Thursday, August 5, 2010

東京 Day 1, Mostly Traveling: 18キップ、電車中、六本木なんて。。。

As I sit here at Kappazushi, enjoying plate after plate of 100 yen sushi and reflecting on my Tokyo adventures last week, it's clear that one entry is not going to to do the trick in regards to capturing the experience. Hence this breakup by day. Besides, dividing the entries adds nice “chapter marks” which I hope will add to the ease of reading. Or at least the ease of writing for me. Who knows?

(total aside: how come some Negitoro ねぎとろ sushi is more negi than others? Note: negi = scallions or onions)

So the first stage of my Tokyo adventure can be roughly described as “getting there with a taste of Roppongi”. Andrea and I (being broke) opted for the 18Kippu (pronounced: Juuhachikippu), which gives you five days (nonconsecutive) in which you can ride any of the non-express trains. This means 急行 and 普通 only, nothing that says super rapid, super rapid limited, or shinkansen. As a result, we basically spent most of Tuesday in transit. Andrea and I met up in Nagoya at the Kanayama station, where we promptly decided to get food and shop. That's where I bought the fabulous black hat with the flower that I'm wearing in most of my pictures. I got it on Andrea's recommendation; Andrea has fabulous fashion sense, unlike me.

We did this languishing in the misconception that my directions for train times and pickups were useful for our 18Kippu. I had been under the impression that as long as you weren't on a Shinkansen, any train was fine. We learned the hard way, through an 45 minute diversion to a train we couldn't ride, that this was not the case. Luckily the man behind the ticket counter was super kind and not only told us that we couldn't use the 18Kippu for the trains that we were trying to catch, but further went above and beyond by looking through his giant book of train information and writing out our entire route, with what stops to go to, how long each train would take, and when they arrived and departed.

Armed with this information and a tiny bit of backtracking, we were off and riding again!

A quick aside about the 18Kippu: traveling with it takes more time, but it is also one of the cheapest ways to see Japan by rail. For 11,500 yen (that's about $115), you get to travel on all local JR line trains (as we said, Futsuu and Kyuukou) for five days, each day equaling one stamp. My 18Kippu paid for itself and then some just for my Tokyo trip, and I still have three more days (good until August 31st) that I can use it. Hence I will be using it to go to Osaka and Mie-ken to visit my friend Susannah who just moved here. The 18Kippu is an EXCELLENT deal. You can buy one at any JR station. Also, if you don't use all of your days, you can sell the remainder at ticket resale stores, where you can also buy partially used 18Kippu for cheap. At least that's what people have told me. I haven't tried it yet, and probably I'm going to use my whole 18Kippu this summer anyway. Anyone can buy a 18Kippu; you don't have to be a student or a foreigner buying it overseas (though there's a great tourist JR railpass too that can only be purchased overseas. I don't know much about it though, because I didn't do this).

The other nice thing about the 18Kippu is that you can get off of the train, wander around and get back on the train without spending more money. So even though you may spend extra hours in transit, this is less onerous than it seems because it also affords you the opportunity to see other interesting places in Japan you may not have explored otherwise. (food is a great motivator, as is the need to stretch one's legs or sit down, depending on how crowded or not the train is or is not.) In short, the 18Kippu gets the Vash seal of approval, which worth about as much as the paper it's printed on, but there goes.

The 18Kippu allowed us many great stops, including in 熱海 (Atami) which is a lovely (probable beach town, considering the last kanji) town with delicious food and lots of cool shops. Though this takes these entries out of order, on our way back, we stopped at a Ramen shop that had some of the best Ramen I've had here in Japan. (and that's saying something because Ramen here is awesome) Though it's a pretty far hike from Toyota, the next time I'm going that way, I fully intend to stop in 熱海 (Atami) for the food if nothing else. 豊橋 (Toyohashi) is also an interesting station, and though we didn't really see the city, it seemed like a bustling place from the activity of the train station.

We arrived in Tokyo at around 8pm. (which meant about 10 hours of travel for me coming from Toyota) I'd been attempting to meet up with two different people in Tokyo, but neither panned out, so instead we figured why not hit Roppongi, which according to the internet would be a useful place to go to find a Manga-Kisaten and other all night clubs and establishments. It's also the foreign district, which seemed like a reasonable place to go for us who were foreigners. Also, it has super easy Kanji: 六本木 (six, book/source, tree).

So in my mode of super cheapness, I decided it would be a good idea to see if it was possible to save the 160 yen for the subway and find out if there was a JR station that could take us to Roppongi so we could use our 18Kippu). As Andrea and I approached the ticket counter, an older gentleman intercepted us and asked us in English where we were going. I told him we were heading for Roppongi, and he told us to take the subway. At that point, I drifted into Japanese to try and explain that I was looking to see if the JR line could take us to Roppongi, in large part because most of the time, even when someone starts a conversation with me in English here, usually if we move into more complicated topics, things get too confusing and it's easier for all concerned to struggle through with my rather awful Japanese (or most common, a mix of the two languages...communication, ya know). This has become automatic for me, so it was hugely surprising when the man, with an expression similar to one he'd wear if I'd shot his dog and was currently wearing the pooch's intestines as a necklace, asked me “WHY are you speaking in Japanese?” (I'm emphasizing the “why” here because that's what he did)

I was really confused and somewhat annoyed. I have wholly appreciated how wonderfully helpful Japanese people are especially when they see a lost foreigner like myself, and I have made great friends from this beautiful, generous tendency of the people around me here (much love, Mie-chan et. al) but I must admit, I really had no idea what to do with that question. In retrospect, I wonder if I offended the guy by implying that his English wasn't good enough. That wasn't at all what I was trying to do. At the time though, I was just ticked off and hiding it (probably poorly, as I'm not good at that sort of thing) and so I responded, in English, “because I learned it?” which was better than my internal monologue which went along the lines of “because I'm living in this country so why wouldn't I make even a base attempt to try to speak the language here and besides who the fuck are you anyway?”

He looked a bit offended and I tried to soften the approach by asking him another question in English, but luckily at that point we were intercepted by a really hot Japanese businessman who also spoke English and was a lot more helpful. (he didn't care what language we spoke and was way cool, hotness aside) Truthfully, I could have scrapped the Roppongi plan and seen if we could all get a drink together but he was clearly in a hurry. Alas.

And the answer to our question was NO.

So we paid the 160 yen for the subway and headed for Roppongi.

Roppongi is a dive.

Okay, it doesn't totally suck. And in keeping with what will probably be a repeating theme in later entries, it does have that wonderfully sleazy feel of a Cyberpunk style place where illicit meetings for-hire Edgerunner teams and illicit corporate representatives meet to discuss business. In fact, Tokyo, namely Shibuya, Akihabara and Roppongi (to an extent) are the only places in Japan (with the exception of Sakae in Nagoya a tiny bit, especially the underground mall and the giant ferris wheel) that make me think of Cyberpunk.

But places like Roppongi are where you get that Bladerunner opening, not the pan-over, which is more Shibuya if Shibuya was encased in a cloud of coal dust, but the part where Harrison Ford is eating noodles in the perpetual drizzle. “They say you Blade Runner...” Now add a bunch of drunk-ass people, women dressed in too-high heels and too-short skirts with the matching toe and fingernail designs, men with one shirt button open, cowboy belts, dress shoes that come to almost points, they travel sometimes in packs and sometimes alone, scanning the merchandise as the working dudes with their shiny heads weild pamphlets trying to sweet-talk this and that person into their club or get the idea. It's bright with blinking signs and neon. It's doors to club that look like the doors to apartments on Chestnut street in Philly, the apartments that live above stores like Easy Pickins (which no longer exists) and Karaoke places that have that veneer of high class that's like stick-on plastic tile in the swirls of marble. And disco lights.

So yeah.

Most people told me again and again that living in Japan would be like living in the future, but for me living in Japan has been like living in a weird amalgam of the 1950's and 1990's with interesting fashion input from the 70's and 80's. There are also musical annotations from modern Hip Hop, including a solid infusion of music from the 'niggas, bitches and hos genre', which would be troubling if it wasn't put in juxtaposition with a clubbing atmosphere where absolutely nobody has even made an attempt to grab my ass or fondle me in any inappropriate way, something that is a never ending shock to me here. (and this seems to be more of a universal trend than that my USA sized ass is unattractive here) In fact the freshest anyone has gotten with me here was one guy who gave me a kiss on the cheek and offered to buy me a drink. (this was in Nagoya, and my ride was leaving or I would have taken him up on it)

But Tokyo has the future feel. And Roppongi brings the gritty. You know somewhere in one of those buildings, maybe on the upper floors, there's a certain potential for darkness, the screwdriver in the dark, the light scratch of meishi passed across a dark table, not sticky, even the sleeze in Japan does not touch the surface, and in these business cards the slightly raised surface of the plastic information strip, like the one that runs through a $20 bill so that the cashier can check if its real. For most of us the information superhighway is a series of tubes, but for some it's lightening. Someone takes a puff of a cigarette, and the girls and boys who are leaning into each other, bouncing to the music, tossing back 700 yen drinks barely strong enough to qualify, they have no idea. But they're needed. They're as vital to the system as the neon, needed for the yen they throw about to impress each other, needed for their desperation, for their manic desire, for sheer ambiance, and we were a part of it. Andrea and I. We skipped over the surface like rocks thrown over a shiny pool, and the taste of it clung to us as we careened into the opposite shore.

So yeah, it's cyberpunk of a sort. Except safer. Because for people like us, who aren't playing the game, Japan is the fifth safest place in the world.

Andrea and I found a great hamburger place in Roppongi. In keeping with my Tokyo experience, a burger, fries and a hot tea came up to about 1200 yen. Not terrible, but a bit steep. We avoided Gaspanic: the internet warned us that it was THE Gaijin Desperation Meat Market, and instead we ended up wandering around until we found a pub, and later a great Karaoke deal, only 2200 yen for all you could drink and sing until morning. Morning being 5am. Which because Japan is not on Daylight Savings means the sun is well up by that time.

We sang a lot and slept a little.

And so ended Day 1.