Subways and Compliments

I had been to Tokyo more than once before. It had always seemed like a strange city to me. Full of people, full of life, impossibly large and sprawling; at the same time it was impossible cramped and claustrophobic, and at times the loneliest place on earth. It always seemed surreal to me.

I remember one time in Shinjuku, Kabukicho, at that time of night where you’re not sure to call it really late or really early. The wee hours, some say. The sky was glowing, the bright lights of the rowdiest part of Tokyo cast up and bounced off the atmosphere overhead. In the square, a raised platform balanced the urban landscape against the tall department stores and karaoke havens that surrounded it. The raised platform in the center was strewn over with too many to count. Some were very obviously homeless. Some were very obviously drunk and passed out, their hands still gripping their suitcases, their ties flopping haphazardly across their shoulders. A surreal scene, it still makes me think of battlefield paintings, the wounded and dead strew by the hand of chaos across the ground.

I live in Tokyo now, and have for a month. I’m still getting used to the sights, sounds and bustle of living in one of the world’s greatest cities. The subway rides in the morning, packed closer to complete strangers than I would like. Many jokes about a certain can packed fish can be heard from time to time. (Hint, not tuna) People on bicycles, oblivious to your existence, missing you by a hair and giving you a mini-heart attack. Vending machines, vending machines everywhere. The smell from the noodle shops as you walk past.

I feel like an old pro now. I’m not a tourist here. I used to live in Japan. I know the customs. I know the culture. I speak the language, decently for a gaijin I suppose. However, moving back after two years in the states means that I feel all out of whack. Caught between cultures, struggling with a language, working two jobs and taking 5 courses at university. Sometimes it’s overwhelming. The city humbles you. You feel small next to the massive towers, amidst the throngs of people shoving their way through life in old Edo.

The key to living in Tokyo is simple. Fall in. Blend in. (As much as you can at least, being a gaijin and all that) I have a metro passmo card. No tickets for me. I know where I’m going and I know where to touch my IC card and flow through the gate to the subway. And sometimes I get on the subway that’s going the opposite direction. Ah, crap. Well, don’t panic. Just calmly get off at the next station, walk with a determined, but slightly bored expression on your face, trip over two people and elbow three until you’ve successfully launched yourself on the metal coffin going the right way. Nothing to it really.

I was in the famous Ginza shopping district last week. I stopped at a bar for a drink. The place had a nice nautical theme. The bartender spoke brilliant English, said that he had gone to university in the US. California to be exact. Then he told me something that surprised me. (This is after talking a while) He said that I seemed Japanese, that I didn’t seem American. He said that when I walked in, he thought that if I didn’t look so not-Japanese he would have thought that I was. I seemed to hold my self like a Japanese person would. I’m not quite sure what this meant exactly, but I’ll take it as a compliment.

Compliments are nice.