A TOKYO STORY PART I - NO YAKUZA, NO CRY

 

 

It was 35 degrees when I arrived in Tokyo, and probably close to 100% humidity. A cloud of heat hit like a brick as I stepped off the air-conditioned plane. From Narita Airport, I took the cheaper shuttle bus to the city, but after almost an hour was tacked on to the already long journey due to traffic jams, I cursed the people from my flight who instead opted for the train. The scenic mountains and rice fields of Chiba faded to grey as buildings and winding bridges loomed overhead. On the left, the grand Disney Castle stuck out like a sore thumb amidst its industrial surroundings, and on the right Tokyo Skytree in the distance quite literally stuck out, towering over all else. Entering Tokyo via the express-way did afford some nice elevated views of the city as the clear skies turned deep orange.


The bus stopped at Tokyo Station, but this wasn’t where I wanted to spend my first night. I topped up my Suica card and got on the train to Shinjuku, arriving at the best time; rush hour, when crowds of people stagger desperately into izakayas, bars that hold no more than six at a time, hostess clubs, and occasionally, home. I narrowly avoided a brain aneurysm while trying to find my way out of the station. You’d think having two hundred exits would make it a straightforward task. 

 

Night had fully descended by this time, but the lights and neon running through the busy streets could convince otherwise. I passed a restaurant called Eggslut and joined the crowd marching towards the smell of food and cigarettes. The traffic was relentless, often stopping on the zebra crossings, forcing the sea of lemmings I drifted in to go around. Muffled music and chatter soon sounded from the rows of bars and restaurants, with engines speeding off and horns blaring into the distance. The crowd eventually brought me beyond the giant Godzilla head that peered from atop the Toho cinema and straight to the red-light district.

 



Kabukicho has a bad reputation, thanks not least to the Yakuza series of games, and a group of rough looking youths shouting at nothing in particular only helped to layer the streets in a veil of sketchiness. Plastered all over the windows of the buildings lit purple and red and other erotic colours, were posters of scantly clad hostesses who’ll sit in your company for an hour for the small price of ¥3000. Although, you’ll probably find your bank account completely cleaned out after getting spiked and waking up in a piss-soaked alley the next morning. 

 

Not one minute had passed after crossing the threshold when I was accosted by a man in his fifties who asked if I liked Japanese girls. “Come, come, real Japanese girls, no Chinese girls.” This assurance did little to persuade me to follow him into the narrow and sad building behind him. The place was an odd mix of young men trying their hardest to look menacing, wandering couples, and even families with small children passing through and taking in the clown show that was Kabukicho. Japanese people will tell you a neighbourhood like this is very dangerous, and of course, how someone feels is subjective, but as a Westerner, I can’t say I felt even remotely in danger walking around there on my own.


The next morning I headed to Shibuya, and quickly accepted that my clothes being soaked with sweat after ten minutes of being outside was the default setting for Japanese summers. I bypassed Shibuya Station as to not lose half the day having another breakdown, jumping off the train at Harajuku, where right across the road was what is known as the epicentre of Tokyo’s youth fashion and culture. I got about halfway down the famous Takeshita Street, but the sheer number of people made it hard going. A few tourists towered over the sea of small and colourful teenage girls like lighthouses, turning their heads to peer into the many boutiques, accessory shops, cafes, and sweet shops. More than a far cry from the area’s militarily historic roots. I got what it was about pretty quickly, and after passing a couple of girls dressed like the Jokers’ henchwomen, I ducked out through a quiet alley, and back to the main street.

 

 

Hidden in a forest behind Harajuku Station was Meiji Jingu, a Shinto shrine built in 1920 in dedication to Emperor Meiji and his wife, who had both died a few years earlier. The trees that hung over the wide path were donated from all over the country, so there was an extensive mix when looking into the dense greenery, as the endless singing of cicadas drowned out the sound of the Tokyo traffic. If it weren’t for the hundreds of people, it could’ve been considered relaxing. Still, it was a sight less hectic than where I just was. I continued on under a series of giant torii gates that lined the way, and to a nice display of colourful sake barrels which sat on one side as gifts to the gods, who apparently love a good drink, while on the other side were barrels of French wine, a symbol of the Emperors desire to open Japan to the world. The temple itself was quite crowded (are you seeing a pattern here?).


I left the cover of the forest and followed the road to Yoyogi Park next door, where I was greeted at the entrance by a small group of older gentlemen dressed like 1950s American greasers, dancing to some classic rock and roll, and not too far behind them under the shade of the trees were a few high school students practising taiko. There’s certainly something to be said about the cultural whiplash you can experience in Tokyo. 

 

I stopped for a drink and shook my head at a small group of joggers who somehow hadn’t yet collapsed in the heat, but I felt refreshed by the large and green open space. It was while casually strolling past families picnicking and playing badminton, and peering up at the scattering of grand skyscrapers that peaked above the tree line, that I realised wearing a white t-shirt was a mistake. The sweat had made it almost translucent, and now my nipples were visible. I held the straps of my bag a bit closer together from then on.

 



After I reached the exit, I picked a direction and began walking, and soon noticed Japan’s newest and tallest skyscraper at the Azubadai Hills Complex that rose over the top of of the buildings ahead. I set off, unbeknownst that it hadn’t actually been completed yet, and thus was closed to the public. Between me and there was a quiet residential area filled with nice apartment buildings, well, quiet until an Aston Martin DB9 rolled out of a garage and slowly but loudly disappeared down the narrow streets. I lamented that I was not a rich man, but if I was, this would be a nice place to live. 

 

It soon opened up to a small shopping area lined with a Porche, Mercedes-Benz, Lexus, Ferarri, and an old rusted banger that couldn’t have looked more out of place if it tried. While walking towards the unopened building complex, I glanced between two buildings as I crossed a one-way road to see that I was right under the distinct red and white Tokyo Tower. Its base was completely free to explore, unlike the tower it was modelled after. I contemplated collapsing into a big inflatable pool by the entrance, where supervising teens sprayed cold water over the playing kids, but opted to plant myself under the trees of an adjacent graveyard instead.


That night, I met a friend for dinner and a pint in Ikebukuro, Kabukicho’s slightly less shady cousin, which trails in second place in the crime stats as of 2023. We went to a small Korean restaurant found in the maze of streets near the station and fell into the trap of ordering more dishes than we could eat, the names of which I have completely forgotten, so enjoy the photos, taken by said friend, linked below. So good was the food that we felt bad having to leave the leftovers behind, but the beer was waiting for us. Overall, I was impressed, with it being the first Korean restaurant I’d been to in Japan. Verdict: Yum.

 



Not bothering to waste time discerning the dodgy bars from regular, we went to Hub, a chain of British pubs where a pint of Guinness costs ¥1000. However, expensive Guinness aside, it didn’t quite succeed in emulating the British pub experience; A waitress showed us to our table like we’d entered a restaurant, we then had to call her back over to make our order, after which, she gave us a ticket with our order on and sent us to the bar to exchange it for our drinks. If anything better summed up the needless complexity and inefficiency found all across Japan, it was this. 

 

After watching the extended highlights of the same rugby match twice, we parted ways. I dandered around for a bit longer, enjoying the bright, flashing neon and lively crowds, and like the previous evening, felt next to no danger despite the reputation. I did, however, question why I kept finding myself in red-light districts.