Sunday, March 04, 2007

Taking it easy

I have discovered to my cost the extreme generosity of Japanese businessmen. This post will be a somewhat labour intensive task for my now slightly dazed brain cells.

After going for a meal with the department on Friday evening, post-talk I made my way to my Couchsurfing host's flat. Couchsurfing is a fantastic scheme and is built in large part on trust. I met up with Chi on Thursday evening for a bite to eat and a trip to a Gifu bar where we chatted and she made sure that I was a reasonably trustworthy sort. Having passed the test I futonsurfed for Friday and Saturday night. Not only is CS a great way to get free accommodation all around the world (almost 200,000 members now) but it's the perfect source for useful local information.

Gifu snacks of Natto and egg:
Gifu food
Last time I visited Tokyo I spent most of my time looking at traditional Tokyo, the temples, and the Kabuki-za amongst many other things, so this time I've decided to see some more of the modern city. On Saturday we headed to the West, to Shibuya, Harakuju and Shinjuku, to see the famed fashionable areas which have a good mix of both big name brands plastered all over the buildings in neon and very alternative, counterculture shops if you get off the main streets.

Shopping is big here and some of the shops (mostly the 'underground' shops) are so popular that there are queues just to enter. People wait in line outside sipping on McDonald's milkshakes waiting to get into their favourite place to buy the weird and wonderful.

This area is famed for the huge crossroads where the people flow like ants across the street in a huge wave of bodies and then, just as suddenly it stops and the traffic resumes. It's a strange sight to see so many people synchronised like this. Interspersed between the shops are many little galleries for art, hand-made jewelery and clothes. My host makes bags made form vintage kimono fabric (I'm quite happy to advertise these as they are really very good indeed, they would make superb presents. The prices look high but many of the fabrics used are over 100 years old). We popped into a few places selling whole kimonos and pieces of old fabric, some of which are hugely expensive, just for a small patch of design. A paradise for anyone wanting to make their own clothes.
The Omotesando shopping complex:
Omotesando shopping centre
The design Festa art space:
contrasting with the Audi building:
Audi building - Shibuya
The main attraction of coming to this area (if you're not much of a shopper, like myself) is to simply people watch. Dressing up is big here, and I don't mean simply taking care of your appearance. There are several very distinct styles readily apparent as you walk around the streets here. This is most visible with the women, but some of the men fit into distinct categories of counterculture.

The shopping area is mostly noted for the gyarus. Girls with a dark artificial tan, towering heels and bleached or coloured hair. On the way to Yoyoji park we passed a group of gyarus practicing their dance moves in the street, possibly ready for a competition. You can't see here but usually they have white makeup around their eyes giving them a startled panda look.
Dancing ganguros
Regular gyarus are perhaps the most un-extreme of all the subcultures, though the ganguros are more to the panda end of the spectrum.

A lot of the styles are derived from Manga and the Harajuku bridge is mostly populated with cosplayers who dress in clothes to look like Manga characters. Unfortunately it seems that they take the day off on Saturday, so I didn't see so many of them and got fewer photos. However, Flickr has lots of images of some of the interesting costumes and makeup which go on display on the bridge. Some of the most startling cosplayers I've seen are: The blue bride, Tatsurou, Ninja, and these girls in black.

It seems that some of the locals are not cosplayers but simply like to come and dress up in their own style. Also available on the bridge are free hugs, though there didn't seem to be many takers.

Near Harajuku is Yoyogi park where there was some Samba going on which we sat and watched having been on our feet for a few hours. I'm told that the woman on the right is a famous actress, but I haven't pinned down a name yet.
Samba in Yoyogi park, Tokyo
Samba in the park by Harajuku - Tokyo
After dinner (number 1) in a conveyor belt sushi restaurant we headed to the East side of the city where Chi works in a bar. I wandered off and had a look around the local temples, which were closed by that time but the grounds were open and wonderfully quiet after the hectic crowds in the West.

I headed back to the bar, expecting to have a quick drink before going back to the flat and at this point the trouble started. It was a small bar and there were a few businessmen in, each with a bottle of shochu in front of them, gradually being consumed with green tea. It didn't take long to start talking with them. First there was a test of my Chinese character skills to see if I could read their names in Kanji, then there was the explanation of what I'm doing in Japan which resulted in a short explanation of electrons in metals and the electrician in the group literally jumping up and down with excitement as his job suddenly, apparently became clear (this has more to do with shochu than my skills at explaining atomic bonds). I was sitting happily chatting with, um, everyone in the bar, nursing my one pint that I felt I could afford and trying to keep four conversations going at once when the first drink arrived in front of me from the ship salesman to my side.

Unfortunately it seemed that if one of them was going to buy me a drink, the others would look bad if they didn't join in and so, inevitably I got through a fair number of the consumables in the bar, including several plates of the not inconsiderably portioned snack-food - mostly of the raw meat variety.

At one point I was being asked about my thoughts on Japanese life and culture and I mentioned mono no aware, which I know of only from reading about Japanese cinema. The bar became hushed, everyone looked at each other, rather confused and then shouts and cheers as I realised I'd pushed just the right button. I guess that the knowledge of this concept was enough to get me into 'the club' and the generosity only increased from this point on.

Somehow 1 o'clock rolled around, I was still relatively stable and had acquired a rather nice leather passport holder at some point. I was asked if I liked Korean food , I confirmed and we headed to dinner (number 2) a little way down the street. Dish after dish piled up as we got through a huge Korean barbecue. I'm pretty sure that conversation, though still extremely enthusiastic, had diminished in its fluency and for some reason French and Chinese dominated linguistically on and off.

Leaving the restaurant there were five of us, though we quickly lost one who fell asleep on the pavement. The fact that one of them had just bought me a very nice dinner left the other one looking bad, so a Japanese dinner was then offered. In another favourite restaurant of theirs, dinner number 3 arrived in the form of a large plate of sushi. I was truly stuffed but to turn this down would have been very insulting. It was great sushi but I probably didn't appreciate it as much as I should have!

Anyway, by 4 am after three dinners the others seemed to have forgotten how to get home if not which way was up. The group dispersed and I have to presume that the others made it back intact.

Sunday was not a lot of fun. Taking my luggage on the Tokyo underground with a stonking hangover and a belly fit to burst was not a pleasant experience. After a good sleep and a bite to eat I was a good 30% on my way to recovery and today (this post has taken a day to write) I'm 95% back to 'normal'.


Benjamin said...

A quite fascinating and insightful piece. I think the Shibuya and the cosplayers look great. British fashion seems so staid and unadventurous in contrast.

Unknown said...

Hi Ben, I imagine that most fashions in most countries seem staid in comparison to Tokyo. It really is an extraordinary place, in many ways. I look forward to seeing what more I can find in the next couple of weeks.

All the best,