Wow! This city is BIG…….
Skyscrapers abound and there are cement highways weaving through and around each other like snakes in a pit. The neon lights are oh so bright and relentless at night. The continuous hum of cars and trains remind us that we’re “not in Kansas anymore”. Having said that, I am very impressed with the number of electric cars here! The subway and metro trains are running both above and below the ground continuously (and punctually) moving the masses of people around this enormous city that is Tokyo.
Tokyo has an estimated population of just under 14 million people and buildings as far as the eye can see. I must say, my first impressions were a little bleak and I was a bit doubtful! We arrived on a grey and overcast day, and after the stunning expanse of pure whiteness that is Hokkaido, Tokyo looked very grey and cement-like.
But like the old saying goes “never judge a book by its cover” surprisingly after just 24 hours I found much to appreciate and admire about this wonderful city.
As I spoke about in last week’s blog, Japan, Five Things I Love About You, the people here in the city are just as lovely, warm and open as the ones in the country. There is definitely a greater pace about the people in Tokyo, and I too have found myself moving faster and with more purpose. I guess I’m just being sucked up into the energetic vortex of a major capital city: places to be and people to see if you know what I mean.
Since we arrived we have done some very uniquely Japanese things. The first was to visit The Mori Building Digital Art Museum in Odaiba. The only adjective that springs to mind is phenomenal, oh and outstanding, brilliant, mind-blowing — this place is a sensory treat of something I have never encountered before in my life.
I spent a lot of time fighting back tears! Bit random I know, but it evoked such deep emotion in me, and it (as dramatic as this may sound) really moved my soul — is that not the purpose of art?
The Mori Building Digital Art Museum is unlike any museum I have ever been to. This 10,000 square meter space uses 520 computers and 470 projectors to create an experience that will stimulate all five senses. I was actually a bit wobbly on my feet after moving through some exhibits my senses were so overwhelmed.
There’s no set course for enjoying this digital art museum, so we just let our curiosity lead us through. What was so delightful was the fact we would end up back in the same exhibit room, only to have a completely different experience because of the ever-changing artwork.
What our visit there inspired in me is creativity. I got to colour in a seahorse that was then projected up on to the wall. Alongside other adults and squealing children, I delighted in the fact that my seahorse swam on by on the wall and I found myself squealing like a kid too: “Look! Look, it’s my seahorse!”
Not only did the museum inspire creativity in me, it evoked a lot of emotion for our planet and how connected we all are. Something the Digital Art Museum does so well is highlight how interconnected and reliant we all are on each other — plants, animals and humans. Not only that, I felt the fragility of our beautiful planet in the exhibits — something I’ve thought about a lot since leaving.
If you are ever in Tokyo do yourself a favour and check it out.
The following day, we had a complete change of tempo and went to bustling Shinjuku to visit The Robot Restaurant. Now that is one loose and crazy place!! In many ways it is the representation of modern Japan: bright flashing lights, loud, upbeat music and of course technology — in the form of the robots. (That being said, we are not talking cutting edge technology as the robots are controlled by very serious-faced young men using remote controls, definitely ex gamers!!).
We were ushered to the fourth floor holding area where a very talented robot was playing the guitar while we enjoyed a pre-show drink. Once instructed, we headed all the way to the basement down an amazingly decorated staircase and took our front row seats. The Robot Restaurant is one well-oiled machine that seizes upon every opportunity to sell you something. Once seated, we had the chance to buy everything from fried chicken to drinks served in glowing lightbulb-shaped glasses.
To sum up The Robot Restaurant in just a few words is hard. Like the Digital Art Museum, it is something I have never before come across in my well-travelled life. It is definitely uniquely Japanese and super kitsch, but after the final Act — which is about all the countries of the world (accompanied by Michael Jackson’s We Are The World) — I felt so warm and fuzzy that I just wanted to hug someone.
What our visit there inspired in me is the appreciation that we are all the same regardless of race or creed, religion or skin colour. The theme of the first two Acts was good vs evil and the battle that is faced by each of us — both internally and externally. They also gave one an appreciation of how we all just want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves — to be connected and know that we are loved.
The Robot Restaurant gives you the opportunity to get involved or not. During the final Act, we were given glowing light sticks and we got to choose how enthusiastically we wanted to swing them around. I am sure you can guess…I went hard!
The last experience I want to share with you from our time in Tokyo is our trip to Golden Gai. This tiny corner of Tokyo of only six alleys connected by even smaller and narrower alleys, is home to a plethora of small restaurants and even smaller bars. Somehow in the land of the new and shiny, this little corner has remained untouched by redevelopment over the decades and feels ramshackled yet charmingly vibrant.
We walked up and down the alleys trying to decide which bar to head into. I certainly felt intimidated as I peered through the windows into these tiny little drinking holes and watched groups of patrons laughing and raising their glasses.
Let me be perfectly clear here- when I say tiny, I mean TINY! Some only have room for five people and the most spacious one in the area holds only 30 people. The bar we stopped at — Troll Bar — is smaller than many Australian people’s pantries! We literally had to climb over people to take our spot at the bar. A great way to make new friends fast!
Once settled (with my two coats still on — no room to take them off), we perused the many bottles of whisky that sat on the bar top, but in the end settled on a sake. I had not yet tried sake and thought that this was an appropriate moment to get my Japanese on. I opted for the cold sake option and it was delicious! I think it was even better because I was still dressed for the outdoors and was starting to work up a significant sweat.
We very quickly met our neighbours: one Japanese business man, an older Japanese bass player who was with the business man (I can’t remember their names) and the infamous Shinjuku Tiger, a 69 year old local celebrity who’s known to locals as “Tiger-san”. There were also two other Aussies in this little bar, Alison and Kirk from Canberra, and it was a full house with just the seven of us. Behind the bar was a beautiful Japanese lady called Marilyn who, every Friday, works alongside her grandfather. He said his name was Zombie but I think that was more for comic effect than anything else. This is a family bar and the granddaughter/grandfather Friday night ritual has gone on for many years — beautiful!
After much conversation with our new friends about life in Japan and some of the challenges the Japanese people face, the Coronavirus, and must see sights around town, I announced I needed to get some clothes off — I was boiling to death. Tiger-san took the opportunity to use the loo and we all shuffled around each other to get comfortable, cool down, and visit the bathroom.
This experience was so unique! Marilyn and Zombie entertained us and had lots of little tricks up their sleeves to make us laugh and connect with each other. After several more sakes we headed back out into the chilly Tokyo evening feeling uplifted and full from the experience.
What our visit there inspired in me is to connect more with others. And I don’t necessarily need to climb over them at a tiny bar, because they are everywhere around me, all day long! I just have to be willing to start the conversation, show interest in them, and ask some questions with a genuine curiosity to learn more. Other than a couple of photos being taken, there were no phones out — a rare phenomenon in this day and age. Here in Tokyo I have had numerous people literally walk into me because they are so busy looking down at their phone.
So, Tokyo, I dig you! Connection has definitely been the theme so far and I love that because it is something I so deeply value.
We have two days left and I am excited to see what other hidden treasures we’ll find in this crazy town. If you’ve ever thought about visiting Japan, do yourself a favour and say “Hai” (This means “Yes” in Japanese).
Oh, one final thought……