style. Rather, it’s a compilation of what I’d written at the time and so has a rawness to it the other ones don’t. This one in particular: it’s the result of a two day ramble through the city that really forced me to reconsider what I’m doing here–what I dream of, what I can’t dare to. As a result, it’s a very delicate piece of writing for me.

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Went to the Edo museum today. The two massive stone pillars that hold up its cylindrical head make it look like a transformer mid-shift between robot and building, or a space age chamber of alien commerce. Inside it tries to recreate Edo, that strangely improbable era with rice huts and Daimyo lords and moonlit maidens dotting haikyu on the reed paper. The museum takes it upon itself to draw a visible thread through history: charting when Edo became Tokyo, when Tokyo became Tokyo, commanding and anchoring the world—bombed out, built up, swung through blitzed and glitzed. Dark age space age. Tokyo Story.

And then you leave and there’s none of that order, no threads to weave through and knit out. It’s loud and it’s messy, because people are always, in the end, messy. Dark alleys and uncertain smells caught somewhere between delicious and disgusting; a man in a suit standing in the middle of the street—ragingly drunk, he scatters beer across the road and just dares you to look him in the eye. A mother patting a baby, looking out on the Shinjuku sea, neon’s undulating waves, with growing distress like she’d been dropped here out of a spaceship. People are always like that, a little off a little rough round the edges, and as much as we’d like to tell stories about how A led to B and B led to Tokyo, people always filter out again.

Leaning in a stall scrawling with graffiti, construction drill shaking the ceiling and I wonder what I’m supposed to be doing here. What do I say? The statements and slogans, the scream in the age of screams.

Few places does that hit you like Tokyo: you’re lost between the sonic tidal waves, around the dancing maids and Softbank Commercials. Tokyo cannot appear like it had been. What is now seems like always: a universe of semi-futurism. And how’m I supposed to pull something out of everything?

Go into an art boutique nestled into a Harajuku corner and you’ll see so much pretty: charming glittering orb designs with little かわいい characters jumping into plastic pools or making cakes—jeweled picture frames, and framed jewels. Or a tomb of retro dolls and hair scrunchies lost sometime before I was born, where wandering in means getting smothered by the pop culture you didn’t realize was ever popular in the first place. Extremely hip art galleries showcasing blank canvases or glass walls that looks out on the street and the people dragging by.

Or an 8-10 floor manga store, probably housing 200 different and disconnected series on each of those floors. Incredible. Overwhelming. Like jamming a shovel into the ground and finding a whole new civilization under there, own politics and customs. You’d love to sweep it all up, soak it in, but that would take decades of concerted singular effort, and then, you’re just one man, ready to get bored of it and move on to the next discovery. You couldn’t hope for anything more than something precursory.

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Surface swimming. God: could I ever hope to do anything more in Tokyo than flounder near the shore? Edo is buried under all this noise. Edo with its parasols and kabuki and merchants ducking round streetcorners pulling carts heavy with fish and barley. And these guys who go up there and read that manga—that schoolboy who ducked under his covers at night to consume the next part in his fav series—those books mean the world to them. As much as Anna or Final Fantasy does for me. And when he looks at the world, his lense will’ve been molded and altered by what he read in those books. Some of them becomes a part of him.

And the millions, and the billions pages could be fluttering in the wind. And the screeching halting rush of Tokyo and its 35 million visions and creeds. The city just shows what we already all knew from the internet: that everyone makes their own meaning, and that in turn renders it meaningless. I’m scratching against the electric, losing.

The Sega Building. The massive machines and its people lining up in turn, reminding me of bullets getting lined up in the long strip of the gatling gun. Mash mash mash the button—reclining movie theatres around their heads, virtual basketball or strange Final Fantasy spin-offs. Floor on floor, friends walking in and splitting off, lock into their respective boxes and the chatter stops. Great Saturday.

Electic lightbulbs of Aki. The sparkling front, the back alleys saying something very different: the 17 year old girls tryna smile as they sell you their bodies scrimped up in blue and lace. There’s something extraordinarily lonely about these backstreets—the flickering glow from the walllights have come to a standoff with the dirt skulking the corners, the rainbow dildows in the windows winks at the illegal manga across the street. The pimps in their suits or flaming red shawls, long braided hair (almost mock-samurai) smiling to the point of rippling wrinkles along their face.

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It takes being alone with fellow loners to realize the nagging quality of the air here. Go back to the main street and it doesn’t go away: everyone going in and back out, holding up gadgets or broken computers in the store, buying WWII Nazi memorials, spending a hundred bux just trying to win a stuffed animal from one of those rainbow machines. His nose presses against the glass, tongue out, hands sweating as he pushes the joystick an inch further. He’d do anything to have the claw pinch the arm this time, drag Mr. Moonbeam with it then let it fall down through the chute. He’s praying for the stuff with the human faces.

There’ll be no Saturday night in the city. Inaka calling. This wasn’t how I thought it would be. The whirlpool, when it holds you in its endlessness you think you’ll be endless too. But the houses do end. And however much I could try to fight it—diving into at heel, grabbing a beer at 4 PM to feel like it’s a party in here… the minutes are still crawling forward.

And maybe it is all starting to get to me. I mean how many nights did I drink alone? Can in hand and letting the twinkling numbness wash over me. And I peered into restaurants and watched people filter through, people eating people laughing or staring out back at me. Steaming fry trays. Narrow alleys squeezed by electrical boxes and graffiti. Empty shrines in the middle of the murals flashing near-naked girls. Or just people holding hands and laughing. All the souls I’ll never meet, understand, and in a certain moment (a half-breath, flicker of a glance) imbibe with. The lives I’ll never live.

I mean how many people I’ve drifted from? The girl with scrunchies in her hair, wild fox eyes and that smile that said she knew all the shit you were full of—how we danced till dawn and she cackled with an ecstatic glee when the dawn gleam pulled up just past Shinjuku’s towers. Or the lanky surfer boy with the soft voice and his cautious agreement in drug policies, the connection we’d shared that first meeting right before the crowds pushed through and sperated us. Or the people I’ve kampaid across crowded tables.

What are they all doing now? Definitely not on a bus with shaking knees wondering who’s getting who. A normal Sunday night in Japan, or Italy, or the ‘Couv? It makes me sigh, and then pulls my feelings to my throat on a packed train, and the emotions are so intense I can’t tell if they’re good or bad. Or even in-between. And it’s not loss there’s a fullness to these thoughts but it’ll never quite swing back again. Just like Edo and all those red floral parasols: buried somewhere underneath.

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And what am I trying to say when I speak of things flowing through me? The way I meet the city and the city meets me. Singing on an avenue between Shin and Shu because my I-Pod died and ‘Well-someone’s-gotta-bring-the-music’—if people hear me could I connect with them at all? Even just to make them chuckle and tell their friends about the drunk white guy singing Dylan on a Sunday night. When I go home with a Japanese person who’s never been with a foreigner, well, how will that touch them beyond the-hear-and-now? Beyond my hands and the smell of my skin.

I want fulfillment and want it my way. I want to be heard when I try to speak or scrawl things across a surface (paper borrowed from the designer, a business card at the conference, a red sharpie in the urinal in Shibuya). I want to reflect back across this place. I want to soak in the everything of Tokyo, live again and again in all these thousand faces.

And I can’t, of course. So instead I’m going back.

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