After class on Monday, the group took a bus tour of Japan, where a few things really stuck out to me. First of all, the traffic actually wasn’t that bad. I feel like I’ve had worse times driving on I-55 near Chicago than our bus driver had in downtown Tokyo. Granted, it was between 1-5 PM, but we didn’t have any issues with traffic. The public transit system must be utilized to a much greater extent than most US cities. Halfway through the tour, we stopped to go to the top of a fifty or so story government building for a view of the city. Although the view was spectacular, what we didn’t see was just as telling. At one point in Tokyo/Edo’s history, Mt. Fuji was visible from the city. Notsomuch anymore. The day we went, we had severely reduced visibility-and not because of cloud cover or tall buildings. Pollution and haze made by Tokyo’s thirteen million residents and countless tourists cut visibility in half. The city has gone above and beyond when it comes to being “green.” The recycling programs, lack of personal vehicles, and energy and water conservation still seem to not be enough. I guess Tokyo is fighting a losing battle.
The end destination of our bus tour was Asakusa. This district has always been an important one in Tokyo/Edo’s history. It was initially a popular entertainment district, then the pleasure quarters, and later the home of a public park akin to Yoyogi and Ueno. Now it has a new but still important role. The district reminded me somewhat of Kyoto; it features a few significant Torii gates, one of which is an original that survived WWII’s firebombings, and also a large Buddhist Temple. It is also a popular tourist destination, because of the touristy shops lining the streets outside the temple. Although the tour itself wasn’t what I expected, it was still a worthwhile experience because of the government building, Asakusa, and our energetic tour guide who told us which districts were owned by the yakuza!
Today’s afternoon outing was to Harujuku, an area known for its fashion and shopping. I really enjoyed wandering through the little stores while lusting after clothes that were made for men half my size. I indulged my American appetite with Shakey’s, a pizzeria and bar. Although pizza and a pitcher of beer reminded me of the deliciousness of food back home, I have come to appreciate the healthiness of the diet here. The other…odd part about Harujuku was the Condomania, an entire store on a busy intersection devoted to condoms and condom-like things. Just when I think I’m beginning to understand Japan, I get hit by another…experience. I found it ironic and almost contradictory that such a quiet and conservative culture can be so open on such matters. This, paired with the surprisingly high popularity of explicit cartoons is a paradox that I haven’t even begin to comprehend.
Speaking of paradoxes, Shibuya station is a nightmare to navigate. We took the subway from Harujuku and arrived four stories underground. Cool and efficient, but very confusing. Outside of the station, Shibuya was just as much visual overload as Shinjuku and Ginza. My second favorite part was Shibuya Crossing, which is the biggest pedestrian crosswalk I have ever seen. Traffic in all directions stop so hundreds of people can walk through the intersection at once. My favorite part of Shibuya? The Krispy Kreme. Just as delicious and not-nutritious as the US’s ex-favorite donut dealer, Krispy Kreme Japan has thrived because of the Japanese tendency to eat normal sized portions and keep things in moderation; something we as Americans tend to struggle with.
Today was Sumo. Ten hours of it. That’s a lot of fat men jumping on each other. Sumo tournaments are held once every two months for fifteen days each, so it’s a not-so-common experience, even in Japan, so we felt as though we’d get as much Sumo as we can. The Sumo began at around 8:40 AM with the most junior wrestlers first. As the day went on, the higher ranked wrestles, culminating with the Juryo at 2:30 PM and the Maruuchi at 4:20. The entire day built up to the last bout, where the champion wrestler, Hakuho, dominated the man in second.
It was interesting seeing the differences between the junior wrestlers and the most elite. The first bouts happened in rapid succession, with little to no pregame ritual. The final bout, however, took five minutes, with only about ten seconds of fighting. The majority of higher ranked bouts involved lots of ritual: salt throwing, stomping to scare the evil kami from the ring, and just staring each other down. Although the staring would be pretty intimidating for a normal human being standing toe to toe with a 350 pound wrestler, I feel like the intimidation was lost on the wrestlers who do this for a living. Regardless of whether or not it worked, the staredown was a ritual. Everything about Sumo is ritualistic and hierarchical-the higher the wrestler’s rank, the more time he can take in the ring to prepare for a match, and the nicer the pillow they sit on while waiting for their bout. The privileges continue outside of the rink, where wrestlers live together in communal housing. The new guys get the bad chores, have to wake early, and basically get hazed.
Although my friend Brad and I had a blast at Sumo, this sport wouldn’t have a large following in the US…Even in Japan its following is dwindling. From an American standpoint, Sumo is too slow with too much ritual. You could even tell that the foreign wrestlers didn’t bow as low or stomp as hard during the rituals as the native Japanese. Even though I had a blast, I would never undergo a Sumo marathon again. Most Japanese spectators came between 2 and 4 PM to watch the big matches, and I feel as though that was a smart decision. If there’s a next time, I guess I know…
Today was proof that bumbling around Tokyo can yield fantastic results. After working on my group’s presentation on Shin-Okubo until about 3:30, I found my friends had left without me on the day’s adventures. I decided to go on a solo adventure, and walked towards Harujuku to see the Meiji Shrine. That was a cool experience, especially because there was a wedding going on, between a Japanese woman and an American guy. It made for a very diverse and almost comical wedding party. Lots of men and women in traditional Japanese dress that don’t really belong. I thought this was a fitting experience in the Meiji Shrine. The Meiji Period in Japan was a period of rapid growth and Westernization, in a Japanese attempt to modernize as to not be taken advantage of by Western countries. As I’ll be exploring in my senior thesis, the Japanese managed to successfully modernize and enter onto the international stage while still maintaining their Japanese-ness, which is an impressive feat. I couldn’t ask for a better example than a traditional Japanese wedding between a native and an American in a Shinto shrine.
My ultimate goal was a new pair of jeans in Harujuku, for I noticed during Sumo that my old pair had a gaping hole in a place where one can’t have holes. A 33 inch waist, 36 inch length pair of jeans is hard enough to find in the States, so I wasn’t too confident of my prospects in a country where I routinely crack my head going through doorways. After an apple cinnamon gelato crepe and seven stores, I found success. Pretty exciting stuff.
On the walk back, I stopped by the Vietnam Fest 2010 on the opposite side of Yoyogi Park from the Olympic Youth Center. I walked around and got a little preview of what China will be like. I don’t understand a word of Vietnamese, and about half of the spoken language and all of the written words were all Vietnamese. I definitely didn’t like the feeling. A lot of Vietnamese restaurants with unreadable menus led to many culinary adventures, from some kind of peanut pork to Saigon Beer. I ended up joining a group of very drunk Japanese who were picnicking near the main stage, where the “Gypsy Queens” were performing many songs, most of which with Vietnamese lyrics. It was a good experience getting a taste of Vietnam without any Westernness-no foreigners, no English.
I was planning on having a nice night in, Skyping with the family and enjoying a beer in the lobby. I still don’t understand how I got roped into going out on the town for my first time in Japan…But I did. We went to Roppongi, which is a very international, trendy nightlife district. I guess the club scene in Tokyo is the same everywhere, with one exception. Even in a drunken state, most Japanese were still very polite, respectful, and quiet. The only spectacles or problems we encountered were foreigners…
This about wraps up my Tokyo experience. The next two days consisted of presentations, packing, and saying goodbye to Japan. On Tuesday we left for Taipei, which signals the near-end of our first half of the trip, and the end of my ability to pretend to know what I’m doing. Chinese is just as foreign to me as it is to 75 or so students on this trip, and I’m definitely anxious to see how I’ll fare in a truly foreign country. Wish me luck!