I cried when I left Sydney. Saying goodbye to Mum and Dad at airport security was probably the toughest goodbye I’ve ever been through. Six years ago I skipped down the hallway through to security, full of beans for what was to be one of the most amazing adventures of my life – I couldn’t wait to be on my way – but this time things were very different. It’s not easy living away from your family for so long and anyone who tells you otherwise is either lying, or they just don’t quite care that much about their family. That’s ok, I guess some people like their families more than others, I like mine, and whilst it was awesome to see them it really sucked saying goodbye.
On the other side of airport security lay a path to Japan. Tokyo. And with tears streaming down my face I felt like such a dick because I didn’t want to go. It was such a shit feeling because here I was, about to visit a place that so many people dream of, a place I’d dreamt of so often and throughout this trip with such excitement, but still, I didn’t want to go. I wanted to stay where I was and I didn’t care about Tokyo.
I hear you. You’re telling me to “shut the fuck up man! You’re going to fucken Tokyo! I’d love to go to Tokyo!” And you’re right, I was going to Tokyo. I’d always dreamed of one day seeing Japan and here I was, a little bit gassy, sitting on a flight to Tokyo and trying to discretely cushion my farts into seat D, aisle 44 of Qantas flight Q21 bound for Narita Airport, Tokyo. Japan bitches. Let’s do this.
Have you ever done that? Had to clench your knees together and force your farts to seep into the seat cushion? Of course you have, we all have, I did, for nearly the whole 9hr 50min flight. And as I sat there relieving myself, hoping that a) the smell wouldn’t escape and b) one wouldn’t go off too loud and alert the girl next to me of my flatulence, I pondered what the fuck am I going to do in Tokyo? Food, Sumo, Japanese businessmen, technology, hustle-and-bustle come to mind, it’s one of the biggest fucken cities in the world and I was going! So slowly but surely I psyched myself up. How could I look back on this trip and feel like I hadn’t made the most of what could be my only chance to visit Japan? This was going to be an adventure and despite whatever emotions I was being troubled with I had to get a grip, have a go, pull myself together and enjoy the final stage of my “Trip Back Home.”
I’d booked a bed in a dorm at Quality Hostel K’s House Tokyo Oasis in Asakusa, which is in the northern part of Tokyo. I couldn’t really follow the directions offered in broken english on their website and found myself completely lost and had to jump in a taxi, show the driver the address and hope it would pop up in his sat nav – luckily he found it and I managed to check-in to an empty six-bed dorm room. The hostel was nice and I took some time to work out what I was going to do over the next four days before setting off for Akihabara, the Electric Town. Akihabara means ‘Field of Autumn Leaves’ in Japanese, but I didn’t see any fields and I was there in winter so that translation was completely lost on me, but what I did see was madness! Akihabara is a major shopping area for electronic, computer, anime, games and otaku goods. The place is crazy and it looks amazing – kinda like you just stepped into a video game. Back in the computer boom of the 90’s things really took off with Japan at the forefront of technology and innovation, Akihabara being one of the centres for getting your ‘gadget fix’. However with China emerging as a major player in production, Akihabara has been left as somewhat of an oddity – still stocking an impressive display of technology of every kind imaginable, but now juxtaposed with little manga-esc Japanese girls on corners doing their best to entice you into one of the many odd soft porn manga stores – very weird.
Throughout my days in Tokyo I endured a bit of a game of chance. I love Japanese food and part of my excitement for visiting Tokyo centred entirely on its’ cuisine, but its tough when you’re on your own and can’t speak any Japanese. Every meal is a gamble and every restaurant you enter is done on a whim. Originally I’d envisioned exploring Tokyo with my brother, the both of us feeding each other just enough confidence to step into the unknown and try something new, open the door to a random restaurant, or order something completely foreign to us, but alas I was on my own and for lack of a better word I kinda “pussied” out a bit. The food that I ate was excellent and whenever I conjured up enough courage to step into a place that looked interesting it worked out for me, but I can’t help but think that if I was with someone I probably would have tried more – what a pussy! They do their best to accommodate westerners and without bothering to translate their menu’s, you’re more likely to find plastic or rubberised models of the meals they have available. So as you walk the streets and pass by restaurants you can essentially “window shop” as they advertise their appetising “rubber meals”. This helped, but I still feel like I could have pushed myself more.
Of all the meals I ate there were two that were most memorable. The first was a pork Katsu Don and Soba set that I had whilst visiting Ginza. I have no idea what the place was called but they had some interesting looking rubber meals in the window so I sucked it up and took a chance, opened the door and was greeted with a warm “moshi moshi”. I had eaten Katsu Don before which is either a breaded chicken or pork cutlet on a bed of rice and egg – very nice – but it was the Soba that intrigued me. I’d seen Anthony Bourdain eat it on one of his Japan episodes and it looked great, so I wanted to try. Soba is the Japanese name for buckwheat, synonymous with a thin noodle served either chilled with a dipping sauce, or in a hot broth as a noodle soup. As I made my order by quietly pointing at the item I’d like on the menu, smiling of course, the waitress hesitated and asked “hot?”, to which I replied “cold?”, which seemed to please her as she gave me the a-OK! sign. I guess a plate of cold noodles hasn’t gone down too well with westerners in the past and she mistook me for some kind of un-cultured ignorant – puh! In all honesty I didn’t really have much of an idea what I was doing. The food came plated up in front of me with about 5 different little bowls and cups, a weird looking tea-pot-type thingy with what seemed like a miso broth? I had to look around at the other patrons to work out how to eat it. I know it all ends up in my mouth somehow, but I didn’t realise I’d ordered a puzzle. So, collect some soba with your chopsticks, dip them in the little bowl of soy sauce, put in face, once finished soba pour miso broth into remaining soy sauce bowl, put in face, periodically eat little pickled garnish items from other bowl, attack Katsu Don in face-putting flurry – easy enough. Customary etiquette in Japan is to slurp your noodles, which may seem rather foreign to you and me – my Dad would hate it – but the best way to show your admiration for the food and your appreciation to the chef is to make as much noise as you can whilst inhaling your noodles. In every restaurant I visited I was serenaded by the slurping sounds of noodles vanishing between appreciating lips, a little odd at first but I love the fact that something considered terrible table manners in one culture is completely the opposite in another.
The other meal I want to talk about was as much an experience as a culinary pleasure – sushi at Tsukiji Fish Market. The Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market, commonly known as Tsukiji Market, is the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world and also one of the largest wholesale food markets of any kind. I’d been looking forward to getting down there and seeing it since I’d booked my trip and the information at the hostel detailed two different options: pay to access the early morning tuna auction at about 5:00am for 20 minutes and then you have to wait around until 9:00am to see the rest of the market, or you can just show up at 9:00am and walk around leisurely. I decided to head down for 9:00am. I would have liked to have seen the tuna auction but from what I read online there’s a little bit of hostility towards tourists getting in the way and disrupting the business and essentially, the livelihoods of the Japanese that work at the markets – and I didn’t want to feel like I was stepping on someone’s toes. If you get the chance I highly recommend it. The place is buzzing with every type of fish and sea creature imaginable and surrounding the fish markets are loads of sushi and various other restaurants to wander and sample. I joined the line for a place that obviously looked popular due to the amount of people lining up for sushi, picked up some random sushi bites and rammed them into my face – amazing! Such fresh and delicious, melt-your-mouth sushi.
Over the four nights I had in Tokyo my dorm room filled up with companions which gave me a chance to go out and savour the night life. Of a six-bed dorm room and including myself, we were a party of six Aussie males, out to tear it up in Roppongi – apparently the centre of Tokyo nightlife. Can I just ask, what is it with Australian travellers? They’re everywhere! Over the course of my trip I met more Australians than any other nationality, by far. I even met more Australians in LA than I did Americans! It’s fucken crazy! Wherever you are you’re bound to meet an Aussie so you better start liking us because we’re fucken everywhere.
Roppongi was a dive. It’s a seedy, trashy area and just completely not my style. We hopped from one awful bar to the next, drank beer and talked shit but basically it was a terrible night and I won’t be going back. Check it out yourself if you like but be warned, it’s a shit-hole.
The one interesting thing I drew from that night was the fact that throughout my time in Tokyo I’d seen no black people at all, until reaching Roppongi that night and seeing the streets flooded with them? As we walked around the streets and popped into various bars, we were constantly accosted by these guys trying to coax us into nearby strip-bars. They’re pretty persistent and after a while it really gets on your nerves, but the following morning I did a little research to try and understand what was actually going on here. From what I understand, many Nigerians have found their way to Japan in search of a better life. Commonly they might seek refuge in Europe, attaining residency which allows them to travel to Japan for 90 days, and from there they either overstay their visa, marry a Japanese girl or even aim to impregnate them. I’m sure that the majority come over with dreams of respectable living, many as engineers or with aspirations of opening their own business, but it appeared that many of those dreams had turned to dust and they find themselves working the streets of Roppongi of a night. It seemed a sad state of affairs reading about the situation, where the Japanese culture has clashed a little with an influx of Nigerians into the country. Their public image is poor and although many are skilled, out of work professionals, being found on the corners of late night areas has branded them with a certain reputation. Many Nigerians actually claim to be African American in order to avoid stereotypes and harassment. I feel for the guys. They came to Japan seeking a better life, only to find a different type of persecution and struggle to overcome. Before I knew anything of the situation I was telling them to “leave me the fuck alone!” Whereas now I probably would have chosen my words a little more compassionately.
The last thing I want to talk about is the aspect of Japan that impressed me most – their work ethic. As I ventured from one part of the city to another, ate in restaurants, shopped and saw the sights, I was so impressed by how hard everyone seemed to be working. From city workers sweeping the streets, to retail merchants in the upscale department stores, everyone was working with a certain conviction that said they were proud of who they were and what they did. If you’re a street sweeper, you’re working as hard as you can to be the best street sweeper you can be! I loved it. Researching this online I wanted to better understand the cultural divide between Japan and what I was used to, and interestingly I found that much of it comes down to the fact that Japan employs shame as their primary agent for social control. Honour is of the utmost importance and restored only when a person does what society expects of him or her in a situation – if you’re expected to sweep the street, then sweep that shit 100%! I like it because it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you do it with conviction then you’re an honourable member of society and respected amongst others, whereas much of we’re used to in western society depends on your occupation, the money you earn and what you own – rather fickle in comparison. Contemporary western culture uses shame as one modality of control, but its primary dependance rests on guilt, and, when that does not work, the criminal justice system. Are the Japanese content with hard work and honour? Or do they constantly strive for more like us? I don’t know anyone whose content with where they are in life – everyone’s trying to climb a ladder, earn more, own more, get more. Is it enough to just be the best you can be, or would you prefer to own a new pair of shoes every couple of weeks? I don’t have the answers but after visiting Japan and Tonga, LA and Sydney, as well as all the other countries and cities I’ve been to, I’m always grateful for new found perspectives – get out there and find some for yourselves.