This time last year my friend Sophie and I were gifted with the fantastic opportunity of spending 48 hours free in Tokyo in exchange for our in-person and social media presence at a new musical and arts festival called Go TMO. Since the anniversary of this amazing trip has just passed I thought I’d give you weebs (wannabe Japanese for my aunty readers) a glimpse into just how good a weekend in Japan’s capital city can be.
A long journey culminating in a train ride: this was our arrival in Tokyo. The light was crisp and clear in a way it was not back home and the train was close to silent. Though it was mid-morning our journey had begun over 12 hours previously, fleeing like a couple of Naamahs from a flood of biblical proportions. Through the Guangdong countryside and across the border into Hong Kong for a red eye flight that left mere hours before the touchdown of tropical cyclone Ewiniar, we made it to blue skies and Japanese sunshine relatively unscathed.
Our trip was centered around Shibuya, (“the center of young Japanese life!” “the most energetic district in Tokyo!”) and so we first emerged into the city at the famous crossing. The seven way hustle of thousands of pedestrians, cars, and bicycles surrounded by stories high billboards advertising skin creams and bitcoin was a fair introduction to the constant pulse of life that Tokyo claims better than any other city, save New York. Tourists stopped for pictures (we did partake), harried business men walked nose to phone, trendy young people carried shopping bags, it was what it had been promised to be. We soon met a friend (old for Sophie, new for me) who had been living in the city for some months. Since we carried with us only small bags, which is of course the only way to travel freely, we immediately set off in search of Sushi. Down a narrow, busy alley passed the famous Tower Records we hit our mark with a location of Genki Sushi, one of the cities famed, and truly must-experience, conveyor belt sushi bars.
Our first taste of the futuristic technological integration that life in Tokyo is known for, each dish is ordered by individual tablet and is subsequently whisked out from the kitchen at top speeds before stopping directly in front of the person who ordered it. After a quick lesson in proper green tea etiquette and sushi eating (one must accept and hold the tea in two hands: awkward! Wasabi is mixed into a dish of soy sauce and never placed on the roll: life-changing! Ginger is eaten following each roll as a palate cleanser: effective!) we got to ordering and did not stop until plates were stacked high in front of us.
Bellies full, we made our way to Don Quijote which in Tokyo terms has nothing to do with Spanish romantic epics and everything to do with bargain barrel shopping baby! This multi-floored extravaganza has everything, nearly literally, though we spent a good majority of our afternoon split between the Japanese snack (rum raisin and wasabi flavored kit-kats?) and sex toy floors. All three of us had a lovely middle school regression and tried on a baseball cap with giant boobs resting on the bill. What more could you ask of an afternoon?
With dusk fast approaching we made our way to Roppongi to start our nightlife experience among our own kind. We treated ourselves to an expensive shi-shi cocktail because of the view it came with (Roppongi hills sky bar) but were soon ready to slink back to Shibuya in search of cheaper pre’s before the main event of our night, the opening party of Go TMO, began.
Though we were gifted the trip we were not bound to give any review of the experience, much less one that leans one way or another, so I can confidently say this with a pure heart: what a joy Go TMO 2018 was. That first night we danced and listened to several fantastic dj sets and drank alcohol from plastic cups and beer cans. It brought me roaring back to an undergrad frame of mind in a most welcome way, and we were all smiles and dance circles until we stumbled from the club well after two to sink gratefully into our plush beds at The Millennials pod hotel. I was expecting the kind of capsule you send through the pneumatic tube at the bank but was greeted by a large bed with lights, air, door and music controlled by an iPod. Again Tokyo delivered on its futurism and convenience.
Not that we remembered much of that night, we collapsed into beds half-clothed and pleasantly spent to awake some seven hours later with hangovers and a considerably reduced desire to make the most of our short time in the city. I forgot to mention that we ended our night at our first Izakaya of the weekend, pushing our bedtime well past three in the morning and several beers and plates of salted cabbage deeper into the debauched pit. At some point amidst the frosty pint glasses and sharing dishes we heard of Anthony Bourdain’s death, miles away in France.
Like nearly all young travelers, writers, and amorous eaters of our generation we met this news in grief and abject inspiration. His death was such a profound loss. In the communities I move within Bourdain is often revered as near god-like, fearless in his pursuit of cultural sharing, of border-crossing compassion, of truth. His voice gave me, and many I walk in step with, an enormous and invaluable gift: the idea that there are still stories left to tell about the world, good stories, illuminating and tender, stories that have nothing to do with conquering or discovery, stories that should be told.
Sometime before midday we wrenched our heads from our pillows and out of the fog. We ate some Mexican food (don’t ask me to explain the whims of an American expat in Asia, despite the absolute culinary extravaganza outside our door, the hangover wants what the hangover wants) and began a long walk. We walked through Shibuya, still as bursting with commercialism as the previous day yet somehow more glaring in all too sharp post drinking clarity. The flowerbeds lining the streets were capitalisms small redemption. We walked through Yoyogi park, amazed at the peace found steps from the busiest districts in Tokyo on a perfect summer Saturday.
We walked until we reached Harajuku and here we found yet another weeb fever dream come to life. In direct contrast with the cool modernism and stylish efficiency embodied in Shibuya and Roppongi, Harajuku is taken straight from the multi-colored gel pen doodles of a 12-year-old girl. Giant stuffed animals, people in full costume carrying two-foot globes of rainbow cotton candy, photo booth after crepe stand after toy shop of child-like delights. It was like visiting a state fair for the first time, eyelids held open by the sheer force of wonderment, senses overwhelmed by colors and possibilities.
We chose to spend our time here people watching (obviously), taking lots of photos, eating crepes, and feeding some yen into one of the truly frightening built-in filter photo booths that gave us gigantic round eyes and grotesquely exaggerated heart-shaped faces. If you have ever pondered what your alien doppelgänger would look like, wonder no longer.
At some point we ate a gigantic and truly fantastic bowl of ramen in a small family owned shop off the main high streets. The interior was small and made floor to ceiling of warm wood, exuding the impression of being in a sauna which was added to by its packed, locals only crowd. You always know you’ve chosen a good location for a popular local dish when you find yourself surrounded by the people who have been eating it since long before the tourists.
Despite this oddly timed meal we headed back to the bowels of Shibuya as night and neon claimed Tokyo once again, to meet some former students, current dear friends. We were under the impression our main goal was to drink but as we were lead through warehouses to a secret restaurant unrecognizable from outside (no windows) we realized a more all-encompassing culinary experience awaited us.
This is the ultimate advantage of local friends of course: the hidden, “authentic” experience that awaits young foreigners at the end of a long climb up a fire escape and through the three-foot entrance of a hidden restaurant’s secret doorway. We had a room to ourselves and more Japanese friends we had not seen in years steadily trickled in, the occasion was truly joyous. Despite still full bellies we drank beer and whisky, sampled egg and noodle and flame-broiled fish. At some point a hentai comic arrived at our table and we sat around laughing and drinking and appreciating the quintessential Japanese-ness of at all while feeling as if we could be in Wisconsin where we all met, drinking beer in the local pub.
This was a night that stretched on and on in the best possible way, from restaurant to darts bar to izakaya to club. At some time in the early morning hours we were called by our hosts to attend the final art installation/ music set/ party of the weekend. We were whisked down, down into some Shibuya basement in time to bop along with the rest of the groovy Tokyo youth and gave an interview at 4 in the morning on an otherwise darkened street corner. I cannot remember now what we said but it can not have done the kindness they did us justice, it was no doubt a bland albeit positive appraisal of a weekend of music shows. We said thank you. What we should have said was thank you for giving us the excuse to come here and see these old friends we’d missed, thank you for hosting us in the center of happening Tokyo, the only place one could stay for 48 hours and feel they had truly experienced the metropolis for what it can be, thank you for inviting us to these shows that let us rub elbows and cut rugs with some of the most vibrant people Japan has to offer. But it was 4 am and alcohol was thickening our blood and weighing on our eyelids. At least we said thank you, I couldn’t have forgiven myself otherwise.
We awoke far too early, checked out and drifted through Shibuya in an entirely dream-like state. Already the otherness of Japan had faded, the style and architecture that gave shape to it becoming familiar. We barely turned our heads at the adults cosplaying mario kart at the crossing, didn’t stop to photograph the tropical flowers or two-story hedge archways that had entranced us on our way in. Before we knew it we were there in the train station, back where we’d begun the weekend, heading home.
There is one final thing I remember though, one last image that struck me just minutes before our train pulled in and whisked us away to airports and train stations and on and on and on. The guards of the Japanese subways system, their uniforms neatly pressed and in soothing palettes of mint and sea foam green, white gloves pulled tight over dexterous hands. I read somewhere once that on days when the subway is full the guards use these white gloved hands to gently push passengers into the packed cars. It wasn’t necessary this Sunday morning, though the trains were busy there was space enough to breath, to step, to shift ones weight. The guard stood, hands grasped firmly behind his back, greeting each coming and going of a train with a small nod to the passengers as if to say, “they come, they go, Tokyo remains by constantly moving.”
Until next time, Tokyo.