Friday, March 28, 2008

Asia Journal, Part 5

DAY 7 – Wednesday – Tokyo: Daiba

Theme Song – “Impossible Germany” – Wilco
“Impossible Germany, unlikely Japan”

We get up early to go to the airport to fly to Tokyo. Slipping through the darkness in early-morning Hong Kong, crossing the bridges to get to Lantau Island, I’m sorry to go but glad to move on to the next phase of the trip. Tokyo is always incredible. We shuttle through customs, baggage screening and airport lounge, then take a relatively short flight (four hours or so) to Narita. We meet Jun, our host, at Narita, and get on a bus to Central Tokyo, which is still a long way off: by the time we fly, bus and taxi to the hotel it is late afternoon. This does not mean that a day in Tokyo will go to waste. Everybody goes to their rooms, drops their stuff, and returns to the lobby, ready to do some shopping. We start by buying our train tickets, which is the best way to get around: cabs are expensive, and cars pointless because of the cost of parking. The train is incredibly efficient: two minutes off schedule is considered officially ‘delayed’. We go to the Venus Port mall, which is Italianate and very plush, stocked with insanely cute shoes in very small sizes. This is my only frustration with Japan, besides language barrier: gaijin like me don’t fit the shoes.

Jun is just about the coolest guy around. He’s pushing 60, but is slim and hep-looking, and is immensely articulate in both English and Japanese about a huge variety of subjects. He is well versed in both US and Japanese culture, having lived in St. Louis and Chicago for many years. He is a fabulous guide with the patience of a saint. He also is a bit of a smartass and a prankster, so he fits right in with our group.

DAY 8 – Thursday – Tokyo

Daiba, Toyosu, Ginza, Roppongi.

Theme Song – “Are You Electric?” Kelley Stoltz

We start our day with a caffeine imperative from our buyers. I’m disappointed to say I’ve been to Starbucks on every continent I’ve visited, not necessarily by choice – I don’t drink much coffee, and would much rather go anywhere else, especially if there are more interesting options. We get on the train and go to Daiba to a gigantic mall, then to Toyosu to another gigantic mall. The gigantic mall in Toyosu is especially weird, because it contains a giant pipe organ. The organist is playing ominous classical selections like Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue.” It echoes hauntingly through the building. It's a weird background for shopping, but it doesn’t seem to phase the local shoppers, even the little kids in line for some sort of Chucky Cheese-esque attraction.

From Toyosu, we train it to Ginza. Ginza includes some of the most expensive real estate in the world. Jun notes the approximately value of a square foot of Ginza property and it’s more than any of us make in a year. Judging by all the Louis Vuitton walking around here (and it’s not Hong Kong fake stuff, either), the retailers of Ginza can cover it. Along with the trophy wives and Western tourists, elegant elderly ladies walk in muted kimono doing their shopping. Kimono seem to be increasingly popular with young people: I saw more young women in traditional clothing on this trip than last time. Of course, they look striking and timeless, and it is a beautiful way to forgo the whims of Western fashion.

From Ginza, we head to Roppongi for more shopping and dinner. We are getting pretty tired, but press on. After finishing our last shopping stop, we go to a restaurant in Roppongi recommended to us by some vendors: Inakaya Robata-Yaki, which is styled on a country pub. It’s a tiny place that seats maybe 18 people, and all the cooking is done on the spot on large charcoal braziers with fresh food. Staffed by a bunch of young guys, it's loud and boisterous. After cooking a course of the meal on the brazier, the chef places the dish on a long paddle and passes it to the diner, yelling something Jun translates as “Thank you for waiting, here is your (insert name of dish here)! Hai!” All the restaurant staff join in on the “Hai!” part, so pretty soon we’re all yelling “Hai”, too. It’s a great time, but we’re getting pretty loud, and I think we scare the next group coming in for a meal. Jun’s getting used to wrangling a bunch of loud Westerners, and to some extent he encourages it. Might as well perpetuate the gaijin stereotype.

One of the restaurant staff looks like Curly from the Three Stooges, with a goofy manner to match. Another qualifies as a Moe. The third guy, our chef, looks like an Asian pop star and while he’s scoring shiitake mushrooms, Chris confides she thinks he’s hot. Curly sets out box-shaped wooden sake cups, Moe pours, Hottie continues to cook. Jun convinces Kay to try a traditional way of drinking sake: with salt on the corner of the cup. Kay usually drinks chardonnay, so even the sake is a bit of a stretch. She tastes it, and makes a priceless sour face. I managed to get a picture. Jun 1, Yanks 0.

DAY 9 – Friday – Tokyo
Komozawa, Harajuku, Shibuya.

Theme Song – “A Minha Menina” – Os Mutantes
It’s a song in Portuguese by a Brazilian band. But it’s got the kind of ridiculously fun, fuzzy, percolating quality that Tokyo brings to mind. Walking to Komozawa, a vintage Subaru 360 passes by. The 360 is the prototypical Japanese subcompact car of the late 50’s, and something you would never see in the States. I gawk and grab for my camera. The guys in the car see me taking a picture and smile and offer the classic Japanese photo-op gesture: a peace sign. The rest of the trip, we are flashing peace signs in every photo.

Further on down the street in Komozawa, we spot a pet food store called “The 100 Club.” One can only assume the name is inspired by the venerable London club, but what does that have to do with dog food? Does it matter? Tokyo loves its English brand names, but whether the English makes sense is immaterial. The website barely scrapes the surface. Some of our favorites: a Harajuku clothing store called Wafflish Waffle, a nightclub in Daiba called Tokyo Culture Culture by Nifty, a bookstore called “Book Off”, and an alarming bathroom baby-changing station information graphic that reminds the user “Do not Drop! Do not Leave!”

We walk the highest-volume pedestrian crossing in the world in Shibuya. It’s more or less a free-for-all for thousands when the light changes. A sentaa – a variety of bleached-blond, tanned youthcult kid that inhabits Shibuya – walks by. He’s wearing insanely skinny jeans and boots with pointy, upturned toes - both hugely popular with hep guys in Japan now. He has an intensely layered shag haircut that makes him look like an J-rock Rod Stewart. Chris exclaims: ‘WHAT is THAT?” I try to explain, but it’s hard to get across the nuances of Japanese youth culture in few words, so saying he's trendy kid and is utterly Shibuya will have to do.

Minutes later, on a corner in Shibuya, I spot something familiar but surprising: a Tower Records… an EIGHT STOREY TOWER RECORDS! Tower is long gone in the US, so I can't pass it up. Everybody else is tired and wants to rest, so I beg Jun for 20 minutes of leave to shop. It’s kinda like Rasputin Records in San Francisco – everything is parted out by genre on different floors. I go check out the J-rock floor, hoping to find something unique, and am greeted by a large display featuring Bump of Chicken. Bump of Chicken is a hugely popular Japanese rock band with an obviously limited grasp of English. I snicker as I walk by, probably pissing off some Japanese fan.

There is a CD sampling station loaded with current Japanese indie releases. I scan a few and find a few winners: the Milkees, a indie-punk girl group so cute they make Shonen Knife look like L7, and the Neatbeats, a guitar band in the vein of the Shadows. I trot to another floor and pick up more good stuff, including a Birds (not Byrds) anthology I meant to buy years ago in Detroit, but was cash-poor and had to make a choice between the just-released Lilys “Three Way” and Ronnie Wood’s raveups. Lilys’ Kurt Heasley won that round. Ronnie wins this one.

Day 10 - Back on the plane, back across the Date Line.

Theme Song – “Returns Every Morning” – Lilys
“Plane in the morning, as you may need a reminder where I am…”

This is my perpetual plane song; it is always on my iPod. Seems like good mojo for travel, because it’s about an auspicious flight. I’m actually tired enough where I sleep a bit on the plane, probably 4 hours. Eric is waiting at the airport, a sight for sore eyes.

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