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Tokyo Story

October 24, 2013

What to make of Tokyo? My first impression was that I had never been

Tokyo subway/ metro map

Tokyo subway/ metro map

anywhere more confounding. The metro, after a long day/night of travelling all the way from Medan, via Bangkok, via Shanghai and no sleep and several time zones, the Tokyo metro map seemed like a nonsensical tangle of colours. I managed to get to Asakura where my very stylish but very expensive hostel was located, but no one was very friendly and a cup of tea was about $6. I went for a walk up to a nearby temple and to look for food, but to my alarm, no menus were in English and none of the plastic example meals displayed in the windows looked vegetarian and I can’t speak Japanese. I walked through the gauntlet of Edo shops selling kimonos, painted fans, Japanese shoes but there were no other western tourists and no-one tried to sell me anything or even lure me in to look at their merch. To add to this, the DSC_0453streets were deserted. I was missing gaudy, loud Bangkok, the tackiness of Koh-San Road, Pat-Pong market with the ladyboys trying to sell knock-off Prada bags, I was even missing the traffic jams and I was worried I was going to spend four days starving. I suppose the culture shock comes from the fact that they don’t bother to pander to the West here, we don’t impress them, and they don’t need to translate everything into English.

It got better though. To be sure, Tokyo is a strange place, clean to the point of almost being sterile, quiet to the point of being creepy, and yet bigger and more manic, seedy and kitsch than even Bangkok, but by the end of those four days I had fallen a little bit in love with it, although I did have to resort to eating tofu, badly cooked in the hostel kitchen every night and bland egg sandwiches or plain rice from Seven Eleven for lunch. But there is something comforting in the cleanliness and the order and the little apartment blocks.

Once you decipher the metro and subway and work out the ticket machines, DSC_0536you find that Tokyo has the most efficient public transport system in the world, zipping you from one little mini-city to the next within this mother-of-all-metropolises. My favourite mini-city was Shinjuku. Like many other places, you emerge from the subway to find yourself amongst shopping malls, but here also was the red light district of Kabukicho, the epicentre of the cleanliness-seediness clash: all cartoon faces, flashing pink lights around the doorways with unsavoury plastic curtains to hide the dark deeds going on inside. I heard Stay Together by Suede blasting out from within one of these strip joints, but that’s Tokyo for you, always cool.

I went up the government office buildings twice in a day, in light and darkness to look at the sprawl of the city from the 45th floor, even there, you can’t really grasp how big Tokyo is.

Tokyo Story screenplay

Tokyo Story screenplay

It was good to be back in the world of culture though. I went to an art gallery, and the National Film Centre in well-to-do Ginza, where they had the original screenplay of Tokyo Story and a very cool display of Czech film posters. I succumbed to the shopping – who can’t with all those malls? – I almost spent a lot of yen on some glittery silver shoes, but in the end spent a bit less on a polka dot handbag, and on the last day, before my flight to Los Angeles, I went to ‘cat cafe’.

Now, this was one of the main things I wanted to do in Tokyo, but it wasn’t DSC_0557exactly what I imagined. I located the ‘cafe’ on the sixth floor of a regular apartment block. After paying $8 and swapping my shoes for slippers, I was ushered into what was basically a regular apartment. I sat in the cheerful Japanese woman’s living room and tried to attract the cats, all of whom were obese, but none of them were up for a mauling. In fact, the cheerful lady explained, they didn’t really like being stroked, just patted on the rump. Hmm… weren’t they all supposed to be friendly kitties who liked a cuddle? I felt a bit dirty when I left, cheapened by the whole thing. The night before, I’d encountered a wild-looking man in a darkened underpass who had a cart on DSC_0572which several fat ginger cats were asleep on, and one fat white cat on a lead. This was all a bit too weird for my liking. I didn’t stay for my full allocated hour in the cat cafe but made a hasty retreat after about forty minutes of rump patting.

As I walked back to the hostel, a troop of ladies in Kimonos walked down the other side of the road, a much more pleasant Tokyo encounter. It had been a strange few days, but I had, by the end, adjusted to the Japanese way. Denver Colorado, where I arrived forty-odd hours later on the same day, was the exact opposite of Tokyo and an equally big culture shock.

Kimono ladies

Kimono ladies

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