Tuesday, December 9, 2008

“It’s easy when you are Big in Japan” (and have the right company) (Day 74)

On the plane to Hong Kong, over the South China sea, I am saying goodbye to 10 of the most weird, enjoyable, funny, memorable and emotional days of my trip.

(Where I am now: Cathay Pacific Airbus 340-300, flight from Tokyo to Hong Kong, seat 31C) Date: Monday8Dec- What time is it: 17:33pm. What am I listening to: Jose Padilla)

Goodbye Japan. Goodbye Tokyo. Thank you for the most crazy, incredible experience I’ve had so far. I wasn’t really planning on visiting Japan on this trip until nearly the time I booked it. It started with an idea, since Kaori would be spending a few months there doing an internship in an NGO. Then it became bigger and bigger as an idea with George and Aris planning to join. Undeniably, an irresistible combination of factors made Tokyo part of my itinerary. It wouldn’t be the same without all of them.

First of all, it is absolutely necessary to have someone that speaks and can read Japanese with you in this country. Unfortunately it is not what you would call “tourist friendly” for foreigners. Very few things are written in English and even fewer people speak the language – it would have been for me a completely different (and so much more lonely) experience visiting Tokyo on my own. Foreigners are scarce, you’d barely see some in the streets, even in the busiest of areas. No issue when you have someone that looks and speaks Japanese. I thank my luck for this – it would not have been the same place without her. You see all the previous places where “easy” for me. Australia and New Zealand are English speaking and even LatinAmerica was easy after a few days of brushing up my Spanish. This is a completely different ball (or let’s say sumo) game. Even the couple of days we spent without Kaori were a bit of a challenge: is this the right train station, is this the right food, we kept wondering…

Food for the masses.

Food… I have never eaten so well in my life. It’s the incredible combination of quality and variety that make Tokyo a culinary extravaganza, as long as you are willing to try things you are not used to having in Europe, you can taste everything from meat to fish to the freshest vegetables. I spent 10 days, I ate in places cheap and expensive, never, ever did I have a bad food experience. As Nana and Kaori say though, “You can eat anything” so my point of view doesn’t count then just ask George and especially Aris that has less experience with Asian food.

We would have stuck to noodles and pointing at photos if it weren’t for Kaori but just following (and being open to suggestions) actually rewarded us with an incredible variety of different food, cooked in amazing ways. Japanese food is not only about rice and raw fish. I ate pork and beef cooked in so many different ways, we even cooked it ourselves in some occasions. From Okonomiyaki (fried omelette with vegetables that you cook your own), to Yaki-niku (Japanese BBQ) to Udon and Ramen (Noodlles) to Gyozas and Tempura, there’s something for everyone’s palate. As long as you are willing to try and…know what you order (and occasionally how to cook it!)

Try it and you won’t be disappointed. “Japanese are obsessed with food” she kept telling us and I was looking around for fat people as you would see in the US or some places in Europe. Yes they are obsessed. Walking in the city, watching television or looking at printed adds, you get the impression that the whole Japanese society revolves around eating. Anytime the restaurants, cheap and expensive, are full, TV is all about food shows and anywhere you go there’s something to eat…

Samurai vs. Manga: 1-1

How do you bridge a centuries-old traditional society built on respect and hierarchical norms with the most technologically modern place in the world and the most extravagant, crazy-looking clothes and young people? I can’t answer that question but if there’s an answer you can find it in Tokyo. From old ladies wearing Kimonos in the Metro to the crazy teenagers with the incredible outfits and the “Hello Kitty” culture, it all comes to life in this big city. It lives and breathes modern and high-tech but at the same time you see so much respect and manners weaved in the fabric of the society, you just want to make noise or throw some garbage on the ground to see how these people will react. The city’s veins flow underground, with the most modern, efficient and fast metro I have ever seen, moving millions of people every day to and from work and leisure. “Meet you at Shinjuku station” is a euphemism, you have never seen such a busy metro station in the world, thousands of people every minute passing through its countless gates, connecting underground with shopping malls and at the same time, it is spotless, safe, clean…

Only one time I got annoyed, when we had to take one of the last trains back and I experienced “rush hour – light version” as I would call it: yes you do have the people with the gloves gently pushing you in the train and people really comply. They pack up and try to make space but at the same time the all have their little comic (manga) books, super mobile phones and mp3 players or portable game machines and they just mind their own business. And in a train full of hundreds of Japanese the only thing you could hear was… Greek.

I am really sorry, it is difficult to describe this without more photos and videos but if you want really to understand how Tokyo is, go rent “Lost in Translation”. Don’t judge the film on its story or its artistic quality (although I think it is brilliantly directed) but watch it trying to soak in the feeling that the place gives you. The lights at night, the people and their habits and the hopelessness of the foreigner visiting such a strange land. We watched it with Kaori one of the days we were there and while doing so I realized that thanks to her and my determined early-wakeup Greek friends we managed to visit and experience so many parts of Tokyo that would have been impossible otherwise.

"I'll get by with a little help from my friends…"

There I was at some point, in the metro, traveling alone to meet George and Aris that were already out on their shopping errands and I was looking around at these people, the foreign language, the clothes and styles and suddenly I felt so alone. I couldn’t imagine how this would be if I had to spend all these days alone or even in a hostel with other Gaijin (whites as they are not always favorably called by the Japanese). Seeing George and Aris took a while to get used to. After all, I’ve been travelling for more than 2 months and they were the first people I saw from my “life in Greece”. Let alone the fact that they are 2 of my best friends. I don’t need to say too much, in any case some things are better left unsaid but I want to share a couple of moments on the fact that they flew all this way to see Tokyo and meet with me.

Waking in the streets of Tokyo, the streets filled with neon light from the huge billboards, trying to avoid crashing into the hundreds of people crossing the street and still sticking out, taller and more different, I just said to them: “We are in Tokyo, can you believe it?!” And just like that other time 2 years ago, when we went to catch the sunset on that dessert dune outside Dubai, I felt that real friendship can last forever. No matter the distance or how people change, even if not everything is compatible or the same, the only thing you need to do is slow the clock down and live the moment. And suddenly the magic comes to life. Just as it was magic for me walking alone in all these beautiful places the past 2 months, it has been equally or even more fascinating to have your dear friends with you and share these moments.

Last night (Saturday) in Tokyo, we headed out with Kaori and George & Aris for one last night in town. They had a bus to catch on Sunday morning at around 8am and since the Metro stops from midnight to 5am, this meant that we would just “have to” stay up all night. After some great noodles & gyozas, we walked around and discovered the coolest bar we could expect: beautiful lighting, jazz music and so laid back, we had our first drinks there and talked. The time was already 1am when we headed off to Muse, one of the famous clubs, to check out how people party in Tokyo… (we will not comment on the place!)

As the night moved near its end, we went to get the first metro back and with Kaori heading back home, I decided to stay with them and go to the hotel. As we walked the streets of Tokyo, sunrise coming, we repeated the same thing “We are in Tokyo, can you believe it?!” knowing that this reunion is coming to an end. And what a great way to finish it, hanging out with them and staying up till the end.

Back at their hotel room, as they packed their bags and had showers I just crashed on one of the beds, looking outside the window over the huge Tokyo Municipality building in front of the hotel, sky turning blue-indigo from the sunrise, I picked up my phone and wrote this sms:

“6am, the Sunday sun is rising over the buildings of this crazy, sleepless city. We just got back and it almost seems true: this beautiful life can last forever…”

See you in Hong Kong…

- The food. Quality and Asian variety unparalleled…
- The incredible vending machines where you can buy drinks so cheap (Evian water travels to the other side of the planet and still costs half the price as in Geneva which is 80km away from the spring)
- Beautiful red-leaved trees in amazing parks in the heart of the city that take you far away from noise and crowds
- Temples and buildings…
- The most incredible city lights and billboards I’ve ever seen.
- Girls and their amazing looks and sexy outfits
- The most amazing packaging and gift wrapping even for $5 gifts
- The space-age toilets with heating and control panels more sophisticated than my DVD player.
- The most efficient and big metro system I have ever seen.

Didn’t Like: - Complete absence of garbage cans. No garbage on the street but also nowhere to throw it!
- Complete lack of English on signs and people’s vocabulary. You are bound to feel like a moron, unable to even order food.

The Force is strong with the Greek travelers in Japan!

Shinjuku park - Kaori

Red trees everywhere...

Kostas and his rice biscuits at Shinjuku park

Aris taking a nap, Shinjuku tower in the background

Greek Team :-)

A carpet of yellow leaves in the park

Yes, we launched Gucci in Tokyo as well :-)

Aris and George getting on it...


Sunset over the Tokyo municipality building (hotel view)

Don't ask! Look at what 4 friends and Jap technology can do :-)

Muse club... Geroge is having his Victory cigar :-)

Japanese style photo

05:00 am, it's over, finished as they say...

5:30am waiting for the metro :-)

Japanese x-mas lights

Sushi train. Please notice the size of the tuna vs. the size of the rice (just like Geneva...)

Wonderful, amazing city lights

This is how you spell R-E-S-P-E-C-T (does your phone have "Manner mode"?)

Jap trash TV

Kaori next to Japan's only real national star!

The incredible vending machines


odevoted said...

Hey guys, I’m really happy for all of you, home is where the heart is, and your heart is usually with your friends!

On more negative tone, I don't know how much aware you are of what's been happening to your motherland in the last couple of days, but it's a real tragedy....
Athens and many more Greek cities will never be the same.

I seriously think ALL greeks, we should seriously consider our share of blame in this.

Anonymous said...

DOMO re :)