July 8-9, 2016: Where the Streets Have No Name

U2 wrote this song about Belfast, but I think the title is more appropriate for Tokyo, where the streets literally have no name.  I was shocked.  I have to wonder why…is it too expensive to make and maintain street signs? Street names are something I took for granted. This makes navigation extremely difficult because you can’t say “turn right on 40th street.” How did anyone ever get anywhere before the age of Google Maps? Thank god for Google Maps! It is very good with giving subway directions and the walking directions are absolutely critical. How do addresses work, you ask? I haven’t quite figured that out yet. It’s very complex.  There are a bunch of numbers that I believe correspond to a districts, and blocks, etc.

I went downstairs from Danny’s apartment to the ramen shop for lunch. I was directed to the menu on the wall consisting of pictures. Only the first one was numbered but I figured that number 1 would be a safe choice. I was then directed to place my order in the machine by inserting money and then pressing the button corresponding to my dish. And before I knew it, someone came out with my food. But before all that, I looked really stupid not knowing how to place an order. I tried to sit down twice before the chef came around to show me.

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Photo taken by Matt Pawlik at Bunka Hostel

Google helped me find the Bunka Hostel. I passed by a bunch of tour guides/rickshaw pullers dressed in their underwear without pants. I’m not sure what the gimmick is. Maybe it’s practical for pulling a rickshaw in this unbearable heat? Or maybe they’re selling sex, not tours, or sex tours? Maybe it’s just a usual uniform for tour guides? Compared to the neighborhood Danny was living in, I was seeing non-Japanese tourists (lots of Chinese) and hearing some English again.

I’ve never stayed in a hostel before and it wasn’t bad at all. It was actually kind of nice. The dormitories are made up of beds/bunks in wooden boxes. I was in a bottom bunk. And it sort of feels like you’re sleeping in a coffin but I suppose it affords you a level of privacy that you don’t get in other hostels. The food was also very good. I had a chicken dish that was enormous and delicious. The toilets were in Japanese. I was able to figure it out the bidet function through trial.

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The hostel is in Asakusa, near the Sensoji Temple and the Tokyo Skytree. Those were my two main points of interest, but I didn’t get to go to either the first day. The temple closed at 5 and Hana showed us a view from the top of the Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center instead of Skytree, which is apparently overrated and expensive (and probably would be underwhelming on a foggy day). We did walk around the temple grounds, including the Kaminarimon Gate and Nakamise, the path leading up to the temple lined with souvenir shops and food vendors. I was tempted to buy souvenirs, but I refrained since it was only the first day. Though I figured the place to get souvenirs would be the tourist area. I couldn’t resist an ice cream burger though. I figured it’d be like an ice cream sandwich. I got a small scoop of taro ice cream in between what tasted like those Chinese soy sauce crackers. And it was tiny. Day 2, I went back to the Temple with Freddie to see the Main Hall. It is a very grand temple. I’m afraid that all the other temples we see (I’m sure there’ll be lots) won’t measure up. It was raining on Day 2, and it was difficult to navigate down Nakamise with umbrellas. There was a festival going on in which they sell these edible flowers that I think you keep on your altar. They are bulbs that look like the flowers that they beignet in Cannes. 

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There is a mechanism for telling fortunes that is kind of interesting. There is a heavy box that you shake around to get a stick to fall out of a hole in the box. It has a number on it, which corresponds to a box which has a fortune on it. If you get a bad fortune, you’re supposed to tie it up and do it all again. As for the prayers, there is a long line leading up to the temple to throw in your coins and clap your hands twice and bow in prayer.

I’m not sure where the line between cultural appropriation and respecting culture lies. The temples are full of Japanese people at prayer. And the tourists, too, take part by throwing in some change and taking fortunes from boxes, purifying themselves, and burning incense. But is that being respectful of Japanese culture or belittling it? The same way I wouldn’t light a candle in a Catholic church, I didn’t burn incense at the temple. I think it’s interesting that you’ll see foreign tourists doing these rituals in Japan, but you probably wouldn’t see Japanese tourists confessing in a cathedral. The excuse is cultural immersion, but is that actually appropriation? Or has Christianity transcended culture to become something else? Is it more disrespectful to not participate or to go through the motions without meaning it? I’m there to see architecture as art, not for religion.

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I brought along Austin’s camera with the portrait lens that doesn’t have a zoom, and I’ve now discovered for myself what he meant when he said “you have to stand really far back.” It makes taking pictures of monuments kind of difficult.

The most amazing part of our walkabout with Hana was Don Quijote. It’s kind of difficult to describe this store. It was four floors of literally everything under the sun. It has food, clothes, toys, electronics, designer, no-name, you name it. How anyone who works there finds anything, I don’t know. Think Walmart on steroids. Also not sure why they named it after a fictional Spaniard. And naturally, it’s open 24 hours, along with the McDonalds down the street.

We also walked into a couple of arcades. There are a lot of them in Tokyo. In addition to the traditional arcade games, there is gambling, slots and a ton of impossible crane games. The clientele was surprisingly old. In America, we associate arcades with kids but these were all grown adults. Some of them were dressed in suits like they came from work and had been there for hours. We watched one guy playing a game kind of like Simon but with more lights, more rhythm and much faster. It’s not about memory, but you press the lit up button arranged in a circle, and slide in the center. This guy had gloves and clearly practiced a lot. It’s kind of mesmerizing, like watching someone good at Dance Dance Revolution. What’s dangerous about these arcades is that they accept Pasmo and Suica as payment. You could spend all your train fare on arcade games.

When we came back from the walkabout, Darin dragged me back out for another walkabout. And I let him peer pressure me into going as he often does. I hung out for an hour or so before I turned back in. I missed karaoke but I’m sure there’ll be plenty of karaoke this month.

Freddie and I were adventurous and went to lunch on our own. We found a restaurant with a special that included noodles and rice and dumplings. The menu was surprisingly multilingual, in Japanese, Chinese, English, Spanish and Thai. What I’ve noticed is that restaurants seem to not have napkins for you. It is simply not part of the standard place setting.

We went to disaster training on the second day. You could tell it is kind of aimed at school children and they probably do a lot of school groups. But it’s not really the kind of thing you go to on your own. We watched a movie about the Sendai earthquake and tsunami. It was pretty devastating and awesome but the production value of this documentary was pretty low. They do this cheesy thing where the narrator holds out his hand and a card appears with the title of the next segment. And you could also see his eyes batting to the script from the camera. It also goes into a lot more science than you need to know in an earthquake, like about soil liquefaction. We did some demos, including an earthquake simulation which was actually kind of cool. And we put out virtual fires with a fire extinguisher. We were blown by a huge, prolonged gust of wind to simulate a storm. There’s usually water too but they hadn’t had enough rain this year. And we also simulated escaping a smoke filled room in the dark. That one was kind of lame. We got these cards that basically serve as a punchcard–you get a prize on your sixth visit. But I don’t know what you could possibly be doing here 6 times. It is housed in this solid looking building, made for disasters. It is where you’d want to go during the apocalypse. They also had an umbrella locker in the front. You put your umbrella through the loop and then take out the key.

We did a lot of walking. We walked in this huge group. Apparently, people don’t jaywalk in Japan, but we kind of did anyways. We took a sightseeing boat down a canal. It was kind of more like a ferry than a sightseeing boat because there wasn’t much to look at. It was a little underwhelming. As a mode of transport it was great, but it didn’t actually take us to our dinner reservation.

We had our welcome dinner at a nice restaurant in Akihabara. Akihabara is anime /otaku central. This is probably where I’ll come back to get souvenirs. Dinner didn’t actually consist of too much food, but lots of drinks. The food was like Japanese hors d’oeuvres. But there was lots of beer, I believe it was Asahi–they have a building near the Hostel that is supposedly shaped like a beer with a white “foam” ripple at the top floors. You grab a pitcher and walk around offering to pour people glasses as an excuse to talk to them, as I was told. I also had sake and shochu. I had a good kind of sweet sake, and then a less-good one that tasted like vodka. Japanese people drink a lot.

It being a Saturday night, everyone was out drinking. On our way to Shibuya, we saw one girl vomit in the train station and amazingly the train staff cleaned it up right away and directed people away from it. In New York, that would have stayed there a while. Shibuya was very crowded. Everyone was out. There is a dog statue where people meet. We walked the Shibuya crossing, though you don’t really appreciate it at street level. I have to go back and see it from above somehow. We met up with two of Jordan’s Japanese friends. They took us to a prison themed bar. It is in a creepy dark basement. And as with a lot of places here, you get a private room. And there are supposedly dementors walking around to scare you, but we didn’t see any in our room.

It is astounding to me as a New Yorker that a self-respecting large city like Tokyo doesn’t have a 24 hour subway system. It stops running at midnight. So faced with the choice of staying out all night and taking a cab, Darin, Meg, Ella and Cat split a cab (Aaron and Alex chose the former). We took it until we were close enough to walk, and we actually had a pleasant walk.

 

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