Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Japan Trip - Day 15

A funny thing happened in the toilet today.

I'd been wearing the yukata all the time in the hostel, to get into the whole feel of the traditional Japanese clothing and all, and so I'd sleep in it and everything. That morning, I woke up and went to the toilet because I had to empty the rear ballast, if you know what I mean. So I enter the stall in a why-am-I-up-so-early stupor, lock the door, turn to the porcelain, and then the spark of sobriety wakes me right up: how am I supposed to do this?

For those who don't know, the yukata is shaped like a very baggy bath robe, but not made of towel material, and that's all you wear above your underwear. It's like having a really thin trenchcoat: it trails all the way to your calves. I'm standing there, wondering if I should take everything off to do it, or if I should try to billow the back end out like a pianist throws out his coat-tails before his performace. In the end, I settled for a compromise: I let it hang on one hand over the side. It would have been a very embarrassing situation if there were any witnesses; unfortunately, I was the witness, and I felt like an idiot.

After another awesome breakfast, we grabbed our bags and travelled to Tokyo from Odawara, a very short trip considering how close we were to the capital already. After dumping our bags off at our accommodation for the night, Bryan brought us to the Harajuku District, a long shopping street full of clothes and apparently the Tokyo hotspot for lolita fashion, the thing girls wear with lots of black and lace and black lace. Unfortunately, that week being the start of Golden Week - the week where there are a few national holidays such that the whole week is after office hours - there were millions of people but no one wearing anything avant garde.

Look at all the swanky people not in the photograph.

It was past lunch time, but the streets and restaurants were all crowded, so there was nothing for it but to go to a very normal-priced place for lunch. It was a fusion pasta restaurant, which I thought we should have gone anyway, since foreign food with the Japanese flavour twist is usually very delicious. I had a great pasta with cream sauce, prawns, asparagus and roe.

Most of the street was girl's clothes, which I don't find very interesting unless they're on girls, but Xi Min picked up a map somewhere and found out that there was an Evangelion store, so we paid it a visit. There was a lot of Evangelion merchandise, and I half-wished that I had watched this classic anime before I came to Japan, so I could appreciate stuff like this more. I did manage to catch a glimpse of some ang moh otakus though, which I thought was hilarious.

Xi Min's next spot was the Nico Nico Douga store, which I thought was a bit odd - it's like YouTube having a shopping mall. What would you get in there - you go in and pay to watch funny Internet videos? But apparently it sold all the indie stuff, things that amateurs made and put up on the site, like Vocaloid soundtracks and other stuff.

Doujin music and fluffy mascots. What isn't there to like?

Harajuku is also swarming with Africans. Presumably they're immigrants, and most of them are touts, harassing pedestrians to come to their shop. Bryan warned us about them though, and said some of them were pimps, and told us to shake them off, just say "I don't know" in Chinese, because they knew both English and Japanese.

After snaking our way through crowded streets, you'd think we'd go to a big open space, like a park or something. And you'd be right. On our way towards our next destination, we cut through Yoyogi Park, a really huge area of grass and trees that can rival Botanics anyday. Yoyogi Park is apparently famous for being the meeting point of all those rock-and-roll Japanese who cosplay Elvis Presley, but on the day we went there was a disappointing turnout and barely anyone was rocking the King's slick curl, let alone the cowboy tassels and pelvic thrusts.

Spot the Elvis Impersonator!
Yoyogi Park is also home to many talented buskers, who make a living by performing street art almost every day of the week. We were first greeted by World Yo-Yo Champion!! Tommy, who was already halfway into his act and winding down into his finisher.

That's after knocking out a dozen evil ninjas with his yo-yos. Victory pose!
He is indeed very talented, and he does a killer wind-up-toy-marionette act. However, it was a bit too slow for a finale (he set it to some classical music-box-type music) and was just after his exciting fast-paced action-packed stunts, so it didn't seem as energetic at the end.

Puppet strings? Yo-yo strings? Get it? It's all a metaphor for life!
But all work and no play makes Yoyogi Park a dull... garden. The grass was strewn with thousands of people, all just lazing around, eating, chatting, playing games, throwing frisbees and walking dogs. There's an unbelievable number of people having picnics - though it must be a lot better having low humidity, minimal heat and an obvious lack of mosquitoes. I even walked pass what looked like a mid-afternoon office party, with men and women in office attire sitting on a large chequerboard mat with sandwiches and wine glasses. Alcohol really is Japan's national pasttime.

Also, the propensity of local nature not to rain every few days must be a contributing factor.
But back to people doing all kinds of stuff. I really think these temperate climates are so much more dynamic, because nothing discourages people from coming out and being one with nature, and doing all the stuff they'd normally be doing at home, outside. Dog-walking is an adorable favourite, and so is cycling and practicing musical instruments. See, anyone trying to play music in public in Singapore would get complained at faster than you can say "But it's not illegal!" then get slapped with a fine for not registering with the government. At the large fountain (which conveniently shut off before Bryan could spend the next half hour capturing the perfect split-second shot of the water streams hanging in the air), a bunch of people had set up a full percussion band.

That guy didn't have a chair the entire time we were there.
Granted, their instruments were a really rag-tag bunch, including a number of bongos and those things that Buddhist priests whack that makes that weird hollow sound, but they sounded good. What's more, it's not just Japanese people playing it, but a whole group of people from around the world: Africans, Japanese - there was a lady who looked a bit Mongolian. And all pounding together, if not in harmony, then at least in rhythm. Faith in humanity restored.

Oh, and that guy in the blue shirt at the back, with the sling bag? He was dancing his own crazy dance back there all throughout the gig. I don't think he was one of the drummers, and I don't think he had much sense of rhythm, but he was popping his moves like nobody was watching. I have to take my hat off to that guy, for either being so courageous or so oblivious to dance badly in the middle of a thousand people.

Holy crap! Isn't that George Clooney and Angelina Jolie?
Tango dancing practice. We could have done without the underarm hair though.
We spent a good hour wandering through the park, just watching people having fun in their own ways. We stumbled upon the dog run about halfway in, filled with dozens of adorable dogs and separated according to size.

They're all freaking adorable.
We wanted to run around then, but had some urgent toilet trouble. So we managed to hunt down one, and were coincidentally reminded about the benefits of being born male, and having the ability to pee while standing. Suffice to say, if there were any girls in our group, we'd still be standing there, waiting for them.

Few people vandalise more beautifully than the Japanese.
After heading out the exit and across the overhead bridge, we happle to stumble upon a gay-pride party. Completely coincidentally and unintentionally. Now I have nothing against homosexuality, but this wasn't just any normal gay-pride event: this was the Tokyo Rainbow Pride After Party.

Oh god, what is that guy wearing?
It's disturbing enough to be sexually harassed by members of the opposite gender when they're falling down drunk, but can you imagine being sexually harassed by people of your own gender while they're falling down drunk? Coupled with the fact that this is Japan, and people will wear absolutely anything if they're drunk or crazy enough, and you get some really disturbing costumes, of which words would not do your imagination justice.

Have fun in your nightmares tonight.
Seriously, those costumes might look attractive, maybe even sexy on girls. But men weren't meant to show so much flesh. Especially grown men without the bodies of wrestlers. Eurrgh.

Another thing: the toilets aren't safe.

So we escape the clutches of same-sex debauchery and head towards Shibuya, another shopping district with more upmarket and branded goods. It was famous for the five-way scramble crossing, which is a pedestrian crossing across a busy five-way intersection where, every few minutes, all traffic is stopped, and pedestrians are allowed to cross to whichever side they want to cross to. Keeping in mind this is one of the busiest cities in the world, and the traffic lights are keeping back a tidal wave of pedestrians for a long few minutes, the crossing invariably freaks out the flashing green man until he turns red in embarrassment. The crowd is so large, you can get lost in there and drown.

Now imagine an out-of-control steamroller.

Walking across the crossing is not very amazing - it's just like walking through a normal crowd, except when you realise that you're in the middle of the road, and all that's stopping a bunch of murderous drivers from running you over from five different directions is a bunch of lights and the illusion of rules and order. I would really recommend stopping right in the centre for a moment, making sure not to knock into anyone, and just turn in a circle very slowly and look around. It gives you a feeling of insignificance, like you're just one person in a world where everyone is minding their own business, living their own lives, going around you like clockwork, everyone mixing for a brief moment but then going their separate ways.

Add that to your self-worth.

We had an early dinner at a fast-food curry place. That's one of the things I like about Japan - there are fast-food outlets of almost every variety of cuisine. It's got to do with the hectic lifestyle there. They're mostly designed for individual businessmen rushing through lunch, sitting by themselves at the counter and speeding through a quick meal. They generally don't have tables for groups, which usually caused us problems when we all have lunch together.

So... delicious...

It was still early in the evening, so we visited the large music store overlooking the crossing, Tsutaya. It has a Starbucks on the second floor, and it offers a fantastic view of the crossing and the people swarming across it. It's quite narrow and small though, so there is almost no chance of getting a good seat unless you come before it opens in the morning and are prepared to queue for an hour. Tsutaya itself was huge, and again it is very different for a country with a large enough population to support its own local music. K-pop is also slowly making an impact in the Japanese music scene, with most Korean artistes having both Korean and Japanese versions of their songs. I bought dad a Blues Brothers CD, because it was one of the only things I had seen so far that I thought he might like.

Bryan was highly amused by this second-hand CD and its coincidental relation to the Aya Hirano sex scandal some years previously.

The upper levels were filled with DVDs of television shows and movies, and there were whole sections which are just for rentals. Right at the top of the building was a bookshop and cafe, and above that, not connected to the elevators and separated by an external staircase, was the embarrassing manga section where all the otakus go.

And then another awesome event happened here that really made this Japan trip so much better than any planned tour. While we were looking at a shelf, Bryan suddenly remarked, "Hey, isn't that shelf moving?" So we instinctively all freeze in place, and you can feel it: the building swaying slightly as if caught in a strong breeze or slight typhoon. And, almost right on cue, the staff are leading us away from the shelves, towards the open area near the elevators, in case the tremor knocks over any heavy books and concusses us and we sue for damages. So add Achievement Unlocked: Survive A Mini-Earthquake to our list of crazy stuff we've done in a foreign country.

When I imagine getting killed by comics, this isn't exactly what I had in mind.

That night, we slept in a capsule in a capsule hotel. It costs about as much as a night at our hostel, but it really didn't come with any other facilities besides the bed and bath, as well as a small locker bigh enough for three shirts. If you wanted anything else, like charging your phone or extra shampoo, you had to pay for it. It was an interesting experience though, sleeping in what is essentially a box with a matress. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn't coffin-like at all; it was in fact quite spacious, except there is no space for anything else except yourself. I think in part it is because of the lack of a door - I think if you could close your capsule you'd die of claustrophobia before suffocating.

Who needs floors or bedside tables?

It was lucky that we had the traditional baths in the ryokan already, because if not I wouldn't have any idea what to do at the capsule hotel. I didn't get into the heated bath though, because most of the patrons were old or middle-aged businessmen, and I didn't enjoy the idea of sharing bathwater with someone old enough to be my grandfather.

After the bath I sat outside on the balcony in the freezing night, enjoying the frigid breeze and the beautiful view across the river. XM came to have a talk, and soon we were expounding on a variety of subjects. Bryan joined us soon enough, and I learnt a lot about his personality and outlook on life.

*All photos in this post are courtesy of Bryan.

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