Wednesday, 26 September 2012

So, Tokyo.

Early morning Tokyo.
The night bus from Kyoto chugged into central Tokyo and I stepped down with stinging eyes into a grey dawn. I'd failed at getting any sleep due to the constant lurching of bus travel and the lack of a surface upon which to rest my head, but I was excited to be in Japan's capital. I didn't know where I was and had no map, so I walked in the direction where the concentrations of people were highest to hopefully find a subway station. It was about 7am and so commuters were pacing to work; an army of white shirts marched towards me, so I weaved through them assuming they had just been released from subway carriages; I was right. Navigating the underground wasn't too difficult, and the directions I had to my hostel from Minowa subway exit were accurate. After checking in I did some research for what I wanted to see and do in Tokyo, and managed to doze off for an hour or so before heading back into the city.

An army of white shirted office workers streamed past me.
That evening I'd arranged to meet a guy called Alex I had known at university who was now working and living in Tokyo. It had been his birthday midweek so I'd been invited to tag along for the weekend celebrations. I headed out in plenty of time, so I could have an explore of central Tokyo and make sure I could find the rendez-vous without being late. I found the meeting place within minutes, so had a while to kill and explored the glowing district of Shibuya. The pavement was awash with young people, lights shone brightly and music pumped out from the stores along the side streets. I walked the neighbourhood for a while, and took some pictures of Shibuya crossing;  a multi-directional pedestrian crossing and one of the most recognisable in the world, having been featured in a number of films.

The side streets of Shibuya.
Shibuya crossing.
I met up with Alex by the bronze dog statue like we'd agreed, and we wandered the neighbourhood and caught up on the last six years before heading to the restaurant where he was meeting friends for dinner. The small crowd was a mix of ex-pats and locals and it was a traditional Japanese restaurant, in the sense that you took your shoes off, sat at tables in a type of sunken well in the floor, and the food was served as dishes you picked at, rather than individual meals. The food was good and the company was better, it didn't feel like I had just met everyone, bar Alex, for the first time. After dinner we headed to a small club in a basement playing funk music and sank cocktails. I was drinking a good fivers worth every 15 minutes, and had to slow down, not for fear of getting drunk, but for fear of going broke. The music was good and the club was lively but I was a little tired and funk doesn't grab me by the balls and drag me to dance like other genres can, and I found myself thinking a little bump of something would've put some wind in my ragged sails. 

Japanese birthday dinner.
The birthday crowd had dwindled to just me by 2am, and although I was tired I wanted to stay up to attend the Tsujiki fish market at dawn, fearing I would struggle to wake up early enough in time knowing my bed time discipline. I'd been told of a club called Womb, which is often suggested as one of the best in the world, so I thought I would check it out. I didn't know where it was and the directions I had were vague at best, so resorted to asking young Japanese people on the streets if they spoke English and if they knew where it was. I stopped one group of lads, and after giving me directions for a minute, decided they would come along with me. One had luggage and when I approached them they looked like they were heading home from whatever it was they had been doing, but credit and gratitude to them, they walked me there and joined me in the club. It was expensive to get in, about £28, but I figured I was only going to have one night out in Tokyo so there'd be no point in half measures and half-arsed efforts. I spent a short amount of time with my new Tokyo friends but we were both happy to do our own thing. I bumped into some Australians I'd met in my hostel in Osaka, but they headed somewhere else before long. I was invited to join but having just spent a good wad on entry, I wasn't about to leave. Womb was good, the music and sound system were top notch, but I was surprised at how relatively empty it was. Clubs like this in London on a Friday night at 3am are packed sweat boxes and you're involuntarily rubbing against strangers everywhere you go, here there was plenty of room to dance and vacant tables to sit at in other rooms. It differed to London as well in that alcohol was the only drug on offer to the Japanese clubbers, which isn't the best choice for an environment with music like this. I'd opted for the Long Island Iced Teas. After scouring the menu they seemed to be the best value for money, alcohol content wise. I drank these and danced unsuccessfully with girls. My lagging legs and tiring mind were forced to recount on past club experiences to lift me into the music, I used the drums as a placebo until dawn when I left to find the fish market. I'd spent well over £100 on a night out in Tokyo, and I could barely feel the booze, I wasn't high and I didn't get laid. Not a good investment; but still I'd had an enjoyable night and I feel I made the most of it. 

The crowd in Womb.
A clubber is bathed in lazer light. 
Japanese party goers. The girls were having none of it.

I left the club as the crowd started to noticeably thin, and stumbled into a dawn for the second sunrise in a row. I'd been up for two nights by this point and only had about an hours sleep, but I was determined to make it to the fish market. I made it to the subway, and was studying the map of where to go when I struck up a conversation with a foreigner who was also figuring out where to go. He happened to be a German called Raymond, and was heading to the same place as me so we headed there together. Upon arrival the area was eerily quiet, we turned the corner into the market and it was a ghost town. The odd piece of rubbish swirled in the breeze, and the hollow skeleton of the market didn't whisper a sound. It turned out, unbeknown to us, that today was a rare public holiday, and as such the market was closed. Fuck. I'd stayed up all night, for nothing. Well, not quite, I'd had a fun and interesting night out, but my body was crying out for sleep and I'd denied it on the promise of the fish market. There was nothing I could do, but haul myself back onto the subway and collapse into bed, knowing I would have to try and make an early morning visit another day.

I woke up late afternoon, and it was early evening by the time I was showered and heading back into the city. I thought I'd explore the district of Akihabara, a short subway ride away. The neighbourhood is noted for it's shopping, particularly it's electronics and robot parts, anime and manga, so I thought this would be a good insight into Tokyo. The area was vibrant as I had expected; girls dressed as maids stood enthusiastically handing out flyers on the pavement, and electronic melodies seeped from the stores. I went in one store, having been attracted by the bright lights and bubble gum style vending machines in the porch, which in fact turned out to be a huge sex shop. I accidentally ventured in more sex shops during my exploration of Akihabara, there was no clue to differentiate them from the tat and toy shops that were also on the high street, but actually they gave an interesting insight into Japan, which I shall discuss below.

Vending machines selling tat - the Japanese seem to frivolously waste their money on things. 

Japan, sex and porn.

Japanese women can be so crushingly beautiful. You can feel like a crisp packet crumpling under a flame in their presence. But they never look at you. So much so it can be boring. When out in public or riding the subway, making eye contact with a stranger, particularly one of the opposite sex, and exchanging a look or a smile can be a pleasant or rewarding experience. It only happened to me once in Tokyo, and it's sad that it felt like an accomplishment, rather than a social norm. It got me wondering about the relationship between men and women in Japanese society. Japanese women, if notably demure also appear to be independent and liberated, if it is possible to judge these things from the surface. You see them in business suits talking with colleagues, out shopping with friends and seemingly dressed with complete autonomy; the position of women felt modern in this respect. I had also noticed that there were 'women only' carriages on the subway, which I found unusual, but it's optional so women can choose to segregate themselves if they choose, it's not like a Sharia society. At least they can escape the unwelcome gawping gaze of people like me. I later found out that the 'women only' carriages were a response to incidents of groping and sexual assault on packed trains, but in fact no one seems to observe the signs. 

I think it was Paul Theroux who wrote, in a book I didn't finish reading before I left, that you can tell a lot about a society by looking at its pornography. In an attempt to gain a greater insight into Japan, and to be a good anthropologist, I did some strenuous research. Two things are immediately noticeable about Japanese porn. Firstly, all genitals are censored so it looks like fuzzy Lego. Secondly, the vocal performance of the female is entirely different to porn from the West. Japanese women sound like a cute little puppy being repeatedly trodden on by the boot of an overweight Nazi; high pitched squeals and yelps which to my ears are more synonymous with pain than pleasure. It almost makes unpleasant viewing. The relationship between men, women and sex appears to be different than what I am accustomed to. I know pornography isn't sex, but it's society's portrayal of sex, and the closest I'll get without a ladder, binoculars and an appearance on a register. As such the way Japan paints itself through its portrayal of sex is interesting. Women appear to take no pleasure from sex, but neither do the men offer any pleasure to the women. They come across as much as a victim as they do a lover. Japanese women have no autonomy in their pornography, they seem as though they are tools for the men to use and abuse, and have no desires of their own, except maybe to leave. Contrast with the West when in pornography often women can take the dominant role. I'm talking more generally than BDSM; if you just listen to the audio of Western porn, it seems as though women are the ones in control, and the men are seeking approval from their masters. The men will seek approval with generic lines such as 'do you want it?' and 'tell me you like it'. The women respond with generic encouragements such as 'yeah give it to me' and demand certain things be put certain places, as well as dictating the rhythm and tempo with their commands. This isn't true of all productions, I've not seen all of them, but it would be fair to say it's a general theme. Now of course I can't understand the verbal interaction of Japanese pornography, but going on body language and general sounds, it doesn't appear to be the same kind of relationship at all. Women are so subordinate and men so dominant it feels like you could almost be watching a rape. Perhaps in the West porn is produced with women in this more forward role to justify men's desires and remove the burden of guilt, by pinning more power and responsibility on the female. Perhaps the sexual relationship of men and women is more balanced in the West, neither really has dominance, although in fact many men would argue that women hold the most sexual power. It's impossible to learn all the answers about the relationship between sex and society in Japan by watching a bit of it's porn, and my research was limited to observation only. I didn't have the time, looks, patience or charisma to do any participant research; not on the scale that was required anyway. 

Back to Tokyo. The sex shops of Akihabara were enormous, almost like department stores. Several filled five storeys, and all stacked with DVDs, seemingly all produced in Japan. You wonder how this industry stays alive in the age of the internet, but the shops were busy with men of all ages; I didn't see a single female in any of the shops. Apparently the Japanese sex industry is the biggest in the world, but equally levels of sexual frustration are amongst the highest in the world, and there must be a direct correlation of one causing the other, but working it out might be a bit of a chicken and egg scenario. I know many people will say that 'all men are perverted', but the Japanese seem to take the soggy biscuit as far as I can tell. One of the first things I came across on sale were used women's knickers. I'd heard about this years ago, but wasn't sure if it was a one-off PR stunt or one of those urban myths. There was an entire wall full of them, neatly packaged with a photo of a girl on the outside, presumably the owner of the pants though there's no way of certifying the stains, and all priced at just under £20. Bizarre, and slightly disturbing of course. Can't you just break into her house and steal them like a normal person?

Soiled girls knickers for sale.
Continuing with the exploration of perversion, there were entire walls of DVDs dedicated to scat and vomit pornography. Now I don't know what kind of upbringing or unpleasant experiences you've had to find this kind of thing arousing, but there was clearly quite a market for it due to the number of titles on sale. Also, it's perverse in the original sense of the word to censor via pixelation the natural act of love making; but for some reason it's OK in Japan to display on the front of a DVD a middle aged businessman eating a steaming turd direct from the straining pink arse of a schoolgirl. Something's not right there. I think most of the world has a bit of a backwards attitude towards sex, but this was something else. The most expensive titles were the most mentally disturbing and violent genres, some things which I think are rightly banned in the UK. There were tens of thousands of DVDs though, of all genres, it was like the entire internet had been burnt to disc and housed in these Japanese shops.

Some of the more normal DVDs on sale. Yes I am gratuitously shoe-horning tits into the visual element of my blog. 
Everything in the stores seemed to be aimed at men. It's not like at home when a good amount of the store is dedicated to women; and in fact entire high street chain stores offer aids to female sexual gratification. Here in Japan it seems women are not expected to enjoy sex. I didn't see a single vibrator in any of the stores, but I did see piles of the male equivalent - 'fleshlights', in all shapes and sizes. Perhaps the situation in Japan is a bit of a Catch 22. Japanese women have been surveyed as not particularly enjoying sex, many seeking to avoid it. Japanese men are the most sexually frustrated men in the world, hence the whopping porn industry and the accepted emergence of pretty perverted past-times. Within this though there is nothing to incorporate women, and no thought aimed at the pleasure of women. Perhaps this is a cultural thing, and also a bit of a self fulfilling prophecy. However - if Japanese men paid attention to the pleasuring of women rather than simply seeking their own base needs, then perhaps Japanese women would enjoy sex more, seek it more, and therefore the males would not be so sexually frustrated. Surely the giving can be just as pleasurable as the receiving, and also, you reap what you sow. Just a thought, Japan. 

Look! There's one: filthy perverts browsing the endless rows of adult DVDs.
OK. Discussion over. Back to the main blog. The following day my body clock was still out of sync, so I had another late start. It had rained much of the day so I took it as a welcome excuse to remain in my bunk until guilt, and a break in the weather, forced me out. I decided to head to Ginza, another shopping district. This area differed to last night as it was much more upmarket, and it was generally clothes stores and global top end fashions on sale. I found the area a little boring. It didn't have the buzz of Akihabara, the behind the scenes smut or 19 year olds dressed as maids leafleting on the street. I took some dinner in a small Japanese restaurant, and had another little wander but I wasn't in the mood to pick up a Luis Vuitton bag or some Coco Chanel, or whatever that stuff is, so headed back after a while on the promise I would get to bed at a reasonable hour to attempt to make the fish market in the morning.

Ginza shopping area - making sure people cross the road correctly.
A mini Harrods.

Tsujiki fish market.

The first sight I was greeted with upon entering the market. Tuna heads.
Tsujiki fish market is one of the most recommended attractions of Tokyo. It's the largest fish market in the world, and in the home of sushi and other seafood delights, it'd be a shame to miss it. It's become quite popular with tourists, and as such restrictions have been put in place. To attend the tuna auction at 5am, you need to arrive before this time to get in line, and only the first 120 are allowed in, split into two groups. As the subway doesn't start running until towards 6am, there was no chance of me making it for the auction, without another all nighter. The rest of the public are allowed in from 9am, to roam the rest of the market. I didn't leave my hostel until just after 9am, but this was good going for me. I walked up to street level from the subway station and sniffed the smell of the sea deep into my nostrils. I wasn't sure where the market was precisely, so I would have to follow my nose. Unfortunately the breeze carrying the scent dropped a few times and I lost the trail. It wafted over me enough times for me to find my way into the market just before 10am. Apparently it goes on until 2pm but I could see things were already winding down. Some mongers were already mopping up and boxing up and it was obvious the main hustle of business was over. I didn't find this much of a disappointment though, as there was still plenty going on, lots to see and it was interesting to explore. It was huge and I must've only covered less than half of it in my 90 minutes there.

A woman picks out fish to buy.
Slicing up the tuna.
Boxes of fish.
Not much left.
I think that's a tuna sliced up there on the table.
The indoor market is filled with cobbled avenues.
After a short while the stench of fish was already being replaced with the reek of bleach as the market traders cleaned down their table tops and sharpened up their knives. Despite the curtain fall on much of the action, the market was still very busy, with these strange gas motored vehicles running crates all over the place, the warning beeps of reversing trucks and the calls of traders to one another. I think generally the market is wholesale, supplying restaurants and businesses with fresh fish, and the customers who were there when I was seemed to be more individual shoppers, looking for a bargain for the evening's dinner.

More boxes of things plucked from the sea.

Dicing up little fishes.
Cuttlefish, or squid?

A bucket of scraps, tentacles and fish heads.
Meaty octopus legs.
On the chopping board.
Bustle of the traders.

All that was left - the remnants of the morning's market.

This tuna was frozen.
Tentacle in tentacle: Going on a date to a plate.
Eyeing up some seafood.

It seemed a very social place for the people who worked there.
These were the odd little trucks nipping about.
Some kind of modern art installation?

Swinging his saw.
Two bags full.

Cleaning down the machinery.
Lorries ditch empty boxes.
The mound of empty crates swallows up a site office.
I left the market once I felt I'd seen all it had to offer for that time of day, and it was really starting to wind down with not many stalls open at all. I walked through a more public market, selling all sorts, and lots of sushi places embedded along the way. These were all packed so I took some breakfast in a more European style cafe, with a coffee and a sandwich, and smoked my last cigarette on this current attempt at quitting.

The street  market.
Next on my list for my busy day in Tokyo was visiting Yoyogi Park. Sundays are meant to be the best, when all sorts of subcultures gather in the park for various activities. Unfortunately I was visiting on a Monday, the day before had been a wash out, I'd slept in and I doubt there were many people hanging out in the rain. The park was pleasant, with large wooded areas full of birds and the buzzing of crickets. There were a few people taking a stroll in the park, hobbyist photographers and a school trip. Within the park is the Meiji Shrine, an early twentieth century shrine dedicated to the spirits of some deceased Emperors.

Yoyogi Park.
It's quite common to see people doing Tai Chi type things in random spots in public, it's not a narcoleptic pedophile. 
Meiji Shrine.
Surely, this has to be a professional Sumo wrestler? Do fat guys become Sumos, or do wannabe Sumos try and get fat?
After the park I walked into Shibuya, where I had met Alex on Friday evening. It wasn't far from the park and as one of Tokyo's most famous and lively districts, I thought I better take a look in the daylight. It came as no surprise to discover it was pretty similar to how it was on that first evening, except 7pm on a Friday is apparently the busiest time, so the crossing was slightly lighter on a Monday afternoon. I had a little explore and then decided I wanted to photograph some Japanese people wearing the surgeon's masks. It's quite a common sight here, and apparently they wear them to stop catching colds. I asked if it came along with the bird flu scare, but apparently it started before then. Both men and women can be seen wearing them, and I do find it a little odd to go to such lengths to prevent getting a sniffle once a year. Tokyo is such a clean city too; despite there being no bins anywhere there is no litter, and I've even witnessed people picking up dropped receipts that don't belong to them and disposing of them when an opportunity arises. I also photographed one of the large advertisements, which I think is for a mobile phone company, but often I've seen the same thing advertising coffee I think. Anyway, when I first saw it I had to double take, but it's the Hollywood actor Tommy Lee Jones, often posing with a wolf-like dog. I wonder if he is the inspiration for the Bill Murray character in Lost in Translation? Ageing American actor, having some odd advertising career in Japan, the two seem to fit pretty well. I'd kept my eye out for Scarlett Johansson but I had no luck. Whilst I was photographing people in the surgeon's masks, I did come across one woman who was going to great lengths to hide her identity; with a face mask, big glasses, big floppy hat pulled down low and an umbrella to hide under - was she a Japanese celebrity out for a stroll incognito?

Shibuya crossing in the daytime.
Art imitating life, or life imitating art? Is Bill Murray's Lost in Translation character based on Tommy Lee Jones?
The surgeon's masks.
Is this a Japanese celebrity?
To finish my active day I went to Roppongi, which is a modern area with glass skyscrapers, monolithic concrete slabs, shopping malls and night clubs. I wasn't really here for either of these though. I'd read that in one of the towers was an observatory deck and a modern art gallery, so I thought it would be a nice way to end my day. Outside was a huge sculpture of a spider, and I'd either seen the same one on tour, or one of the same series, outside the Tate Modern on London's South Bank. The ticket for the observation deck and gallery was about £12, and it was worth it. The 54th floor, or whatever it was, gave great views out of Tokyo, which stretched to the horizon in every direction without end, apart from the direction of the port, where the sea takes over. It was a nice space up there, and you can see how generally low-rise Tokyo is, for one of the world's biggest cities. I guess it has to be due to the cost of earthquake proofing large buildings. The art gallery was good too, it had an exhibition focused on artists from the Middle East, attempting to rectify the dominant Western portrayal of Arab people. It reminded me of studying Edward Said's Orientalism at university as it discussed the same themes. Some pieces, particularly the video installations, were quite moving; other bits left me cold - but that's modern art for you. 

Spider scuplture outside the Mori Tower.
Views across Tokyo - the red Eiffel Tower is the Tokyo Tower.
People gaze out over Tokyo.
`Looking our across one of the parks.
Always finish with an apology. One of the bits from the art exhibition. 


  1. Japan is next level weird! You should have gone to this place:

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Great piece, and lovely photos. Thanks for this.

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