Feature photo and photo above by Robin Esrock.
Picture me, sitting in a black leather chair with a fluffy bunny tail sewed onto the backrest.
A drop-dead gorgeous waitress is dressed like Alice in Wonderland, serving a group of girls with a stuffed teddy bear at the head of the table. The décor is purple velvet, with private mirrored booths cloaked behind thick curtains.
My pint glass is lit from above by a 10 foot desk lamp, and the girls are chattering away like grannies at a late-night dungeon tea party. It’s innocent and perverse and culturally extreme.
This is Tokyo through the looking glass.
It’s tough not to feel like someone has turned the cultural sweater inside out. The brands are all here– Prada, Gucci, KFC, McDonald’s– but they’re re-imagined, adapted for a country that is… different. Hence, shrimp burgers and sky rise Prada stores.
Bigger, brighter, bolder, in creative directions the west might not handle. Take the Elvises. Every Sunday for over a dozen years, these guys have dressed up in black leather, slicked back their hair, and danced to 50’s rock n’ roll. They do this in Yoyogi Park, publicly, and they bust their moves all day, rain or shine.
A few yards from them, another group has started, and this brewing park side rivalry has all the makings of a West Side Story. We call this theater, but in Tokyo, this is life.
Further along the path, young rock bands are performing for their enthusiastically supportive girlfriends. They are so close together that the music blends into one distorted punk-folk-Japanese-pop-metal-ballad. My stomach grumbles, so I pick up a chicken yakitori stick from a street vendor, which cost $5. Next time, I’ll let my stomach grumble, because street food anywhere shouldn’t cost $5.
The contradictions perfectly sum up modern Tokyo.
Here, there’s nothing you have to see, and subsequently nothing to get disappointed about when you see it. Of course, with a city that has double the population of Scandinavia, there’s no shortage of sights.
Like the deafening pachinko parlors, in which little metal balls are fed into digital machines as a form of approved gambling. Or the Ginzu district on the weekend, when the main thoroughfare is turned into a pedestrian mall, complete with garden furniture and with tarmac scrubbed so clean you can eat off it.
Shibuya has that famous intersection where thousands of people gather every few minutes to cross the road, rapidly dispersing when the traffic light changes. Most are carrying shopping bags from high-end western stores, although how they afford to buy this stuff is a mystery to me. Without a doubt, Tokyo is the most expensive city I’ve come across.
It makes London and New York prices seem positively reasonable: $6 just to get into a cab, $10 for a drink in a cheap bar, $120 for a haircut, $550 a month for parking. The price of small things, like batteries, or toothpaste, shocked me more than the $80 entrée restaurants or $400 t-shirts.
All of this, I have to confess, is fantastic. Although it represents the pinnacle of hyper-commercialism and brand consumerism, Tokyo is unique. I felt like a complete alien, which, honestly, can be one of the most rewarding joys of traveling. Without my generous hosts, friends working in Tokyo, I would be lost, broke, dazed and confused, sleeping in a capsule and foraging through yesterday’s budget bento boxes. The opportunity to see this whacked-out planet, on my budget, was music to my ears.
Fortunately, you don’t have to hear my music in your ears. No visit to Tokyo is complete without karaoke, which is taken more seriously than Canadians take ice hockey. Themed rooms are hired by the hour, costing anywhere between $40 and $5000, although I just made that last figure up. You can sing from jacuzzis, swimming pools, bedrooms, bars, coffins and bubbles.
If you can think of something bizarre, someone in Tokyo is doing it.
Tokyo also has historical contrasts, and this is where you see those quintessential Japanese photos of temples, shrines and little girls dressed in kimonos. To get to the Meiju Jinku Temple, you have to walk past the Harujuku Girls, through a beautiful forest, and into the wooden complex full of calligraphy, lanterns, gongs, and everything else Japan.
The attention to detail, the level of service and the pride of work here filters through all facets of society. At the bank, a representative ran from her desk to the counter to help me. Ran! Taxi drivers smile and nod and turn off the meter when they get lost. The efficiency is unnerving.
While they have taken so many parts of the west and are clearly fascinated with American culture in particular, the Japanese have added their quirks and customs to create this bizarre culture unlike any I’ve ever seen before. The balance of progress and tradition, politeness and hostility, and rules and deviance make Tokyo the most fascinating city on the planet.