Sorry for the delay! But here’s my first collection of Tokyo posts. In Tokyo, we stayed at the Olympic Youth Center, where the athletes stayed for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics…It was an awesome central location in Tokyo, right next to Yoyogi Park and about a half mile from a subway stop. It was also affordable…About $18 a night per person, which is fantastic for anywhere in Japan, let alone Tokyo.
Today was our first full day in Tokyo, and our first trip was to the US Embassy. It was fun going into the embassy and listening to other perspectives in the foreign service—my sister just returned to DC from a tour in Saudi Arabia, and it was cool to see what her job is kind of like…I’m not going to the Middle East anytime soon. So the foreign service sounds like an awesome experience, but when I asked about life and family in the foreign service, I didn’t get many promising answers. I want to move my stuff into a home and stay there for at least a few years. A new country every year or two would be too overwhelming. I wouldn’t be able to live here anyways—I’m a 6’5” giant in a society built for people no taller than 5’10” or 5’11”. The stares and pointing and laughing are funny now, but I could never truly belong here.
Later that night after the embassy, a small group of us went to Ginza. Many advertisements for Tokyo use Ginza to attract tourists. Bright lights, restaurants, huge upscale stores made Ginza an overwhelming experience. We wandered into stores like Gucci, Prada, Tiffany’s, and Burberry. We got the same reaction as four college kids would get in the US at these stores: some stares and a “You don’t really belong here” attitude. However, we did go into both Forever 21 and H&M. I do love the fashion here…A lot of it is ridiculously over the top. It seems like an attempt to “out-Western” Western fashion, especially the runway fashion of upscale NYC and European designers. Lots of vests and fur on women that seem to be impractical. For men, capris and man purses (satchels!), plunging v-necks, and summer scarves are “in”. I get enough ridicule from friends back home for even wearing scarves in winter, so my recently purchased satchel probably won’t make it back home to the US for the sake of my dignity and pride. But back to Forever 21- I actually found something that fit, which is pretty monumental for me in Japan. I bring it to the cash register, and the girl unfolds the sweater and inspects every inch. She shows me a loose thread hanging from the shoulder. Before I could spit out “Daijobu desuyo.” Or “It’s all good, no worries,” she runs off and comes back later with a new one, free of loose threads. This is the closest I’ve come to a Japanese version of an American Eagle-type store in the US, and the level of service is definitely superior to the moody teenagers blowing bubbles in your face at the check-out…Just sayin’.
Finally, a day off! This morning we woke up early to go to Akihabara, which is essentially the geek district, with anime, video games, and electronics everywhere. I knew it would be a good day when we got off the train and ran into a golf store. There were a couple interesting differences. First of all, the prices were significantly higher-golf is definitely a rich man’s game here. The other big thing was the “cuteness” factor. In Japan, cute is cool. That sounds strange, but let me try to explain. The multi-million dollar Hello Kitty industry thrives on “cute” being trendy and fashionable. On the train, one can see grown women have Hello Kitty charms on their Hello Kitty bedazzled cell phones. It’s not something you can fully understand until you see it, and even then it’s mind-boggling. On the train is one thing, but one wouldn’t think cuteness would belong on a golf course full of middle aged businessmen. But this store proved otherwise. In the US, golf headcovers are black, blue, green, or some other boring color without anything to draw attention. In Japan, I saw white and pink headcovers with butterflies, bunnies, and bears. And this store was geared towards men. It’s definitely….different, to say the least.
After my golf experience, we went into the heart of Akihabara. I tended to stay away from the anime and instead walked through the seas of electronic stores. The technology was amazing-the coolest thing I saw was a newer version of my Toshiba laptop, or “the tank” as my friends like to call it. It’s a 17 inch display and built for performance, so it weighs a ton. This new model was playing a demo of a new video game, and it featured amazing graphics, high quality sound, and it only weighed about a third of my old one. The salesman saw me ogling it and offered me a special deal, only 200,000 yen which is $2,400 USD which is my entire savings…
After going through Akihabara and finding a Denny’s-which doesn’t have Grand Slams, or anything remotely American for that matter-we walked north towards Ueno. We ran into a mob of people in an alley with a sign advertising “Ameyoko.” Not knowing what it was, we joined the mob. Turns out, Ameyoko is out to be hundreds of shops and stalls of various sizes and qualities. We ate pineapples on a stick (delicious and cheap), saw whole fish on ice for sale (fresh and smelly), and Levi’s jeans ($400…). Levis Jeans are definitely a luxury item here. What we can buy at Kohl’s for $20 is sold in trendy designer shops for much more. I haven’t seen a pair of Levi’s for under $150 here. I just found it funny that what is cheap, affordable, workingman jeans in the US are trendy designer jeans on the other side of the world.
My wallet significantly lighter, I returned to the Youth Center, grabbed my homework, and went to Yoyogi Park to study. I soon learned that parks here are nothing like those in the US. Most people in the park were adults or people my age, hanging out with friends. I realized with the size of homes and apartments and the population density in Tokyo, parks are where one can hang out with friends with some semblance of privacy-at least parents or grandparents or little siblings aren’t hovering. There were also a lot of couples, with more PDA than I’ve seen in all of Japan so far, not counting my fellow classmates…Couples tend to show their affection differently here, and one rarely sees a Japanese couple making out or even kissing in public…Even handholding isn’t too common. It’s interesting how I never actually thought about it until the park, where I saw it taking place. Anyways, the park was very crowded. Soccer games, bubble blowing, sing alongs, dancing-I feel like I saw the spectrum of human activity there. It was a great place to observe Japanese people being themselves.
Finally, we got takeout from a Nepali restaurant, Himalayan Curry. The cook came out and started speaking Japanese with me, offering me a sample. “Nan desuka?” I ask…What is it? “Hai, nan desu.” Yes, its what. Wait…huh? So I ask again, “Hai, demo nan desuka?” Yeah…But what is it? “Nan desu,” he answers. This actually went on for a whole minute until he gets a menu, points at the item, and I read “nan,” or Nepali bread. I’ve told this story many times, and the people who understand a little Japanese think it’s much more entertaining than those who don’t., but it turned out to be a “Who’s on First” skit, Japanese style.
Sunday morning was our first visit to Shin Okubo, our neighborhood for our Tokyo neighborhood project. The entire group of 79 of us were assigned teams of 4 or 5, and each team got a specific Tokyo neighborhood for anthropological research. It was a great way to see areas of Tokyo that aren’t on the list of tourist spots.
Shin Okubo is an ethnic neighborhood, with immigrants from throughout Eastern Asia, especially Korea. The residential area consisted mostly of poorer, run down housing with taped up windows. This is the first time I’ve seen anything like this in Japan-barbed wire, graffiti-It was a little bit of a shady neighborhood. It almost reminded me of Mexicans in the US, with Shin Okubo as Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. The Koreans have faced similar obstacles in Japan as the Mexicans have in the US, so I feel as though it’s a fitting parallel. The main road, however, is highly commercialized, with pop culture stores, restaurants, and Pachinko parlors. I enjoyed the experience-I would never have bothered with a small neighborhood like Shin Okubo had I not been assigned to it, and this experience has just shown me how much there is here. You can never discover everything in Tokyo, especially in ten days.
Later that night, we went to Shinjuku. Shinjuku station is quite possibly the largest and busiest station I’ve ever been in. Stepping outside, I was overwhelmed with bright signs, a mob of people, and the roar of traffic. Shinjuku is famous for its Electric District, which is full of shopping and flashy nightlife; it provided a great contrast to Shin Okubo.
Finally, I took my first night run through Yoyogi Park. Unlike the US, I actually felt safe in a park at night-police patrolled on bikes while teenage schoolgirls hung out in small groups. Additionally, young couples enjoyed their…semi-private time. The other interesting thing I saw was the light pollution. Even well after sundown, it looked like a sunrise in the distance. Even kilometers from downtown, you can’t escape the lights of Tokyo.