Friday, March 22, 2019

Tokyo [Part 1]

We traveled from Kyoto to Tokyo via the Shinkansen. All along the way I found myself wondering what Japanese tourists must think when they travel to the U.S. and find our antiquated mass transit system. The bullet train isn’t cheap, of course, and even regional trains can be expensive in this country. But, barring thoroughly unforeseen circumstances, you get where you want to go with near-split-second efficiency. So after a pleasant ride we arrived in bustling, complicated Tokyo Station. Here I must thank goodness for Google maps, which offers detailed explanations of transit, down to the correct exit number. And given the mammoth size of many urban train stations in this country, choosing the correct exit is no trifling matter.

For this part of the trip we opted for the Shinjuku district, an easy subway ride from the main station. An odd highlight of our first evening was a visit to a Maid Café, which features young women who perform pop songs while wearing frilly outfits. After paying a cover charge, guests order overpriced drinks and woeful meals with the expectation that the “maids” will flirt, chat, and play silly games. Jenny and I both found the experience to be both unbearably cute but also somewhat disturbing. Having no special insight on the fixation (among some, not all, folks in Japan) with schoolgirls, a fetish that manifests itself in cafes like this - along with anime, manga, and other media - I’ll defer from offering any further sweeping judgment. Let’s just say that we didn’t need to stay for the entire allotted time.

Thursday began with a trip to Puk Pupa Theatre, a 90-year-old performance space dedicated to puppetry. The show was geared for really young folks, with artists transforming their puppets into a pair of goofy brothers who shared adventures with aliens, elephants, and dinosaurs. The show was a delight for the entire audience, with the exception of one little guy who wailed for his mom when things got a bit overly intense. In the afternoon, we wandered among Shinjuku’s “love hotel hill,” a popular spot for folks searching for privacy (and a little luxury) away from the thin walls of their cramped quarters. 

That night we lined up for seats at Robot Restaurant. How to describe this place? Well, the venue is designed to appeal to foreigners searching for some quintessentially wacky mash-up of Japanese pop culture. So you can count on an explosion of sword-flights, light-cycles, flame-belching monsters, and laser-armed tanks (and snippets from Mama Mia for some reason). Oh, and near constant pitches for drinks, snacks, and souvenirs. The show is expensive, loud, and entirely bonkers. We loved it.

The next day we slept in before catching the subway to Akihabara, a district famed for its towers filled with floor after floor of electronics - but mostly appealing to tourists for its overwhelmingly grand collection of trinkets, comics, figurines, trading cards, and other collectables. Our favorite stop was a visit to Mandarake Complex, known as perhaps the biggest anime shop on the planet. I wouldn’t have a clue, but when I asked about whether they had any old copies of Kachō Kōsaku Shima, it took only a few seconds for a dude to point me in the right direction. I’d never heard of this character - a salaryman who moves up the ranks of a giant corporation while playing by his own rules! But I’ve become hooked on the idea since seeing him sold as a Gatchapon toy.

Hmm… how to describe Gachapon. Let’s start with the name. “Pon” is a transliterated word for “toy capsule,” and “Gatcha” is the sound the machine makes when you insert 100 Yen coins and turn the crank. And what pops out? A plastic bubble filled with some variant of whatever that machine sells: school girl figurines that sit on your coffee cup, little boys with butts for faces, cats that resemble figures from Ukiyo-e paintings, plastic heads that contain tiny parasites that drive their victims like cars… I could go on and on. You can find row after row of Gachapon machines, and lots of coin-changers, at arcades across the country. You plunk in your coins and hope that you’ll get the toy you want - and not a duplicate of what you’ve already got. But if you’re looking for the perfect Gachapon, make tracks for Akihabara.

So we went on a spree, turning those cranks, and stuffing our bags with those toys, only occasionally to wonder: Did we just spend fifty bucks on a bunch of cheap plastic junk? Yes. Yes, we did. For Jenny, Gachapon are all about Jin & gudetama: a little boy with a little egg-friend. For me, it was all about Kachō Kōsaku Shima. I really dig the idea of a manga character based on the dreams of salarymen who yearn for corporate adventures that exceed their droning days. I should add that Jenny and I are also entranced by Kuniyoshi Cats - and merely hope that our real kitties don’t knock them from the shelf. Soon enough our dogs were barking, so we headed back to Shinjuku for some rest and ramen.

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