Thursday, November 05, 2009

Planet Japan:Day 2

AOG, Tokyo

We woke up tired from the previous day's events. Tired, but wired, of course. This city is too energetic to let yourself down.

We decided to try and find a bargain of sorts and headed towards the electronic emporium that is Akihabara.

Shinjuku Station

Ok, you know those movies where Central Station shows and you see a sea of people moving to and fro? How romantic, right? Well, forget about that. No station on this planet sees the amount of people as Shinjuku does.

The place is huge, but not like in New York. It is mostly underground, has many levels (including a shopping mall which extends 7 stories up and a couple down), and it is very like a labyrinth.

The first you notice is that Japanese society is very quiet. At least it is quiet at a personal level. We very quickly noticed that the loudest sound thousands of people made in that low-ceilinged place was the one made by their footsteps. But it is not the only sound.

The other sound is the announcements on the tannoy. But even those sound almost whisper like. Feminine voices sprout forth orders and commands almost as though they were little girls. It is the polite way.

I have to say that working out the ticket machines was not as daunting as we first thought it would be. They all have an "English" button.

And the great thing about Tokyo's transit system is that if you underpay, all you have to do is go to the JR or Subway desk found at every station on the network and pay the difference.

No penalty, no punishment, no social shame (how unlike London, by the way). It is good advice to buy the cheapest (130 Yen) ticket, hop on board, and pay the difference at your final destination.

The other thing you notice is how orderly the citizens of Japan get on the trains. The floor is painted where the doors will open on the edge of the platform, so you know where to line up.

Another thing about Japan, they don't like to crowd each other, so personal space is much larger than what you'd think. When we stood at our first street crossing, we were amazed at the distance between people. In fact, their system actually works better than ours. Since they are spaced apart, when both sides of the street cross, there is very little bumping into people, and you cross much faster.

At times I get the feeling that the Japanese have thought of everything...but they haven't, of course. Here and there, little "disruptions" are to be found. But more on those later.

The trains are always clean, always efficient, and always on time. If there is a delay, they tell you, and they inform you of the next train to arrive in its place. Also, the frequency of the trains is amazing.

I have to say that Madrid is superior to London in this respect. Train frequency is very good. But when compared to Tokyo, Madrid is definitely snail-paced. Never mind London!

It is as if every station has a continuous line of trains which is spaced out by a few minutes of tranquility. It is definitely non-stop transport. The only downside is that it shuts for the day around midnight, or half past. Hence the upsurge in Capsule hotels.

We took the JR train (Japan Railways) from Shinjuku and marveled as Tokyo sped past us at full speed. This city, fortunately, still keeps its Edo period roots here and there.

Read the Wikipedia article on Tokyo here.

It appears that Tokyo is crisscrossed by many rivers and canals. Next to these, it is not unusual to see the odd cluster of traditional homes (one or two story houses), and, a few minutes later, a high tech spectacle of lights and modern architecture.

Modern in Tokyo, however, often means a building from the 1960s or 1970s with a huge neon sign on top of it.

And another building from, perhaps, the 1980s, next to that one. Then a traditional building. Then one with no advertising. Then one which could be private apartments. And then, once again, modern neons and glare.

When we got off the JR, we walked right into the electronic district.

We were hungry so we thought, after taking some pictures, to get some lunch.

We found an alley and decided to walk into it, in the hope of finding some sort of decent grub somewhere.

Most places looked unappetizing at first sight, so we continued walking until we found the closest thing to what we thought resembled a restaurant the kind of which we could both withstand and understand without too much hassle. Which we did, eventually.

We walked in only to be told it was closing by an angry old man from the counter. The waitress had told us to sit down just one second before, so we were a bit confused. Then, out of nowhere, a younger man came out and told us it was almost 2 O'Clock, and it was "last orders".

So they acquiesced to our presence, and fed us some delicious sushi. It was not to be the first time we ate this.

With our bellies full, we walked back to the 7 story monster which is the electronic city of Yodobashi Camera.

Each floor contains a particular product and even, we were surprised to find, a bookshop and a branch of Tower Records.

After a myriad of wires, lights, photographic equipment, computers, accessories, Jewel Cases, Cell Phones, Headphones of all shapes and sizes, and the biggest television set my eyes have ever seen outside of a Hollywood movie (around 70K Euros if you are curious), the music was a welcome sight for sore eyes.

We saw hundreds of things, many of which we had no clue what they might be useful for, and spent hours inside that cyber-cage. Eventually we left, once we realised that any hope of taking photographs today had vanished. The light was gone.

So we left, having bought a couple of small items (prices are as high as they are in Europe, no bargains here in Tokyo). Once outside, we were surprised to see a small section of the street cordoned-off and filled with people staring at their mobiles.

In Japan, you cannot smoke on the street (though you can, it seems, everywhere else), and they have designated smoking areas. But no one was smoking, they were all looking down. We read on the guide book that most people in Japan access the internet from their cell phones, and they are right.

Everywhere we went, time after time, all we saw was people with their head down, staring at their phones. Not actually speaking, mind you, but reading, or typing away. I suppose it has something to do with their love of silence, or their respect for others.

So we headed back to the hotel, changed, and went out to for a drink.

Ni-chome part 2: Japanese Bar culture

Since it was still rather early, we decided to head back to Gregorios. It was open. And empty. We were the only people at this Jazz/Karaoke bar. Our friend from Barcelona had been there just a few days before us, and the bar Master (that's Master-san to you) remembered them well. In Japan, bar Masters decide who gets in and who does not. Simple as that.

They served us our drinks and we started talking. A bit later, the Master's partner brought out some delicious ribs for us to munch on. So we whiled the evening away, talking to the staff and no one else.

I asked about the name of the place, after all, it had opened just three weeks earlier. It seems that the bar's investor loves music and really likes Gregorian chants.

"When he thinks of music he thinks of the music for God", the Master told us. I didn't ask which God.

I thought it was fascinating about the connection between God, music, medieval Gregorian monk music, and a gay bar. A gay, Japanese, karaoke & jazz, bar.

The we'd thought we'd check out some other bar. I wanted to go to Arty Farty, but it was not to be. We were surprised by the bar tally (2 beers and two soft drinks), but said nothing.

The bar Master accompanied us to the next bar: Logos. I asked, eventually, about the name choice. I remember the Logos bar Master said something about looking up what it meant in the dictionary, and how it made him think of Egypt. So there you have it.

Perhaps our previous bar Master came with us as much out of courtesy as anything else because, at this next place, we were the only Westerners present.

We had read that bars in Japan often don't let foreigners in. Discrimination issues aside, there is probably a good reason for this.

You see, Master-san's job is to make you feel welcome, feed you some tid-bits, and, if needed, pimp you (and the other customers) a little bit.

He is meant to inform others of your interest in them, and vice versa. If he does not speak English and you don't speak understand.

Once at Logos (a hop and a skip away from Gregorios and on the same building as Arty Farty -so close!) he introduced us to the bar Master there, and bought us a drink (we think).

We all spoke for a while while we marvelled at the minute dimensions of the place. No more than 15 people, it seemed. All drinking, all singing karaoke. And all smiling at us. I have to say, in my experience, gay Japan is nothing if not friendly to a fault. Not just polite, friendly.

Then Master-san split and left us in the bar to fend for ourselves. Much smaller than Gregorios, and louder, it
was to be the norm bar-wise, henceforth.

After making his excuses to tend to his other customers, he quickly came back for us to ensure we sat down at the bar when a couple of people left, and assigned us one of his English-speaking staff to entertain us and keep us company. It was his day off but nevertheless, he complied.

As luck would have it, it was one of the customer's birthday, and someone had brought birthday cake. We were each offered a piece of cake, even though we were complete strangers to the place and knew no one. Like I said, friendly to a fault.

After some karaoke singing (I have to say that most of the videos which accompanied the songs looked like they were filmed in 1989) we decided to check out another bar.

We informed the Bar Master who, upon learning of our plans, called ahead to see if they could accommodate. They couldn't (meaning, no one on duty who speaks English tonight) and he took us to another bar.

Adventures in postmodern culture...Tokyo style

So he took us to another bar. Bridge. It was where the local gay culture vultures meet. Especially cinematic culture vultures.

We walked in, and everyone looked at us thinking how out of place we looked. The bar Master welcomed us, looking a bit puzzled, and our previous host left us in good, if confused, hands.

I have to say that of all the bars we visited in Japan, this turned out to be my favorite. It was slightly more spacious that the others (only just) and it had a balcony where people smoked. Meaning, it had large glass windows which allowed you to see the building in front.

The decor was very Euro-filmical: movie posters everywhere, well-lit bar shelves with European liquors, intellectual-looking customers.

We sat next to the bar's Anglophilic enlightened one, and, thank God, we had someone to speak with. He laughed at absolutely everything we said. I'm sure his previous consumption of alcohol helped.

Eventually the bar Master asked about our provenance, and when we said Spain, the whole bar turned to us.


Because Japanese queens, like any self-respecting intellectual queen anywhere else, love Almodovar's films.

They were very quick to point this out and inquire about our knowledge of the director. Needless to say we awed them with out insider information.

They did not know about the short film which accompanies his latest movie, "Broken embraces": "La concejala antropófaga" (The Cannibalistic City Councilor).

They could not believe their eyes. Nor could they believe that my partner, actually, had a copy of it on his iPod.

Here it is for you viewing pleasure. In Spanish. No Pedro, no need to thank us. We too are fans of yours!

Surprised and grateful is not the word. They loved it! And us for showing them. Especially after we mentioned that the short and Almodovar's latest film are connected, and how if you view the short, you understand the movie just a little bit better. Insider information you see...

Once the iceberg had been broken, one of the other customers informed us about his love for Andalucía and Southern Spain. He loved Granada, it seems. And Flamenco.

We politely declined to comment, since we all know what a faux pas it is to criticize someone's diva (be it human, female, animal or mineral).

After our cultural escapades du nuit, we decided to leave, and make one last attempt to visit the next bar on our list: Matagi (Hunter).

Following our upside down map of gay Tokyo (turns out that many maps in Japan have North pointing wherever the hell they feel like making it point to, regardless of accuracy), we finally made it to the alley where it was meant to be.

Did we see it? Did we hell!

We asked a couple of guys who were there if they knew where Matagi was at. They looked at each other and pointed to the door we were standing next to. Yes, gay and blind! Oh how we laughed!!!

Seeing as how it was closed we decided to head for bed. It was nearly 3AM and the night had proven quite fruitful. Still loving Japan.

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