Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Tokyo Take I - A Spring Underneath A Fly-over


I love cities. Love them. Specially those cities which have been around long enough and have been successful enough to have climbed from the bottom rung of Maslow's Need Hierarchy ladder to a point where they are not just about making money or just getting by but also about something more - something that characterizes them and gives them a personality of their own. I've been lucky enough to have spent time - months, years or even just days in some of nicest ones...and some of the not-so-nice ones. And then there's Tokyo - a city that I've had a bit of a love-hate relationship with, for several years.

Tokyo was the first city outside India that I saw way back in a different century - in the spring of 2000. And Tokyo dazzled me. Everything was new and shiny (the buildings built during the real estate bubble were still pretty young), the airport bus seemed to whizz through the night without a sound. The roads were super-smooth, the people extremely polite, the cabs had doors that opened and close on their own (Woe betide the tourist who touched the door handle; you'd wilt under the drivers' glare like a cherry blossom under the attack of the Monilinia Laxa fungus). Tokyo seemed to give the impression of nature having been comprehensively conquered by man. At least in Roppongi where I lived, everything seemed to have been tamed. Nearly every surface had been covered by concrete and where natural soil was visible, it was buried under small, well tended patches of shrubbery or trees. Perhaps the crowning achievement in my eyes was the infinitely complex flyover system - which were sometimes as high as six or seven storeys, usually had multiple layers and crested and dipped multiple times without touching ground before they got you to your destination.

Roppongi is the main expatriate district in Tokyo, where the gaijin (foreigners) tend to cluster. I lived a block off the main street linking Roppongi with Akasaka, a staid business district where my office was located. I'd been put up in a respectable sized service apartment where the only thing they didn't do was take care of the laundry (loved it).

Roppongi is famous for its raucous night life - sleazy (and some classy) strip clubs, hostess bars and just plain-sex joints - abutting expensive sushi bars, the odd McDonald's and Hard Rock Cafe, and high end clubs like The Lexington - favorite haunt of the hot expat models in the city (They really are pretty hot...I know cos I went there in keeping with my hot-blooded straight male disguise :).

Akasaka was only a 20 minute walk from Roppongi. In the evenings, walking back home from work across Roppongi's main drag, it was pretty common to be accosted by a bouncer (often the only black man on the street), shown a racy photograph and asked in plain hearing of the expats crowding the sidewalks - "Want some hot p***y?" It could really be as simple as that. And many men - including several on my trading desk - took advantage of what was on offer. (Un?)Fortunately my appetites didn't drive me in that particular direction.

In some ways though, I had an easier time with menu choices than my other three vegetarian batch-mates who spent nearly the entire two months eating veggie Subways for lunch and curd rice for dinner - not daring to buy much from grocery shops, where no one seemed to know English and where all the labeling was in Japanese; petrified that what tasted like tofu could just as well be dried sea urchin.

Tokyo also intimidated me...an admission it took me some time to make. In many ways it was too ordered and too strange for me. I found it hard not to cross the street at 3:00am at night when the pedestrian light was red. Or not to count the change that the cabbie gave me (Its considered insulting - though he always seemed to count mine!) Or to not poke some of those dang slippery sashimi pieces with chop-sticks (also considered rude). I remember being especially freaked out the first (and only) time I tried to use the Tokyo Metro and found people standing in neat queues on the platform to get in. The Bombayite in me couldn't handle the concept. I never went back. And growing up in multi-lingual India had not prepared me for Japan's monocultural experience. If you didn't know the language and couldn't read Kanji there was few people you could speak to and few things you could read. It was a curiously isolating , even numbing experience - to walk around in the crowded streets, people chattering, neon signs blazing and still not be able to absorb 95% of it (except usually for street signs). Laptops and the internet - the lonely traveler's saviours - were not ubiquitous then and I certainly did not have access to them.

Finally...Tokyo annoyed me. I found Japan perplexingly difficult to get a handle on - partly I'm sure, because of the language barrier. Maybe people were just being their reserved selves, but the system at times seemed hostile to foreigners in a passive-aggressive way. I spied that hostility in several isolated things - In the fact that at Tokyo Tower they charged tourists more than what they charged locals (yes they do the same at the Taj but then India wasn't the second largest economy in the world at the time). In the way they did not have any English or foreign language signage at this beautiful temple outside Tokyo that I went to with my friends. In Mayor Ishihara's massive popularity and repeated ability to get re-elected when he was known to have isolationist tendencies (7 years later he is still mayor)...Or in the fact that multiple-generation Koreans born in Japan were not automatically given citizenship because their ancestry cannot be traced back to a Japanese lineage. And then there was the widely recognised and accepted chauvinism in Japanese society. One of the Indian swap traders I worked with, joked about how the culture fit him well since it was even more chauvinistic than India.

Why did I care? I don't know - But I decided to snub Tokyo - I withdrew to what was most familiar in a foreign country - no not the local Indian restaurant - but, ironically, the representative symbols of HollywoodLand. So I ate at Subway and the New York Diner, hung out at the Hard Rock Cafe and rented English movie videos to watch, nearly every night. That time spent wasn't a complete waste, btw - I saw some really good movies in really clear video prints for once. I didn't venture out once to electric Akihabara or glitzy Ginza. Apart from one-off visits to Shibuya and Shinjuku and the wonderful Ueno zoo I pretty much stayed in Roppongi.

So at the end of my two months in Tokyo, having not strolled by a single blooming cherry tree, I left, rather gratefully for India. My lasting impression of Tokyo was one of mild claustrophobia caused by feeling hemmed in by the multiple-storey high, multi-layer flyover that ran the entire distance between Roponggi and Akasaka. The flyover blocked out the sun along the entire route and, given that most of my time outdoors was spent walking from home to office and back, left me with a rather industrial cast-in-concrete memory of the city. Not surprisingly I was in no hurry to go back.


Anonymous said...

The posting had heart. Loved how you 'snubbed' tokyo. true sass. :)

Uday Chandra Karrothi said...

I agree ..postings are getting personal. I am waiting for the Take ||. May be the perception changed a bit.

I think not all countries are super friendly to the tourists.

Cheery Cynic said...

almost reminds me of croatian rhapsody (strange how music can relate so well to people, places and situations....)
(what you expected any thing other than self absorved cryptic comments from me?) :O

Uday Chandra Karrothi said...

still waiting for take II on Tokyo!!