Saturday, December 18, 2004

...back to Tokyo

Well, I'm back in that most postmodern and dystopian of cities, East Asia's biggest eyesore and most frenetic nightspot, the big T: Tokyo.

The culture shock was more extreme than if I'd been to the States for a month. I caught an overnight bus from Isazawa, then got plopped off at the the gaping Yaesu Entrance to Tokyo Station at 5 in the morning. I had the whole morning to kill before I could meet up with my friend Nori whose house I'd be sharing, so I stuffed my pack in a coin locker at the station and decided to walk around to keep myself awake.

In the middle of my walk I realized I was just a few minutes from Tsukiji, the infamous Tokyo fish market. I'd been there once after an all nighter at some clubs in Roppongi, staggering around on no sleep and a body full of Tequila sunrises; was almost been killed by all the trucks and guys waving knives around. This time I had the benefit of 4 hours of sleep on a rickety bus and an early morning green tea wake up.

Tsukiji is a world unto itself, the largest fish market in the world, with massive deep sea monsters flown in from all over the world, then frozen and piled in rows to be auctioned off in a clipped and short dialect that is native only to this fishmarket, the legacy of centuries of bargaining. Compare this to my previous month is Isazawa, where 80% of what we ate was grown or made within the valley, and soybeans from Southern Japan are looked at suspiciously, let alone those grown in China. After a month in the mountains eating lots of crunchy winter root vegetables a full on cortex pumping sushi breakfast of freshly gathered fish netted from across the globe was scarcely concievable, it seemed almost... sinful? immoral? indulgent?

I ended up at a small sushi bar ordering a la carte from the the three chefs in front of me. I fell in love with the girl who sliced and hand pressed my tuna and salmon. She had calloused, practiced hands and a serious face with full lips and freckles that broke into a radiant smile when I got up to pay the bill. I shoulda asked for her number...

I then navigated the labyrinthine Tokyo train system across the river to Saitama, which is Tokyo's New Jersey. The house I'm staying in now is a narrow two story number with three of us living there. My friend Nori-san and his college friend Uchi are starting a tour guide business in Tokyo, and in exchange for my editing and translating some brochures into English I get free room and board for a while.

The tour Nori is creating is based in Akihabara, Tokyo's electronics district, and the biggest congregation of nerds this side of a Star Trek convention. I can't imagine a place that resembles the rolling Autumn colored hills of Isazawa less. This is the part of Tokyo that inspired so many setpieces in Blade Runner and basically all of William Gibson's sci-fi. Hunched over old women man rickety wooden booths crammed next to multistory department stores and guys with tables on the street, all of them hawking cables, adaptors, iPods, used PC parts, Walkmans, the latest Nintendo games... Apparently a lot of former USSR electronics flooded in here after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and lately North Korean spies scouring for high end electronics have been seen as well.

In addition, being a massive nerd hang out there are tons of secondary stores dealing in nerd popular products like comics, anime, porn videos, collectible anime toys, anime porn, massive video arcade parlors, porn video games, manga porn, fan drawn manga, fan drawn manga porn... I've never actually seen the legendary schoolgirl underwear vending machines, but if they are anywhere in Tokyo, this is where they would be.

Nori is a really funny guy, speaks English eloquently with fine tuned diction and an impeccable set of manners that never feel forced or strained. Which are all good traits in an aspiring tour guide. For years he's noticed the gap between Japanese tour guides and foreign tourists, with the former rattling off statistics about the measurements of Zen Rock Gardens, and the latter mostly interested in seeing those legendary schoolgirl underwear vending machines. Akihabara isn't a Japanese tour destination, but there are always lots of foreigners wandering around, looking for a glimpse of that Tokyo they saw in Lost in Translation or maybe just parts for a nuclear missle guiding system.


Anonymous said...

yo jamie, glad thingsve worked out for the next bit for ya(re:jobs and apts). if youre lookin for a underwear vending machine ya best come back to KZ. i dont usually include that on the tour, but it is pretty fuckin hilarious. anyway, its summer and i best be getting to summery things. ill be back to nihon soon nuff. best to ya.

Anonymous said...

Your godmother in Malta is very puzzled about the schoolgirl knickers in vending machines. Who collects them? how do they get in there? And who verifies the authenticity of the items?

Jamie said...

The underwear in the vending machine are collected by very strange men (maybe women, I don't know) who are excited by the idea of schoolgirls' used underwear. The underwear gets there because schoolgirls know they can sell their undies for big bucks which they can go spend on the latest fashions and cell phones. The undies come with some kind of verification, usually a picture of the former owner with her eyes barred out to prevent her identity from coming out. But vending machines are only for weirdos. Normal perverts go to bura-sera (bloomer-sailor) stores to purchase their verified used schoolgirl undies.