Dynargh dhe'n Blogofrob

Friday 28th November 2003

I was in Tokyo for two days and scratched the surface only to the extent that a piece of raw fish being dragged over Sony's latest plasma screen would. But, sitting on the train during the long journey from the airport to the city, the hoards of dark-suited businessmen and short-skirted schoolgirls (complete with knee length white socks) I glimpsed on the passing platforms tempted me to think that perhaps I did know the place in a way, that perhaps the cliches were true.

And then of course, as soon as I got into the city, even in its appearance Tokyo surprised me. For me, and perhaps my fellow travellers, it was, at least for a couple of days, the perfect antidote to Hong Kong. The weather was cold, a gently crisp wind lightening the air - a relief from the pollution-heavy humidity back in China. The atmosphere was relaxed and placid - although the streets thronged with people there was a calm quietness to them: for example, on the underground, as in London, no-one spoke. The Japanese cars hummed smoothly by with none of the chaos and belching fumes of Central. And the city itself reminded me of a modern New York or Paris, with wide boulevards and street cafes, complemented by intriguing alleys and lanes.

It was down one of these that we wandered searching for supper. After several tentative but ultimately cowardly attempts to choose a suitable restaurant I eventually took the initiative and slid open the door of an establishment - I should add this was only because I had been peering through the window and noticed two kimonoed women laughing at me. I had no idea, even when we were being led into the place, whether this was even a restaurant. Luckily it was, and we were shown into our private room, where we sat at our table which was only a few inches from the matted floor. We pointed at a set menu on the basis of the price, since there was no English to give us an indication of what we were to have, and then spent a couple of leisurely hours eating, amongst bowls of food I couldn't identify, sushi, sashimi, tempura and sea snail, neatly accompanied by sake.

Then it was off to Rappongi, via the underground. Despite the hideously complicated tube map, which looks like the vomit of someone who's eaten a bit too much multi-coloured spaghetti, we arrived without any trouble. Actually finding somewhere to drink that wasn't a grotty American style bar playing over-loud cock-rock or cheese was more of a difficulty. After trying various places we moved onto Shinjuku and it was here, in the underground station, that we met Hero.* Nicely suited, in a three-piece and with a grinning but mute sidekick, Hero was a young professional who liked the English. He told us he knew a bar nearby, and although a slight reluctance had begun to set in, we followed. Fifteen minutes later and still walking, the patience of some was being tested. But Hero had excitedly called his wife to join us, and he was so polite and friendly, that we persevered. The bar we arrived at was plush and quiet and a pleasant change from the ex-pat dross of Rappongi. Unfortunately there was also a high cover charge that led to a boycott of the bar and three of the group escaping to the hotel. The three of us remaining were eagerly led by Hero to a nearby sports bar that he promised would have drinks. But sadly, despite it being relatively early, they had stopped serving. Hero was devastated - he couldn't go on. He warmly shook our hands, repeating, 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry'. I'm sure I could see the tears start to prick his eyes as he left. We briefly discussed the possibility of him committing Hari-Kiri, before heading for the nearest clutter of neon signs, which turned out to be the Red Light District.

After a few more drinks and futile attempts to find off-the-wall Japanese weirdness, as shows like Adam and Joe Go Tokyo had entitled us to expect (there was an especially concerted effort to find a mythical 'Cabbage Bar' which to my relief we never stumbled across) we headed towards the nearest Capsule Hotel.

Spending the remaining hours of the night in a rectangular box was a peculiar experience - the two-high rows of units lining the large room reminded me of photos of chickens encased in battery farms. Having piled my clothes in a locker, and avoided the tipsy businessman swaying back and forth, I crawled into my capsule and pulled down the blind. It was slightly too short for me, but the ceiling was just about high enough to semi-sit up in. On my right a little control panel gave me a light switch, a radio and an alarm clock, as well as control of the compact television suspended from the ceiling. There was also an enigmatic coin box near the opening of the capsule. I didn't try it, too tired and newly hungover to do anything but sleep, but the next morning I was reliably informed that it made pornography (albeit censored) come on the T.V..

The following day and a half brought further confirmation of some cliches (four streams of pedestrians crossing an intersection under giant neon signs, cameras the size of a flashbulb in the Sony Centre) and further fascinating and novel sights (a procession of men with Samurai Swords, the park and moat surrounding the Imperial Palace, Mount Fuji just visible as a silhouette through the clouds), as well as a considerably more successful night out, fuelled undoubtedly by a glorious rugby match.

As I rushed through the underground system, trying to work out how not to miss my flight back to Hong Kong, I realised that it was the first time I had felt under pressure or harassed in Tokyo. I've no idea if the Tokyo I briefly experienced was anything like the real thing, but hopefully before too long I'll get the opportunity to return for a bit longer and find out.

[*June 2006 Edit: On reflection this gentleman's name was probably the common Japanese name 'Hiro' and not the unheard of 'Hero'. However I choose to believe, despite seeing no written evidence and contrary to rational thought, that the latter was accurate in this case.]

39 - posted at 09:57:39
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