Whenever I go to Tokyo, I usually stay at Hotel Kent in that tropical paradise, Kabuki-cho. And as I've written in other blogs, Kabuki-cho is considered Tokyo's "Red Light District." Which doesn't mean a lot to me. I love it for its seedy futuro-neon ambience. It's like being in a William Gibson novel, or one by Haruki Murakami... or in the movie Blade Runner.
My first trip to Tokyo was back in October, 2003. I spent two nights in Shinjuku, the first mostly relaxing and the second a full-on drunk explosion of bad boy behavior. And my second was over Nova's New Year's break over a year later. This time I got 4 nights there and it was one of the best vacations of my life.
My plan for New Year's Eve was to hop the Yamanote Line over to Shibuya and find one of those cyberfunky techno dance clubs where they photograph the 21st century stylie chicks for Fruits or Smart Girl and dance until dawn.
I woke up early that morning and saw this-
That's snow falling on a Shinjuku back-alley outside my hotel room. White flakes were pouring down and everything was gray outside but having that strange and wonderful and magical quality of stillness but also with sounds seemingly magnified.
I could hear some happy shouts but no traffic. Even the electronic music from the pachinko parlors was both clearer than usual and strangely muted... the perceptual changes and distortions that snowfall provides, my mind turned into a child's.
By the time I got dressed and ready to explore, the snow had stopped after covering everything in a cold gray mush. I should've been quicker... some of the thrill was gone, but at least I got to see Tokyo in a way I'd never seen before.
The Incredibles were out in force. Usually, this concrete island is Bum Heaven, where homeless people curl up in their sleeping bags or on top of flattened cardboard boxes with blankets and newspapers piled on top to stay warm. But no one likes to sleep cold and wet. Not even whoever's under that blue plastic tarp that makes Mr. Incredible look like he's wearing a bib.
At times, Shinjuku had a Dickensian atmosphere, like we were all characters in "A Christmas Carol." Or at least All Dogs Go to Heaven.
And it could be otherworldly... cloud-bound and fog-shrouded, streetlights on even though it was only around 2pm. Cold wet air clinging to everyone, and all of us stepping carefully to avoid soaking our feet in the slush accumulated in the gutters. But I still managed to completely douse both my feet in surprisingly deep puddles of melted snow.
By the time I got to the station, cold water had seeped through the canvas of my Chucks into my socks.
This young couple probably bought those umbrellas at a combini (Japanese-English for convenience store). In the distance, the Shinjuku Nova branch topped by the furry pink cuteness that is Nova Usagi.
Shinjuku branch is one of the largest and busiest Nova branches. I never got to work there, although I briefly considered transferring. My desire was to work at the Omotesando branch near Harajuku... where rumor has it various J-Pop stars and actors and actresses study English.
Nova Usagi is being phased out in favor of these wooden puppet characters who look a lot like Bert and Ernie and also possess chest hair.
The coolest thing was how the buildings nearby were shadowless and completely distinct, but the ones surrounded the area faded away like mountain peaks. Not being a skyscraper-type person, I'd never seen clouds low enough to make rooftops vanish.
This lion guards the Shinjuku Station entrance on the Kabuki-cho side. The cold didn't seem to bother him. I decided not to stick my tongue to him to find out just how chilly the air was. In Japan, people do urinate outside after a night of hard drinking , and Kabuki-cho is the place for hard drinking and hosing down whatever's handy.
Wet feet and all, I made it to Shibuya and spent some time walking around trying to find some of the places I remembered from my first visit there, when I didn't really have time to fully explore the place the way I wanted to.
This picture is approaching the Hachiko station exit from the opposite side of the station. I managed to get myself lost in the station and come out on the wrong side, leading to a long hike back to semi-familiar territory.
The world's largest Tower Records is in Shibuya, and an insane anime-goods shop called Mandarake where the staff girls wear anime costumes and photography is forbidden.
There's a nice little import comic shop called American Comix Specialties, Club Quattro where acts like the Boredoms and Shonen Knife have played and a sweet used punk cd shop exists upstairs, the O-Nest/O-West/O-East complex where I later saw Melt-Banana rock Tokyo like a 4-piece earthquake, an Outback Steakhouse where many of the staff speak perfect English and I ate on consecutive nights, a Condomania outlet, plus lots of high-priced and ultra-stylish boutiques where famous people like Chiaki Kuriyama and Ryoko Hirosue shop.
And, in one of the best dining deals in Japan, a Shakey's Pizza where you can get all-you-can-eat pizza, pasta and fried potatoes for around 10 bucks.
That's just scratching the surface. Recently, a massive pop culture/media outlet called Blister opened, where you can see one of Johnny Depp's Capt. Jack Sparrow outfits from Pirates of the Caribbean and a movie-worn Spider-Man costume. And buy buy buy American toys and comics... and you can even buy an 8-inch Fonzie doll dressed to jump the shark in that infamous Happy Days episode.
Do karaoke at a gigantic Shidax, visit NHK (the scandal-ridden Japanese equivalent of the BBC), gawk at gorgeous girls pouring in and out of all the high-dollar department stores...
In winter, darkness falls quickly. One moment, it's all gray light outside and the next, night. This is the Shibuya station. The snow was almost completely trampled into shiny wetness on the pavement by now. Some of it still clung to frosty life in the back alleys and in people's small gardens and yards.
My feet were frozen. I gave up my dancing plan because I didn't have spare shoes and I couldn't stand the thought of wearing my heavy, sodden Chucks for another 12 or 15 hours. After shopping a bit and walking around squishily, I decided to head back to Shinjuku and eat some shabu-shabu, then crash in my hotel room and watch Pride mixed martial arts on tv.
More holiday shoppers. The year was winding down fast. My New Year's wasn't as spectacularly debauched as I'd hoped or as it had been the past 5 years in a row, but it was different and I was feeling sort of light-headed from the excitement of being back in Tokyo, on my own, with almost 2 grand in my pockets and not having to work for another week.
These trees were decorated for both Christmas and New Year's. They made Shibuya even more like a fairy land. A commerce-driven, fashion-forward fairyland wired into the cybersphere and revolving around the Coolness Sun 1000 times faster than anyplace I'd ever lived before...
But before eating shabu-shabu, I stopped in this kick-ass guitar shop in Shinjuku. These are Rickenbackers!
This store has the best guitar selection anywhere I've been. None of the shops in Athens, that musical city of namedroppers and self-promoters, can compete. I don't think there are 3 Rickenbackers in that whole town, and this place had a stack of them. I could imagine Tom Petty and Peter Buck swooping in and buying the lot of 'em... but the price on that wood-finished one in the middle is around the $3000 range!