My Trip to Japan, Tokyo and Shibuya

I’ve gone clubbing in Tokyo, and lived to tell about it.

It’s an odd statement, I know, but allow me to explain.

Chris and I didn’t have any real set plans. In fact, I didn’t really know what we were going to do until about 22:30, or so, when Chris came back and woke me up (stupid jet lag).

The plan was to go into Tokyo to Shinjuku station, where we would head over to a club for a VJ party. I had no idea what that meant, but it sounded interesting. Of course, there is always a catch — and you might have already guessed what it is.

Yep, the trains. Because the ones to the outlying areas stop at midnight, if you go into Tokyo to go to a club or see a late concert, you’re there for the rest of the night. Tokyo clubs have adapted to this, though, and are open until very late … or very early, depending on your point of view.

Scott called us around 22:00 with most of the details we needed. However, we also needed to be on the train … pretty much right when Scott called us.

With a bit of haste, we grabbed the 23:35 train from Yotsukaido to Chiba. There, we transferred to the 23:50 train to Tokyo — probably the last one of the night. Most people got out of the train by the time we arrived in Tokyo station, but there were still a few left. Once there, Chris navigated the rats nest of directional arrows and track numbers to find the Mitaka Line (I think that’s what it was called), which would take us to the opposite side of the city. This was where we found find Chris’ friends.

Well, almost. We arrived at the station where we would transfer to a fourth train, taking us right to where we needed to be. Problem: the trains had stopped for the night by the time we arrived. Many people who had missed the trains themselves were now camped out on the station floor, awaiting first service in the morning. For us, it was taxi time.

Taxis in Tokyo are a little strange. You generally don’t open the door — the driver does remotely. I’m not entire sure why that is, but it’s probably something to do with being sanitary.

Chris was on his cell phone. Not talking, but receiving messages from Scott on directions and names. This was how Chris directed the taxi driver to our location.

The cell phone, particularly with younger people, is the single most important form of communication in Japan. Everyone has one, and you see them everywhere — especially on the trains. At least half the young people, especially those riding alone, will be engrossed with something on their phone, usually for the entire trip of wherever they’re going.

(Scott had an interesting point of view: the phones have their pros and cons, but the cons are mostly superficial. Most likely, it’s that they’re status symbols and have to be updated frequently.)

The taxi dropped us off at the station we would have gone to, were the trains running. We would be met by Chris’ friends, who would walk us to the club.

We didn’t have to wait long, them appearing on the staircase from an overpass moments after we returned from a quick run to a convenience store.

It was Scott and Masame (a woman). Scott is another English teacher who lives in Narita city. He’s been here four years, and shows no signs of ever moving back to Ottawa. He seems to be having far too good a time to consider going anywhere.

We went up the stairs and down a road that for a moment made me think we were in Scarborough. Of course, the traffic on the left side of the road, signs I could barely read, and the constant blur of Japanese cars reminded me constantly that we were in other country.

It reminded me of something Keith Black had said our the group of us who went to the Soviet Union in 1989 — “Smile, you’re in another country!”

At the time, none of us understood or really appreciated what he was trying to say. Fourteen years later, I find myself repeating that to myself constantly. Not because I need to smile, but because I understand.

The first club was the smallest club I’ve ever seen, not even three times the size of my (rather small) living room. Along the wall across from the door was the bar, the wall next to the door featured the VJs. Next to the VJs were some small couches, and the opposite wall was the receiving end of their projector.

VP party, somewhere in Tokyo, Japan, 27 April 2003

The projector was what made them VJs. They’re not VJs in the sense of MuchMusic or MTV VJs — here, it’s video in the sense of how DJs spin music. Instead of music, they mix images and short snippets of video. The resulting output doesn’t really make sense, but is meant to compliment the music. It’s something that I can see hitting North America soon.

I met Chris’ friends, most of whom were very nice. Masame spoke the most English, the rest very little. Miyuki (Scott’s girlfriend) speaks none at all.

Smile, you’re in another country!

We stayed at the club until around 02:00, when we departed for another club. Tokyo is littered with small clubs — all you have to do is turn down a small alley and you’ll find one. They’re in small store fronts, basements, pretty much anywhere you can pack in at least 20 people.

The next one, Mix, was in Aoyama, very close to Shibuya. It took us a moment to get the right place (Miyuki ran up and down the sidewalk a few times talking on her cell phone before we finally found it), but went in. The sign on the door read: “Open 22:00 to Close”.

It was small, about 2-3 times the size of the last club, but it was quite packed with people. The cover to get in was about 2,500 yen (about CDN$31), but that also included two drinks (which is all I had while there). Covers to clubs are very expensive here in Tokyo, but if you go to the right place, the price is reasonable. The club featured the DJ from Tokyo Number One Soul Set, which probably added a bit to the price.

It’s amazing how fast time can fly at a club like this. The music was amazing. I know a lot of people who’d be very jealous if they knew what I’d experienced. There’s nothing like being in a small space with two professional DJs, a literal wall of speakers (including the most powerful bass I’ve felt in years), and (pardon the term) the most phat tunes I’ve heard spun live yet.

Being one of perhaps four non-Japanese in the place, and probably the only one who didn’t speak Japanese, you’d probably think I’d have a hard time fitting in. But meeting people here is even easier than in Canada.

One person I met goes under the name Ricky. He’s been training for eight years to be a champion boxer — though to look at him, you’d never know. Ricky’s English wasn’t that strong, but we still managed to have a conversation about each other, including ages (he’s 28), occupations (though I needed Chris to translate as I couldn’t think of a way to say simply what I do), and talked about Tokyo and what I should see and do.

Language is something that I’ve become acutely aware of. And I’m not referring to the native language — I’m referring to my own. Most of the Japanese I’ve met here do not understand the intricacies of English, so explaining things the way I normally do doesn’t work. I need to chose my words very carefully so that I’m not introducing words that they would definitely not know. It’s not like speaking to a child who doesn’t have a grasp of language, it’s thinking like someone who’s learning another language and has at least a basic understanding of a language, and building off the vocabulary they already have.

Our group gathered together about 05:15 and headed out into the early Tokyo morning. The sun had already started its rise. It was very peculiar to walk from a dark room into the light. Usually, it’s the other way around (like going to see a movie in the early evening and walk out into darkness).

We wandered down the street in search of something to eat. Miyuki didn’t wander so much as she veered around, the others trying to keep her from steering herself out onto the road. Scott ended up piggy-backing her for a while.

Somewhere inside Shibuya (the neighbouring district), the group split in two. Half went for noodles, the other half to First Kitchen for … something that sort of resembled the first meal of the day. Somehow, a bad hot dog and deep-fried battered red bean paste molded in the shape of a fish doesn’t really strike me as all that nutritious.

There had been a great temptation for us to stay in Tokyo and tour around. But Chris was fast falling asleep, and I was beginning to be not too far behind him. And so we began our trip home.

Scott and Miyuki took the train back to Narita. Masame and one of the other women drove home, while Nobu drove Chris, another woman whose name I can’t remember, and myself back to Yotsukaido (they all lived in the area).

The drive back was interesting, to say the least. Tokyo is a labyrinth of streets and highways. The highways are all raised, and snake around the skyscrapers in tight paths, like a ribbon strung around trees in a forest. One minute we were far away from Tokyo Tower, the next right next to it, and I couldn’t figure out how that had happened.

I was enthralled with the passing city. It’s one thing to take the train (which we did in the dark, so I didn’t see anything, anyway), but entirely another to see it by car — especially from a raised highway.

Slowly, the massive skyscrapers gave way to low-rises. It became possible to see just how far the city goes. It looks like southern Ontario — stretching out forever. You cross massive rivers and can see small, traditional houses, even the odd shanty.

Chris slept the whole way. I just had to place faith in our driver, because I had no idea where we were. In fact, when we finally arrived in Yotsukaido, we came in from a direction that I didn’t think was possible to come in from.

Chris and I returned home for some sleep, crawling into be around 08:00. We would continue our day a little later…


We woke around 13:30, when the phone rang. It was a friend (though I don’t know who). We rose and began our second part of the day. First order of the day, a quick run to the bank for Chris to get some money, and then off to Chiba.

Transactions here are all in cash — aside from credit cards, most things are cash. It’s not uncommon for someone to have 50,000 yen or more (roughly $625) in their wallets at any time. The Interac system we’ve come to depend on so highly in Canada does not exist in the most efficient and technological country in the world.

I’ve done the drip into Chiba so many times now that I don’t look out the window anymore. I actually feel like I’m beginning to fit in here. The language doesn’t bother me anymore, the fact that I’m a gaijin doesn’t concern me. I can see why Chris has had so little trouble being himself.

Chiba station was busy, but it only took us a few minutes to find our way out. We were heading for Parco, one of the major shopping centres in Chiba. But first, we were going to hit Yodabashi Camera. But not for my sake…

May 5th is Chris’ first anniversary of engagement to Kazume. He wants to give her a gift. Originally, he was thinking a bracelet, but he knows that Kaz would like a camera so she can take pictures. This is probably one of the best camera shops outside Akehabara in Tokyo.

You name it, they got it. Cameras I’ve never seen or even heard of. My personal favourite was a tiny little thing — a 2.0 megapixel Sony you could fit in your pocket along with a large wallet. It was perfect for Kaz. Heck, I’m thinking of one for myself!

After the camera shop, we wandered into an arcade — more advanced than the one I’d been into the first day I was here. Time Crisis III, Dance Dance Revolution Extreme, and a game where you have to be a DJ and play with both hands on a split screen at amazing speeds. Things we haven’t seen in Canada yet.

We went to Parco next. Chris quickly decided that the camera was best — the jewelry wasn’t really cutting it for him. That said, we hit the mall, going to the hobby shop first to look at (what else?) Japanese toys. Surprisingly enough, there are a large number of ones from North America, too.

A floor down, we met one of Chris’ friends. In Calgary, Chris had the ability to meet people anywhere, including stores. Chris knew almost the entire staff of the A&B Sound downtown. He’s not quite like that here, but this particular girl he knew only from this store. She spoke very little English, but Chris was more than able to carry out the conversation in Japanese.

Both quite hungry from lack of food, we felt it was time for lunch. Next to Parco is a little restaurant called Freshness Burger (yes, you can giggle at the odd use of English syntax). It’s fast food, but like all Japanese fast food, only made when you order it. I had a very tasty nemimiso burger (essentially a miso patty with lots of shredded raw onion).

While we ate, Chris received a message about a party that night at the home of Seiko, Chris’ head manager. (We’d known about it from before, but we needed to RSVP.) We were to get a ride with Naome, another one of Chris’ managers.

First, we needed to hit a bakery. Chris wanted to bring something with us — never show up empty-handed. This meant a trip to Mitsukoshi, one of the other malls in town. Mitsukoshi is much higher-end than Parco. Parco would be like Sears or the Bay — Mitsukoshi is that fancy boutique mall where all the stores are like Louis Vitton, Tiffany of New York, and where the “food court garden” has the legendary $50 melons.

(For the record, you can get melons in regular stores that don’t cost that much.)

Returning to Parco (where we were to meet Naome), we got drinks at the Starbucks and waited. We didn’t wait long — Naome showed up not much later. From there, we went to the Tower Records in the mall.

One thing about Parco that will throw off North Americans is how the mall is laid out. It is a mall, though it looks like a standard department store. The mall is divided into areas, most without defined walls. It allows easier passage, but can cause confusion because you’re not used to it.

Chris and I listened to music while Naome tried to find the album she was looking for. Apparently, all she new was that the band had three members. She didn’t know a song or album name. Pick a country, and there’s always someone like this…

Finding Naome’s car became a treasure hunt. She couldn’t remember exactly where she’d parked. It took a few minutes, but we eventually found her car a couple of blocks away. Then came the fun part as she tried to negotiate her way to Seiko’s. Even with a navigation system, Naome got turned around more than once.

Before we could leave the downtown area, Chris’ phone rang. It was Charlie, another one of the teachers. He and his girlfriend were at the station, and were coming to Seiko’s. Naome turned the car around and we went to pick them up.

Naome’s little car was barely big enough to fit the five of us. Putting two large North American men (Charlie and I) does pose a few size problems. Mind you, I don’t think I can fit five people in the Mini, so I’m hardly one to complain.

Don’t ask me how we got to Seiko’s house. I haven’t a clue. There seems to be no such thing as a straight road in Japan — they all weave in and out all over the place. Eventually, we arrived at a quiet little complex.

Seiko is 50 years old — though she looks barely 35. (Miyuki, Scott’s girlfriend, is 32, though looks 16.) Sometimes I wish I were born Japanese — it’s the ultimate anti-aging device.

Seiko’s house was small — not much bigger than my own (though I didn’t see the upstairs). She had prepared a Japanese buffet for us. I found out the reason was because this was in celebration of Naome’s 31st birthday, coming up this Thursday.

The meal consisted of picked root salad, sliced ham (or pork, I’m not sure which), octopus salad (very tasty), bread, a sushi roll, and rice cakes. The diversity was quite interesting.

Party at Seiko's house, somewhere in Chiba (I think), Japan, 27 April 2003

I’m extremely thankful for the opportunity to attend the party, because it gave me a clear picture of what a typically Japanese meal is like. Simple, but with a number of items that we simply don’t see in North America. Luckily, I’m not the picky eater I used to be — I ate everything that was made available.

That includes something called natto. Seiko and Naome found out I’d never had natto before, and wanted to see what I thought of it. Natto is a fermented bean that is usually mixed with other foodstuffs (though there are people who probably eat it on its own). It’s usually quite sticky, fairly bitter, and the texture is generally not what most westerners would enjoy.

That’s not to say I didn’t eat it. Luckily, Seiko and Naome were very generous in preparing it, making it far more palatable to my more delicate tastes. I wouldn’t necessarily eat an entire bowl of natto, but I wouldn’t be adverse to it.

Cake and Earl Grey tea marked the end of our evening. By that point, I was quite tired, the remnants of the night before having caught up to me … and probably with the last of my jet lag.

Naome drove us back to our respective places in Yotsukaido (we had expected just to be taken to the train). We were dropped off at the 7-11, barely a two-minute walk from Chris’ apartment. I was asleep within minutes of hitting the tatami mat.