We didn’t have a lot planned to do in Tokyo other than the Culinary Backstreets food tour that was going to take most of Day 6, and now that we were in at noon, we had to think of things to do.
I really wanted to go to the Akihabara district, which is a neighbourhood where electronics are plentiful and cheap (relatively). It used to be world-famous as the leader of tech, as Japan was back in the day (think MiniDisc and BetaMax) but now is mostly for Manga, girls dressed as manga characters passing out flyers to go to manga-themed restaurants, manga bookstores and places to buy manga figurines. Its the distilled essence of every crazy stereotype you think of as Japanese. The bouillabaisse base of Japanese sub-culture soup. Did I mention the girls dressed up as characters? That’s really important becuase there are a lot of them. And that they are supposed to look evocative and aged 12 with tiny little skirts on? The simple act of walking down the street while not looking directly at the sidewalk or straight up at the sky makes you feel like a pedophile. Did I also mention it is INSANELY popular? There were thousands of people there with us at noon on a Friday.
After a quick lunch we wet into an all-hentai (comic book porn) bookstore which exists because…..Japan. It was not a small store and had rows upon rows of explicit comic book sex acts being done to comic book girls. One of the most popular books (based on the piles available for sale) appeared to be drawn pictures of young (like aged 8 – 10) girls in one piece bathing suits. It was disturbing and just…wrong….but….Japan. Even now, days later I can’t wash the gross off no matter how many times I shower. Not that the store was gross….it was very well kept, organized and clean. And the people shopping there didn’t seem to have an iota of the guilt you would think they should. So maybe I’m just prudish. Still…..as soon as I can find steel wool….
What I really wanted to see was the mecca of all things Japan: Mandarake. Mandarake is basically a concentrated fetish store for anything Japan-y, and its 7-floors of madness. How I ever got Holly in is anyone’s guess. I think she was likely whacked out on sake. HK note – I decided to use the Mandarake “experience” as a bargaining chip for future use.
Each floor is its own ecosystem of weird. Two entire floors of just little vinyl figurines, an entire floor of manga books, an entire floor of just hentai books (and full-sized body pillows with girls on them), one of creepy dead-eyed dolls, etc. All accessed by going outside and walking down a staircase. It was at once awesome and terrifying. There was also the highest concentration of other white folks of anywhere we’d been. Most of the store, actually, had fanboys/fangirls immersing themselves in this world. Which is some sort of irony…..the Japanese wanted to be so much to be like the west after WWII that the culture they ended up exporting is now highly in demand in the west.
Like almost every other popular place in Tokyo (or Osaka for that matter) the streets are VERY bright. All buildings are at least 5 storeys, with most being 7-10 and almost every one having artwork that covers 3-to-5 floors. There are massive (4 or 5 storeys) hi-def video screens playing, and every business no matter how small has a brightly lit LED sign out on the street. Its a cacophony for the eyes. That being said, Japan clearly has eradicated epilepsy becuase there is no way someone could live here and go outside.
We wandered around the area and hit a few more interesting shops (including a 7-storey store of just sex toys, which, again, featured male…um….”pleasure devices” that were marketed clearly by having pictures of drawn little girls on them). We went into what is essentially a London Drugs, a small market for electronic parts (think transistors and soldering) and computer places. We also went into the Sega arcade (yes, that Sega) which was 5-floors of people smoking and playing fighting games on arcade machines at full volume (again, how I got Holly in here is a miracle). The whole experience was amazing, fun and overwhelming. But it was time to go.
Back on the train we headed to Ginza, a very upscale high-end neighbourhood that could not be more the opposite of Akihabara. Ginza has streets also lined with lit up signs, but they say Louis Vuitton and Chanel instead of House Maid Cafe (which is again a distillation…..you go into this cafe and are served and doted on by young girls dressed as even younger girls dressed as maids. They giggle at your stupid jokes while you grin like an idiot. Or so I assume. Ahem.). Here ladies (note the tone change from girls) walked down the street with multiple bags from Ferragamo, and we sat in a Starbucks and watched the stores next door valet park a Mercedes SLK, a Bentley, a Cadillac SUV and a Porsche. It was just as popular with the polar opposite cross-section of people. In one night we got to see both sides of the same country.
Ginza was fine, but we prefer the less higher-end places, so we got back on the subway to go to Shibuya, which we read was the epicenter of youth culture in Tokyo.
Shibuya, not to sound like a broken record, was lit up, and just as popular as the other 2 places we had been. This was now a third cross-section of the population. The TV’s blaring had ads for products targeted at Japanese youth. The stores were “hipper” and there just seemed to be more teenagers and 20-somethings milling about.
The whole reason we came here was Google had recommemnded a small place “the locals enjoy” for some dinner, so we went to find it. It was a tiny little izakaya which is a small place with a couple private tables but is really one large public table shared with several parties. We sat down and ordered one of the few word we knew in Japanese: beeru. (Holly had said the Japanese will simply Japan-up English words by adding a vowel at the end. I didn’t really believe her until she asked a shopkeeper for “postcard”, got a blank stare, then asked for “postacardo” and was taken immediately to the postcard section. Also Kevin our Osaka food guide ordered Holly a “highbarru” or “highball” at the whisky bar. They can’t do L’s, which is hilarious becuase I now have an excuse to call her Horry).
We also had some other words like “saba” (mackerel) and “yakitori” (grilled food on a stick) so we ordered some of each of those. While we waited we noticed no one really cared we were there, again contrasting China where we would have been (and were) stared at relentlessly at non-tourist establishments. Once we got some food, Horry got a tap on the shoulder from the man beside her who was there with his wife. He showed her his cellphone screen which he had used translation software to ask what country we were from. Holly replied “Canada” and they nodded and bowed. And I got to use my joke that works in every country we have every been to 100% of the time: “And you?”. He looked and said “JAPAN!” and both he and his wife killed themselves laughing. Hello new friends 🙂
For the next few hours we used Google Translate to varying levels of success (or accuracy if you want) as we drank more beeru with that couple. The wife would ask us something in Japanese, her husband would remind her we don’t speak a word, then she would make him translate it on his phone. They bought us a round of beer, and we went through all the standard questions: Where have you been in Japan? Answer: Osaka and Hakone and Tokyo. Which place is best? Answer: (depending on which city you are in) this one! Where else will you go? Answer: Kobe and Kyoto.
Then the question of age comes up, as it does for whatever reason, and I got to use my second joke which also works 100% of the time with the ladies. He said he was 68 and before he could say his wife’s age, I found the number 31 in our phrase book and shouted that out. Riotous laughter from him, adoration from her. Smooth.
Back and forth we went and had a great time with them for several hours in the bar being (Holly says anyway) the loudest and most obnoxious in the place. But all fun things have to come to an end and after many goodbyes we took the train home. It’s these interactions that become the reason you travel. The time we spent with Fatima and Ibrahim in their house in a tiny village in Turkey is one of our most vivid memories from that trip, and this will be a great story as well and really cemented how much we are enjoying Japan, the country but especially the people.
After finally finding our way back to the apartment we wound down with a cup of disgusting sake from 7-11 and got ready for the food tour the next day.