I was flat on my back in the dark grass, pressing my eyes shut while bombs exploded overhead. “Are you watching?” Mizuki asked.
“Intently,” I lied.
After five years away, I’d come back for a week in Tokyo, to visit old friends, old neighborhoods, and apparently endure a fireworks festival on the banks of the Arakawa river, crowded in with a million Japanese people.
Our small group finally found an unlevel spot in the weeds of the riverbank, where we laid on blue plastic sheets and drank cans of chu-hi while colorful shapes exploded overhead and the crowd went oooo, then ahhh. Then oooo again. Only in Japanese.
“Which do you like best?” she continued.
“You know the one,” I said, “where it explodes and rains down, and then a second later you hear this massive boom?”
“Oh, that’s my favorite too,” said replied excitedly.
I didn’t have the heart to tell Mizuki that describes approximately one-hundred percent of all fireworks. Sometimes I wonder about the mental capacity of Japanese folks, I really do. Okay, probably just the crowd I run with. But whatever, I love festivals—Ken Seeroi’s all about fried noodles, ice-cold lemony booze, women in bathrobes, and things on sticks—it’s just that after about one minute, you’ve seen all the fireworks you’re ever gonna see. Then it’s like watching the same movie scene over and over.
Which is basically what happened with Tokyo, and why I finally moved. Well, that plus a massive earthquake. But anyway, now I was back to see if anything had changed.
Tokyo has Changed
Don’t like Tokyo? Just wait fifteen minutes, then check again. I mean, it’s still amazing—who doesn’t love the rooftop aquarium in Ikebukuro, that upscale oyster bar in Shinbashi, prowling the various cat-themed shops of Yanakaginza, or sitting in Starbucks overlooking the masses of humanity scurrying across Shibuya Scramble? Not Ken Seeroi, that’s not who doesn’t. But a lot had changed. Or maybe I had. Either way, there were a few things I didn’t expect.
Foreigners in Japan
Holy crap, there’s a lot of foreign people in Tokyo. It’s like Los Angeles, only with fewer Asians. When I first moved here, perhaps I thought “foreign” meant white, or possibly black. (I’d venture to say many Japanese people still do.) My thinking on that has “evolved,” so now all I see are drugstores full of Chinese tourists, malls packed with Koreans, and long processions of dudes on bikes who by all appearances just pedaled in from Bangladesh. Plus white people, black people, and Japanese people mixed with one or more of the above.
I’ve always read that Japan’s one of the most homogeneous nations on earth, with “98% of the population ethnically Japanese.” Yeah, not on the streets of Tokyo it ain’t. But maybe it depends how you define ethnicity. I mean, I feel good and ethnically Japanese, so maybe that’s where they get that number. Seeroi’s blending right in.
Where’d all the salarymen in black suits go? What happened to the cute girls in sexy outfits? And when the fuck did Japanese people start wearing cargo shorts and Crocs? That’s footwear for your balcony, at the furthest.
My memory is of a Tokyo where everyone’s dressed in black, rushing to and from offices like a daily funeral procession. Of course, there are still men in suits, but now it’s short sleeves, jacket off, and no tie. I’m sure that’s a good thing but, well, okay, maybe I’m not so sure. I kind of miss the formality of people actually dressing up.
The women too. The short skirts and heels have vanished, replaced by floral-print balloony pants and sandals. I guess that’s progress. High heels are a podiatrist’s nightmare and no woman should have to wear them. I don’t really believe that; just thought I’d try saying it. Okay, how ’bout we compromise and you wear your Nikes on the train, then change into pumps at Shinjuku station? I promise to do the same with my Crocs.
Weirdos in Tokyo
A week in Tokyo really gives you time to notice people. The guy on the train in a tight t-shirt incessantly sniffing his armpits. The high school girls eating rice balls and making a show of dropping the plastic wrappers onto the sidewalk. The fat guy with worn-out shoes slumped over asleep with his face pressed into the corner of the standing bar. They really should put in some chairs. Civilized nation, my ass.
When I first got here, I didn’t have any way to distinguish people—everyone was just “Japanese.” Now I realize . . . well, first of all, a lot of folks are Chinese or Filipino or Indonesian, and while a lot of other folks are Japanese, many are a bit soft in the head.
Tokyo’s got it’s share of weirdos, that’s for sure. Probably not any more than San Francisco, but not any less either. Like, I was in this small shopping mall near Yokohama. Okay, in Starbucks. That plus frequenting bars occupies eighty percent of my waking time, which I’m okay with. Anyway, at some point I had to use the facilities, so I left and went to the men’s room. Two Grande cups of Italian Roast’ll do that. And in there, yelling loudly at no one, was a woman with blue headphones around her neck. It sounded like she was bitching at her invisible husband, but whatever I still needed to go, so I brushed past her and went to the urinal.
So now it looks like she’s yelling at me while I’m peeing. And this other guy comes in and looks at me like, Jeez, what’d you do? and I’m like, I just happen to be standing in the general direction she’s screaming but I’m actually not part of this scene. Eventually I managed to finish, dutifully washed my hands, and left her standing in the men’s room yelling at him.
You know how you’re all worried about whether to mix the wasabi with the soy sauce or what direction your chopsticks should be facing? Sure, fair enough. Neatly mind your manners, politely bow, then quietly leave whatever izakaya you’re in, walk to the station, and pass out face down on the sidewalk with all the other Japanese people. That’s the Japanese way. Do whatever bizarre behavior you like, just do it at the appropriate place and time.
Safety in Japan
There are signs everywhere, for some reason only in Japanese, warning about pickpockets, purse snatchers, perverts. The sheer volume of signage is astonishing. The convenience store has a big poster at child height saying “This is a Safe Zone for children who are threatened.” The shopping district has banners and flags advising riders to use two locks when parking their bicycles. In the grocery store, a loop tape reminds people to watch their valuables. The ATM screen has a warning about phone scams rampant in Japan. By the park, a billboard advises women and children not to walk at night, and to call the police if they see suspicious people.
This was probably the most surprising thing, because when I moved to this country, I didn’t have any appreciable Japanese language ability. And like a lot of foreign visitors, I believed Japan to be incomparably safe. But now reading the signs, it feels like Tokyo’s the most dangerous place in the world.
To be fair, it’s not. That’d be the U.S. But having lived in Japan long enough, seen enough, and heard the stories, I know those signs aren’t just accidental. Nobody thought it’d be a hilarious neighborhood contribution to hang up posters reading, “This area known for car break-ins.”
Off to Kamakura
A week in Tokyo is almost enough time to see everything you want. A kushikatsu restaurant in Golden Gai, a karaoke booth in Ebisu, or drifting through the back alley izakayas of Akabane. Sky Tree, see ya next time. On my last day, I decided to head an hour south to the seaside town of Kamakura, where I promptly got lost in the mountains searching for a hilltop beer garden I remembered from years ago.
The cool morning turned into a scorching afternoon, and after sweating uphill for an hour I sure wished I’d worn cargo shorts and a t-shirt instead of slacks and a collared shirt. Eh, price of fashion, I guess. Eventually I found the place, a sprawling cafe of multi-level redbrick terraces set in the middle of the forest. Such a random place. Then I ordered a frosty mug of amber beer and a small stack of fries, and the universe became instantly okay again. And at that moment I realized that Tokyo’s the best city in the world—from about an hour away.