It was always a given that, whether by choice or by coercion, I would experience the Tokyo nightlife, but nothing could have prepared me for what I found inside the decked halls of Pachinko parlors. Oh… the humanity! Imagine a place where vacant space is the enemy and things that do not flash and make noise are blasphemous. Imagine, if you can, a place where sanity is left at the door and only the foolhardy dare enter. Imagine stepping from the street into a maddening hell for the epileptic, where overexposure of the senses is a very real threat to one’s mind. Such a place did I this night enter, and woe unto me for not heeding the warnings…
Pachinko is a game involving a metal ball, a vertical playing area, and a lot of metal pins. “Pinball,” I hear you protest. Nay, says I – pinball is to Pachinko what the moon is to the sun; merely a reflective surface for its unrelenting light. An element of arcade-style gaming, gambling, and a sub-culture on the fringe of society, is what makes Pachinko no mere childrens’ amusement. Grown men, salary men of all levels, man these machines with blank eyes, and sizzled senses, gambling away untold quantities of money, on a scale reminiscent of the Las Vegas strip. They do this, all across the city, in all manner of parlors, every day of the week, 24-hours a day. To speak of addiction in some of these cases would be a gross understatement. I have seen with my own eyes suited men draped across their Panchinko machines, barely alive, engaging its cogs and pins only by virtue of muscle reflex. By all accounts, Pachinko can be deadly.
Yet, here I sit, writing this. There you sit, reading this. I must still be alive then after all. It is true – I ventured into a Pachinko parlor, but with one foot through the door I threw my rudder about and ran out as fast as my trembling legs could carry me. An asphyxiating smog nearly strangled me as the second hand smoke of a million unfiltered cigarettes invaded my lungs. Blinded by the dazzling lights I bounded out the door, not caring where I would end up, or what would happen along the way. This was a place I had to leave – leave and leave far behind. I eventually found my bearings… some 300 meters down the road. I was panting, weak in the knees, and my heart felt as though it had aged 10 years for every microsecond spent in that hell, but I had survived. That is all I have to say about Pachinko.
More fun by far than risking your soul (and more) on Pachinko are the arcades scattered between the (I suspect far more lucrative) Pachinko parlors. Here one can enjoy simple pleasures such as dropping a coin in a machine, it performing a specified operation, and you and it then parting ways. So it was that my housemates and I (John and Tazuno) came upon the third floor of one such arcade and availed ourselves of this harmless entertainment. We began with the breathtakingly beautiful sixth incarnation of the Tekken series and after mashing those buttons good and hard we switched to a head to head driving game. Sliding the plastic bucket seat back for the first time in its existence, we settled into our reclined positions and chose our vehicles of choice. Car fans rejoice, I got to ‘drive’ a Porshe Carrera GT… manually. For 12-year-olds and 24-year-olds alike, this was a dream come true. The virtual super highways of Tokyo became our playground. Speedos deep in the 300’s and the RPMs permanently in the red we burned rubber and cyber-fuel for a few minutes of bliss. Then, seemingly as soon as it started, it was over, the race run and our money spent. It was time to go home. (note: arcades in Japan are appreciably cheaper than in the States – the 3 of us played for about an hour at the paltry price of about 5 dollars) I will not soon forget this night and can highly recommend it to all visitors of Japan.
One of the more endearing qualities of Tokyo is that things which exist together need not necessarily bare any resemblance to each other or a greater unified theme. One example of this was the hole-in-the-wall seafood specialties place some classmates and I had lunch the other day. We picked it because it looked to be a thoroughly, and authentic Japanese dining experience, with a façade that promised delicious Unagi (eel) and wholesome grilled fish. Once inside however the walls were lined with old 1930’s style French movie posters, and they were playing, non-stop, the Beatles greatest hits. To top things off, the clientele consisted mostly of Japanese carpenters – all sitting in separate booths. The whole experience was not at all hampered by this eclectic mix of styles, but rather oddly enhanced by it. It is quintessential Tokyo in my opinion.
Whilst perusing the streets of Japan’s vast capitol, you will see many uniformed men with ‘lightsabers’ – little red batons with a light inside, most notably used to direct traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian. These men (no women yet) come in many different styles of uniform, both with and without helmet, and with or without tassels for example, but all serve one greater function: they are the guardians of public safety – or so it would appear. I have observed many of these stick-wielding men and yet have never seen them perform any sort of function other than simply being present at work sites, crossroads, and potholes. Not once have I seen one raise his baton to indicate the safe path, block a careless person’s path to prevent him trudging through a hard-hat site, or even wave traffic through. Like union men, their presence simply seems to be required by an obtuse law, despite their lack of apparent usefulness. Some of these men seem to be legitimate policemen, donned-up in their finest traffic-warden wear, including of course the ‘lightsaber.’ Most however seem to be private rent-a-cops without clarity of purpose. I suspect that where I stated they may have been union workers above, I could have been wrongly identifying the omnipresence of the local mafia – your friends, the Yakuza.
Braille and a ribbed and knobbed paths line the streets and more noticeably the subways of Tokyo. These bright yellow paths run along the corridors and tunnels no matter how insignificant the station, presumably enabling blind people to navigate the Tokyo subway. (A pleasant, albeit wholly unrealistic bit of fiction) Living in a city with as many inhabitants as Tokyo, it is reasonable to assume there are indeed blind people about traversing the endless chaos beneath its streets, but I have yet to see one. I do not blame the visually impaired for steering well clear of the subway system – one false step could send them headlong into an unstoppable and irreversible torrent of people, to be trampled, mangled, kicked, knocked around, and killed. This very nearly happened to me, and I have both the use of my eyes and a sturdy frame to keep me out of harms way. I could scarcely imagine how well I might fare should I be bereft of my sight. Still, there it is, everywhere, bright yellow markings to lend aid to the blind. My biggest concern with it all is the paint job – why do the guides have to be bright yellow when the blind cannot see them? Surely it must be to alert the rest of us to their presence, not so that we will be more conscious of blind people or the difficulties they face, but that we acknowledge the city went out of its way to aid the blind in one giant magnanimous act of kindness and understanding.
I spotted an albino Japanese man today. Without meaning to be rude or insensitive – he stood out quite spectacularly amidst his black-haired, dark-eye brethren.
Another cultural difference between the Japanese and us simple westerners is the attitude towards school, learning, and teaching. Indeed the entire student-teacher relationship in Japan is wholly opposite to that in the west. Whereas western students detest their teachers, their subjects, and especially their homework (notable exceptions excluded) Japanese students seem to delight in the chance to prove themselves worthy in the eyes of a learned and respected elder. Thus the suffix “sensei” instead of “san,” denoting special status, even among Japanese. So too do the teachers see their students differently. (undoubtedly due to the fact that their students are such different creatures than the western brats I shared so many classrooms with – again… notable exceptions excluded)
As I had been in Japan fully ten days longer than most of the other students in my beginners class, I had taken it upon myself to learn some Hiragana. Thus when the teacher asked us to write a few basic words in Hirgana she was mightily impressed with my ability. Thus I became, quite without wanting or trying to be, a front-row student. (I am told being allowed to sit in the front row, and therefore closer to the teacher, is a great honor.) I was asked to vacate my seat, gather my belongings, and relocate to the front row in front of the entire class. I found this odd, but the teacher beamed with satisfaction. She beamed thus still when she handed me a sheet of paper and said quite happily: “congratulations! Homework!” I obligingly, albeit a trite unenthusiastically, said my “arigato gozaimasu” and expected the class to resume its normal, and original course. Not so. Being given extra homework is the teacher’s way of saying they have much confidence in you. I should have been flattered. I was decidedly not. Nevertheless, I have done my homework, including the extra sheet, and we shall see how long I can stand being a teacher’s pet.
As a special treat and insight into the historical and cultural heritage of the Japanese people we were told to get up from our seats at school and walk out the door – destination: sumo. After a short and delightfully sunny walk we came across a mass of people rivaled only in the subway at rush hour. Characteristically for the Japanese, a neat line 4 people wide and lord knows how many people long had formed, snaking across a temple courtyard, in eager anticipation to be allowed in. We waited for some minutes before we were all ushered in. Once ‘inside’ we proceeded down a set of stairs into an arena which consisted of red dirt lining four hills with a raised sumo ring in the middle, covered by a large tent roof suspended from long metal poles. The attendance must have been in the thousands, despite the sumo competing here being low-ranked individuals in the sport. The event was marked by the presence of lots of Gaijin (who want to see sumo once in their lives but do not fancy paying hefty ticket prices for “real” sumo) as well as sweltering heat, as the arena had essentially been dug out of the soil and was thus deprived of air flow. No wonder then that the sumo boys wore very little – at about 130 to180 kilos each, they must have been mighty hot.
Sumo wrestling itself is actually quite interesting. The sport could not be more simple: evict your opponent from the ring (marked by a circular rope ) or force him to the floor. The means by which either one of these conditions can be met however vary wildly. Smaller (supposedly quicker) sumo like the ‘slapping hands’ technique, where by forcing their open palms into the face of their opponent in rapid succession they bank on the latter retreating and being brought off balance. Bigger sumo seem to prefer a more straight forward approach involving grappling their opponent and more or less deflecting the incoming energy off their massive bodies and redirecting it out of the ring. There are many variations on these two basic styles of sumo, but suffice to say most of the bouts I witnessed progressed generally along those lines. One especially long bout (most last mere seconds) between a large and relatively small sumo drew many cheers from the crowd as the ‘little’ sumo clearly surprised the larger one with an especially impressive display of open palm-strikes to the face. The larger wrestler sidestepped this onslaught quite deftly but the smaller man followed him mercilessly as they made their way around the small ring. Eventually, apparently having grown tired of, or used to the constant strikes to his chubby face, the larger sumo made a surprisingly graceful pirouette and the smaller man, still in attack-mode, went flying out of the ring with all the consequences that brings with it. (Front row seats are prized, but are inherently dangerous as it is not uncommon for a wrestler to be forcibly ejected from the ring, some one and a half to two meters above the seated spectators. Outch!) For all their bulk, these sumo are incredibly strong and very nimble when pressed. I resolved there and then never to cross one.
I sat around for a bit longer, watching the exhibition bouts while listening, quite without meaning or wanting to, loud American tourists proclaim that sumo is easy and that a “real” martial artist would “kill” these guys. I am not sure what they meant by that, but can assure you no real martial artist in his right mind is going to get in a three-meter wide ring with a guy who can squash you. Not to mention the disrespect to a few thousand years of Japanese history, I felt the Herculean effort these men were, and are, putting into their training and art was being belittled in a manner not fit for anyone, much less a tourist. Now I fully understand that sumo might not be your thing, but whilst seated within earshot of a thousand Japanese to who the sport means the world, feel free to shut your mouth.
One of the things about Japan that is easily overlooked amongst bigger, more shocking differences with the culture you might be used to is the use of liquid sweeteners for their drinks. Ask a Japanese waitress for sugar and she will look at you funny, dismiss you as a silly gaijin, and fetch you little cups of liquid sweetener with a smile and a bow. These cups are usually see-through and about the size of coffee-milk cups. Apparently their potency is not quite what a sugar cube is however because I have seen Japanese pour these things in everything from milk to Cola, which is about 33% sugar to start with. It could be that Japanese people have an especially insatiable sweet tooth, or there is something in those cups as addictive as cocaine. My date last weekend insisted on pouring 6 of these cups into her ice tea at any rate. I settled for two and decided that would be sufficient in the future as well.
Next week: Single-person carscooters, Hiragana issues, problematic bicycle riders, and of course: baseball Nihon-style! (and other things besides)