Location: Scramble cafe, the biggest scramble crossing the world, Shibuya, Tokyo.
Notable sightings: Meiji Shrine, Harajuku, Shibuya, a shower toilet.
Pretty early on it became apparent to me that, in my current state, I am far too uncouth (or, as I prefer ‘practical’) for Japan. The overnight Air Malaysia flight from KL to Tokyo was full of quiet, sleek, slender Japanese returning home. I was seated in a neat 2-seat bank near the window next to onesuch: a wizened little old man with a Mr Miyagi beard. It’s really important to me to stay hydrated on flights, which in turn leads it to being really important to me that I sit on the aisle. It was not to be on this flight and when my poor neighbour went to move for the third time I grinned and gestured that he needn’t trouble himself — and stepped/hopped right over him.
The shock and horror on the little Japanese faces all around told me that I was not onto a winner here.
And that sums up me in Japan. I’m like one of those contestants on Ladette to Lady who needs to enter charm school and emerge a geisha. Just counting the blunders I know about (potentially the tip of iceberg) I’ve: put my chopsticks in my bowl (rude), tried to hand a credit card directly to someone rather than on a tray (rude), rubbed my chopsticks together (rude), left my shoes on while at the table (rude), tried to leave the convenience store without collecting my 25 yen change (rude) and, in my tragic Japanese, said ‘you’re welcome’ instead of ‘thank you’ to the cashier at dinner last night (weird and rude).
I arrived in Tokyo around 7am yesterday and, thanks to a teeny miscalculation with timing and sleeping tablets, arrived just a little bit dazed and confused. Unable to checkin to my hotel until 2pm, I took myself to Harajuku, which is a wonderful place to be dazed and confused.
On a Sunday afternoon — as this was — you find yourself in a technicolor zoo of cos players, Sailor Moons wannabes, goth princesses and Lolita girls made up to the nines, in unthinkable heels, staking out their respective territories by the station and in Yoyogi park. The backdrop to this spectacle is a glittering, neon rainbow of brilliant costume, novelty sock and sticker stores and elaborate dessert cafés — to one of which I made a beeline as sugar seemed the perfect chemical to add into my bloodstream cocktail right now. The cafe in question was a tiny place called Milk And Honey and I had…. you know, I’m not sure precisely what I had. A towering confection of shaved ice, icecream, strawberries and syrup.
And then, suitably buzzed, I went shopping.
Only to discover that there’s a lot less English spoken in Japan than I’d expected. In India, no one really expects you to speak Hindi (/Tamil/Malayam). If you do, pleasant surprise for all. If not, you go through an elaborate miming, half-English half-Hindi routine until the transaction has been settled.
Not so in Japan. My typical experience here runs as follows:
Perfectly Groomed Japanese Sales Assistant In Chigaco Bulls Singlet, Microshorts and 8 Inch Heels: speaks in Japanese.
Alex: offers confused look.
PGJSAICBSM8IH: utterly unphased, smiles, continues to babble in Japanese and leads way to change room.
Alex: says thank you, in English then, awkwardly, in Japanese — because it can’t hurt?
PGJSAICBSM8IH: finishes up with more rapid Japanese, precisely as if we’re actually having a conversation here, beams and flounces out leaving me with a dumbfounded expression and clothes that will undoubtedly be too small for my, let’s say Amazonian, figure.
My meagre Japanese extends to ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, ‘please’, ‘thank you’, ‘you’re welcome’, ‘yes’ and ‘no’. I evidently haven’t nailed the pronunciation for that last one as I seem to continue to be served a lot of things I’m pretty sure I tried to refuse. My ability to read the Korean alphabet has been an unexpected asset. Korean signs seem to be more common than English ones and, while I am a doomed soul when it comes to even sounding out Japanese characters, at least I can do that much in Korean. Like seeing ‘Sh-buy-ya’ and realising with a jolt that it’s my stop.
Thankfully, not a lot in Japan requires you to interact with an an actual pesky, fleshy, foolish human being. Many restaurants and cafés make you order from a vending machine outside (I can only use the ones with pictures…) then present your ticket to a waitress inside. Minimal personal contact. I quite like it.
There’s also wifi everywhere: malls, trains, smoking points. This comes in handy when you, as I frequently do, get really lost. For example, first thing yesterday. As I (as we’ve already discussed, somewhat dozily) stepped off the Narita Express train at Shibuya station I experienced something I’d previously thought only to be a literary expression: a wave of sheer terror. People. Everywhere. Signs. Everywhere. Japanese. Everywhere. Panic.
I’d ever-so cleverly picked a hotel right at at the train station so as to avoid getting lost. What I had not factored in was that I was in Japan. This was a Japanese train station — indeed, the fourth biggest in the county, serving 3 million people a day and the nexus of several japanlines. It’s an underground city, with several department stores growing out of it. Wifi and Google maps were my saviours and I safely made it across the Shibuya scramble crossing to my lovely hotel, which is indeed built not only into the station, but also into two shopping malls. Only to be told that checkin was in 5 hours.