Tokyo & Kyoto, Japan
The trip to get there wasn’t the problem. For a few tenners, I took an overnight boat from South-Korea to the Japanese port city Osaka. There, I found it was Japan itself that embarrassed me. My bank card, mobile phone and English let me down completely. Japan had its own system. And the train ticket to the capital Tokyo was so expensive, that I couldn’t even afford the bullet-train-ride to the capital. However, the land has in me in a firm grip since I got lost here ten years ago. Tokyo calls and Japan seduces. I have to go back.
There are cities in which history slowly affects you. And there’s Tokyo, the metropole with around 38 million inhabitants, which hectic streets hits you in the face from the very first minute. In my case, I get the first hit in a pachinko-palace, right next to the station where the airport train arrives. Intrigued by the cacophony of carnival sounds that slip out of the doors every time the sliding doors open shortly, I ignorantly walk into one of these Japanese casin
And there’s Tokyo, where hedonism hits you in the face from the very first minute
“It’s just € 5,- to ride on a retro Enoden street train along the coast of Enoshima”
– tip of our hotel concierge.
Train tickets? With your Mastercard!
Even though the world-famous bullet trains cross the country with a cool 320 km per hour, you take a slow train to get to a day to the volcanoes, flower fields or coast. At the larger train stations, you pay your ticket by inserting your Mastercard in the ticket machine.
Inside, I get overwhelmed by computer noises, flickering lights, screens and panging bullets. And amidst the vertical pinball machines, I find players who seem to be above all this hysteria, obsessively bouncing one metal bullet after another through a maze of nails.
“Winning is practically impossible. It’s casual pleasure”
Apparently, more money disappears into the pachinko-machines than in the desert city of Las Vegas and the Chinese Macau together. “Extremely dangerous there,” warns the barista of the next-door coffee bar, while I pay for a Jamaica Blue Mountain, perfectly possible with a Mastercard in 2019 by the way. “People line up before it opens and gamble all their salary away. Winning is practically impossible. It’s casual pleasure.”
The silent metropole
A little shook from the first impression and the jetlag, the metro takes me in tow. The contrast with the casinos is unreal: passengers wait in rows in absolute silence. No commuter even thinking about making a phone call, talk or even look someone in the eyes. Or to wear a pair of pants that aren’t black. As soon as the metro stops and the doors open, there’s the sound of an excited street organ that seems to speed up until the doors close again. And when the underground disappears again, only the sounds of the clattering of the wheels remains.
At Tsukiji, the metro station underneath a former fish auction, the connoisseurs split off from the commuters. Because even though the auction has been moved, the restaurants have stayed. The day still starts there around sunrise, when fresh fish floods the traiteurs. While I walk around, two men are in the middle of lifting a fifty-kilo yellowfin tuna onto the chopping board. I observe how the Tokyokko have breakfast in stamp-sized restaurants with king crab, spoon out sea urchins and suck on oysters that were steamed in sake briefly, a Japanese rice wine. I go inside a sushi bar, where I sit myself down on the last available stool and watch the chef slice of paper-thin sashimi, slices of fish, to lay it down on the plate like a work of art. Casual pleasure? Sure. Irresistible? You have no idea.
The casinos may be noisy and the sushi fresh, but to me, the Japanese themselves are the pièce de résistance. A significant part of the people, for example, wears a face mask while out on the street, and at every counter or reception, I am greeted by a fax machine – even though the internet was practically invented in Japan. In 192 pages, Boye Lafayette de Mente tries to educate me in Japanese etiquette, for example, the complicated regulation concerning bowing, and the respect for samurai swords and kabuki, Japanese dance. The height of confusion for me is when the Japanese go off crossing these lines completely.
They go absolutely crazy on 50ies rock-‘n-roll
For example on Sunday afternoon, I run into the Rockabillies at the entrance of Yoyogi Park, a group of dancers wearing greased quiffs, denim jackets, leather pointy shows and red handkerchiefs in their back pockets. They go absolutely crazy on 50ies rock-‘n-roll. It has an easy-going vibe, but at the same time, it seems rather un-Japanese. Next to the dancers, there is a bruiser, Shihou, who introduces himself as the ‘King’s’ bodyguard. The King apparently is the group’s leader, who is slouching in a director’s chair, emptying a can of beer every now and then. The top-buttons of his blouse are open, showing wild tattoos and an impressive muscle mass. “Have you been friends for long?” I ask out of curiosity. “The old man is 55 already, but very strong. He still fights.” The Rockabillies, at first sight an innocent group of Elvis-wannabes, apparently originated from a fighters clan. Here, Tokyo’s underworld comes above ground every Sunday to share the park with picnicking families and rose bushes.
Ode to the samurai
Every strike sends sparks like a firework through the shed and resonates on the concrete floor. But even though beads of sweat run down the faces of the 68-year-old Ken Yoshida and his 39-year-old son, the glowing clump of metal hardly changes shape. It takes six months to make one katana, a traditional Japanese samurai-sword. The two are the thirteenth generation of sword makers in the village of Seki, one of their ancestors started making swords for the samurai in the 16th century.
“The proceeds are modest, but we do the best we can,” says Ken humbly, while he takes me from the workshop into a separate room in his house. There, on a shiny table standing on traditional tatamis, his most precious are shining in the spotlight. His katanas consist of three layers of metal and by polishing away the two outer layers, an impressive flame pattern appears on both sides. “I do this with all my heart,” Ken says, while he grabs a sparkling sword, polishes it clean and carefully hands it to me with the words “this one is around 500 years old.” Truth be told, weapons are not my thing, but as soon as I take a hold of the sword, something comes to life. “Has anyone been killed by it?”, I ask. “Possibly.”
By sunset, I go above ground again in the neighbourhood Shibuya. There, it looks like the entire city crosses the streets at the same time: five pedestrian crossings intersect right next to the train station, and at every green light, a tsunami of about 3000 people crosses the street, with nobody touching another. The crowds make me think of Kingsday in Amsterdam, but the elegant version of it. Even though Shibuya has the most crowded intersection in the world, the neighbourhood that screams Tokyo-hysteria most is Shinjuku. A large part of the estimated 3,5 million passengers arriving there daily by train or metro are blinded above ground by the flickering neon. Shinjuku is like a permanent fair, where youngsters feast on the many arcade claw machines with stuffed animals. And where girls with pink cheeks and pitch-black braids function as magnets for the karaoke bars. Lose yourself in hedonism? A minute in Shinjuku will suffice.
Shinjuku is like a permanent fair, where youngsters feast on the many arcade claw machines with stuffed animals
The green gold
For some Zen, the townspeople take the train to the green areas. I take the metro line to Yokosuka up to Kamakura, where there is a bamboo forest with a temple. Most visitors leave the temples behind and walk quickly towards the tearoom in the back of the garden. There, behind a desk without a fax machine, two older women beat powdered green tea through hot water with a bamboo beater. Besides the price per kilo of the green gold – for matcha of ceremonial quality, that price is around €2100 – the bamboo forest is the second reason to take your time for a cup of tea. Sipping the somewhat bitter tea, I listen to the bamboo stalks tapping against each other on a rhythm somehow resembling the clattering of the metro cars in the metropole. Tokyo still calls, I have to go back.