Arrival in Tokyo
25th of September
I have three flights today to get to Japan. Dublin to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to Dusseldorf and Dusseldorf to Tokyo. Getting tipsy feels like the best approach to getting through the day – I am reminded of a flight from the UK when I hand in an empty mcflurry container to be thrown out along with my boarding pass.
The cultural mix on the first plane leads me on a flight of fantasy. There are french speakers, German speakers (of course) and a man reading Polish. I am obviously an intrepid explorer, a Louis Theroux or a Bill Bryson. My horizons are unlimited.
The last flight is 11 hours long – it is my first exposure to the Japanese. To say I experience culture shock would be an understatement. Japanese sounds like a mouse running across a piano, all of the hosts and hostesses all affect the most bizarre false politeness and handfuls of people are wearing white masks over their nose and mouth (because they have a cold!). The hostesses wear a sort of weird bow/ scarf thing that makes them look like dolls.
I am wedged in between two Japanese passengers – one is wearing one of those masks – I don’t understand their body language for I need to go the toilet. I enter Japan feeling like I have caught the flu and my nose is constantly running. This clears though.
I learn immediately passing through immigration that I am in a ‘stand behind the red line’ country. You can tell a lot about a country from their immigration.
In Budapest I had a similar ‘stand behind the red line request’ (rich coming from a country with a GDP lower than Slovakia). Their paranoia comes across in their references to swine flu and Ebola. I also have the very strong suspicion that they have searched my bag as it is partially open.
I am of course also hit by the language. The characters make me feel like I am experiencing head trauma. The first character I learn and also the most important is the symbol for yen (shown below – I remember it sketchily as a window frame – in retrospect not a good idea since I will use various different window frames to try and remember Kanji characters).
Breaking from the diary format I will deal with two of my Japan themes.
Bicycles and Drugs.
Bicycles in Japan are one of Japan’s mistakes (of which there are many) – they often ride – two and three abreast on the footpath. Toddler seats are often on both the front and back of a bike (obviously the seat at the front of the bike is for the less loved child). Helmets are entirely optional and hardly used except for toddlers on bike – who I suppose are expected to be orphans of the bike ever crashes.
Some of the worst situations involve bikes coming from both directions or a slow walking old person coming from one direction and a bike from the other direction. The bikes do not consistently go on either the left or the right hand side of the path. This leads to me stubbornly walking on the left hand side and playing multiple games of chicken with bikes.
Unlike the unimaginative pedestrians – who walk forward like soldiers in a rigid straight line until they block you – the cyclists weave in tremendous zig zags across the path and then give you daggers when you obstruct their path in any way. One is left with a strong desire to push cyclists into bins or to engineer a crash between two cyclists (That would be delicious!).
Japan a country of paradoxes makes a special case of fucking up drugs. Alcohol and tobacco number one and six – on the most harmful drugs list are superbly mishandled.
Children can buy cigarettes from vending machines if they can use them undetected – which they can. And they are super cheap.I can not bring sudafed into Japan but for roughly two euro I can buy 250 ml of 70% sake.
On the other hand the mere whisper of marijuana is the equivalent of a moral air raid siren to Japanese ears. Two french ex-pat teachers tell me that one of their friends spent 5 months in prison in Japan before being extradited.
Negotiated extradition is the best that you can hope for. An American student who studied business and Japanese tells me that he thought about going to US Guam in order to be able to smoke a little reefer (recently legal on medical grounds there).
Guam it seems is a bit of a place for the Japanese and expats to let off steam. There is a song – ‘somewhere near Japan’, written by the beach boys – about two honeymooners going on a drugs bender on the island of Guam.
A 2003 Guam Drug Threat assessment – possibly a good bit out of date by now – suggests that Japanese tourists pay extortionate rates for machine rolled spliffs.
According to DEA, in the second quarter of FY 2002 marijuana sold for $12,800 per pound. In addition, marijuana sold for $800 per ounce, and $20 per joint. The drug typically is distributed at the retail level in machine-rolled joints. In spite of law enforcement efforts, marijuana is more readily available on Guam than in Japan.
As a result, many young Japanese tourists seek the drug during their visits. The price of one machine-rolled joint for sale to a Japanese tourist ranges from $150 to $200, considerably more than the $20 paid by local users.
I learn from a Canadian friend that I made in Japan something I knew already knew. This bizarre drugs attitude is an asia wide phenomenon that is perhaps even worse in Korea. He had a friend who orders Amyl Nitrites over the internet in Korea until the legislation changed and there was a court case. They tested his hair and everything and he can never go back to Korea. I also chuckled a good bit at the mention of these drugs – for people who don’t know – these drugs are ‘poppers’ – stimulants that relax the sphincter muscle in preparation for anal sex.
Back to the Journal
So it is our first night there and we go to a place where you can get cheap rice and curries. I make the mistake of trying to pay up front – this is obviously not how it is done. Payment is put in trays – change is painfully and meticulously counted out in front of you. First the notes – fanned in front of you – and then the change – they take you hand and hold it so that they can give you the change.
Dreams: That night I dream something about a giant tree which I take to represent safety and support. More dreams with me being in a rapidly descending plane – I can also instantaneously teleport from the plane and going swimming.
I am in a hotel or apartment I am looking for the best bedroom in the place to sleep in – in one of the rooms there is a hollow back to one of the wardrobes which opens into a passage. There are about three paintings on the shelf. Only one I can fix in my memory – it is a painting of a woman on all fours crawling away from the viewer – she is elaborately dressed in period costume. My dreams are further haunted by all of my past romantic encounters.
26th of September?
The next day we got up at 10:30 am which felt quite late. Today tim wanted us to go to Akihabara- the anime and games part of Tokyo. The area used to be a pedestrianised area until a stabbing spree there in 2008.
This is the place where foreigners are supposed to go. On the way there and walking through Akihabara I am struck by the extent to which Tokyo is designed to get through to its citizens and consumers on the level of sound.
Each train stop on the JR Yamanote line on the way to Akihabara has its own musical theme. Also the traffic lights either chirp like birds or play musical themes while loud and often multiple PA systems assault you both on the street and inside shops.
We then go to the Sega arcade – or arcades because it is over maybe 7 or 8 levels. The top two of which are exclusively photo booths. There are masses of people playing with playing cards and placing them on top of screens. We play this mad air hockey game with dozens of pucks/ discs and play a game where the sole object in the game is to throw a table at your wife.
Heading home and throughout the day – more observations of the Japanese people – they seem to be nearly all thin and shirts seems to be a style as does the liberal/ over wearing of high heels. There are also a lot of collared dresses and sailor school uniforms.
We went to shinjuku but because of the scale of the place and the number of places we aborted the plan.
Dreams: I dream that I am in skyscraper and at the top Tim is smoking into an extractor – he is told to stop. This dream I take to relate to themes of freedom and escape with a sneaky reference to the Japanese counterintuitive smoking laws. Further dreams about fighting pirates and pouring out cutlery onto the table with the intention of using it against the pirates.
I watch a video which says that connection is the opposite to addiction and I agree with it and reference to one or both of our two roommates that we are friends with the Canadian one and the American one.
The next day – whatever it is
Today we got up late after weirder and weirder dreams for me. We decided to go to Harajuku to visit the Meiji shrine. I got a Suici public transport card and lost it and had to buy another one. This notwithstanding I feel I have mastered rail as far as I am concerned. I now think of Tokyo around the framework of the Yamanote line – the same way I saw Manhattan around the subway.
The shrine was interesting as were the crazy streets surrounding it. Later we walked through some shrine like buildings – seeing giant catfish and strange cusbist lions.
There was a strange mirror room in the shrine that made me think of some sort of dreamscape. We went to MacDonalds – it was largely the same as in ireland – before heading to the Tokyo tower. We had to go to the middle before heading to the top. There was a cracking noise in the lift as we headed up but we were reassured that it was just a safety mechanism.
At the top of the tower I watch the city for its rhythms and record the traffic moving in slow motion. I watch the movements of the city while listening to ‘roybigv’ by Boards of Canada.
Dreams: more dreams about being in a tower. Dream about living in a small apartment – I wonder whether this does – and it probably does relate to the cramped apartment I live in. over the course of the trip I will break one or more lats and have a roll out futon run over my foot several times. More dreams about previous romantic relationships – all negative. A homeless woman puts out a cigarette on my phone – this I take it relates again to the very confusing smoking situation in Japan.
2 hours of naval gazing on life and future direction.
When people ask me what I want or what I want to do in life is it so much to ask for a conceptual framework which can help me understand and systematize the world around me – sometimes this seems like a full time job.
A comment about me going ‘full tourist’ in response to a photo of me with a wooden sword upsets me.
Reflections on needing to let go of things.
I am once again walking around Tokyo and struck by a childlike curiosity. Walking around Ireland I normally feel dead but here things are so different I just want to find out about everything.
- What creatures live in the sea of Japan?
- What creatures live in the Bering sea?
- What is the history of the Yakuza?
- What does the character at the start of the word Otsuka mean?
- Why do petrol pumps hang from the roof in some petrol stations?
- Would these questions inspire innovative thinking when brought back to Ireland?
It is at the shrine that I begin the first of my minor obsessions – this one with Torii gates.
Torii is 鳥居 in Kanji. ‘bird’ + ‘exist’.
They are gates rich in symbolism which separate the sacred from the profane. There are often a couple in the lead up to a shrine and they are supposed to be places where worlds overlap.
In a park near our apartment there are more Torrii gates leading up to shrines and for whatever reason (probably because they are fed) cats tend to hang out around both Torri gates and shrines. It is proper weird.
Yesterday we went to the museum of modern art in Tokyo and walked in the grounds of the imperial palace.
Inari = Fox god of Sake.
It was difficult trying to get Tim out of bed as he had not slept till 7am. I went to the park as he was getting up. The park offers a good pulse of the city. Kids dance and exercise at certain points of the day and adults do Tai Chi in the morning. Adults have their lunch – a clash of the old and new – people burning incense at the same time as eating Mac Donalds – this is one of Japan’s strange paradoxes. Like the lower end diner, Denny’s, being a classy restaurant in Japan. Today I notice people using flags at traffic lights – signalling for people to cross – even though the lights are working.
Later that evening we get talking to the American and Canadian in the house and power into our drink. These conversations with people are where I learn the most about what it is like to live in Japan.
We learn a lot of interesting things and have a wide ranging conversation about different countries. We talk about the dangerous nature of Venezuela where our Canadian friend was robbed by a bunch of people. Later they found one of the thieves and attacked him but the police came – but of course took the tourist’s side – the police got back our Canadian friends money and then – we are told – took the remainder for himself.
Our Canadian friend tells us that he managed to get thrown in jail/ a prison cell in Ireland on St. Patrick’s day which I tell him is pretty specialist to be able to do. He also told us about travelling in the Golden triangle of Cambodia, Laos and Thailand – and the various bribes and handing ins of your passport which this required. He talked about how the people looking for the bribes would leverage the prospect of making you a person without nationality in a no man’s land in order to extract their bribes.
Our American friend then in his turn told us about how he had went out drinking with some english and been seduced by some Japanese women – or otherwise – the story is hazy – to go to the ATM and take out 75,000 yen – which is quite a chunk of money. Drop two zeros and take 30% off to reach the euro amount – ish.
He also talked about the clingy weirdness of Japanese friends he had made – people who had assumed that he would be their bff for life and when he did not reciprocate they deleted him on fb. It took him ages to decode the Kanji characters in the messages from these new Japanese friends.
Our American friend studied Japanese and business but he is not sure what he wants to do with his life. Both of our friends – the American and the Canadian one – are self-styled ‘into the wild’ types – they seem lost or like they are running from something but ultimately open minded and generally accessible and engaging to us.
30th of September
Dreams: There is a fire in a prefabricated house/ clubhouse or caravan. It starts from a lightbulb and I am trying to retrieve something from there. I am told it is dangerous to be there and that I may be burnt. I am told there are IRA members in the area after us and they show up to intimidate us but they are actually just playing a prank on us. I am trying to work my way down a mountain and a cliff face. Someone passes me a phone.
Today I go to Ebisu after splitting off from Tim – this is after we go to Denny’s this is because I had not seen this area before. It seems like basically quite a long street but it is not exactly what I had imagined I walk for a long time before going back.
I start to develop another of my minor Japan obsessions this time it is about crows.
The crows in Tokyo break up into two types – jungle crows and carrion crows and they are completely different to Western crows or the sorts of crows you would find in Ireland. Crow is Karasu and their are signs everywhere
In Kagoshima prefecture they actually have crews of people to remove crows from the top of transformers. They started crow patrols in 2005 but in response the crows make decoy nests.
The jungle crows practically own a part of Ueno park which makes me call all of Ueno park – Crow City. They are giant and become massively defensive of their territory.
I went to an Italian restaurant with Tim that absolutely butchered any Italian Culture. It was like an alien recreation of an Italian restaurant. There were different photos of Naples – random and badly framed shots- none given any prominence all over the walls. The toilet had a photo of a random cathedral – lit by a special fixture light. I hit my head off the light trying to raise the toilet lid after it had already opened and closed.
Upon returning to the apartment. We have a three hour talk with our American friend. Topics included people who had gone to prison, Guam being a party town for Japan and the generic nature of the tattoos that people pick. Other topics of our conversation include the guys father who went of fly fishing for long periods of time. The difficulties with Japanese girls who like to lead guys on despite being involved. The expense of American education. People who know where they are going in life like his friend who got picked up by Mitsubishi to work upon leaving college.
When telling Tim about his sleep talk he tells me about my sleep talking where I am trying to get away with speeding. I keep saying the words circles and triangles. Vague flashes of my dreams return to me now as I write this. There is a car which is crashed or damaged and I am trying to escape in it. I find L at the club and he is drunk. I play games on a machine. There is a lucid dream element where I look at my watch and it was incredibly distorted as it has been in many other lucid dreams.
We go to an all you can fry restaurant in Ikebukero and we were told by a member of restaurant staff that we needed to wait ‘100 hours’. The guy at the counter before him nearly freaked out when we said ‘eigo’ meaning ‘english’ before fobbing us off on this guy.
I discover the next day that I had 59 euro in change because instinctively I spend the notes rather than the coins.
The Speakeasy bar
There is a meet up at the speak easy bar. It brings back a flash back from another meet up. A couch surfers meet up in Dublin where there was a guy. He was talking about this cheap bike that he has bought. He was talking about how he was very trusting of all people. At the end of the night the girl who was meant to host him on her couch bailed on him in a most unkind and unreliable fashion. He looked at me with pleading eyes – he told me that we had established a good friendship in the few hours since he met me. And I was like you should not have trusted people.
5th of October 2015
I have a stormy/ turbulent night of dreams. Previous dreams have involved me losing my bags or my baggage. I know that these relate to losing or changing identity. This nights dream involved kicking a car apart (with great difficulty) I had to put all of my weight on the window in order to break it (Car relates to themes of control).
Mixed and horrible dreams about all previous romantic encounters. I am reminded of the way in which memory works and an essay by Bert o States on the girl of his dreams. It discusses the vagaries of memory and talks about a girl who Bert had not thought of in years springing into his memory with full force one night.
It also evokes the image of Shutter island where his dead wife reminds him that she is just dust and bones. The music and the scene create a timeless and otherworldly landscape.
I awake disturbed and more sensitive to experience. The distant sound of a motor bike through the vent brings me back to reality. I wonder whether this increased sensitivity is a good or a bad thing. Increased sensitivity equals an enhanced capacity to feel but also to feel more pain.