In the middle of the madding crowd

My personal Tokyo: fast-forward scenes from a short gaijin life

“Bang!” the armored suitcase falls on the conveyor belt. Dozens of flashy relatives follow. In customs, I feel like one of those unfortunates in “Locked up abroad”, with their hearts pounding and a bag of cocaine glued to their backs. I only have one salami in my cabin baggage, which I would have gladly declared if the Japanese foreign ministry hadn’t included meat under the same category as drugs and explosives. I told myself the truth is relative. The Japanese customs officer questions me a bit, to make sure I won’t become a Tokyo homeless. The zippers remain undone.

They’re waiting for me as if I were a businessman, though the name tag they’re holding is colorful and dotted with hearts. Chris is curly-haired and this has sparked Japanese curiosity on subways for the past eight years, since my older sister has been living in Japan’s capital. Gil, her Honduran fiancé, is the couple’s sabor tropical, an engineering genius, always smiling and easily switching from Spanish, to English to Japanese.

< Scene 1 >

The tiny lady is paid only to steer people in the elevators. Her piercingly polite voice is fading as we enter the gliding doors in a luxurious obscurity. My eardrums are still popping when we reach the 56th floor of Roppongi Hills building, one of the best places in town to enjoy Tokyo from above. I could easily think I’m in an astronomic observatory, though here the view is a 3D panorama of lights and steel shadows. The Anthropocene is looking straight back at me. In the daytime, Tokyo has a metallic hue, but now, from this level, millions of windows are warming the darkness. What could each of the city’s 13 million souls be doing tonight? Personally, I’m busy sketching an increasingly ambitious mental map: tomorrow, I want to go to those towers to the left, after that, to the stadium on the horizon, before I leave I want to cross the Rainbow Bridge over Tokyo Bay. Neglecting the inaccurate scale and the lack of time, any distance seems achievable. The lounge on the same floor, decorated with Egyptian motifs is dimly lit and offers a light menu, to balance the intensity of the view. Though cocktail prices remind me how costly location can be. A bit higher, less stingy tourists pay extra to step onto the Sky Deck, 270 m above sea-level, a platform the size of a heliport, where the glass does not interfere with photo flashes. I hop again on the elevator. As it plunges, the concrete jungle swallows me once again.

Photo: Helmut Ignat

< Scene 2 >

I secretly named her Yoko. She gazes seductively, with flickering eyes, but no smile. Three cameras are flashing at once. She’s a foxy Scarlett O’Hara replica; though her dress is way shorter, it comes with crinoline, lace, puff and fluff. All pink, covering a not-so-transparent Lolita. She poses in front of tourists, foreign journalists and fashion bloggers. A bit embarrassed, I keep twisting my wrist to photograph her more discreetly, the camera firmly anchored in the palm of my hand. Most probable, the Japanese teenage girl comes here every weekend to meet her friends, parking together their Hello Kitty trolleys. They carry their costumes, which they change into in train stations or department store toilets, or in specially-designed spaces, providing irons and curlers, from which they emerge fully transformed.

“Let’s go see the people” Gil had told me at breakfast. I’ve already set my eyes on Yoko, but there are hundreds of youngsters like her on the bridge in Harajuku, an eccentric catwalk with cyber-punkers, goth and anime fans, to mention just a few. I like how they parade their queer tastes, how they gravitate around their obsessions, while becoming a magnet for tourists. They expose themselves, while hiding from rules at home and in Japanese society, they use nicknames and their fashion moods fuel shop windows in the near Takeshita-dori street. Teenagers lock themselves in an alternative world and still let everybody else peer through, turning Harajuku into a global brand.

The neighborhood is an abrupt change in the scenery. On the left, the woods leading towards the Meiji Jingu Shinto shrine, built at the beginning of the 20th century to honor Emperor Meiji and his wife, offer a breath of fresh air and prepare me for Harajuku and Omotesando, with their low oxygen levels. On the right, Omotesando is a chic commercial canyon, ideal for window shopping.

Photo: Helmut Ignat

< Scene 3 >

“8 floors of handsome Japanese”, that’s how Chris lured me in the wannabe club/shop Abercrombie&Fitch. Tokyo can be very convincing: I became a department-store tourist. I know the lesson by heart: we take the elevator to the top so that we can pace ourselves and inspect each floor. Lights are glowing from beneath the staircases, while the frescoes covering the walls are beaming in semi-obscurity. Lady-Gaga’s “Pappa-papparazzi” are bouncing from the speakers. Composed shop-assistants are folding T-shirts. Tall, tanned, hair-styled in moderation, almost attractive, the collection of Japanese charmers is the result of the company’s strict personnel selection. But in the nation’s good habit, they also contribute to the store’s audio background. “Irasshaimaseeeeeee!”(welcome) is the local haunting line, a greeting that each employee, every employee offers me with a frightening frequency.

Though no bag is attached to my hand, the store has left its solid mark. Only in the night air I realize I reek of perfume – I’ve become an A&F perfume walking commercial – the scent that’s flooding the entire building, a marketing strategy which appeals to your most primitive sense through the air-conditioning system.

Photo: Getty Images

< Scene 4 >

“Is two hours OK?” What are we going to do for two hours? I don’t think we need that much”. We choose our drinks included in the fee. I go up the shiny blue-tiled stairs and through the double-glazed door. Chris and Gil know how everything works. “Here you go, all scrubbed and sealed”, they say, handing me a microphone. I’ve replaced the shower cabin where I usually sing with a 2 by 2 booth. We sit on an angled sofa and its worn-out velvet screeches under our every shift. The technology at hand: a TV, an old box with a blurry display, along with digital tablets full with playlists. Two hours later and I wanted more, although the three of us had become a sort of Bee Gees – the rougher version though. While our voices might not ideally hit the right tones, this tiny room is definitely a nonjudgmental witness for musically unleashing frustrations.

I take a break on the hallway, so I start spying the neighbors. I can barely see them in the darkness of their booths: lead-singers and backing-vocals, some dancing on tables, others lingering over their plates, chopsticks in one hand and mike in the other, applauding each other. As we finally leave, I emerge as a mole in the sunlight, gruff, tousled, but lighter. If I ever moved to Tokyo, I think I would quickly become addicted to this 20 euro/hour reality for rent.

Photo: Getty Images

< Scene 5 >

My glass of water is the only one on a table filled with beer bottles. I turn to my right – a Japanese girl, with her hair dyed in a typical, seemingly Occidental auburn shade, smiles at me timidly, but secretively; I get the sense that she would like to chat, but we both know it’s not going to work out; so she continues playing with her heavily Svarovskied mobile. In the background, food keeps coming from behind the bar; we don’t have chairs, but plastic crates, while two LCDs on the wall give customers the choice of baseball or Saturday evening Japanese-style entertainment: a reality-show and stand-up comedy hybrid. Two other Westerners are carelessly fishing for dinner in their soba bowls; it’s not going to work out with them either; I lack the nerve to invite them to our table.

The samba festival’s buzz is fading only as the evening sets in, here, on Asakusa’s Koen-dori street. Chris and Gil have met Renato, their Peruvian friend, and his friends. Who, in turn, had also picked up two other Japanese guys passionate about Brazilian rhythms. It’s with them that I’m trying now to strike up a conversation. Over the table, through the yakitori smoke and alcohol vapors, we scream at each other in English and Japanese.

They’re interrogating me enthusiastically, but as they do, they keep telling Gil to remind me that they’re not Chinese, but 100% Japanese. Kohei is sitting in front of me, bulking his pectorals and flaunting his Batman T-shirt, bought for 3 dollars from Thailand. His wide, white smile is in fierce contrast with his beer-induced blush. He’s talking to me about his fast-forward life in Tokyo, the weekend’s relief, he’s telling me it’s a shame I won’t get to see any sumo wrestles in the Ryogoku Dome, as it’s off season. We praise together the green-tea ice-cream from Ajitetsu, where I had stopped earlier. I tell him that the salty, flaky cone reminds me of my usual dessert of my post-communist childhood.

It’s obvious, around izakayas – the friendly bars that also serve food and usually place their tables on the sidewalk – the Japanese are keeping their monochrome work suits on, but abandon their formal approach. Every now and then, a white, shaded-window sports car passes through the promenade, with a hint of inspection. “It’s the Yakuza – they’re the only ones allowed to drive here”, whispers Kohei.

< Scene 6 >

10 30 am  In Omorimachi the platform is small, warm under the high sun and not very commercial: just the usual soft drinks machines with canned coffee and Pocari Sweat, the enriched water that promises you minerals to compensate your abundant perspiration. Here, the local train comes almost empty; the seats are upholstered and comfy. While Chris is entertaining herself with her smartphone, a mother and daughter across the car are curiously eyeing us down; I’m staring at their chunky shoes, they’re gaping at my frizzy hair; I’m checking their snub noses, they’re judging my obese handbag, and so on for about 11 minutes.

17 00 pm  These white gloves are made for pushing. I keep as far away as possible from the policemen’s compression force, so I line up as a soldier on the numbered Shinagawa platform. There is a lane for every train door. Perched on a tiny deck, a police lady is watching and steering the crowds from under her geometric fringe. Over the rails, at Soup Stock, a distinguished Japanese woman is sipping her early dinner, possibly train-scheduled rather than hunger-triggered. I’m not sure that I took the right train, but whatever. My map and intuition are my guiding lights. Tightened abdomen, stiffened back, fingertips barely brushing the upper poll – the cart is air-vacuumed, body touches body, I have three breaths down my back and one ventilator above my head. A youngster with glowing complexion is smiling from one of posters dotting the train walls – I already know why; Chris has translated to me this ad for male waxing; to the right, another poster is promoting a women-detectives agency. In the meantime, the bilingual monitors reassure me that I’ve chosen the right track. The train glides from the underground to the surface, while neighborhood streetlamps are livening up the evening. On a near-by track, the famous Shinkansen doesn’t show off and until it gets outside the city, smooths its way at reasonable speed.

22 00 pm  In this train car nobody is wasting time. A bergamot and coffee flavor makes its way from my left, where a young woman in a business outfit is harassing her phone, striving for a better Angry Birds score. The phone has become a mandatory extra limb – you’re not allowed to talk while on the train, but it’s a boredom repellent. Others are reading. What, I can’t tell, and not necessarily due to language barriers. Newspaper or 3D leather covers are an extra obstacle. A whole stationary industry flourishes on the Japanese privacy principles. My shoulder is beginning to throb. It got numb more because of an awkward je-ne-sais-quoi than because of my neighbour’s heavy skull. It happened 7 minutes ago. He innocently collapsed on me; the train’s mechanics startle his sleep from time to time. At first, I quivered as his curly hair tickled my skin; eventually, I got used to his warmth. Now I just feel admiration – this is any insomniac’s dream come true.

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

<Scene 7>

Take 1:“Let her be. Let’s see, does she get the trick?” Skeptical, Gil is watching my every move. Unwrapping that onigiri is like handling a China object. I have been warned that both taste and unwrapping technique are acquired in time. I finally discover the detachable band in the middle and the green triangle is mine. And it’s still in one piece. Applause. The compact, sticky rice is competing with the Western bun. The filling, in my case, is salmon. The nori (algae) sheet is the salty crust, the sea-tasting crunchiness. This fragile dumpling, tightened in a precise geometry is one of the most popular Japanese snacks and for a Westerner, one of the most mysterious presences on a supermarket shelf. It comes without instructions.

Take 2:The fish propels rhythmically, in silence. Too dull, I let it go by. I seize the next plate from the conveyor belt; this sushi is no more noteworthy, but the china is prettier – on the menu, plates with golden motifs are more expensive, so my expectations heighten proportionally. At lunch, the whole restaurant is orbiting around this raw fish electrified circuit. The wasabi is tongue-piercing, while green tea is flowing from the taps installed for each customer, at regular distances on the bar. After the feast, with both hands on the dish scanner, the waitress is counting the colorful plates, but only gives me the check only after the device’s approving beep.

Take 3: Red lights are blinking on the panel, indicating that three people are almost done with their lunch. I’m queuing while playing with the stub; I needed a translator in order to buy it from the machine that substitutes the menu in the restaurant’s hallway and which carefully controls the dish’s ingredients and intensity – even extras like onion, garlic and oil have several buttons allocated. For the past 60 years or so, at Ichiran nothing is distracting you from your bowl of Tonkotsu ramen, a hearty soup with pork and noodles, borrowed from Chinese cuisine. It’s like being in a confessional, supplied with a bar stool and a bit more light. I see only bits of Chris and Gil – each have their personal wooden booth, a bit larger than an elbow spread. I have to be brief with my confessions: the bamboo blind rolls up, a hand reaches for the order, then disappears. Shortly after, the same hand pushes the bowl on the counter; I can barely see the waiter’s apron and the finale of a bow; the curtain falls again. The soup’s warmth is healing, the succulent strip is breaking without a fight between the chopsticks, the noodles are not aiding the taste, but individualize themselves.

Take 4:“The shrimps are alive and until they die in the stew, they kind of splash you; you don’t want to see this”, Chris tells me. Thus, our box of ingredients comes only with veggies, chicken, tofu and mochi rice crackers. A Japanese lady, with soft features and stiff ballerina bun is pouring us the kakejiru, the udon soup base, in a metal bowl, over a small stove. In the meantime, Hane-san, the energetic seventy year-old Japanese who has invited us to dinner, is questioning me. Japanese is a magical language – translated, my monosyllabic answers attain unexpected lengths, of dozens of seconds. In Romanian, for his questions, seemingly very intricate, two or three words are enough. Despite reassurance, I’m suspicious about my interpreter’s fidelity. While the chicken is boiling, the tofu cheese sunk in sesame oil is keeping me busy. The Asahi beer, not too strong, is pretence to toast the Japanese way – “kanpai”. Before we leave, the personnel takes our photos, and then they remember we didn’t get any dessert. We’re forced back to our table and we’re spoiled with grapes and watermelon, the ultimate sugary treat, judging by the price.

Take 5: She’s blinking often and kindly, but I expect her to lose her patience at any time. I’ve registered for a class of Chano-yu or tea ceremony at the Okura Hotel and I’m still struggling with the sweet wagashi entree, a kind of evening primrose mousse, of meatball size. Politeness dictates that everyone has to finish their snack before the ceremony begins, so the maestro keeps nodding at me, as to speed up my chewing. Dressed in a kimono, she prepares and serves the tea with great discipline, without any explanation, in a row of excessive, but artistic movements. Although freshly brewed, the sencha and matcha teas are not too hot, the warming green a bitter semi-transparent potion.

Photo: Getty Images

< Scene 8 >

I meet Toto several times a day, an ivory Quasimodo; it’s obvious he knows a lot. At first he intimidated me, I thought I could not handle him, I can’t control him. I was lingering by the bathroom door, hesitating if I should go in or not; so, for my safety, Chris unplugs the intelligent toilet and all the buttons aren’t threatening anymore. But Toto is all over Tokyo, so I still needed a tutorial to see what he can do: water jets, airing power, aiming direction, background noises. Basically, it just does what you tell him to do. We’ve become intimate.

< Scene 9 >

It’s my first day alone and Chris keeps calling me from work, with maternal concern. I’m on my own, but I don’t feel alone: the Asakusa neighborhood, initially a small fishing village on the banks of Sumida River, is teeming with life. From the impressive Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate), a stream of locals and tourists is flowing towards the oldest temple in the capital, Senso-Ji. Along with it flows a river of temptations – I take it straight ahead, on Nakamise-dori, a narrow street stacked with boutiques with more or less useful objects, totems and food stalls. Occidental hands are checking out products and clicking photo shutters. Then they purify with the water they pour from wooden ladles. The locals are lighting incense sticks in a gazebo and sink their faces, with a trance-like expression, in the scented smoke, also to clean themselves.

I go up the temple stairs and though the crowd, I try to get a glimpse of Bodhisattva Kannon’s statue, the Buddhist deity of compassion. I can only infer where it is: standing on my tiptoes still cannot counteract the constant flow of people in front of the shrine.

< Scene 10 >

With chubby hands glued on the glass and flickering eyes, the Japanese little boy yells enthusiastically at his father; he’s mesmerized by the metal ball that’s rolling on the narrow plastic ramp that shows how plankton absorbs carbon dioxide.The crowd of kids around him is also loud: carbon dioxide’s simplified circulation in nature, in 3D and encased in glass, has given them an adrenaline rush; now they’re bombarding with questions, they’re reading explanations or show their parents how the process works. I can only suppose. I myself feel like jumping with joy ever since I set foot in Miraikan, the National Museum for Science and Innovation on Odaiba, Tokyo’s artificial island. The surroundings had seemed to me a bit too sanitary, the grass too finely cut, the glass buildings, a bit unwelcoming. I ran first to the Ikea-style cafe, hoping that a dose of caffeine would give me a more focused, museum-like face. Now I’m the hyperactive visitor taking her shoes off before entering Shinkai 6500, which, until this year, owned the depth world record for underwater human-commanded devices.

Each exhibit has its own guides, usually volunteers; one of them tells me that the 2 m diameter room can accommodate 3 people – 2 pilots and a researcher. I can barely spread my arms and I find it incredible how its windows can stand the enormous pressure.

I have missed the registration for the Planetarium. But Laika’s photo, followed by hundreds more of astronauts point towards the International Space Station exhibition. We are told that only six astronauts are still working on the orbit. They have a lot to handle – lack of gravitation and space, according to the replicas of their rooms on the ship. Dried food, toilets with vents, vertical sleep and one hour a day, leisure time – star-gazing, more or less. But what they see through their window, circling the planet, I can see at small-scale, by walking on an elliptical bridge: a huge sphere, covered in organic LED panels follows its calm rotation, hanging from the ceiling.

Several times per day, the museum organizes demonstrations on various global phenomena and issues, from atmospheric circulation to wireless connections; in the meantime, I can play with regional and global statistics on one of the giant tablets displaying world maps. My timing with ASIMO is ideal. Twice a day, for 10 minutes, the glossy-white robot emerges in front of the public, with half-human gracefulness, to show off his skills. A bit tinier than me and with far better Michael Jackson moves, he reacts promptly to the human assistant’s instructions. The kids are again shifting with excitement while adults are trying to maintain a firm grip on their cameras as ASIMO is kicking a football. Given that foreigners aren’t provided an English translation, I can’t tell how good of an orator the robot is – but its voice is feminine, with a warmish ring.

Photo: Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation Tokyo

< Scene 11 >

Isetan. 1F, Isetan. The map covering Shinjuku, the ultimate consumerist haven in Tokyo has taken me, by chance, to the basement of this century-old department store; here, the food is the star. Marshmallows and puddings in solar hues, voluptuous gelatos, the smoke of the oil-soaked tempura already give me too much information. At first sight, foreigners are not gastronomically discriminated – the Japanese tend to imitate a lot of Western specialties, especially desserts, while imported goods include British jams and French wines. Even the Tokyo Tourism Office has included in its free tours a guided trip through this gallery of temptation; you pay only if you fall into it. If one lacks a translator to follow around, just follow the queues – a big line-up of calm Japanese is the best compass to find the best place to eat.

However, chocolate truffles need no guidance; confectionary maestros, from Belgian Neuhaus to French Pierre Hermé are putting me in a sweet dilemma. I finally choose some chestnut and vanilla cream candy and I lie to the shop assistant that they’re a gift: thus, every sugary sphere comes wrapped in clear plastic, then in a fancy box, finished with wrinkled gift-paper and bow. Although the Matrioshka wrapping style isn’t eco-friendly, the Japanese care a lot about presentation. And this caprice makes tearing the paper all the more exciting. My afternoon treat comes from the mercy of shop-assistants all around who are inviting me to taste a bit of everything, even though they surely know I won’t buy anything.

< Scene 12 >

“Do something funny! Come on, now!” Gil cheers at me while he and Chris put on weird faces. The flash blinds us. “Try harder, we still have 9 shots to go!” he goes on laughing. For 3 euros we’ve huddled into one of the purikura photo-booths, created for Japanese teenage girls by a woman working at a software company; these are no places for formal faces. On the contrary, they test spontaneity. We’re done with grimaces and we have 5 minutes to edit our photos on a touch screen: we widen our eyes, we choose backgrounds, and we scribble with flashy colors. The device eventually spits out 6 photo stickers.

Several booths follow the same principles, but their theme varies: from goth to Hollywood golden-age to more obscure stuff like Love Joker or Heroine Face. They’re all aligned in the corner of a game center in Shibuya. Almost every entertainment option here requires a bit of practice. Toy-machines – sheltering one-eyed bunnies and Hello Kitties – come with a claw which, if mastered well, greedily grabs the stuffed items. A youngster with starry spiked hair and hipster glasses is viciously striking some taikos (Japanese drums) connected to a monitor which dictates and evaluates his rhythm; with each successful percussion, the score balloons on the bright LCD. On the other side, eyes-set on the animation, two high school girls are turbo dancing on a Justin Timberlake routine.

We switch from the colorful game arcade to the chills outside and we hurry to the last train. At Shibuya Crossing, boundaries are clear: there’s a time for engines and a time for people. At set intervals, all the cars freeze and pedestrians invade the street. I stop to photograph them; the camera catches what it can: thinkers, wanderers, friends, lovers, they all rush in slalom on the famous diagonal. Under the bright advertising aura, the city’s contours fade. The air vibrates with every breath in the crowd.

Article featured in National Geographic Traveler Romania, in the 2012 Fall issue.

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