Tokyo, like Beijing and especially like Delhi, is a city that one could spend a lifetime in and never feel a sense of completion. The Japanese way of doing things enhances this feeling with wards (districts) dedicated to different aspects of the culture.
How these districts come about is fascinating. Cities grow organically in a process known to science as “emergence”, where seemingly random elements eventually fuse together to bring about a collective specialisation.
This is similar to how an ants’ nest works. When foraging, the ants just run around leaving trails of a special pheromone. When another ant comes across this trail, it follows it. Eventually one ant finds food picks it up and returns it to the nest. The ants following it also find food and before you know it, they all go running to and from this location. This builds a collection of trails constantly getting stronger as more ants add to it; a kind of positive feedback. Before long, all the ants have found this “smell” and thousands are pulling at a troublesome morsel, working it back and forth towards the nest. There is no “thought” going on in any one ant, just a simple holistic ruleset, it is behaviour emergent from that ruleset that appears intelligent. City enclaves grow in the same way, but the human ruleset for a city is not smell:
It is commerce.
A great bakery opens in a new area of the city, for example, and pretty soon people are heading down that way for fresh bread. Before you know it, other bakeries open nearby as the trade demand for hot wheat products is higher here. Hey’presto! You have a district specialising in bread! Give that 100 years and you get an enclave where all other types of business either move away or find a way of supporting the bread-shops.
There are other elements as well, of course, such as simple geography meaning that fish markets tend to be near docks, but this emergent behaviour, driven by money and “the market”, is one of the primary constituents of a functioning city.
In Tokyo we decided to visit as many of these districts as possible so as to get a feel for the whole thing. We started with the most specialised called Akihabara – home of Manga, Anime and the Otaku. It is strange, in a country famous for obsessive practice of one type or another, that being an Otaku is looked ever so slightly down on. Indeed it is one of Japan’s greatest exports as Otaku cultures can be found in many countries including my own, but nowhere is it so large as in its birthplace of Japan. An Otaku is a culture obsessive. The obsession can be over almost anything, but the meaning of the term is usually limited to Anime and Manga (the films and the comics respectively). Its Western translation is often given as “Geek”, but frankly the real meaning is far more derogatory. “Geeks” are people with a high quality technological skill-set, able to manage (particularly technological) concepts at high speed and with great memory recall. The memory aspect is the reason Geeks often use movie quotes and memes in communication, simply because they remember them so much better than “normal” people. A Geek, can therefore, have a full collection of social skills and be in the normal culture just as much as anyone else. The negative connotations of the word Otaku would perhaps better translated as “Weirdo”. There is a very large slice of “unreality” to the obsession of some Otaku and it can appear to others to be formed of “unhealthy”, or even “immoral”, attractions. It varies in type and scale of course. For example, some Otaku simply collect comics (like 90% of youths). Others like dressing up as characters from their favourite series and you can find many people walking Tokyo dressed as Hudson out of the film Aliens. That is not so bad and, given the girls dress up too, is probably quite a lot of fun.
On the other end of the scale it gets more disturbing. Hardcore Otaku, well… some will lock themselves in their bedrooms and have only “relationships” with jailbait girl dolls and “love pillows”, never speaking to “real” people at all. Why does this happen? I think it is to do with the market. Otaku culture spends billions on its obsessions and the market is simply providing what they want. However sordid it can get.
The most in-your-face example I encountered while in Tokyo was the cult surrounding Neon Genesis Evangelion (NGE). This philosophical animated series features giant robots piloted by young school children, who fight to save the world from alien invasion.
So far, so normal. But that isn’t the half of it. NGE is dark. NGE sexualises its child pilots at every turn in a twisted and very repressed way. The main character is a young boy with crippling self-doubt, together with a girl who has probably been molested, a cleavage-heavy female guardian who drinks too much before she seduces him (he’s about 14 remember) and a clone of a girl who has no moral mind (say no more).
The robots these characters pilot fuse their computers with the child’s mind and cause extreme stress and mental damage on them in use. Over the course of the series they mentally degrade to breaking point. Eventually, in the bizarre finale, the world and everyone in it is literally turned into goo.
Like you do.
Anyway, I had watched NGE in China and, while I was impressed by its philosophical underpinnings, it left me feeling very unhappy and depressed. To sum it up in one sentence: it is dodgy. What I wasn’t expecting was to see it everywhere in Akihabara.
NGE had managed to reach some sort of Otaku nexus and bridged a huge number of Anime sub-cultures. I had heard of these periodical collective obsessions taking hold of Akihabara, but I would never have expected it to be this one.
Consequently, I felt very bad bringing Cesca into this area of town, plastered as it was with the NGE characters on all corners. I had imagined coming here all my life and here I finally was, but I couldn’t shake a sense of moral revulsion. So we didn’t spend as long as I would have liked to or had imagined I would. We visited the Tokyo Anime Center and I was able to happily relive some of the more sane and life-enhancing Anime like the magical Studio Ghibli film Howl’s Moving Castle and the excellent Ghost in the Shell series. Both high quality, fantastical and moving.
We also visited Mandrake, the largest center of Anime and Manga merchandise in the world. Row upon rows of dolls brought a swift exit here when they started to disturb.
Then we went to Don Quijote, the massive discount store.
After that I was consumer’d, and definitely Anime’d, out and so we hopped onto the train and headed to Asakusa for a bit of classical culture. This area is most famous for its ancient and popular shrine, which sits at the head of a long series of shopping strips. Normally I would hate such an atmosphere, but these strips had been here for something like 200 years and deserved a little more attention.
Hundreds of small shops were being swarmed by happy tourists of all creeds. Interspersed amongst these were dozens of food outlets, some of them serving interesting foods,
and many traditionally dressed locals.
Including some in full Geisha outfits. Looking at one got me thinking, and the photo I think bares this out, that these were tourists dressed up as Geisha.
Still, they looked amazing and everyone was snapping photos of them.
The shrine itself was confusingly brilliant. Brilliant in that it clearly was of a very high quality and swarming with people.
Confusing in that there were no signs in English and we had no idea what was going on. It didn’t look like any shrine we had seen before.
Still, we washed our hands,
paid some money into the slot and got a slip from a draw.
I know now that this is a form of divination and that the paper had either a blessing or a curse on it. On our way out we stopped for some food and soaked up the atmosphere. The food was on simple skewers, but still cost a lot by our then standards. Already the lack of finances was beginning to tell heavily on our ability to do things that cost a lot. The atmosphere was, thankfully, free and worth its weight in gold.
Quite a place and an essential destination on a visit to Japan.
We returned to our guesthouse via the 7/11 for dinner of sandwiches. This sort of food was all we could afford. Mind you, I could eat like this forever – even low-grade food is great in this country!
(Well, maybe not the “Cream Collons”)
On the walk back the sun dipped down and the city cooled. The light was something wonderful and we toured around the district taking it all in. I felt really at home in this city, but as I said to Cesca, Japan is not for the westerner as it is almost impossible to emigrate there.
The next day we caught the train to the fashion capital of the East and influencer of the world; Shibuya.
Shibuya is home to some of the most iconic buildings and locations in Tokyo. It starts right outside the station door with a statue of a little dog who famously waited for his master day after day, year after year. Unfortunately, the master had died and never came back. The little fellow is rightly considered an archetype of devotion and dedication and earned his statue.
Right opposite this is the famous “scramble crossing”, which is something that has caught on in the wider world and we have one in London now.
But these landmarks are small potatoes next to the Mecca of youth fashions laid out over the road in the 109 Building.
Here floor after floor exhibit fashion so forward that to the untrained eye it looked unfashionable. I suspect that the reason for this is this building defines the fashion in the first place, making it almost Avant-garde.
The prices of these items is also “forward”, and appealing only to the Otaku. For example, Buzz Rickson jackets (copies of those worn by US pilots during WWII) fetch hundreds here for an item that originally cost just a few dollars. Also “Porter” bags challenge even airport TUMI stores for sky-high prices. Still, they are lovely bags and speaking as a bag Otaku myself I would have loved to afford one.
Walking around this nebula-like birthplace of half the world’s fashion trends – constantly full to the rafters with the Japanese super-cool – Cesca spied a really expensive patterned bag and couldn’t stop herself from loudly exclaiming,
“I have that pattern on my ironing board!”
She always does things like this just as I am drinking something and my spit-take back into the bottle of water at my lips caused the liquid to rush up my nose and gush out into my hand, giving me both a coughing fit and clearing my sinuses in one fell swoop. The looks on the faces of those around me as they struggled with the twin emotions of being made fools of (so embarrassing) and trying to look snide at Cesca (herself an expert in branding) was priceless. I was laughing and coughing all the way back to the exit. We were clearly both way too uncool for a place like this, so we left and walked around Shibuya browsing the other shops.
Then Cesca saw something and gasped.
We were in a large bag shop that offered umpteen different styles and brands of bag and Cesca was jumping and squealing in glee as she dragged out of a pile a white bag with blue lettering. I took a closer look at it. It was made of that nylon wicker packing material used for industrial sacking.
The sort of thing you would expect to see full of glass sand or concrete mix. It had been fashionably recycled and sewn into a small hand bag, presumably because it would be unique and make some point about globalisation or consumerism.
“What’s so special?” I said.
“See this logo?” Cesca held the bag aloft and indicated a logo printed on the original sacking material in bright blue, which stood out from the brilliant white. The material had been artfully cut and sewn so that the logo was prominent on the the bag’s side.
“Yes?” I said and then it dawned on me, “you don’t mean?”
“Yes! I designed it!”
“Wow, you are so cool baby”
Cesca smiled very happily and did the little wiggle-dance she does when she is ecstatic (which I have always found endearingly cute and sexy).
I considered the logo; I have often remarked on the strange way the world must look to the Graphic Designer specialising in Branding. They must see their work everywhere, and indeed at home Cesca did all the time due to her designs for Morrisons and Sainsbury’s. However, to find her work here in Tokyo, the heart of coolness, on the far side of the planet and on such a fashion-forward product… Well, that was cool.
“You have to buy it” I said.
So, she did and still uses it today to hold some of her art gear. That put us in a very good mood and we spent the rest of the day browsing and supping. Highlights included an amazing traditional craft store and the large music stores. As night fell the district came alive and we had lots of fun peeking at the Love hotels (icky!) and the evening night life.
Quite a place Shibuya.
We returned late to the guest house, but sleep wasn’t long on the cards as we had plans for the next day starting before dawn.