Journey to the heart of the Rising Sun. Pt II (Which way is down?)

Half the fun of the travel is the esthetic of lost-ness. – Ray Bradbury

Before I get into my sloppy second day, I promised that I’d tell you about the 7-11’s in Japan. So, here is a rundown of the top five reasons that our versions of this “convenience” store is a giant black hole of suck compared to its Nippon counterpart, and why I just can’t bring myself to patronize their services any longer, even though I have to sometimes.

  1. Food… When you want a quick lunch, 7-11 isn’t the first place you think of, right? Normally it’s a bunch of chips and sugar-laden cakes that have been at the store for more than a decade, or worse, one of those hot dogs that have been slowly roasting to death for the past 7 hours. And don’t even get me going on the nachos and the plastic cheese that they slop on there; it’s edible if you’ve had a little to drink because everything you put down your gullet is gonna come out nasty, but otherwise forget it. However, if you happen to find yourself in Japan and you’ve got a few hundred yen to get some food, stop by any number of convenience stores and you’re gonna find yourself a meal. Pasta & pork bowls, noodles, fresh made cupcakes, and even sushi. Fresh Sushi. Can our versions say the same?
Instead of getting sued for posting their image, I'll just show good food...

Instead of getting sued for posting their image, I'll just show good food...

  1. Atmosphere… How many times have you walked into one of these stores and immediately thought that you’re going to get shot? How about getting carried off by roaches? Maybe the building itself will come collapsing down on top of your skull? Well, don’t fret any of these when walking into a 7-11 in Tokyo. They have standards, and by damn, do they stick to them. It’s warm and inviting, not cold and crusty. You could possible even eat the food off of the counters, but it’s a 7-11, so why risk it…
  1. Customer Service… Now, I might be the only one who feels this way, but I have, on multiple occasions, wanted to slap the stupid out of many a convenience store clerk for their lack of customer service, or even their lack of basic human interaction skills. I know we’ve all been there. Is this a golden rule across the board? No. There are quite a few folks out there who take a little pride in their job and can offer you something resembling a smile and customer service when you visit their store. However, I was in for quite a surprise when I walked into my first Japanese 7-11 and was greeted by not just one clerk, but both of them. Already I was impressed, but the biggest difference was that they are the ones to warm up your meal for consumption in a sparkling-clean microwave, not you having to do it yourself in a toxic waste box of warming that might give you nut cancer because it was made in 1903. And as you’re leaving, they actually say thank you for coming into their store, and for you to please come again. When was the last time you got even a grunt from the attendant at your 7-11 as you left?
  1. Price… Okay, say you got yourself some soda water, a bag o’ chips, an ancient Mars bar, and blistered hot dog that looks like you dipped some poor dude’s donger in lava. (Yummy, wouldn’t you think?)  How much coin do you think you’re going to have to shill out for this “meal”? I can guarantee it won’t be under $5… Now try to picture my joy and surprise when I was able to grab a plate of sushi, a bowl of spicy noodles, some chocolate cookies, and a cold beer for roughly six US Dollars. You can’t beat that type of meal, for that price, with a stick. You can try, but it just leaves one hell of a mess… trust me.
  1. Booze… Oh how I love the Japanese and their drinking. There’s a story coming up to prove my point, but before we get to that, just know that as hard as the Japanese people work, they let loose with equal force. Newton should have observed the Japanese instead of an apple. And I think a decent measuring stick of that is the amount and selection of alcohol that is available at your local corner 7-11 in Japan. Pints of Johnnie Walker Red Label for $4. Sake, warm or cold, right there on the shelf. And that’s not even getting into the multitude of cold beers and mixed drinks that range from 5% to 9% alcohol content. What do we have over here in our stores? Oh yeah, cheap watered down swill that ranges from 3.2% to 3.2%… Once again, Japan 7-11 wins.

As you can see, the American versions need to get their act together, and quick.

Anyway, that’s that and now back to your regularly scheduled program…

Check-out was a 10am, so I set the alarm, which was in the headboard of the bed; another example of Japanese space saving, to wake me up at 8am, just in case the jet lag and time difference decided I needed to sleep in. So, after a quick hot wash down to wake up, set to some moving traditional Japanese music, I headed downstairs for my complimentary meal in the hotel’s restaurant. And just to point out, Japanese breakfast is nothing like its European counterpart. I can’t recall all that I had, but there where was rice and a curry chicken of some type, though no eggs were to be had, no greasy pork products of any type, and coffee was actually a dollar more if you wanted it; Tea is the drink of choice in Nippon. It was interesting fair to say the least, but greatly satisfying. I finished up the breakfast with a final cup of tea as I watched across the street as the uber-professional, highly trained, balls of cast iron urban firefighters of Tokyo get ready for their day of kicking primordial energy’s ass and saving folks from skyscrapers. After finishing tea, and keeping my pinky raised, I went back up to the room and grabbed my gear for Day 2.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not always the best prepared, in general I prefer to think on my feet and deal with situations as they arise. And it’s true that this approach doesn’t always work out; however, considering that I was about to venture into the heart of the largest metropolitan area for the first time, I told my ego to take off and had actually picked out a couple of hotels/hostels for possible lodging so I could drop my pack and do some walking around, so I took off to the first area that was closest on my list after checking out from the hotel… Ikebukuro.

Ikebu, as it’s lovingly referred to by the locals, is a district northwest of central Tokyo that is dominated by two gargantuan department stores that wage a staring contest at each other from opposite sides of the train tracks for one the most confusing rail stations in the world. Fact: Ikebukuro station handles over one million passengers per day – second only to the massive Shinjuku station.

Ikebukuro is somewhat divided into two sides, East and West. This is due to a family feud that makes the Civil War look like a slap fight in terms of brother against brother, but instead of guns, they do their fighting using lady’s underwear and TVs. It all started when a post-war property developer & politician, Tsutsumi-san, chose his illegitimate son, Yoshiaki over his legitimate son, Seiji as the favored son. Yoshiaki inherited most of the family business, which is an impressive empire of financial that covers over numerous dozens of hotels, a number of ski resorts, golf courses, and more importantly the Tōbu department stores and railway companies. Seiji, however, was only given the trading name, Seibu, and few crappy stores here and there, and a handful of jack-squat else. Needless to say, this stuck in Seiji’s craw a little bit and he fought his way back with a more upscale department store, that catered to the then rising tide of OLs (Office Ladies), in Seibu, and founded the Saison Group which is a hotel, railway and finance empire in its own right. So what we have now is two stores that share the same space, and that constantly try to one up each other, causing all manner of crazy. Also, don’t try to use a Tōbu credit card in a Seibu store and vise versa; they spurn each other’s credit like it was spoiled moose milk.

These two buildings hate each other. And they don't really care for you either.

These two buildings hate each other. And they don't really care for you either.

West Ikebukuro is Tōbu territory, Tōbu being the largest department store in all of Japan and sister, lemme tell you, with it’s multitude of inter-connecting passageways, back-ally shopping arcades, and countless exits, you will get lost. I sure did. It’s over 80,000 square meters of shopping center.

East Ikebukuro is Seibu country. It is home to Sunshine 60, one of the tallest buildings in Tokyo and the Sunshine complex, a vast array of shops, offices, hotels, and culture spots. The complex itself sits on the site of the old Tokyo prison where they held war criminals in 1945. Now the complex houses a multitude of things, including the Amlux showroom, Toyota’s never stopping futuristic show room; it is also where you go to see the Ancient Orient Museum.

So, after seeing both sides of the rail, I still had no idea where the first hotel on my list was, so I ducked into an internet café and Google’d a map and finally worked out where it was. With my pack still on my back I took off down the street only to see something I will never forget.

Remember earlier where I said that I love the Japanese and particularly their love of Fire-Water, well, there are some more stories later, but this one takes the cake.

By now, after wandering around for a few hours taking in Ikebu, and sweating like a mad ice-cube, it was getting close to noon and a lot of people had taken to the streets heading to lunch, myself included. And as I was standing at a red light, close to the main crosswalk, waiting for the sign to go green, and my mob of folks to move cross street, I notice someone on the ground to my right, lying on the sidewalk near the street. Brief history lesson: I’ve lived in Seattle before, so a homeless person on the sidewalk is not necessarily something I haven’t come across before, however what I witnessed that day is something not seen by these eyes before on any street, anywhere.

On the ground was a young business man, probably in his early thirties, decked out in full business attire: suit, tie, nice leather shoes… the works. He was passed out drunk (I assumed), at 11:52 in the am. Laid out like a flexible crime scene victim, one leg was up bent so his foot was by his ass, the other leg dangling precariously close to the street where all manner of machina whizzed by. His arms were placed just as comically, with one placed on his chest, tie in hand; his other outstretched to its fullest, clutching his open cell-phone. He looked so peaceful sleeping like a rag-doll, and I have to say the first thought that crossed my mind was, “Where the hell are the police?” Maybe it’s just my American cynicism, but as I walked on with my crowd, I though of how this would not be advisable here in the US of A. Not only would the police have been called to the “scene”, they probably would have hit him with sticks to help wake him up. Then there is the whole leg in the street thing… I’d have given him no more than five minutes in Philly before some pissed-off taxi or woman on a cell-phone ran over his leg and his drunken good time turned from sweet to real f’n sour. And I’m not going to even get started on the whole mugging thing, let’s just say that cell-phone would have been gone within 1.37 minutes of that man laying his head down on the warm pavement.

This is former Japanese Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa piss drunk at the G8 conference. Could this be the man I saw?

This is former Japanese Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa piss drunk at the G8 conference. Could this be the man I saw?

Was he a remnant of the previous night? Was his party of such epic proportions that he hadn’t moved since he crash landed at that spot around dawn? Did something happen that compelled this man to drink a problem away midday? These are questions that still float around my head, unanswered.

Continuing on after a quick bite at a corner food stand, I finally managed to make my way to the first place of lodging on my list. Now this particular hostel will play a larger part later on in the narrative, but for the time being, I found it to be full, so off I went in search of the next destination. En route, I reached into my pocket and pulled out what was left of the weekend’s funds and found that I hadn’t changed enough from my flight over, as I had thought that the airport’s exchange rate wouldn’t have been as decent as the bank’s. After a quick search, I found a bank, and I found it to be closed. In my rush to find my hotel the previous night, I hadn’t stopped by one and changed monies, and let us not forget like I did, that in Japan, banks are closed on Saturdays. Post Offices, which also have a reasonable rate that is comparable to the banks, are also closed on the first day of the weekend. Two options were left then. Try and navigate my way through either Tōbu or Seibu department stores at noon-thirty, with their slightly extra fees for exchange and their somewhat lower rate; or activate my rail pass (which I will explain in-depth at a later point) a day early and use it to take the Narita Express back out to the airport to the exchange desk where I knew the rate of exchange and that there wasn’t any extra fees. After considering that I could also use the pass to get around Tokyo easier, I told myself to revise the plan of adventure that night and hopped a few stations to get over to the Main Tokyo Station and snag an express back out to the terminal. After my trial by fire yesterday, I had an idea of what was what, and made it to the airport without a snag. After getting through the passport check line into the airport, the exchange was completed without a hitch and I was back on a Tokyo bound express fifteen minutes later.

Flashing back to the day before, I had sat alone on the trip into Tokyo and in the end was quite relieved as I had been on a plane for ten hours, thus I wasn’t keen on having to sit next to someone on a train; this wasn’t the case for today. After stowing my pack and finding my seat near the front of the car by the window, an older Japanese lady took the seat next to me as the train started to move out of the station back to Tokyo. Noticing that she was having trouble getting the bag in the racking, I stood up and did what some would say I have a real talent for: lifting stuff.  Perhaps I’m walking out on a limb here when I think that the lady was just returning from a trip from outside Japan, because the “modest” bag weighed a tug when I tied on my cape for a second and lifted the bag into the overhead rack. She thanked me with a bow and a thank you in broken English, as I bowed back with a warm reply in Japanese, thinking to myself that little culture exchanges like this one are a large part of what makes travel not only fun, but humbling. After taking my seat and getting lost in my head while the Tokyo countryside blurred past, I hadn’t noticed that the beverage cart had come by. Normally I wouldn’t give a second notice due to the pretty steep prices they carry in those carts along with the candy, but it just so happened that the lady that was next to me had two cups in her hands and was motioning for me to take one. It took a second for the thought to register, but then it dawned on me why she was offering me a free cup of coffee.

In Japan, the act of gift-giving is almost an art form.

It would take me quite a while to explain all the intricacies of how and why the Japanese use gifts as a show of appreciation and to be truthful, I don’t know every aspect of it, so this topic of discussion will have to be tackled at a later date.

Needless to say, my single-journey companion was offering me coffee for helping her with the bags. I accepted with a humble bow and a thank-you, once again a little overwhelmed by the kindness I had received. We enjoyed our coffee together in silence, as I could read that she was a shade embarrassed that she didn’t know English, but I truly hope she noticed that I was even more so due to the fact that I didn’t have a grasp of her mother tongue. After finishing our coffee, I started to get my gear in order for my excursion into the heart of Tokyo as the next place on my list was supposedly close to the main station. I say supposedly for reasons that will become clear in a minute. Meanwhile, after getting everything packed back up and reading up on my map I noticed the “I Heart Seattle” magnet that I had picked up while visiting was there sitting in the bottom of my bag. And as the train was pulling into the station, I handed it to the lady and offered my thanks for the coffee. While I was getting my pack out of the forward storage area I looked back to see her smiling while looking at the souvenir, glad that I successfully participated in a Japanese custom, when I noticed that I hadn’t taken the freaking price sticker off the back. Talk about your All-American gaffe. I tried to hide my embarrassment, as is the custom and probably the right way of doing it, but I couldn’t stop myself from uttering that three letter word you shout when you screw-up on such a perfect level. D’oh! rang through the train as I put palm to forehead. This drew a few chuckles from some of the normally reserved Japanese passengers, as I found that Homer J. Simpson is something that is beyond universal.

You would buy this Man a cold beer.

You would buy this Man a cold beer.

Waving goodbye to my single-serving friend with a smile of embarrassment tattooed on my face, I departed the train and took a little trip through Tokyo Station.

Tokyo Station is not as complex as Ikebukuro, nor is it close to the size of Shinjuku, but none the less, lost was the state I found myself in shortly after leaving the platform. So, I had to pull a tourist maneuver and whip out the not-so trusty map as I stood off in an area that didn’t have hundreds of people trying to walk through. While I was turning the map in all manner of directions trying to make heads or tails of which way I was heading, I felt someone’s eyes on me. This is something I had prepared myself for. It just so happens that I look like a shaved gorilla with a beard, so I expected a little more than a brief look or two, and had seen many Japanese folks give me long sideway glances up to this point. However, this was different, as most of the time you can sense when you’re being gawked at, and when someone is staring and watching you like a damned Tyrannosaurus. So, casually looking up from my tourist trap I notice this drop-dead gorgeous Japanese woman (and if I haven’t said this before, almost all Japanese women are beautiful) dressed in her train station attendant uniform staring at me from across the room. She had just exited from the employee only door, so I thought that maybe she was just looking at the lost gaijin and felt sorry for me before she left to attend her post. Women do have a soft-spot in their heart for lost animals, thus I wasn’t thinking anything of it, when I went back to the map trying to figure out where the hell I was. But I could still feel eyes, so I glanced back up to see her still looking at me as she started to walk towards the flow of people making their way to the exit to my right. Now my interest was piqued, so I forgot about the map and we watched each other intently as she kept glancing back at me as she fell into the line through the door. I will state for the record and admit that I’m a sucker for women in uniforms; I can’t explain it, it is what it is. So keeping that in mind, I grabbed the pack at my feet and started to follow her, hoping to ask her to dinner that night, as she was still looking back; however, the size of the crowd was beginning to cause me to loose sight of her in the sea of black hair. Trying not to be rude but not wanting to loose her, I tried to gently push my way through the thickest part of the crowd on the stairs, only to get stuck in the middle of all these people as I watched her top the stairs and disappear. After finally making it to the top, I scanned the mass of folks trying to find her, but there were multiple tunnel-ways that went in a multitude of directions, so she could have gone in any direction. Not wanting to give up because, at the end of the day, I’m a hopeless romantic, I chose a tunnel at random and took off in search of Ms. Elusive. Now, to point out, it was getting close to 4pm and I still hadn’t found a place to stay, so I really had no idea how I was going to ask this woman, this complete stranger who probably wouldn’t understand me, out for dinner when I apparently couldn’t take care of something a simple as finding shelter, but I was determined, so things like simple logic had no place in my head or gut.  I guess listening to Deep Purple was a bad idea… Following that tunnel for a while without seeing her, I gave up on that direction, went back to the area at the top of the stairs and took off in the opposite direction. After a time still spent searching, I looked up to notice a sign that indicated that in my wandering, I had come upon the escalators that would lead up to the main entrance, and into the streets. I guess things happen that way, you go searching for something only to locate what you where originally trying to find. Taking in the facts of lost-ness and distinct lack of lodging, I quietly abandoned my search for Ms. Elusive and took to the streets of Downtown Tokyo with a little lump of sadness sitting on my heart.

Perhaps she just wanted to test her new gadget on a large target...

Perhaps she just wanted to test her new gadget on a large target...

Grabbing some lemonade, my favorite drink, at a 7-11, I took off to the east of the station to find hostel #3 and hopefully drop my now getting heavy pack.

After walking a bit, I came up on the street that the map claimed housed the hostel. However, when I got to the cross street, there wasn’t anything resembling a hostel. There was a parking garage however, but I didn’t think they’d sell me a parking spot for the night even though I rival some Japanese cars in size, so I didn’t bother asking. Figuring that I might have looked at the map wrong, I did a walk-scan of the surrounding four blocks only to come up empty handed, but I did get offered a back-room massage, which sounded good until you saw the lady who was offering. So, after losing an hour and a half to the search of the Downtown Tokyo area hostels, I decided to take a dinner break and regroup. Oh, just to let you know about that area, it’s actually three districts that make up what is called Downtown Tokyo: Yūrajuchō, Ginza, and Nihombashi. It’s where all the foreign business chumps, corrupt politicians, and super-rich bastardos hang out. This part of Tokyo, which houses the Tokyo International Forum, is very high rent. Although these three districts are part of a whole, they each have their own distinct style. Yūrajuchō is theatre-land, with many centers dedicated to any number of Japanese theatre traditions, including cinemas, as well as numerous airline offices and one or two major banks. Ginza is the district for shopping as there are a boat-load of department stores and restaurants, many of them highly exclusive and therefore hella expensive, so it was too expensive to even look at. This is where you go for a thirty dollar piece of sushi if you’re stupid enough to buy it. You read that right, $30 for one single piece of sushi. In the words of Chris Rock, “Good Lord that’s a lot of money!” Nihombashi, which was formerly the heart of Low-Town Edo, is the district to find stressed-out bankers and businessmen, as well as the Tokyo Stock Exchange and The Bank of Japan. You see how the two correlate?

What you won't see in this picture: Me finding a place to stay.

What you won't see in this picture: Me finding a place to stay.

Deciding that this area of Tokyo might not be where I want to stay due to the confusing back ally passage-ways and prices, I made my way back to Tokyo station, heading for the Asakusa district to the north, and just slightly holding out hope for finding Ms. Elusive while I made my way to the train.

Since it was dark by this point, I didn’t get to see any of Asakusa then, so like I saved it for the next day; I’ll save the who, what, when, where part until next time.

Exiting the station in the heart of the district, I had a pretty good idea of where the next hostel on my list was located due to some landmarks, and took off in that direction. However, if everything previous in the day was any indication of how that particular search would turn out, you’re correct in assuming that I got lost. Wandering another four-block area I just couldn’t find where this hostel was located, so I went back to the one place you couldn’t miss due to all the lights, the entrance to the underground subway.  I’m certain, at this point, that I looked like an unwanted puppy that was thrown out on the side of an Arizona highway. I had no idea where I was. Though, once again persistence paid off in surprising ways. As I was looking at my map in the street light, trying to notice any landmarks that resembled their map-based counterparts, a young Japanese couple came up to me and asked, in great English, if I needed help. Which of course I did…

After glancing at the map for a second and saying something to his lady, the guy pointed over to an ally-way that had a sign for the hostel, literally a hundred feet behind me. Feeling like a doofus of epic proportions for having someone help me find a place that had been staring at my back for the last five minutes; I bowed deeply and thanked them for their help, laughing at the fact. However, as they smiled and began walking away I remember the kindness of the lady on the train for something as simple as lifting a bag, so I stopped the couple and tried my hand at the gift ceremony and handed him a pocket collection of Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four comics and presented her with another magnet from Seattle for their undue kindness. I figured that the best way to thank someone for their help was in the way they would. They tried to decline the gifts, as is customary for the gift-giving ritual, but after I politely insisted, they took them and we parted with smiles and bows.

Checking in to the hostel wasn’t a chore; as all I had to do was present them with my passport and the cash-money for the room and took off upstairs for a much needed shower. I was some kind of stank after all that walking with a pack.

With a few hours left in the night before the trains stopped running at midnight, after the shower, I decided to go out and drown myself in the night’s touch. Considering that I was two stops away from the Akihabara district, I took off there for some late night Saturday fun and as sure as gravity sucks, I found fun in the dressed-up people walking the streets, a five-story video game emporium, and good drink. Even though I’ll go into detail on Akihabara later due to the time spent there later in the Tokyo half of my trip, I will say this. It’s crazy and bright, and there are all types of people out and about. Even more so on the weekends at night.

You would not believe the amout of WTF? these neon lights attract.

You would not believe the amout of WTF? these neon lights attract.

After spending some more time walking around, drinking, and getting my ass handed to me on silver platter through the medium of video games, I made my way back to the hostel on the last train. Deciding that I wasn’t quite tired enough for sleep; I left again to the nearest 7-11 for a midnight snack and a cold beer. This was plenty to convince my body that we needed sleep as I came back, killed the beer and the bowl of noodles, and crashed; thus putting the cap on Day 2.

I support Kirin Ichiban. And I really would like a sponsorship, so if anybody from Kirin is reading this...

I support Kirin Ichiban. And I really would like a sponsorship, so if anybody from Kirin is reading this...

I would like to take this space to thank everyone for the support on the previous recollection. Your words are an encouragement that walking out your front door into something new is truly an endeavor of adventure and fun. Hope everyone sticks around, because it only gets more entertaining from here. Kampai!

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~ by throwingstonesfromthevoid on September 10, 2009.

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