As I sip on my glass of Heartland sitting down to write, a bartender wearing black denim short-shorts fades out "Fight For Your Right" blasting off the PA and switches to "Englishman in New York." It makes me chuckle. She shrugs and says "I figured it probably wasn't your style." She was correct.
This is my second or third time I got to stay in ShimoKita, the first place in Tokyo that I, after more than a dozen visits in three decades, felt like I could possibly live in. And as much fun as I've had in every trip I made, I was never sold on the idea because, for better or worse, Tokyo is a lot to take in.
On top of my cringe list is the cost of public transpo. You can eat cheap by hitting 7-elevens and Famimas, soba stands, or any of the American franchise fast foods that are executed in the signature Japanese precision. Looks like Airbnb will be tacitly tolerated until 2020, so the accommodations can be reasonable. But if you wanna run around and explore every corner and neighborhood, you will end up spending some dough on public trans. And unlike Berlin or Paris, there is no one pass to "rule them all.” There's the popular Japan Railpass which only covers JR lines and can be useful if you plan to stretch outside of Tokyo, but in the metropolitan area you'll most likely end up using subways and other regional lines outside of the Railpass eligibility. The worst part, though, is that it is MAD INTENSE.
There you go. Even Tokyo residents don’t have all of this figured out, since they often restrict themselves to certain lines (and their surrounding areas) which they have the commuter passes for, and that is almost the only way you get any discount for trains. Pasmo, Suica or any prepaid IC card options are certainly the way to go, as they can get you pass through any turnstiles at any station regardless of lines and companies, but the discount you get is minuscule.
Another kicker; you cannot use a credit card to purchase, or charge (add values to) these IC cards. And , once you get used to the convenience of these little suckers, might as well replace your visa in your wallet with one of these charged up to a few hundred bucks. You can use this at almost any convenience stores and vending machines for any quick fix for coffee, water, sandwiches, musubis and booze. And about when you start loving it, you drop it on the floor that millions of Tokyoites walk all over, and there goes your $45 that any teenager can pick up and use because it’s a fucking prepaid and not a credit or ATM card you can report lost or stolen.
Also, unless you need to get to a specific destination in a timely manner, hailing a cab is not worth it. And in my personal view, average cab drivers in Tokyo are no longer as knowledgeable as they once was. A lot of them seems to have come from elsewhere, looking for a job after being let go in the everlasting depression. Uber The only time you'll need to would be after the last train, which sneaks up on you quickly especially when you've been partying.
What would you do; dash to catch the last train like locals, or push through till the first train like locals?
Then comes another factor; I eat and drink like there’s no tomorrow while I’m there. I just can’t hold back. FYI, Japanese food is not necessary healthy - actually carb heavy, salty and fatty. The most dangerous are the izakayas, which would stay open until the last patron leaves, and there are too many to count that are tucked into every tiny back aisle. You think America campions small businesses, you think again - there are literal miniature-sized-businesses everywhere; some brand new, some centuries old. I almost never go back to the same establishment twice.
Except for a few, like Lion; a “masterpiece cafe” sitting right in the now-shadier part of Shibuya since 1926, by presenting daily classical “concert” programs via one of the most gigantic, gorgeous and the oldest sound systems you’ll ever see in real life. The thing’s capital-case MASSIVENESS reminds me of organs I’ve seen in many european churches and halls. Their objective has been to provide the closest environment possible to sitting at these halls, back when attending any concert or even acquiring a legit soundsystem would’ve been a luxury beyond civilians’ budget. Of course they don’t allow any photography. I usually try my hardest to enter the premise and make my way upstairs as discreetly as possible, order my coffee and just chill. Not just to enjoy the sound and the discovery, but also to enjoy the quiet which is a rarity in this ever-awake society. I’ve seen some poor dads drop in here just to take a good nap on their lunch breaks. It’s kinda like going to a buddhist temple, only the alter is the sound system and the record collection. Believe me they look pretty fucking holy.
One thing that makes Tokyo very unique is its ambivalence, the co-existence of old and new, radical and traditional, self-restraint and uber-greed. As I mentioned in my Singapore post, some of the Asian metropolis have gotten Tokyo beat in some aspects, but this manic chaos in a fragile order is something that keeps drawing me in. All these polar-opposite elements that are forced to inhabit the limited space have had a major impact in modern-Japanese psyche and the creativity which led to forge this strange mutant of eastern and western (equal parts American and European) arts/culture, eventually giving birth to what we know and love.
ShimoKita, where I started writing this post, is just the case in point. Only a few stops away from Shibuya is a tiny neighborhood where residential, commercial and cultural quarters are interlaced in a seemingly harmonious manner. Widely known for the row of vintage clothing boutiques and the indie music scene, they have almost everything Shibuya or Shinjuku has with even more edge and quirk, while maintaining an old-school small town vibe.
While I was enjoying a gorgeous breakfast of chicken and basil toast at a modest but hip bakery cafe with very limited seatings, a lively grandma walked in and picked up a few of their artisan bread rolls only to realize that she had left her purse at home. While she counted all the change she had in her sweatpant pocket, a young clerk suggested that she pays when she'd come back later, but she insisted on walking home and back. A young one felt he couldn't let her do that for a mere few bucks, but eventually the Gram got her way and came back with a few bills within minutes.
Come to think of it, this might've been the moment that I thought I could possibly live here. #grannylove
I have a stock response whenever the conversation comes to where I'm from; "Love the place, hate the people."
Toyama literally means "rich with mountains." As meniotned in the earlier post, I was raised surrounded by 10,000+ feet of mountain ranges and a plankton-rich gulf that produces some of the best seafood in Japan. In the last decade, Buri (yellowtail) from the port city of Himi has grown into the Kobe-beef of sashimi that gets traded in Tokyo for way more money than we ever used to spend. I'm never reluctant to drink out of any faucet which connects to the water source in the said mountains we call Tateyama, the guardian deities of our land. The neighborhood grocery stores my mom frequent carry produces that come from no further than 5 miles away. The prefecture is known for the highest ratio of rice patties per arable land, the highest rate of home ownership, the highest rate of high/middle school graduation.
Then I have to list things about people; once, upon telling them that I've been living in LA for years, I was asked to "say something in English.” Growing up we only had access to 4 TV channels, 2 FM radio stations and one dance club. They'd never heard of Frank Zappa, Bobby McFerrin or Gamelan. They'd consistently vote for Liberal Democratic Party, GOP of Japan which has ruled since post-war Japan with the exceptions of few years here and there. They have this strange habit of staring each other down when walking by, almost like sizing you in whatever ways. Above all that, I never felt that I belonged there; outside of a few dear friends, there weren't many that I got to connect. As a mouthy chubby kid who "comes from money” I was bullied, and even after that was over I felt alienated. Save the details; I was miserable, and dead set on getting the fuck out of this place. Then I got myself a girl which eventually put everyone involved in a distress. Looking back, I see that we were all naive and overreacting, but on top of it all, while I was partying my education away, my father was diagnosed with cancer and 6 months later dead. After that, coming home became even less appealing. The situation at home is not much better, but I couldn’t spend 8 weeks traveling Asia and not spend some time there.
It was the longest solo stay in Toyama since I left, and the longer I stayed the happier I felt; not for me but for the people of Toyama. This is no longer the sleepy nowhere-town I grew up.
There's a brand new museum that has Picasso, Pollock, Chagall and more with a quirky rooftop playground overlooking the entire city. Another museum specialized in glass art (featuring installations by Dale Chihuly) also serves as a city library where kids come in to finish their homework. The old city center (which does not look old anymore) hosts a monthly market with craft beer vendors and live performance, along with an arthouse cinema, hipster coffeeshops and a pretty damn decent burger joint that puts Umami to shame. The JR station, now welcoming visitors from Tokyo via Shinkansen, offers too many dinner/souvenir options for me to cover them all. As a whole, the city seems quietly radiant and devoid of that depressing and insidious atmosphere I used to despise. I don't doubt that it still lacks many of the amenities that other major cities offer, and the population is still in decline. That being said, I kept hearing that many in my generation have been coming home after spending some time elsewhere, finding Toyama a much better environment to raise kids and/or start a business.
Then there was a healthy amount of nostalgia at work. Rather than driving, I got on a bike and rode around wherever I felt like; the places I used to frequent or somewhere that I'd only been once or twice. Some place that I knew that someone I knew used to go to. Everywhere I went had a tinge of familiarity that either evoked certain emotion or bring back imageries that's been stowed away in memory. I even reunited with the old friends whom I hadn't seen for 25 years. This was the first time that I really got to rediscover and enjoy myself in Toyama.
But I'd always known that it wasn't Toyama that I didn't wanna come back to.
In a few years, I will have spent half of my lifetime away from the motherland. My visits have been semi-regular, once every other year on average, but no longer than a couple of weeks at a time. And if I don't actively seek out the updates while you're outside of it, Japanese culture moves too fast to keep up with in that window. Culturally, I've strayed far enough from the roots to the point of ambiguity.
This country of mine, if I can still call it that, is not easy to get around. Toyama is merely 55min away from Tokyo if you fly. With a long-awaited Shinkansen the bullet train, 2.5hrs. A budget-friendly option that I chose, a night bus, leaves Shinjuku at midnight, drops you off at JR Toyama at 6:40am. The 10,000+ feet of mountain ranges surrounding my hometown make the ground transport grudgingly lengthy. Japan as a whole is more mountainous than an outsider would expect; Tokyo, which represents Japan to most, sits on the widest flat piece of land in the mainland, a disadvantage in the wartimes and a rare advantage for a Japanese city in the time of growth, whereas most other cities are built modestly by the waters or in the valleys, and connected by JR railroads and highways that are flawlessly maintained by tax, fares and tolls which definitely add up (more on this later). Depending on your destination, it costs more to travel domestically than abroad. I had been to more cities and places outside of Japan border than within, even before this crazy travel binge. So I figured, since I postponed my trip to China, I'd rediscover the country who issues my passport.
Hokkaido, along with Okinawa, is THE destination for many Japanese tourists; the wide open landscapes abundant in all kinds of food, and the gorgeous summer which most salarymen and their families can take advantage of. Once there, it's every bit that folks rave about and more; Yes, deers are everywhere and you'd better watch when driving. Yes, they have every food that Tokyo (or anywhere in Japan) has and more, even the rotating sushi puts Sugar Fish to shame. As with my past trips, I was lucky enough to explore this Great Northern with the kindness of locals who are as knowledgeable as enthusiastic, and even in just a few days I got to experience way more than expected. Like how getting on an overnight ferry across Tsugaru Straits reminded me of countless Enka songs that reference it (and of all the people who sang them to me in my youth). The clouds I saw on this drive deserve an entire post either here or IG. I happened to arrive here with Typhoon No.16, and sleeping in the rental Suzuki proved difficult when the storm kept rocking it. After staying in a decent hotel by Lake Akan with a perfect temp hot spring (sorry Kintamani) I still preferred the open-space oceanside free spa that I found roadside and shared silently with a stranger on a solo motorcycle tour on a moon-lit night.
After I returned my rental in Hakodate, I had about 6 hours to kill before I got on the night ferry. Asked the girl at Budget where I can drink solo within walking distance, she suggested Daimon street which kinda looked like another tourist trap; a dozen or so modest establishments all tucked in a designated block, almost like a curated version of Goldengai in Shinjuku. I walked around a few times unsure about this whole deal let alone where I can settle, then a bottle of shochu named "Peasants Daughter" caught my eye and decided on a good ol' izakaya stand.
I walk in, and the conversation stops just to seat me; the place seats just 6, and only 3 open and 2 are reserved. I order lighter fares, agedashi vegetables (cooked much like agedashi tofu, the first time I'd seen done) and seared whale which all goes down nice and easy. Once my Toyama-Cali background is revealed, the locals start to open up; they both work in construction but a gentleman in his mid-40s, the head of his own operation and ex-yakuza, offers a drink out of his bottle of shochu; Akane Kirishima. He starts speaking passionately about his current obsession with imo = potato shochu. Upon a sip I could immediately tell that he's done his research, so we get into it. Glass after glass that he buys me offer an amazing array of aromas and flavors that exceeds my expectation of what shochu can be. And if you know shochu, you can easily assume that by this point I am LIT. After 8 hours of drive across this great northern, 5 glasses of 40+ proof on an empty stomach surely takes you down. Bossman notices, and he orders his favorite dish which is nothing but a corn tempura. One bite and my mind is blown to pieces. I ask the chef what's in it, and he shrugs. "Corn." "...And?" "Corn. I mean, a hint of salt. But, you know, corn." Bossman goes "Didn't I tell you?"
"Let the ingrident speak for itself. Don't interfere. Save your creative intent and ego." I'm paraphrasing it, but that about sums up what I was told by a chef I met in Toyama several years back. Toyama or Hakodate, a good chef knows when s/he is privileged, and would not smear the goodness with your ideas or ambition. #notetoself
Then they share the stories of their industries and how the business is booming thanks to the forthcoming Olympics and the post-quake rebuilding efforts, both of which is not without major controversies. 2020 Olympics is like an adrenaline shot that the leaders think the aging Japanese society desperately needs from both the economic and moral perspectives. Our youth has been in depression for longer than a decade, struggling to find work, significant others or even hope to survive in the Fukushima age which now faces the fear of nuclear warfare with its unpredictable neighbor. Apparently the plan is working, attracting workforce from all over the country to Tokyo, but also is seen as a dilution of the resource from the rebuilding only a few hundred miles north, and the distraction from the ongoing situation where tens of thousands remain in temporary housings after 6 years. “There’s definitely work, if you’re willing” Bossman says, and proceeds to tell me about his friend who chose to go to Fukushima where TEPCO offers top wages for spending a mere few hours near or inside the plant. To the obvious question of whether they’re concerned about radiation and its effect, he replied “the radiation effect won't kick in till 20~30 years later and I’ve already had kids. By then I’d have some kind of health issues even if if weren’t for radiation, so why not make money and retire early?” Bossman says he’s not alone in this thinking.
One event in my life that reminded me of where I come from more than any other happened on my mom's 64th birthday.
Traci said, while getting ready for our set at The Mint, that there was an earthquake in Tokyo. I thought nothing of it, as we are a seismically active country. Once home, on my monitor, I watched black water spread across towns and fields, rapidly swallowing anything and everything in front. People desperately driving away from the swiping hands of tsunami. A fishing boat being washed down in the middle of city streets along with passenger vehicles and houses. Then the media focus gradually shifted to the events unfolding in Fukushima. The word Chernobyl started floating around. I called Toyama via Skype, Yo and I watched the livecast mostly speechless. We both knew that nothing would be the same from that point on.
The fact that I was an ocean away, unable to do anything other than to send money, or rather didn't do anything, is one of the biggest regrets of my life till this day. And I still don't know how to articulate what I saw and felt when I was there.
Soundchaser/two-time Independent Music Awards finalist. Currently travelblogging at #beatvagabond and working on new material.