sixty seconds over shibuya


Tokyo does “busy” rather well. Shinjuku station, serving the de facto city centre, is the busiest station in the world (having experienced it, that may just be because people find it impossible to escape), and Shibuya crossing the busiest pedestrian junction in creation, an unbelievable sea-of-heads swirl. Shibuya is a fashionable shopping district (of which Tokyo seems to have a bunch), an iconic, overused-in-introductory-shots cityscape; the skyline was rimmed with corporate logos and billboard photos of overcoiffed hipsters, while ground level had Engrish shirts and hats with silly slogans, various arcades and karaoke places, and a shop full of kittens and puppies in transparent tanks which seemed to be there mostly to induce rubbernecking and murmurs of “kawaii!” in passers-by. Down a side street we found an excellent ramen place and chowed down on big bowls of noodles for a mere 500 yen each.

We located a place named the “Hotel Diamond” to spend the night (weren’t due to check into the Agora Place until the following day), but as it wouldn’t open for overnight stays til 10, went back to the junction to kill some time, wandering amusedly through endless department stores full of gimmick shops with godawful pseudo-chic Engrish (and cod French. Flench?) names, selling pricey clothes to heavily made-up young women with dyed rah hair. Watching the crossing from the Starbucks (shut up) overlooking it was fascinating: the crowds gradually massing on the pavements as cars swished past, building up until bursting point until red switched to green and they surged across the road like a sudden spring tide, leaving the pavements almost empty. It was hypnotic, and, with a Fran and a swamp-coloured green tea thing, a thoroughly enjoyable way to pass the time. Noticing a couple of American chaps trying to get a clear shot through the windows, I temporarily gave up my hard-won window seat for one of them, and while he was videoing the one-minute crossing cycle it we chatted to his mate about our respective homelands and careers and how cool Japan was; this wasn’t the last time I shared a certain strangers-in-a-strange-land camaraderie with fellow Westerners (who were mostly Australian).

The next morning, we realised how close Harajuku really was and decided to walk there rather than getting the metro. This turned out to be an excellent idea; the crowded evening streets are definitely something to behold, but they’re equally interesting beheld in the cold light of morning, with time enough to take it all in. Past a huge stadium with a swooping roof and foundations like a Japanese castle, spying a bizarre Disneyland house across the railway tracks, we came to Harajuku. If Shibuya is Oxford Street (and Ginza is some nightmare hybrid of Knightsbridge and Canary Wharf – no, I’m reaching, we don’t have a Ginza at home), Harajuku is Camden – the self-styled “quirky”, “eclectic” place for young people to dress up and be seen, though with fewer giant plastic monsters, drifting clouds of marijuana smoke, and pretences at being something other than an ultracapitalist money-sponge. Sunday is meant to be the day all the lolitas and rockabillies and cosplayers amass on Jingu Bridge to fill up tourist photostreams, but there were barely any that day – it was admittedly pretty perishing cold. Fran knowing her way around, we gave the big main road a miss and instead strolled down the easy-to-miss-but-central Takeshita Street, which is where all the actually fun stuff happens, amusing ourselves with the array of outlandish clothes and accessories on sale (I found a fake College of Law shoulder flash in a Claire’s – why I have no idea) and sharing a chocolate cake-stuffed crepe (seriously).

There is some dissonance in having the huge, stately and revered Meiji Jingu shrine complex just across the tracks from a district hawking loli fashion and Santa costumes for dogs, but it was very convenient for our purposes. Past the massive cypress-wood torii, the long, broad approach to the shrine was crowded yet strangely serene; something about the overhanging trees and the quiet in the air. We passed massive stacks of consecrated barrels containing Japanese sake and French wine, little water fountains with ladles for self-purification, and a bunch of people dressed up for a Shinto wedding (there’s a Japanese fashion among people who can afford it to have two ceremonies – a traditional Shinto-style wedding, for classiness, and a Christian-style white wedding with a big messy reception, for fun.) The shrine, which was rebuilt after being pounded flat in the war, commemorates the Meiji Emperor, who was significant in dragging Japan kicking and screaming into the late 19th century; it’s large, grand and really rather beautiful, with big Chinese-style roofs and imperial chrysanthemums everywhere. Under a spreading tree decorated with ropes and paper lightning bolts, visitors had written messages on little prayer-board things in a dozen languages ranging from plaintive to comical.

It was a rather grey, miserable day, so we gave the 500-yen ornamental gardens a miss; on the way out we bumped into Chris, Fran’s fellow ALT, with his family, and it was really nice to see him again and say a proper goodbye. We also passed a bunch of young ladies in entertainingly outlandish costume (at last!) on the way to the station, where we boarded a train to… the Pokemon Centre. I will say nothing of this save that Fran was prevented from buying a complete set of Eeveelutions by suitcase space alone.

The Centre was in one of those big windswept soulless dockside regeneration areas that could be in any big ex-port city in the world; on the train ride in I saw a snatch of little Chinese-looking houseboats on a river, but beside that it was all just plate glass and overpasses – all except an ancient and absolutely gorgeous landscape garden, which we took a wander around in. It had a very artificial but very artful style, laid out to be attractive from every angle, and the rather dissonant sight of skyscrapers reflected in the koi ponds and monorails whispering about above the treetops accentuated rather than detracted from it. Having taken many photographs, chilled out on a bench, been gaped at by many carp and shocked an older Japanese chap with Fran’s Japanese abilities (that happened quite a lot), we found a little coffee shop to get out of the cold and wind. Embodying our respective stereotypes, I had a Royal Milk Tea and she a Mango Tango Cream Swirkle; then, after a change at Ueno where we photographed a Muji for Hazel, we were off to Shimokitazawa to meet Eluned for a dinner of okonomiyaki.

What I saw of Shimokitazawa was much more like the other Far Eastern urban stereotype (though I guess that stereotype is more Chinese than Japanese) – narrow, cluttered, crowded streets between two- or three-storey buildings, full of people trying to sell you things. And unlike the slightly disingenuous, quirkiness-repackaged-for-mass-markets stylings of Harajuku or the straight up shopping counter that was all of Shibuya, it felt very genuine and quite laid back. The okonomiyaki place was all smoky and bohemian, with hand-drawn instructions for making various dishes and a refreshing apathy towards health and safety; I had to take care to avoid scorched knees. Okonomiyaki is… hard to describe; you get given a table with a hotplate, and a bunch of salady seafoody eggy stuff in bowls, and have a go at preparing your own sprawling quiche/omelette thing at your leisure. It was very tasty, but surprisingly unfilling (accompanying blocks of tofu were surprisingly filling, but not tasty). We went for drinks after that – umeshu and warm sake – and had a good ol’ relaxing evening out of the cold. It was nice to see Ned doing well – she’s on what appears to be a Japanese version of the GDL, an intense one-year language course, but I have little doubt in her ability to do it.

Once the jug of sake was empty, we walked back to the station through the chilly night air and began the long, crowded ride back to Asakusa, which due to the great unnecessary silliness of Tokyo railways involved changing, once more, at Shibuya.



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