TGJA – Chapter Nine – Taking the Plundge

Yesterday, thanks in no small part to a dear friend being in town with her entourage, I experienced the sights, sounds, and feels of the Oedo-Onsen Monogatari. For the uninitiated, an Onsen is a public bathing house. Yakumi (thin Japanese pyjamas) are worn, food and drink establishments line the inner courtyard, and entertainment abounds, but of course the main attraction are the holistic baths themselves.

(It must be noted at this point that some of the men seem to go mostly for the beers, and that a fair number of the women go there to get away from the men. Accordingly, the women’s only section is vast, beautiful, and abounds with massage places, stone and sand baths, etc, etc)

For my part, the baths were an exceptionally interesting experience, and there are not a few things that I found noteworthy to write about. At the entrance to the Onsen there are signs in many languages (a pitfall of living in the capitol) which declare, quite unapologetically, that those people who have chosen to get tattooed in their life are not welcome at the Onsen. Should your tattoo be in a place that is not immediately obvious at check in, count on being lifted from your bath or massage table by security as soon as it is discovered, only to be thrown out without a refund. The reason for this rather extreme behavior undoubtedly lies in the socio-cultural significance of tattoos here in Japan. Japanese tattoos are, in my opinion, some of the finest in the world; rich in color, typically Japanese, and often extremely elaborate. Though I cannot imagine what anyone could have against seeing such a tattoo, I do not believe those tattoos are the problem. More contemporary use of tattoos includes gang related imagery, and of course the blatant link to the Yakuza – something very much so frowned upon in Japan. (That is to say, they know perfectly well the Yakuza exists, but talking about it is considered to be in poor taste.) Like many things in Japan however, explanations for seemingly extreme measures are seldom forthcoming and so I, and the girls, enjoyed our Onsen experience without tattoos, and for my part they were not missed.

The baths themselves differ from simple wading pools lined with rocks of different sizes and pebbles arranged in beautiful patterns, to indoor soaking tubs large enough for 100 people at a time. Of course there are sit-down showers (Japanese style) for you to tend to your personal hygiene, as well as bubble baths. Other baths feature outside rock pools, tall tubs made of bamboo (women only), and a bath filled with little fish who clean your feet much as cleaner shrimp clean moray eels, taking parasites, dead skin tissue, and other microscopic debris. Having experience that feeling in real life in Florida (where if you stand quietly in the water, fish will do exactly that) I did not feel inclined to pay the extra fee.

Personally, my favorite baths are the outside ones, which allow you to experience the tranquility of night (it was around 10:30PM by the time we got to the baths) and the fresh air, whilst submerging yourself in water at 42 degrees Celsius. Japanese men (my only companions in the strictly segregated baths) seem to enjoy simply allowing the stress of Tokyo life to melt away as they sit, quietly and serene, in, or partially in, the hot baths. Though there was plenty conversation going on around me, it was at a muted volume and easy to block out as background noise. For my part, the water at the Oedo-Onsen is far too hot, and despite its holistic nature, and the hot-springs, and blah blah blah, I was content to dip myself in the water for a minute or so and then sit, or lie, quite peacefully on the wooden platforms provided. I enjoyed the clouds drifting overhead illuminated by the light pollution of Japan’s great capitol. I enjoyed the steam wafting from the water like phantom dancers on ice, swirling and twirling in an organic ballet. I enjoyed the serenity of it all, and frankly I enjoyed being unburdened by clothes and possessions which were neatly stored in a locker provided, having taken heed of the sign: “NO CLOTHES BEYOND THIS POINT”

I enjoyed observing Japanese men in their ritualistic approach to personal hygiene. I enjoyed philosophizing in these rare quiet moments in Tokyo. What is more however, I enjoyed thinking off all of you, my friend both far and near, and how nice it would be to share even some of the experiences I am having here in Japan – Onsen or otherwise.

The Tokyo Fish market is synonymous with sushi and as such an irresistible lure for sushi addicts such as myself. The one obvious problem with the Tokyo fish market however is their hours. Tourists who believe they can enjoy a leisurely rest at their hotel only to mosey on down to the market at 10AM will be sorely disappointed. No, indeed the action hours are much, much earlier than that. We arrived shortly after 4:30 in the morning only to find the auctioning of the fresh catch was already over, as a vast army of men in galoshes hurried about with large Styrofoam boxes – treasure chests filled with the delicious denizens of the deep.

As is perfectly normal for Tokyo, the market itself was one not devoid of scandalous public health and safety violations. Drum-barreled electric carts shuttling large caches of seafood to and fro did so at alarming speeds with little to no regard for the safety of others. Electric wires and industrial appliances (most used for cutting large chunks out of deep frozen fish) as well as lighting the vast market space and its many makeshift booths lie haphazardly around everywhere one looks. The market floor, which is permanently wet, is often scant centimeters away from live wires or other jury-rigged electrical fixtures making the whole place potentially life-threatening on a good day. I will not even begin to imagine the catastrophic aftermath of an earthquake rocking the market to its core – an event that, it being Japan, is not outside the realm of possibility.

Beyond these blatantly obvious dangers, there is the merchandise itself which may not always be safe to handle. The Tokyo fish market boasts many unusual species that are consumed by none but the Japanese, Chinese and maybe the French among us, and are not uncommonly quite poisonous, putrid, or otherwise unsafe for unsuspecting tourists. Fugu (the Japanese blow-fish so famous as high-end sushi) is quite poisonous for instance and always kept in live tanks well within reach of the hands of precocious children. I am not sure whether or not Fugu have any means of delivering this poison beyond being themselves eaten, but assuredly storing them out of the reach of children must be a good idea nonetheless. Deadly sea-snails, cone shells, stone fish and other species besides lie next to harmless look-alikes and even food items we (westerners) might recognize. (On a side note, there were innumerous large boxes of imported Norwegian salmon which are then promptly sold as Japan’s finest sushi – I found this hilarious, so next time you are eating ‘sake’ – the sushi name of salmon, just remember it may not be quite so exotic as you may believe it to be)

The dangerous nature of some of these items, combined with the electric and slightly foreboding atmosphere, makes the whole market feel very alien and as a tourist you are well out of place. On the other hand, I do not believe I have seen fresher seafood than here, where many animals are available for live purchase, and others (such as squid and octopus) may still be alive after the best efforts of the shopkeepers to slay them. (Cephalopods being especially resilient critters!) Live tiger shrimp, crabs, oysters, lobsters, Fugu, flat fish, and even sea cucumbers are all available for purchase alongside of freshly frozen fish of every conceivable nature.

We did not manage to see the fabled blue fin tuna, but retrospectively I discovered we had actually arrived too early, as the blue fin tuna are the main auction item and are thus sold before the largest possible crowd at 5:30 in the morning. On the bright side, I now have an excellent reason to make a return trip.

Japanese people will squeeze themselves, butt-first, into metro cars that look (and feel) to most people, quite full. ‘Filled to capacity’ is a term not talked about and a maximum occupancy sticker is nowhere to be found inside the cars. This behavior is discouraged by metro personnel of course, but not actively prohibited or enforced. The technique itself is quite simple, you simply move up to the open doors of the train car, do an about face turn, and lean into the people already in the car. Depending on the density of people, sometimes this lean can be simply a nudge, as everyone inside takes a slight step back, or at peak rush hour (a bit of a misnomer in Tokyo where daylight is synonymous with million hordes crowding into the metro) the leaning takes on a semi-aggressive shoving at angles as steep at 45 degrees. Nevertheless, without fail the people inside the car will somehow rearrange themselves, like a compressed gas, to allow for the newcomer to join the commute. This entire process is as fascinating as it is commonplace, and as such the Japanese don’t even blink when it happens not once, or twice, but multiple times at each stop. No matter how tightly packed a train car is, amazingly, there seems always room for one more person. The phenomenon can be likened to opening a can of sardines and finding not the regular 10, but a simply staggering 227, packed so tightly together that the metal tin bulges on all sides, and when opened several sardines are forcefully ejected simply by the pressure of the sardines behind them. Well then, having made that analogy, it will not surprise anyone then that at each stop several people, who were previously pressed uncomfortably hard against the doors themselves, their faces flattened against the glass, simply fall out of the train car unto the platform. Thankfully the Japanese are well organized and as such a space is left clear in front of each of the doors for this process to take its natural course. One so ejected, those who wish to exit voluntarily may do so, and then those expelled by force re-take their position in the train car, along with any newcomers, and the entire process is ready to repeat itself. It does so, every day of the week, including Sundays, as Tokyo – like a great dam – attempts to hold back a volume of people no longer comprehensible by anyone but the statisticians.

There comes a time of my morning commute when the usual automatic, habitual nature of walking, still half asleep, must most immediately cease and my full attention be brought to bare. My body adopts a heightened state of alertness, as my eyes focus on the task ahead: crossing from the East side of Ikebukero station to the West – in every respect an epic undertaking. Before I explain why crossing from one side of the station to the other requires my utmost, allow me if you will to say a few words regarding Ikebukero station itself. Along with ‘Tokyo,’ ‘Ueno,’ ‘Shinjuku,’ and ‘Shibuya,’ these stations comprise the largest and busiest transfer hubs in Tokyo. Having said that, Ikebukero is (as far as area is concerned) one of the very largest, rivaled only by Shinjuku and Tokyo stations – the latter playing host to the famous ‘Shinkansen’ bullet trains and thus having extra, dedicated platforms. Nevertheless, my walk through the bowels of Ikebukero station takes the better part of 10 minutes, every one of which is spent underground in the company of millions of other commuters, as though a worker in an ant hive. I digress, back to the task at hand:

A dull and distant roar of footsteps lets me know I am approaching the half-way point of my journey through the massive station, as a torrent of people flood in like a roaring waterfall from Ikebukero’ Seibu East exit, which empties this onslaught perpendicularly onto my chosen path. Their movement is hurried, their faces grim as, by sheer force of numbers, they lay claim to this space. My path continues on the other side of this moving mass of people without end. Here is where sound strategy comes into play.

Like any large river, crossing the Seibu Gate flow works best if you ‘swim’ with the current, aiming for a far-shore landing well down stream. I line up my target, a column supporting the massive city above, and wade in determinedly as weakness is punished mercilessly. Not seldom have I seen full-grown adults struggle, waver, and die in their fight against this unstoppable cascade, only to be dragged beyond my sight to unimaginable ends. Thus I remain strong, determined, and on course, all the while keeping my eyes on the other side. Against my natural instinct I avoid eye contact (a sign that you care) – a weakness exploited by all, as they squeeze in just ahead of those less bold, slowing them down, eventually to a stand still, abandoned like the doomed passengers of the sinking Titanic, stranded with no hope of escape. Quick maneuvering saves me from seemingly inevitable collisions, and the same horrid fate. With a gentle push and a friendly shove, I set foot on the distant shores of West Ikebukero, another day, another successful crossing, as I breathe a sigh of relief and allow my body and mind to sink back into their catatonic state. Semi-consciously I resume my commute, its monotony murderous, and its course fraught with perils still to come.

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