When we finally came around we decided to make the short trek over to
Akihabara, Japan’s electronics mecca, choosing the as our first destination. Less of a museum than a showcase for what’s current, neither Jayna nor I were very familiar with any of the shows on display in the posters, merchandise, and videos plastering every surface of the surprisingly small commercial space. Notable was the promo loop for one series featuring hard-hitting babes that, by the look of it, should’ve been titled ‘Pantyshots! (and tennis)’. Nice to see the Japanese appreciating girl’s school sports, at least. Another was simply called ‘Buddha’, which appeared to dramatize the life and times of the religious figure by the same name. I thought about how funny it would be to see an analogue like ‘Christ’ back in the states. Then again, they probably have something just like that along the Bible belt already. Tokyo Anime Center
From there we wandered down Chūō-dōri (the main thoroughfare) and the crowded lanes of shops branching off from it, each of these specializing in items ranging from practical to puzzling. Cell phone and camera kiosks gave way to stalls selling only light fixtures or computer components, and soon enough there was nothing but J-Pop and anime boutiques for as far as the eye could see. We stop at some hole in the wall to purchase a takeaway container of takoyaki (octopus balls), hot and gooey and full of chewy tentacle bits, drizzled with savory sauces and topped off with a heap of fish flakes not unlike those commonly fed to other fish in aquariums around the world. Jayna does not share my enthusiasm for this wonderful new food, which I proceed to devour with great gusto. Instead she is content to make fun of the schoolboys daring each other to have their picture taken with a French maid shop crier nearby. Another girl in short skirt and stockings, this one decked out in a long blue wig and fox ears, shoves fliers into the hands of passerby while babbling something incompressible through her nose.
It all becomes a bit much after a while, but just when we think we can’t handle any more of the din and spectacle, we find ourselves inside a seven-level video arcade, each floor devoted to a different category of game. On the crane level I learn that the Japanese trawl for more than just stuffed animals in their change-wasting machines (you name it and there was a bin full), although I doubt that the claws designed to lift things out had substantially any better grip than those found back home. The level with all of the fighting games features about 30 different versions of Street Fighter (three times the number I’ve ever seen), plus other familiar titles dating back to the 80s and many more I never chanced to encounter in all my days of bumming around American arcades as a youth. From the racing floor to the shooting floor to the slots and bingo floor, it seemed after a while that the tower had no top, and this was only Sega! All up and down the street outside were buildings of similar size and stature, each one of them bearing title to other well-established names of the gaming industry (Konami, Taito, etc). There were other floors dedicated rhythm-based games and dungeon crawlers as well, but perhaps strangest of all was the fashion model floor, which was nothing but purikura (photo booths) containing special cameras and accessorizing consoles capable of transforming you into the sparkly eyed diva of your dreams. I almost wander into the “Girls Only” section (luckily marked in English), which makes me wonder what kind of self-respecting Japanese boy hangs out on this level.
Soon enough we’ve both had our fill of excitement for one afternoon, and so we retreat back to our quiet little room in Asakusa where we promptly fall asleep for another 3 hours, just barely waking in time to get back on the train and meet Yuka over in Shibuya for a night out on the town.
Any seasoned traveler knows how crucial it is to allow for periods of adequate rest in any itinerary, but so far we’d done a poor job of it on this trip. Still dazed from the jet lag and a bit out of sorts from all of the booze, strange food, and city air, we each take a nip of scotch in the hopes that this will help our fragile equilibrium before stumbling half awake to the station. Getting a bit excited now as we anticipate meeting up with our old friend, we pass the half hour train ride talking the kind of trash that only drunk Americans abroad are probably capable of. Before we know it we’ve arrived in Shibuya, the last stop on the
Exiting the station, we suddenly find ourselves in the middle of
Japan’s busiest intersection, smack dab at the heart of Tokyo’s very own version of Times Square. Yuka has asked us to meet her at a local cosmetics store, but no one we ask seems to know where to find it, and so we must navigate through the teeming nightlife in search of the place she has in mind. Before long we’re back at the station studying a map on a wall, hoping to locate our rendezvous point somewhere in its twisted convolutions. Eventually we’re tempted to start calling out “Yuka!” to crowds of random passerby, but upon reflection we realize that this would be about as effective as shouting “Sarah” or “Elizabeth” on any American street.
With hopes fading by this point, we’re about to resume our wanderings yet again when we’re startled by the clippity-cloppity trot of a horse stampeding us from behind. Spinning around in panic, we are relieved to find that it is nothing more than a frantic, boot-heeled Japanese woman bearing down upon us.
So strange to see someone for the first time in three years, on the opposite side of the globe no less. Yuka worked with Jayna at the NMU campus library when we were all students there together, and though we always talked about coming to visit her home country one day, I don’t think any of us actually expected this to ever happen. If I hadn’t recently come into just enough money to pay our way there (R.I.P grandma), it probably never would have!
We decide to grab dinner at a small Vietnamese joint some short distance from the square. It is there that we present Yuka with two books, both of which were written by me and edited by Jayna. While we’re on the subject, I take the opportunity to explain the book we’re currently gathering material for. I ask Yuka if she’ll consent to grace its pages, and if so, what we should change her name to. We all agree that she’d make a good Sally.
The food is delicious if a bit expensive for our budget, but it’s Sally’s treat so of course we don’t mind. I ask our waiter to recommend their ichiban (number one) beer, and he tells me without hesitation “
, hai!” Next I ask him about this ‘Bintang’ on the menu, and he promptly fetches a green bottle from Sapporo labeled with a big red star. Deciding that I rather prefer the sound of Bintang tonight (and having already had plenty of Indonesia back home anyway), I order this instead. The girls are laughing now, thinking it odd that I would ask for the waiter’s recommendation only to order something else. Sapporo
“I will have a bottle of your number 4 beer!” they tease me in imitation.
Time flies by as we drink, laugh, and catch up on each other’s lives, and though it is only just after 11:00 when the check arrives, we realize that it will not be long before the last train to Asakusa leaves Shibuya. It seems as though we will not have time for karaoke this evening after all. On our way back to the station, however, we do manage to duck into Sally’s favorite purikura parlor for an impromptu photo shoot.
By the time we collect our prints and hit the door, the hour is fast approaching when we’ll be forced to spend the night in an Internet café if we dawdle any longer. Vowing to guide us safely back to the station, Sally leads the mad dash through a crowded street of hazy neon signs and clear plastic umbrellas. Reaching the platform just in time, we’ve barely purchased our tickets and hugged goodbye before the train departs with Jayna and me on board.
It is not even midnight when we arrive at our destination, and since we’d been anticipating a much longer night out, neither one of us feels quite ready for bed. On we journey through the drizzly night, eventually rounding the corner to our friendly neighborhood liquor machine, dispensing several cans of lager before heading back to our room.
Donning our kimonos after another hot soak in the tub, we decide to take our nightcap in front of the television, which is probably not very precise to say when that could mean literally anywhere in our tiny room. Many amazing images drift across the glowing screen, but the one that sticks with me is a woman cooking for her children while simultaneously cleaning her home. Fully expecting this to be an advertisement for some household product, imagine my surprise when – instead of a new kitchen device or laundry detergent – she pulls out a pint can of the very same beer I’ve been drinking, pops it open, and takes a nice long swig. With the children fed and chores all done for the day, it looks like poor mom finally gets to have her relaxing time as well...