Friday, January 2, 2009

Akemashite omedeto gozaimasu!

That, I believe, means "Happy New Year" in Japanese. Since I didn't head back to the U.S. for my winter vacation this year, I spent New Year's in Tokyo. That's my year end/begin tradition. And unlike the last time, I had excellent weather to enjoy the walking... walking... walking... and more walking.

That's what I'll always remember about any of my trips to Tokyo-- the seemingly endless hikes through the train stations while completely lost and along the crowded sidewalks in Shinjuku, Shibuya, Harajuku and Ikebukuro. Walking.

I stayed at a hotel in Ikebukuro this time out. No more Kabuki-cho for me. As much as I've enjoyed my various stays in Tokyo's "infamous red-light district," which is supposedly chock full of organized crime, I opted for the quieter environs of Ikebukuro and its easy pizza accessibility. The hotel was in a low key neighborhood on the station's west side. Not much there other than the big OIOCity department store and, on New Year's Eve at around 11am, a really drunk guy who could barely stand.

The drunk was staggering about on one of the street corners from my hotel. Probably younger than I am, but much less sober. I watched him for a few minutes, but the longer I stood there the more paranoid I became that he'd decide to talk to a foreigner and choose the only one handy... me. Or that he might barf. I didn't want to watch him puke all over the place. And as he shambled with this peculiar bent-over posture towards the street, there came the growing possibility a car might run him down.

So I split for the pizza lunch buffet at Shakey's. Which I absolutely could not find. I ended up walking through a concrete park full of homeless people in winter parkas, idling about, talking out loud to themselves. I'm sure I had a stupid look on my face, craning my neck and looking all around for some familiar landmarks that seemed determined to hide themselves from me. Feeling touristy, I decided to get out my guidebook and walk around marked as one of the Damned. That's when I learned I was on the opposite side of the station from where I wanted to be. My goal-- Sunshine-dori with its ever-popular Shakey's Pizza buffet restaurant-- was on the station's east side and I was on the west. I ended up eating fried chicken at KFC.

I spent the rest of the day in both Akihabara (I found a neat trick to get there faster but it involves a train change), Harajuku and Shibuya. I hit the new H&M in Harajuku and bought as many pairs of their comfortable and stylish pants as I could afford. Black and pinstripes, for work and for leisure. I'm going to be the hippest old man in Hamamatsu this winter.

In Shibuya I had a delicious New Year's steak at Outback Steakhouse, served by one of the nicest and cutest people I've ever met. If we were in America, she'd have gotten a huge tip. We had a few short conversations as she kept coming by to check on me and after I stood up to leave, she smiled and pointed to my shirt, saying, "Kakoi desu!"

I know being friendly is her job as a server, but she put that little extra effort into it that really brightened my meal and made my legs seem less fatigued.

New Year's Eve. I ended up back at my hotel, wearing a comfortable robe and with the heat cranked up in my room. I had lots of books and plenty of crazy stuff on TV to watch and fail to comprehend. Lots of comedians doing humiliating things, getting beaten with short staffs by men in black vinyl body suits, professional wrestling, a symphony orchestra playing Mozart. Not as exciting as my last few New Year's Eves in Athens, Georgia, which were filled with drunken dancing and merriment until dawn.

But these days I tend to prefer quieter times, especially when it's cold out.

New Year's Day is generally fairly quiet in Tokyo. The shopping areas were busy. I wandered around Ikebukuro and finally had my huge pizza lunch at Shakey's. Unfortunately, I didn't get any of what we Americans consider "normal" pizza; instead, I had to settle for corn-topped varieties and other pizza exotica. Shakey's Pizza does not compare in any way to what we can enjoy back home (and I'm sure pizza-lovers in places like New York and Chicago would mock my love for Shakey's relatively pathetic offerings), but it's cheap and it's all-you-can-eat. I probably ate the equivalent of a pie-and-a-half.

Then I found Sunshine City, a huge shopping and entertainment complex. To get there, I walked some lonely, barren streets with shops and stores closed for the holiday. The winter wind blowing in my face only increased my feelings of isolation. Then, I was in Sunshine City, surrounded by thousands of people bundled up in stylish jackets. There's a Starbucks there and a Burger King. Starbucks, of course. It's Japan and Starbucks (or "Staba" as it's called) is as omnipresent as it is back home. Perhaps more so.

But Burger King is making inroads in this McDonald's-dominated market. From one store to at least three now. Maybe more. How the hell should I know? What am I, some kind of fast food guru? The Whopper is loose in Japan again and I still haven't tried it. To counter the Whopper, McDonald's is finally offering their quarter pounder here. The McDonald's I saw all had prominent posters featuring the Double Quarter Pounder. And they do look inviting, until you remember it's McDonald's so the beef patties are as thin as playing cards and about as tasty.

The strangest thing was making my way at random to the basement and riding the people-mover sidewalks until I found myself coming out near the Shakey's Pizza again. How fun! How convenient!

After that, I rode the train over to Shinjuku to do some research for a short story I'm writing and to buy some Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Under the massive skyscrapers, near the huge Takashimaya Times Square building on the station's Southern Terrace I found doughnut heaven again. And a long line. The sign promised a forty minute wait, but it turned out to be more like twenty-five. I know because I timed it. I got a free glazed doughnut just for showing up.

One enterprising guy actually stood in line, received his doughnut gratuity, then left the line and fed it to his dog. I don't know if his dog was merely hungry or he was making a comment about the quality of the doughnut. The dog didn't complain. And neither did the little toddler I saw taking healthy bites of the sugary treat his mom held for him.

"Oishii?" she asked, but his eyes were already bulging from the sugar rush and he was about to start levitating.

On January 2nd, I had to hurry and check out of my hotel and make it to the Imperial Palace for the Emperor's New Year's Greeting. I did this a couple of years ago in the rain but this year we had brilliant blue skies. A crisp day. I planned to see the 11am greeting, but even though I arrived on the grounds at 10:30, going through security and hiking to the palace itself took about 45 minutes. And baby, once you're in the crowd in front of the emperor's balcony, you do not get out.

There's no escape. You're elbow to elbow, people are checking their cellphones, a German couple are standing by, the husband with his video camera ready, the wife paging through an English-language advertising magazine to kill time. Then suddenly the "Rising Sun" flags are waving and men are lustily shouting "Banzai! Banzai! Banzai!"

The crowd hushes and the Emperor says something along the lines of, "Happy New Year. It's good to see you all. I hope we can all enjoy peace and prosperity in the coming year. Also, I hope for a new acting collaboration between Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt because I just can't get enough of them."

I'm paraphrasing, but you get the basic idea. Then the Imperial family waves and everyone shouts and applauds and their paper flags rattle in the wind.

The greeting only lasted a few minutes, but the walk back to Tokyo Station took almost an hour. Lots of shuffling and photos. The palace gates, while beautiful, are not really conducive to masses of people. We'd be making good progress, hit one of the photogenic garden gates and be reduced to shuffling again. And by then my back and my piles were aching something fierce. I felt about 80 years old.

I had to keep myself in motion, though. My suitcase was back at the hotel and my shinkansen was going to leave Tokyo Station right on schedule at 3:05pm. I hit Kinokuniya in Shinjuku for a few more books, then got the suitcase and made it to the shinkansen platform with ten minutes to spare. I even got to watch the cleaning women in their pink uniforms finish sweeping up the cars and putting the little white linens on the back of everyone's seats. I was continuously standing or walking from approximately 10am until just before 3pm.

And that was my New Year's trip to Tokyo, 2008-2009. Photos are forthcoming for my Facebook friends, and I'll post a few choice ones here.

I hope your 2009 is blessed and nothing but good things come your way.


Greg G said...

Akemashite Omedeto Joel. Hope you have a great 2009.

Anonymous said...

A great story! Really enjoyed reading that. I'm in Hamamatsu too & have just stumbled on to your blog. Have you ever been to Dai Dai? If you like pizza then that is without a doubt the best place to go in Hamatown!

Joel Bryan said...

Thanks! I've never been to Dai Dai but I'll definitely check it out! This blog is always open to restaurant suggestions!

Nenena said...

Holy crap, you were at all the places that I was at this New Years! My friend Meredith and I *were* at the palace for the 11 am greeting (but we got there about 9ish, that's how long it took us to get through security). And yeah, we spent most of our vacation traipsing around Ikebukuro, Akihabhara, and Harajuku. Mostly Ikebukuro, though, for the girl-friendly porno shops. Ahem.

Joel Bryan said...

Nenena- Wow! We probably walked right past each other at some point! Haha... I think I know where in Ikebukuro you must've been. Haven't been there meself but I did read about such a place in my guidebook!

But wasn't the weather just right for walking around?

Nenena said...

Oh gosh yes, it was gorgeous!