The streetlamps in Shibuya sing to you. This is not a crappy metaphor: there are loudspeakers in the streetlights in Shibuya, and they play J-pop at you as you walk past them.
Ah, Shibuya. We’d thought that Harajuku was the epicenter of madness. How wrong we were.
Well okay. After a few days in Tokyo, it’s impossible not to notice that the Japanese use roman languages (primarily English, but also chunks of French and German) much the way that some westerners use the Chinese alphabet: for decoration, largely independent of any grammatical sense or meaning. Specifically, you cannot throw a rock in Tokyo (if you were so insanely rude as to be throwing rocks) without hitting at least two, possibly three (ricochets being what they are) people wearing t-shirts emblazoned with a completely incomprehensible phrase or two in English. (“Do Not Be Influenced by Feeling Black Lady”, passim.)
…and one of the interesting side-effects, for me, of being rendered instantly illiterate by being in an Asian country is that I’m constantly scanning my visual field for any written communication in an alphabet I recognize. In Tokyo, as often as not there’s a hit, but it’s usually on a t-shirt with a phrase that makes no sense whatsoever. After several days of this happening several times per block, I’d come to hypothesize about the existence of a Great Engrish T-Shirt Shopping Mall, a multi-story building filled with nothing but t-shirts with mysterious pseudo-English phrases on them.
Ladies and gentlemen, that shopping mall exists, and it’s called the 109 in Shibuya. Seven solid stories of mutilated English silk-screened onto cotton for $30-60 per shirt. Each floor packed to the gills with stylish Japanese teenagers, occasionally dragging their confused-looking parents in tow. If Tokyo’s youth culture is a particle accelerator, this is where the beam hits the ball, and heretofore undiscovered quanta of fashion are emitted.
109-2 is actually, unbelievably, the annex to the primary 109 building (into which we never gathered the strength to venture), but it’s also the only one of the two buildings with mens’ clothing, and I actually found a pair of metallic red leather shoes which (miracle of miracles) fit me, and I came painfully close to blowing more money than I care to mention on them. Luckily, common sense intervened.
After making our way through all seven stories of the 109, we shocked ourselves by actually managing to navigate to our next destiation: Pink Dragon, the rockabilly shopping mall.
The Pink Dragon is architecturally mad even by Tokyo standards: on the outside, it’s an L.A. Art Deco style building with pink accents. On the inside, um:
…and yes, it’s a rockabilly shopping mall, for all your rockabilly needs, from leather jackets to Elvis-emblazoned Zippo lighters. It’s also the home of Cream Soda records, one of Tokyo’s oldest rockabilly labels, and I picked up one of their samplers before leaving. I’ll report back when I can.
Our next planned amusement in Shibuya was to find “love hotel hill” and poke through some of the establishments there, but on the way we (well, really “I”) got distracted by the entrance to Mandarake:
Mandarake is Japan’s largest comic book store, and it’s a veritable labyrinth of manga To reach it you have to walk down about four flights of dimly- or strobe-lit stairs…
…until you finally emerge, blinking, into the enormous, sprawling basement, every inch of which is packed with manga, anime and figurines. The pretty-gay-boy manga section alone was larger than most comic book stores in America. Just idly browsing the racks and looking for the elevators back up took about half an hour.
No crucified Ultramen though. Maybe that’s more of an Akihabara thing.
Instead, what we found was a pair of panick-stricken Japanese men who immediately started shouting “Japanese only!” at us the moment we walked into view, and staring oddly at Miranda Oops, this was not a love hotel, this was an actual brothel, the likes of which normally employ enormous bouncers to keep whitey (and blacky and browny and probably Korean-y and Chinese-y as well) very far away: apparently it was early enough that the bouncers hadn’t set up shop yet, and we caught them by surprise. We beat a hasty retreat, but I snapped a photo in their stairwell, just because:
Around the corner, we found the actual love hotels, which functioned as promised: walk in, see pictures of rentable rooms. This one was all art deco and art modern-style rooms, and if we hadn’t already had a perfectly nice hotel room of our own, we might have been tempted:
We ordered a la carte, so since there weren’t menus to take away, this will be from error-prone memory. We had the day’s special appetizer, which was a combination plate of a few slices of what I think were pickled pigs ears (kind of like a crunchy/chewy head cheese: I liked it, but I suspect this wouldn’t be to many westerners’ tastes), a piece of steamed pork in some sort of peppery sauce which was good but not necessarily memorable in any way, and a small pot of what appeared to be fungi in some sort of egg or soy custard: since “egg or soy custard” is pretty much kryptonite to my palate, I had one of the mushrooms (which were excellent) and let Miranda finish the rest. Her appetizer (which I stole quite a bit of) was “steamed chicken in hot and spicy flavor sauce”, which was perfectly steamed chicken in a red pepper sauce that certainly qualified as “spicy” in the sense of being strongly spiced, but didn’t really register as “hot” to me.
My entree was “smoked Szechuan duck,” and was fantastic: a smoked duck breast (finished, I think, by searing or broiling, since the skin was a little crispy and the fat layer underneath not too thick), sliced thin like salami, with some mixed greens and pancakes to eat it with. As good as the duck was, Miranda had spicy eggplant cooked with minced pork, and that was probably the winner of the night: spicy enough to bring at least a little flush to my face, the eggplant was perfectly done and only restraint kept me from licking the bowl after she was done.
For dessert, Miranda had coconut ice cream, and after a small linguistic dance with the waitress in which we ascertained that first, second and third choices were off, off, and “twenty minutes to prepare” respectively, I crossed my fingers and ordered the “dessert special”, which was presented to me as “chinese wine pudding,” and indeed was an oddly grey-colored pudding with a bit of caramel and a preserved plum on top. I tasted it with a little apprehension (pudding textures can be touch-and-go for me), and as god is my witness, “chinese wine pudding” was, in fact, Maotai pudding. And even stranger, Maotai pudding turned out to be really good.
I’m a little hesitant to offer an opinion of the food per se: we got what looked good to us, not necessarily what the kitchen considered its specialties. So take this for whatever it’s worth: what was had was very very good, but it wasn’t the same sort of imaginative brilliance we had at, to pick an example at not-at-all-random, Morimoto in Philadelphia. This was top-of-the line Sichuan cuisine, done to Japanese standards, meaning no bones in the meat and despite the enormous decorative bowl filled to overflowing with red chilis in the restaurant entrance, not actually very hot. As a night out, it was good if a little oddly paced: one waiter was refilling our water glasses after practically every swallow, but our primary server took about 15 minutes to take our dessert orders after our entrees were cleared — but to be fair we were the only westerners there and I have no idea if this was simply a difference in how service is expected to proceed in Japan. If I went again, I’d probably order one of the chefs-choice menus and let the kitchen take a bit more control— and I’d certainly go again if the opportunity arose.
Finally back in our room, we watched the pretty lights until it was time to go to sleep: