Friday, December 21, 2012

Tokyo Not Cancelled

We (I was accompanied by my wife) reached Tokyo in the afternoon of November 24. We were very tired as we had to leave house around 3am to catch the 6am Delta flight. Not only we were tired, we were very hungry too. We had a quick sandwich at Starbucks before we boarded the flight. I could hardly sleep on the plane as I am always tempted to watch movies on a flight and I always have a backlog of movies that I wish to watch.

Just two days before the flight to Tokyo I had watched almost an hour of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel en route to Bangkok and had loved it completely (especially the humour in the film). So, during the flight to Tokyo, I first watched that movie (from where I had left it off) and I don't regret it. Perhaps it was the best film of this year for me. Many Indians, including myself, dislike India for its crowd, squalor and poverty, and the film sort of showed me how to see the same situation in a different light ("In India, life is not a right," says one character. "It's a privilege."). That is the beauty of the film.If you haven't watched it, you must. There is a lot of good humour in the film. I thought it was a well-written movie.

Coming from Singapore, almost any airport in the world will disappoint me--in terms of ease of movement, layout and sheer opulence. Narita was no different. Anyway, the immigration process was very smooth and after collecting our bags, we boarded the Narita Express (NEX) to our hotel in Shinjuku.

Shinjuku is one of those little districts in Tokyo where high life and low life come together in a confluence. Our hotel was a short walk away from the station (the world's busiest railway junction, says the guide book). After checking into our hotel, we rested for a while in the room--even for a four-star hotel, the room was very small: a double bed, a desk, and one chair. There wasn't any cupboard in the room. And there was a narrow space between the bed and the wall, narrow enough to put a suitcase down. Freshly pressed robes waited for us. There was TV which had only Japanese channels on it: I found one channel where a man was furiously talking about some products. The shower room was even smaller but the snazzy toilet seat more than compensated for it. It had some amazing functions and I wonder why hasn’t the world (or, at least Singapore) adopted technologically advanced Japanese toilets? Think of it: today we carry so much advanced smartphones but when it comes to toilets, we have not evolved much. It is a shame.

After a while, we hit the streets. It was evening and it was very cold, and we admired our cleverness that we had packed enough winter clothing to brave the Tokyo weather. The streets around Shinjuku had a quaintness to them—small, narrow streets, with small, little shops and lots of neon signs and locals, mostly youngsters, pounding them in groups. My wife thought we were back in the 70s. Despite the cold, it seemed there was enough cheerfulness in the atmosphere and it didn't seem like a country that had been stuck in economic stagnation for decades now.  The traffic was slow and there didn't seem to be a mad rush for anything (or was it because it was a Saturday?), and many people rode bicycles on the streets. Even the taxis looked of an old vintage but they were all in good condition. The whole atmosphere reminded me of a Dev Anand film shot in the 1970s or 80s. My wife was right about the feel of the district.

Next to our hotel and across the street there were plenty of vending machines. That's where I first saw vending machines that dispensed cigarettes. Also, every now and then, one would find a Family Mart or a Seven Eleven store to buy items of daily and frequent use, including food items, water and fat, comic magazines that were sealed to prevent thumbing by browsing-happy readers.

The streets were packed with noodle bars and restaurants (the signs were sometimes vertically displayed, implying different restaurants at different levels of a building) and global fast food restaurants like McDonald's and KFC were easy to find. We also spotted a Yoshinoya outlet but it looked so different from what I had seen in Singapore that I decided not to enter it. There didn't even seem to be a menu at the counter.

Across the Shinjuku station, there was Takashimaya, the shopping complex of the same-name that we have on Orchard Road in Singapore. That's where we planned to spend the evening. On the way to the mall, we came across beautiful Christmas decorations. We saw people taking pictures around the decorations.

Even though the mall was sprawling, the layout of the stores seemed to be a bit confusing or maybe it needed many more trips to get used to it and find our way around with ease. We had spent nearly half an hour inside the mall and as we entered an elevator to go to the fifth floor, we had a taste of the famous Japanese earthquake. The elevator shook, the lights sputtered off and the doors forestalled. Luckily, we were not between two floors so all of us rushed out of the lift.

The mall's staff sprung into action: all elevators and escalators were jammed up, and they showed the shoppers the exits. I wanted to see Kinokuniya the bookstore but my wife didn't want to hang around anymore so we followed a bunch of locals who took the staircase down. Somehow we managed to get out of the building. Outside, people were milling round on the streets as if nothing had happened. We went to a Starbucks which was very crowded, (and it seems young people in Tokyo love hanging out in Starbucks) and ordered a cappuccino. We collected our drink and sat outside and as we began to sip it, we realized we had been given the wrong drink. But the cinnamon-flavoured tea tasted nice in the cold and we carried on, dropping any idea to complain to the cafĂ©’s staff.

We had our dinner at McDonald's--we got some burgers and we had to ask for ketchup. It was really self-service in there as we had to clear the table after we had eaten--everyone was doing that in the restaurant. Japanese shops seemed to get along fine with minimal staff and we saw it everywhere. They could hardly speak English but communication was not a problem. Gestures and pictures supplemented pidgin English.

I slept at night wishing for our safety. There weren’t any more tremors that night.

The next morning we set for Odaiba, a reclaimed island next to the Tokyo Bay. The train ride across the Rainbow Bridge offered amazing vistas. We had to change three lines but the train rides were comfortable and the trains ran on time, exactly as I was told. Tokyo has one of the best metro systems in the world. They have about 16 lines in operation.

We entered one of the shopping malls in Odaiba and by the time we were done with our shopping it was dark outside. We had our lunch inside the mall--we ate the delicious beef bowls at Yoshinoya, and I put a check on my list. 

After coming back to our hotel room, we went out again. I had to see the original Kinokuniya in Tokyo and finally after asking a couple of helpful Japanese staff at Takashimaya, I was able to step inside the 6 story building that housed Kinokuniya. The annex (building) was old and the elevator didn't work. It was ten minutes before closing time and we had to use the escalators. I finally managed to reach the English language section of the bookstore which was on the 6th storey. Just for fun I asked them if they my books. They didn't have them. I bought a novel, The Devotion of Suspect X, for the sake of memory, and they kindly draped my copy with a cover. Nice gesture!

That night we had our dinner at KFC and the portions (true for both the pieces of chicken and fries) were really small. But the taste was fine.

The next morning we left Tokyo for the United States. The journey from the hotel to the Narita airport turned into our biggest adventure in Japan, and what was meant to be a 90 minutes journey turned into a 3 hour long rush. That is something I have to tell you when we meet (remember to ask me), and not write about it here. 

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