Tag Archives: shinjuku

SAY IT’S A GAME AND I’LL COME TO NO HARM

Most of the time, I try as hard as possible to block advertising out of my brain. It’s dull and ever more aggravating. It’s always the same. Then I see something I haven’t seen before, and I think ‘wow! That deserves my attention!’ But after I’ve seen it about ten times, it’s exactly the same as everything else. With the exception of the Freshup ad.

For the first three weeks of being here, I was constantly in that ‘wow’ phase. On billboards, trains, massive TV screens – seemingly everywhere – I could see advertising images I had never seen before, and it was like being in a foreign country, as Ian Rush might say. It struck me that perhaps wherever I go, I will experience this initial fascination with advertising. Like, it’s so pervasive everywhere in the industrialized/developed world, and the products are so different everywhere, that it’ll always be the first thing I notice.

Now, I’ve stopped staring intrigued at DoCoMo posters on the train. I’ve almost reached the same stage I was at back home, an attitude of ignorance to the extent possible. It probably helps that it’s mostly in written language I don’t understand (with a few exceptions, like http://www.jti.co.jp’s intriguing campaign), but I get the feeling it would be the same in America or the UK or anywhere else. Advertising’s really, really interesting until you realise it’s the same thing as everywhere else you’ve been: companies selling things.

My kids classes went well this week. I prepared the shit out of them, so that when we got in there I knew what I was going to do, when I was going to do it, plus I set stronger rules and reward schemes so they didn’t run about the place. We played a lot of Spiderman, which is exactly the same as Hangman except with a spider instead of a person – more politically correct, I s’pose. Images of a crudely drawn stick figure being hung by the neck from a decidedly unsound structure never perturbed me as a child, but hey, I’m just following the book. Needless to say, the adults classes went fine, and people have actually started signing up for my lessons because I am teaching them. Apparently. This is what staff members have told me, anyway – it could just be a confidence-boosting thing. Whatever, I’ll take it.

After my last kids class on Wednesday, I was looking out the window, and I got my best smog indicator yet. Back in NZ, if you look directly at the sun for longer than half a second, you’ll destroy your eyes. (I did this often as a child, actually: I would stare at it until it went a kind of shimmery blue colour which wouldn’t get out of my vision for about two minutes. True story, and probably the reason for my rapidly diminishing quality of eyesight.) Here, the sun appears to be smaller and more orange in colour, filtered as it is through thick clouds of smog that hang over the city. I reckon you could get away with two or three seconds of staring at it before it burnt out your vision. It probably also means I might finally be able to get a tan and not just go bright red within five minutes of taking my shirt off. That’d be nice.

Finally, I went back to Shinjuku on Friday and had dinner on the 29th floor of the NS building, looking out over the night skyline with the Park Hyatt in the foreground. Unfortunately I forgot my camera, but you can trust me when I say it was quite stunning. The food wasn’t bad, either. I’ll have to go back and take some pictures.

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BLOCK OUT THE SUN OVER ME

On Thursday I met my friend Yutaka after training. (I was so excited I forgot to punch out my timecard.) He’s a tour guide in Christchurch, but has been back in Japan until tomorrow, so he offered to show me some things in Shinjuku. First, some skyscrapers.

West Shinjuku is known in Tokyo as ‘the skyscraper district’. There must be somewhere between 10 and 20 buildings that are 35 stories or more. Pretty much all of them are about 80-90% offices, with supermarkets on the ground/basement floors and restaurants on the highest floors. Some of course, have observation areas, so we checked a couple out. The most impressive was the tallest building in the city, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Buildings, with its twin towers and modern interiors.

Generally I would say a view’s a view and there’s no point explaining it, but this was special enough to warrant more than just a photo or two. In every direction, buildings cover the land (apart from the parks, like Yoyogi), all the way out past your field of vision. This means there is an obscene amount of pollution, so you can’t really see that far – like, if it was NZ, you’d probably be able to see Mount Fuji, but here you can only see it about twenty days a year. The point, though, is that one has to marvel that a lot of this sprung up in the wake of World War Two. That’s 50 years to get from near-decimation to arguably the most impressive, advanced and certainly largest metropolitan area in the world.

From there we went to an alley crammed full of very traditional yakitori bars: tiny establishments serving mostly barbecued meat on sticks to salarymen. The ‘men’ there is key, because while we there, I would’ve only seen about four or five women out of the hundreds of people dining in the alley. Every time a pair or group of young girls walked past, Yutaka would say they were probably from out of town, because local women would always go somewhere else and leave the blokes here to drink, smoke and banter.

I quickly realised the art of choosing which establishment to enter. First, you want one that’s full (or nearly full) of people. If there’s nobody there, that’s usually for a good reason: the food’s inferior. Better to have to keep your elbows tucked in tight and enjoy incredible food than be able to spread out and not want to finish what’s been put in front of you. Second, the chef shouldn’t be too vocal. The vast majority will be calling out ‘Douzo’ (please), ‘Irrashaimase’ (formal welcome) and ‘Oishii desu yo’ (It’s delicious), loudly and almost desperately. The good chefs a) are too busy cooking to yell at potential patrons walking by; b) know their stuff is so good that people will come anyway.

Which brings me to the food. I… words fail me. Certainly one of the best meals I have ever had, and a dream experience. We had mung bean sprout/chicken liver salad, seasoned pork/spring onion skewers, macaroni/tuna/ham salad, tofu/pork/radish stew, seasoned chicken mince skewers (a house specialty), and seared bonito slices (just amazing), accompanied by several Asahi beers. I’ll post a photo soon, but seriously, every last thing was incredible. And we were sat right in front of the charcoal broiler, so we could watch the chef work. Everybody was friendly, too – obviously quite surprised to see a foreigner in a place like this, but keen to communicate.

We then met an Aussie guy and a couple of American girls, so we had a few drinks with them, which was cool. I found myself talking like a teacher: smoothly and very demonstratively. Perhaps not a good thing, but I’ve resigned myself to it, because these procedures and philosophies I’m being trained in won’t allow themselves to be put to one side. Actually, maybe it is a good thing. I’ve never been very good at verbal communication, so if if the only downside of changing that is sounding like I’m in an infomercial, I guess I should embrace the trade-off. Either way, it hasn’t been that difficult thus far. Kids training next week! Singing and dancing! Woohoo!

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PEOPLE WON’T BE PEOPLE

I made my way to Shinjuku this morning for the first day of training. As is customary, I missed the turnoff and walked about three times as far as I should have, before realising my mistake and turning back. I found the building, sweaty and harried, with 5 minutes to spare. Wahey.

(By the way, the weather is different between Chigasaki and Shinjuku. In Shinjuku, it is sticky and energy-sapping. I think it’s all the tall buildings reflecting heat into the street, or something. Down here in Chigasaki, it is comfortable – warm but not too hot, not humid, occasionally with a pleasant breeze. But you didn’t come here to talk about the weather, and anyway, it’s all going to change very soon – the Rainy Season is almost upon us…)

Once inside the training room, with four fellow trainees (all Australians), I realised I hadn’t brought a pen. Good start. Our trainer looked and spoke a bit like Simon Amstell, so when he noticed me looking around uncomfortably at form-filling-in time, he graciously offered me his pen for the session… and took the piss out of me at the same time. What he couldn’t possibly have expected was that I would BREAK HIS PEN just five minutes later! What a ridiculous thing to do! I felt like a prize idiot, but he didn’t mind too much… he just took the piss out of me again.

The second trainer who took over at about 4 was a Yorkshireman who was into, among other things, avant garde hardcore and noisescapes such as the music of John Zorn. So far, not too challenging.

After the training finished, I went for a wander around Shinjuku, just to look at all the blinking lights and swiftly moving people. It was illuminating, to say the least. So many shops, bars, restaurants… all with staff outside shoving menus in your face and loudly chorusing for you to come inside. I didn’t buy anything – somehow. I also counted about four noisy buses circling the neighbourhood, obnoxiously but delightfully advertising various wares. Then I caught the train home, and the mass of people on the train network illustrated again how vast Japan’s (and especially Tokyo’s) population. People just don’t stop coming.

Now I’m back here, writing this, and thanks to Google I know that there’s a guy who did exactly the same. Here‘s his webpage, which I discovered some time ago, but only read through in the past couple of days. A lot of it is rather familiar. That’s my house! That’s my room! That’s my local bar! His writing is (I think) a lot more earnest than mine, but it’s pretty good, and worth a look. It makes me wonder whether I shouldn’t lighten up once in a while and just be stunned by my life at the moment, similar to how he was… but that wouldn’t be me, would it? I come at everything – even a completely new environment, with the hundreds of challenges that poses – with ruthless pragmatism and even a healthy dose of cynicism. It’s just the way it is. How would you react in my situation? Or how did you react? Am I doing it wrong?

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COUSIN NORMAN HAD A REAL FINE TIME LAST YEAR

On the way into Shinjuku from the airport, I was given a quick and effective illustration of how many people live in this country: apartment buildings. Some up to thirty or forty stories high, the majority containing literally thousands of apartment dwellings, these massive, ugly structures dominated the landscape all the way in. In some parts, there were six or seven all in one neighbourhood. For a moment I wondered how people could live like that, before realising that I myself could be doing just the same…

Once at Shinjuku, in the busiest train station in the world (over 2 million people though it every day), I eventually met up with the housing agent after waiting in the wrong place for half an hour. Shinjuku station has something like six exits, and I had been told to wait at the Starbucks near the east exit, so that’s what I did; unfortunately, they really meant the central east exit, which has another, different Starbucks despite being just two minutes’ walk away.

Aki, who was in fact American-born and raised (yet spoke decent Japanese), led me down to buy a train ticket to Chigasaki and on to the platform to wait. When our train arrived, it thankfully wasn’t at all full, so I could enjoy the journey in relative comfort. At this point I was so exhausted I could hardly take anything in – I remember talking about football, about cellphones, and a few structures viewed out the window, but little else.

So, to Chigasaki, and my new home. The taxi driver didn’t know where my building was, but after a call to the depot we kind of stumbled upon it. To my relief, it wasn’t another enormous eyesore designed to cram in as many people as possible; rather, it was a modest two-storey building with only (I think) four apartments. I have to agree with my flatmates: my room kind of sucks, but it’s certainly no worse than what I had back in Christchurch.

Last night I decided to go down to the local conbini and buy dinner. The roads are so narrow, man – wide enough for a car and a bicycle side-by-side, but not two cars. And at a T-junction, there were some flashing lights embedded in the road that I couldn’t be bothered figuring out the meaning of. Then there’s the housing, virtually none of which is actual houses – it’s all small apartment buildings like the one I’m in. And with the streets so narrow, they can squeeze more of them into a neighbourhood.

I bought ready-made spaghetti bolognese, sushi and kare-pan for dinner. All of it was good, and cheap. This, and much more, is available at any convenience store in Japan – a colleague back in NZ told me to go along and check it out, because I might be pleasantly surprised. The array of ready-to-eat, cheap meals available is just unimaginable in NZ, even in a supermarket. I was very surprised, so thanks, Kuro-san.

Incidentally, the weather is nice, and not too hot or humid. Yet. And I’m just so happy to finally be here.

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