Because the world needs more overwrought candour.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Tokyo and rice farming

Apart from difficult decisions on the love front, I've been kinda mobile recently, which has been fun. My brother returned to Australia yesterday, so to commemorate this, we took off to Tokyo last week to see the biggest smoke of all. At first, I wasn't so impressed - yep, like Osaka but bigger, yep, that's about the same, but after two days the sheer size of the city began to sink in. It goes on forever. You can see some pictures of our trip below.

The overnight bus deposited us at Tokyo station at 5.30 am. Tokyo was dead. A few cars zipped by; the station was eerily empty, vast and echoing. Then it began - the first sprinklings of commuters from the dormitory towns on Tokyo's outskirts, rubbing their eyes and waiting for caffeine to take effect. Then more, then more and more and more and more until the entire madhouse of a city was galvanised and alive, frantically pumping people around the byzantine train network, spilling them out into rushed lunch bars and offices and a mad, mad panic; when night falls and the neon flashes on, the pace slows a trifle but still the streets are lined with people in their thousands.

I supplemented my standard guidebook (thanks Camille!) with the Underground Guide (google it if you want, my blog-linky thing won't work), which tells you how to find the crazier, more bizarre side of Tokyo which is what everyone really comes to see, don't they? So alongside gawking at mammoth tuna snap-frozen and whale meat that mysteriously found its way to sale in Tsukuji fish market, Row and I frequented fetish video shops (oh, my, god), cheap airgun shooting galleries, a parasite museum, a rockabilly shopping mall, a Don Quixote supermarket (a truly astonishing place - where else can you buy soft drinks, butt-plugs and a shovel in the same store?), a beetle shop, a shop devoted to selling things people leave on trains, a doll-store designed to fulfil the manga-goddess needs of pimply geeks and so on. Ah, Tokyo. The normal guidebook took us to the Museum of Emerging Science, which rocked my little science-fetishizing world - there was a robot which can catch a tennis ball you throw to it, far faster than a human could, Shinjuku (I didn't know so many people could inhabit the same area at once), Shibuya and Harajuku.

The urban tribes on display in Shibuya and Harajuku - the youth hubs - were more varied than Osaka; supplementing the usual yanquiis - motorbikeboys and overly tanned girls with bleachblond hair - were smaller tribes of facepainted lycra wearers, wannabe yakuza, real yakuza, cosplay kids at Harajuku on Sundays, preening for the tourists, movable works of art in a popularity contest; terrifyingly bad crossdressers, eye-patch fetish gothgirls, the punkest looking punks I've ever seen, sans all anti-authoritarianism; older hippies, dropouts surviving in the anonymity of the big city. There were more foreigners than I'd seen anywhere in Japan, mixing, bustling, toting Japanese girlfriends and occasionally boyfriends, the odd white-man-gone native, bursting out with loud Japanese chatter; we spent a night in Shimo Kitazawa, the bohemian centre, drinking with friends-of-friends one of whom turned out to be in a slightly well known Australian band I saw once as a teenager; bohemia Tokyo style is students and record shops and more hair salons than I thought possibly sustainable.

We were lucky enough to be in Tokyo for the 6.0 earthquake, biggest since 1992. It was an amazing feeling - asking for directions in Shibuya, the earth suddenly bucked under our feet, shaking itself like a deer trying to remove a fly. Buildings swayed back and forth, the glass and metal shimmering as they moved quietly through the air. It lasted ten seconds, maybe less, and people burst out onto streets, apprehensive. Row and I were buzzing - again please, said Row, again again again, I want to ride the earth again. What a crazy feeling, to have something as solid and reliable as the earth suddenly become animated, walk, talk, breathe before returning to solid state. Then we felt bad for enjoying it - what if people died? (They didn't). But amazing that you really can earthquake-proof a city (kinda - Kobe showed that you can only do so much).

As a penalty for enjoying the terrors of the earth, the train network shut down and we had to run five kilometres to catch our bus to Mount Fuji to climb it at night. The climb itself was sold to me as unspectacular, but something that you Have To Do Once. It was a suitably bizarre experience - ten thousand odd people climbing Mount Fuji at night, most on one particular trail; there were half-hour waits in queues, there were five year olds and seventy year olds climbing, there was a gleaming snake of people curving back down the mountain as far as the eye could see. We half-ran at first, young, full of energy, and we took off our tshirts, too hot, to the whispers and open stares of everyone else - crazy foreigners, they said - and then the temperature dropped abruptly and Row found an alternate route with no-one on it which was much steeper, and altitude sickness struck me a fierce blow and turned me into an emphysema sufferer, staggering forward five metres before panting for breath, and I nearly gave up and I cursed everyone who said it was an easy climb - not a chance, it was a fair fucking climb with not much oxygen; at first I laughed at the too-well-prepared climbers in full hiking gear and real torches (we had two penlights) and oxygen bottles but then I coveted my neighbours goods once the going got tough. But dawn from the summit was spectacular, coming faintly through the clouds. Coming down, many people were staggering, faint, lightheaded.

In the madness of Harajuku on Sundays, in the teeming street where everybody goes to shop and be seen shopping, where I bought two token shirts out of vanity (oh, this? I picked it up at a little place in Harajuku. Yes, Harajuku), there was a woman perhaps eighty years old living out of a bag, drinking leftover softdrinks from a bin, and everyone averted their eyes from someone else's problem and it made me furious. Strange, the selective kindnesses of people.

One night we stayed in the self-proclaimed cheapest hostel in Tokyo (Yadoya) which turned out to be a firetrap of a second floor in a rundown old house; one night we slept on a friend's brother's floor and one night we climbed Mount Fuji and stole a little sleep on the bus back to Tokyo, so the trip was damn cheap. As a fitting farewell, we forgot how to get to our luggage locker in Shibuya station at rush hour with limited time before our bus back to quiet (!) Osaka left, and spent a frenetic half hour charging up down and around, while thousands upon thousands of people treated us like obstacles and flowed around us.

Interestingly, you could live your life in Tokyo without needing Japanese at all. Most people could speak reasonable English; I had a particularly surreal moment where I resorted to Japanese to ask for directions only to discover I had asked some Malaysians, and that English was Galactic Standard as far as they were concerned.


After that frenetic dose of hypermodernity, I spent the next three days working on a rice paddy near Kyoto as a Wwoofer. The farmers, Keichi-san and Setsu-san, escaped after 30 years of the madness of Tokyo; he was a salaryman until he broke out of the ratrace to raise rice; she, an artist who makes surprising light fittings out of vines she collects from nearby mountains. After three days there, I had a lot more respect for rice farmers and for herbicides. Organic farming is fine, but if the herbicides don't kill the weeds, then hands have to. Keichi-san taught me how to distinguish between weeds and rice, which look virtually identical, and I spent hours and hours bent over a rice paddy, looking for tiny tufts of hair on the stalks which indicates that it is precious rice, not common weed. Each morning I woke sore and stiff, unable to grasp my chopsticks at breakfast. But it was a great experience, not least for the food. I am going to miss Japanese food, I really am.