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 always healthy; 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 sound system 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
Soundchaser/two-time Independent Music Awards finalist. New EP "Six Songs from Insomnia" is out on all major streaming platforms.