JPN Rush: Nonstop to Tokyo

Exactly like a junkie itching for his next hit, I made for Mandarake right after I checked into my hotel, asking my friend kransom to come along. Racks of DVDs, CDs, manga, and toys flash before my eyes in a blur. It’s surreal. The scenery is not unlike the convention dealers’ room I had been traversing just weeks earlier, but the prices are more affordable, even with the exchange rate. Not as affordable as I remember, but I suppose any Bakemonogatari or K-ON! figure is bound to cost you something of a pretty penny. That said, Kiruminzuu’s Riko-chan can be had for a cool ¥2600.

I’m disoriented. Big buildings, trains, and people on the go bring to mind the hustle and bustle of Manhattan, except everyone and everything is Japanese. What perhaps strengthens the NYC connection is another reunion with a friend of mine from New York, along with a crowded dinner at Go Go Curry. This isn’t Japan to me yet, despite the extremely obvious signs. This time around it’s harder for me to fathom the idea of sitting down and suddenly arriving in a completely different country sixteen hours later.

It’s been two years, and two years is a long time. It’s not culture shock. Given my ethnic background, the kinds of ideas prevalent in Japanese culture are not too different from my own culture.

It’s environment shock.

Despite having lived in Boston–a city filled with enough Japanese things to fool yourself into thinking you’re living in Japan for an evening; and New York, home to the US branches of Kinokuniya and BookOff, as well as home to Japanese people who will look at you funny for wearing a t-shirt that says something ridiculous in Japanese on it–I’m a bit taken aback. That said, nearly a year has passed since I’ve been in those places, and most of my time has been in the nation’s capitol–where I’ve been for most of my life–a place devoid of many Japanese people or any Japanese things at all. If I had been in New York or Boston for a little while immediately before coming here, I could probably ease into it easier. As it is, I’ve been shoved straight into the fire.

It’s not a bad feeling, but it’s strange to leave your bubble on a daily basis to find that you’re in a land where you’re effectively illiterate, speak the language like a three-year-old, and the only thing making the train car you’re standing in “multi-ethnic” is the fact that you’re in it. I don’t remember feeling this last time, but that was probably a case of denial more than anything else. I’m sure I’ll get used to it.

A lot of things have changed in this country over the course of two years, with the biggest game changer being the disaster of March 11th. Some of the first things one sees in Narita Airport are signs promoting setsuden–the conservation of electricity–and one doesn’t have to look too hard to find frozen escalators and dimmed lights. Apparently it’s gotten better–when a Japanese friend of mine came back here earlier for a few weeks on holiday, she remarked that the convenience stores were oppressively hot, while I’ve been using them as a respite from the heat.

Japanese people always ask me if I’m scared of earthquakes, and radiation is still a subject on people’s minds. But the most telling sign that 3/11’s scar is still fresh came about during a discussion with another Japanese friend of mine just a few days ago. In the middle of a conversation that consisted of perfect Japanese on her side, and a mixture of Japanese, English, pantomime and sound effects on mine, the disaster came up. I’ve found that Japanese people are more prone to being expressive with the tone of their voice and their facial expressions while speaking, and her manner of speech coupled with her facial expressions while describing her initial reactions to the now famous footage of walls of water destroying cities and towns spoke volumes about where 3/11 lives in her mind. I’ll never forget it.

But smaller, more insignificant things have changed as well. Akihabara’s iconic Radio Kaikan–home to many great toy and book shops–was seeing its final days when I first touched down, and my old dining standby–Curry Kitchen–has been replaced with a Katsu-ya. What was once a giant scaffolding in front of Mandarake two years ago is now an impressive building. Tora no Ana even got a bit of a facelift, too. In my old stomping grounds in Saitama as well, book stores are gone, and the local Shop 99 has turned into a Lawson 100 yen shop.

What’s even more surreal are the things that have remained the same. Immediately before coming back to this country, Japan was just a faded–almost dream like–memory in my mind, only made partially real by interactions with a few Japanese friends in the states, photographs, Omokage Lucky Hole songs, and–laugh it up–anime. It’s strange to see this place only hinted at in various media and my own fuzzy memories for so long suddenly come back to life. And it’s funny how it all comes back to you–after about a day or two I was back to navigating Tokyo with no issues, and I think I can actually navigate Nakano Broadway better this time around.

But the weirdest thing is seeing the Japanese pop culture I consume in the states suddenly put back into context and have noticeable relevance again. On the small scale; Capsule, Pizzicato Five, and even OLH CDs can be found in record shops over here; Dragon Ball Z reruns play on TV; and the visages of iDOLM@STER characters are in plain sight at any given Lawson. On a slightly larger scale; poster-sized Ikoku Meiro no Croisee ads don’t seem out of place in Nakano; PONPONPON blasts through a shoe store’s sound system, and Perfume can be found selling Kirin Chu-Hi on the train. While it’s weird to have my interests become somewhat relevant again, it’s also weird not being able to watch The Daily Show or Conan on TV.

No, not the detective.

17 thoughts on “JPN Rush: Nonstop to Tokyo

  1. I really love reading this kind of stuff.

    Hey – I’m actually looking to move back to Boston pretty much as soon as I can sell/walk away from my house. What places do you recommend in Boston, with regard to being a bit of a Japanese culture geek (yes, and an Anime nerd…) Thank you!

    1. Actually, as I was leaving the city that stuff was getting smaller in number… New York’s the best place in the US to be for that sort of stuff, IMO.

      1. I’m looking forward to hearing more about your life in Nihongolia. It’s great you got a chance for an extended stay.

        Gwydion: Porter Square. There’s a (new since WAH left) Japanese market, and there’s a tiny corner in a building nearby with ramen and sushi places.

        I’ve heard the anime flagship of the Boston area, Tokyo Kid, is closing down, though — a victim of people like me, who buy everything online.

  2. Interesting hearing your thoughts. Loved the multi-ethnic train car joke. Hope it all comes back to you soon – it could be that the open ended nature of your journey means things feel very different this time?

  3. Hopefully we can read more of your thoughts on this current trip to Japan and your experiences there, and I like this first post, especially your tone as you’re narrating reconnecting back to a good place for you, in my opinion.

  4. Why are you back in Japan all of a sudden?
    Business?
    Pleasure?
    A night of binge drinking and poor decisions, leaving you no choice but to flee the country?

  5. Woah, what do you mean by “Radio Kaikan seeing its final days”? Was it badly damaged by the earthquake? I went there two years ago during my trip to Japan and it was one of my favorite places to shop in Akihabara. Would be devastated if anything were to happen to it…

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