Monday, October 01, 2007

My trip to Tokyo

Last week I went up to Tokyo for an interview with the Peace Boat.

The Peace Boat is a Japanese NGO that organizes trips around the world stopping at various ports to study peace education. They also take volunteer English teachers on these 3 month trips.

Despite being volunteer, competition for these volunteer English teaching positions are pretty steep. Long time readers of this blog will remember that I applied for this once before, and last time I got rejected before making it to the interview stage. At that time I considered it was a done deal, but now that I've found myself back in Japan I thought I had nothing to lose by giving it another shot. And this time I got invited to Tokyo for an interview.

For obvious reasons I don't want to comment publically on an application process that is still ongoing. So I'll just say I gave it my best shot at the interview, and I am now waiting to hear the results.

In the meantime, there was sightseeing to be done in Tokyo.

Appallingly enough, after close to 6 years in Japan I've never done Tokyo as a tourist before. I was in Tokyo for a 3 day orientation meeting when I first got here as a JET. While all my colleagues were ditching the meetings to go out sightseeing and staying out late in seedy Tokyo bars, I was diligently attending all the meetings and going to bed early so as to be well rested for the next day's meeting.

(I know, I'm such a geek. In my defense though, I was jet-lagged, and I figured I would have plenty of nights ahead of me in Japan. At that time I didn't fully realize the differences between Tokyo and the rural areas in Kyushu I was headed out to).

Three years ago I was back in Tokyo (or more accurately Yokohama) for the 3rd year JET conference. And once again, I geekishly attended all the meetings at the conference, and even went to bed at a decent hour, although I did have some adventures trying to find a hotel, and there was the infamous $250 bowl of Ramen incident.

But this time around I was determined to make the most of my trip up to Tokyo and take in all the sites.

I arranged to stay with Dylan and Katherine, a couple of friends from Nakatsu who had recently transferred up to Tokyo during all the shuffling around we had this spring. So I was able to combine an interview, sightseeing, and catching up with friends. A very productive few days.

And so, without further ado, here is:

Joel's Guide To Tokyo

Well, to begin with Tokyo is a lot different than Kyushu.

*In Kyushu it is very rare to see other foreigners walking around, and if you do chances are its someone you know. In Tokyo, as a friend of mine once estimated, it seems like every 10th person is foreign.

*In Tokyo it seemed like every restaurant, even the mom and pop places, had an English menu they would pull out when they saw foreigners walk in.

* In Kyushu, I never see any Japanese men with long hair. In Tokyo I saw lots of pony tailed Japanese men.

*In the Kyushu countryside, the population is mostly old people. In Tokyo, there were so many young people every where you look. And the all the girls....I can't help but wonder how different my life would have been if I had been living in Tokyo the past few years instead of Kyushu. (Although I can't really complain. I've done alright for myself).

I could probably go on and on ennumerating differences between Kyushu and Tokyo, but the biggest thing that strikes any visitor is the crowds. And the over-crowded trains.

I mentioned this a few years ago during my post on Yokohama, but it bears repeating because the trains in Tokyo are unbelievably crowded. Imagine you're standing on a platform waiting for the train. The train comes, the doors open, and it's already packed wall to wall with people. You think there's no way you can fit onto it, and you're tempted to wait for the next train, but you know the next train will be just as crowded and if you don't make an effort to force yourself on you'll never get home. So, you push yourself onto the train and somehow you find room for yourself. And then the 20 people behind you also push themselves onto the train. Somehow the space gets found. The soft mass of people just gets squished tighter and tighter together. The train door closes, and inevitably it always closes the first time on someone's arm or belt buckle that is sticking out a bit, but the guards help to push everyone onto the train and then you're off to the next stop, where a few people will get off and many more will try to get on.

Now, imagine trying to navigate that with your luggage. And that's the nightmare that is trying to navigate Tokyo's trains coming straight from the airport.

Somehow I made it to Shibuya, where I was supposed to meet up with Dylan and Katherine. I had some time to kill before they showed up, but I didn't want to sight see while lugging all my luggage with me. So I tried to find a coin locker. Plenty of coin lockers around, but all of them full. That failing, I thought I just get a cup of coffee, sit with my luggage, and wait for them. I crossed the street (which in itself was quite an experience. People were coming at me from all directions) and went into the Starbucks across from the station. They served me a coffee, but I couldn't find an open seat. Several people were drinking their coffee just standing around leaning against walls, so I joined their ranks. Welcome to Tokyo.

Although to be fair, it turns out I had ended up at the busiest intersection in all of Tokyo, (and by Dylan's estimation, the busiest intersection in the world) the famous Shibuya intersection. (And for what it's worth, wikipedia backs up Dylan's claim). If you're watching a movie about Japan, like "Lost in Translation" or "Tokyo Drift", this is the intersection they show you during those cuts of the big city crowds.

Here is a video collage I took of this intersection (taking a few liberties with chronology because it combines footage over a couple days), showing first a couple views of the intersection, then a walking shot of me crossing the intersection, then the view from the neighboring starbucks (Dylan and I got a seat a couple days later).

I had hoped to capture the feeling of having people come at all angles towards you when crossing the intersection, but it turned out that once I took out the video camera and started filming people did a good job of staying out of my way. So it's not completely representative, but hopefully it captures some of the chaos.

In addition to Shibuya, over the next few days Dylan and I hit up Harajuku, Akihabara, Shinjuku, Asakusa Shrine, and Roppongi. These names may or may not mean anything to you, but they're famous throughout Japan. Just as every American knows the burroughs of New York whether they've actually been to New York or not, and every Brit knows the districts in London, every Japanese person knows all about Harajuku, Akihabara, and Roppongi. After hearing about these places for so long, it was neat to finally get a chance to go and see them.

First stop:

Harajuku is famous for its alternative youth culture and outlandish fashion. (I think there was even a "No Doubt" song at one point about Harajuku girls.) I was really looking forward to seeing some bizarre fashion, but the area was surprisingly empty when we got off the train.

"The problem is that it's 9 o'clock on a Thursday morning," Dylan told me. "It's not the best time to catch youth culture. They're not up that early."

"Not even for the tourists?" I asked.

"Sorry," Dylan said. "The best time is to check back here on a Sunday afternoon." Alas, since I was returning from Tokyo on Saturday, I never did check out the true Harajuku scene, but here's a video of where they would have been hanging out. (Compare, for example, this picture on Wikipedia)

However right next to the station was the "Meiji Shrine". I had never heard of this place before, but a lot of tourists seemed to be taking pictures so I went in and had a look. I have seen more than enough temples during my time in Japan, so I didn't stay long. I took a few pictures, and then left.

Next stop:

Akihabara is famous for its Otaku culture. (Japanese for geeks). It is filled with electronic stores, anime shops, and comic books. And of course nerdy guys in thick glasses and mis-matching clothes. Naturally I felt right at home.

Oddly enough, the Otaku culture in Akihabara has become a sort of tourist attraction in Tokyo. Because of the Otaku phenomonon in Japan, and the realization that globally Japan is more and more being noticed for its anime, the otaku is becoming more and more an object of fascination inside Japan. Perhaps just like Haight-Ashbury at the height of its fame had more people coming in to watch the hippies than actually hippies, Akihabara now attracts just as many people interested in seeing otakus as the otakus themselves. My Japanese students and Shoko all told me that if I was going to Tokyo I had to stop in Akihabara and see the Otaku.

Akihabara is also famous for its "Maid Coffee Shops". Building off some sort of fetish of the Otaku, it has Japanese girls dressed up in elaborate 19th century French Maid costumes who serve you coffee. I'm not sure what the big deal is exactly, but this is apparently part of the Akihabara experience (something again that Shoko and my students recommended I do) so Dylan and I went into one.

I was half expecting something a bit seedy, but aside from the French maid costumes it was a perfectly normal coffee shop. (Although we were given the option of paying extra for a foot massage, which we passed on). Dylan claims to have been to maid coffee shops before where the maids address the customers as "master" and occassionally play video games against them, but our waitress acted perfectly normal. In fact even the French maid costume really didn't seem like that big of a deal, given how many people are in retro style uniforms in Japan every day. (Go into any hospital, and the nurses are still wearing 1950s style uniforms, in school the students are still wearing the old style sailor jumpers, and in the shopping centers the help desk woman are wearing hats, dresses, and little gloves all straight from the 1940s).

At 500 yen ($5, roughly) Dylan thought the coffee was a bit overpriced, although I thought it was very normal for Japan. However when we tried to take a picture, the hidden charges came in. Keenly aware that they have become part of Akihabara's main tourist attraction, the shop wanted about $10 per person in the photograph. Which is why there's no visual for this part. But you can just imagine. Or reference the many pictures on the internet to get the idea.

Before leaving, we shot a little video of Akihabara here.

Next stop:
Asakusa Shrine

To be honest, neither Dylan nor I were sure why this place was famous, but it was something all my students recommended me to see. Apparently the most famous shrine in Tokyo.

I took some video of the temple with Dylan's commentary, and then later realized I had forgotten to press record and got nothing. (What can I say? Happens to the best of us at one point or another). But I do have some video of us wandering around the shopping district outside of the temple.

Next stop:

Roppongi is famous for its shopping, and its wild night life seen. (It tends to also be a place that attracts foreigners to its night clubs). I never did see Roppongi at night, but Dylan and I wandered around a little in the late afternoon just so I could say I had been there.

Because I had to get up early on Friday for the interview, we called it an early night.
The next day I spent all morning at the interview, but still had the evening open for sight seeing.
The only place left on my list to see was ...

...which I wasn't sure why I wanted to go there, but it was one of the famous names from Tokyo that I kept hearing about. Dylan explained to me that it was famous for its business districts in the afternoon, and its night life in the evening.

On the way back, we stopped in Harajuku again, the theory being that on a Friday night it might be a little more happening. And indeed it was. We didn't see a lot of the famous Harajuku fashion per se, but a huge crowd of people were all swarming down the street. Not knowing what was going, Dylan and I simply followed the crowd to see what was going on. We waited in a long line to get into the outside grounds of some sort of amphitheater, only to discover that we were in line to see a Japanese boy band. (It was at this point that we noticed everyone else in the crowd were Japanese girls, except for a few other foriegners who had simply been following the crowd like us). I took out the video camera, but once again must have forgotten to push the record button.

By Friday night, I was exhausted, and so I never did see some of Tokyo's wild night life. (Let's be honest, it wouldn't have been my scene anyway). Dylan and Katherine took me to a quiet restaurant they knew, and then to a local bar, and we called it a night.

Thus ends my Tokyo journey

Link of the Day
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inertbat said...

Cool! I've yet to explore Tokyo so thoroughly. I wonder if I'll ever get around to it! I hope you get the job on the peaceboat. Should be a great experience. So I guess you're getting ready to leave your current place?

ジョエル said...

actually I'm pretty happy where I am right now, but if I could get accepted by Peace Boat it would be too good to give up