Shibuya Rock City

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.

After getting back, we took an hour in the hotel room to cool off, rehydrate, recharge the camera batteries (ahem) and ourselves. From our window, we could see our next destination: Shibuya. We could also see… a soccer game?

Girding ourselves for battle, we descended into the fray. If you’ve ever seen a modern movie (even an animated one) about Japan, you’ve probably seen Shibuya crossing: it’s a huge, 4-way intersection which alternates between a large auto interchange and a pedestrian free-for-all every few minutes. The car streetlights all turn red, the crosswalk lights all turn green, and underneath more neon and LED signage than you ever thought existed, easily ten thousand people surge across the huge intersection in all directions. And then a few minutes later, it happens again. Times Square, Trafalgar Square, the Arc d’Triomphe — none of these even remotely compare.

At the corner we were crossing toward was another noted Tokyo phenomenon: the scary right wing ranting sound truck. Apparently there are dozens of these things set up at various junctions in Tokyo all the time, allowing various nationalist politicians to harangue passers-by for hours on end. This one was loud enough to be heard above the din of the crossing, but of course I have no idea what particular sect they were advocating for:

Our first destination was the 109. (Actually the 109-2, but who’s counting?) What’s the 109?

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.

For instance:

Yes, those are men’s (we think) briefs with “I (smile) KY” emblazoned on them. There was a moment where I actually found myself considering them, until I looked at the price tag, and realized that $40 was a little much for briefs that I could only really consider wearing at Pride.

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.

Finally, we hit our objective: love hotel hill. We picked a likely-seeming place at random (called “Shibuya Strawberry Jam”), and made our way down a brightly lit set of stairs in search of the lobby, which various guides assured us would be full of garish pictures of the themed rooms for rent.

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:

Our Shibuya missions accomplished, we trekked back to the hotel in time to shower off the inch-thick layer of sweat and sunblock, and change into nicer clothes for dinner: the Cerulean Tower is the home of “Szechuan Restaurant Chen,” the flagship restaurant of former Iron Chef Chinese Chen Kenichi, and this was to be the site of our one semi-extravagent restaurant dinner in Tokyo.

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.

The meal over, we went back to our room to plot the next day’s journey to Nikko. Being dressed in good clothes and not wanting to go back outside into the soup to get our JR tickets, I had the brilliant idea of asking the hotel concierge to use the JR website to make our reservations for us. This was probably a good idea in theory, but it turns out that you can’t book JR Rail Pass tickets via the web or over the phone, and it took longer for the increasingly flustered and apologetic concierge to figure this out than it eventually did for me to skip out of the hotel, down three blocks to Shibuya station and over to the JR ticket counter to pick them up myself. I get the impression that the Cerulean does not get a lot of the American backpacker trade, and fair enough really.

Finally back in our room, we watched the pretty lights until it was time to go to sleep:

Add post to:   Delicious Reddit Slashdot Digg Technorati Google
Make comment


No comments for this post