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The Road Back To Tokyo

The Shinkansen

We took the Shinkansen from Kyoto back to Tokyo and it’s fast, it’s OMG fast. The line going the opposite direction passes you on rails six feet away and so quickly, just a rush of air, one heartbeat and gone, a quarter-mile of train snapping away like a rubber band. It’s basically impossible to take a picture of it, but if you like I can show you my white blur collection.

I’m used to traveling on ViaRail in Canada, and the Tokyo/Kyoto Shinkansen trip was a bit of a long slow shock. Both cities are huge, Tokyo in particular is vast and high-density and the rail line runs mostly parallel to the coast, so instead of spending your time looking out the window at hours of forests and farmland there’s only about twenty minutes on the three hour trip that don’t feel like you’re rocketing through the middle of a city, scattered around in two-minute chunks. On the trip out from Tokyo, I just kept staring out the window at the passing buildings thinking, Jeebus, does this place ever end?

I’ve never seen a city like Tokyo before, and it’s hard to believe that it can exist at all as it is. 12 million people or so and it’s clean enough that you could eat off the roads, none of which are in straight lines and many of which don’t even have names or even unique identifiers. But every morning it seemed like a brand new metropolis had been cut out of its shrinkwrap and carefully placed around us, pristine and barely used; I felt like I’d have to be a powerful man with powerful enemies and a shadowy past just to be able to find somebody willing to put gum on a sidewalk.

Tokyo Signage

The thing that kept reinforcing this impression was that a lot of the time Tokyo is quiet, eerily quiet. Step off a main road into any of the narrow, labyrinthine little streets that make up much of the city and you might as well have stepped onto the moon; the background hum you can hear in every city I’ve ever known is gone, baffled right down by the tall buildings and enthusiastically non-Roman road plan. So, is this when the ninjas jump out, I kept thinking? I can’t hear my theme music, so if they jump me now, I might not win.

Street Level Flora

Sadly I didn’t see any ninjas, but I suppose if I had they’d be sad ninjas indeed. Akihabara was enough of a letdown, I didn’t need to get randomly jumped by a bunch of second-rate martial artists. Next time, I’ll have to pack one of these, which I wouldn’t have thought would ever work, but now it’s hard to believe that it wouldn’t. I don’t think that I was more than twenty meters from a vending machine the entire trip.

Temple Gate Plus Vending Machine

But when we did find ourselves on a major road, near a train station or somewhere like Ginza or Harajuku, we’d find ourselves in the middle of a huge, noisy, frothing, enthusiastic mess of people, and walking through it felt like I was crowd surfing in the world’s most polite riot.

Harajuku was particularly awesome, some of the finest people-watching in the world. It’s a young person’s ‘hood, for sure, and the kids were dressed up and out to see and be seen, but the cosplayers were the real gold. There were weekend Elvises (one of whom had procured an enormous pink ’57 Cadillac from somewhere, a monster about six times the size of a typical Japanese car), crunchy-looking Goth girls, elaborately coiffed Harajuku Maids, cosplayers and vending machines that served iced coffee and beer. For a few moments, I wondered why I should ever be anywhere else.

Harajuku

There was even what looked like an impromptu battle-of-the-bands going on, though whoever won that, it was a pyrrhic victory for sure. From what I could make out, there was some boy-band signing session going on nearby, so the cosplayers were out in force, hundreds where there would “normally” only be dozens. It hit me there that all fashion is a strict subset of cosplay, and that the people who embrace that will be able to push at boundaries the rest of us can’t even see, and make the world a lot more colorful, interesting and fun for all of us.

And it also occurred to me, as I was crossing a bridge beer in hand and patient wife in tow to take some pictures of a horde of girls in goth-lolita outfits that life had somehow brought me to a point that I was in Japan with a beer in my hand and my wife humoring me as I went to take some pictures of a horde of girls in goth-lolita outfits, and I just started laughing, because it’s good to be me.

2 Comments | Skip to comment form

  1. turnberryknkn

    Thank you very much for sharing your trip with us.

    And your observations about Tokyo — my hometown for three years, from 10th – 12th grades, and then my family’s home for two years after that — are spot on, even after almost fifteen years. It is an amazing place.

    – Jeff H. (from rasfwr-j)

  2. mhoye

    I’m glad to hear you’re enjoying them; It was a pretty incredible place in a lot of ways, not the least of which was strictly I-find-it-difficult-to-believe-this-is-real sense.