Speaker by Various Artists

3,500 Days in Tokyo

by Stephen Walker

I was sad to read that Deborah Hill Cone hated Tokyo during her 48 hours spent here. It seems a pity, a waisted stopover really, but you can't please everyone. But being an entrenched gaijin in Tokyo, I was pretty upset at having the whole place slagged off in such a superficial way, so I kind of said to Russell, "Can I get my ten cents worth in too?", and he graciously obliged.

So, I thought I'd begin with a little run-through of Ms. Hill Cone's checklist of Tokyo hates - and it is a decent-sized list for just 48 hours. The legwarmers, yes they are quite ugly. Until recently it was in fact mostly ruuzusokkusu, (loose socks) mainly warn by high school girls since the mid-90s in tandem with repugnantly short mini-skirt school uniforms. Thankfully, this unwelcome fad has pretty much run its course. Apparently, the popularity of what looks to us like underage prostitute-chic lies in showing off an in-your-face youthfulness, symbolized by their namaashi (bare legs). As opposed to all the over-the-hill (i.e. 19+) women wearing stockings. The fad was also, unsurprisingly, associated with actual underage prostitution, the proceeds of which were used to finance the girls' expensive clothes buying habits. This practice was euphemistically referred to as "enjokosai" (assisted dating), and very few of their clients were ever prosecuted. These days, unless you hang around 109 in Shibuya a lot, the loose sock brigade are not that visible.

Ms Cone Hill referred to the other untold fashion crimes witnessed on one trip from Narita to Shibuya. Give me a break, please? How many such horrible faux pas is one likely to see driving from Mangere to Britomart? Maybe I'm just lucky, but everyday, just on my half-hour commute to work I see amazingly interesting-looking people. Sure, there is a lot of shallow sameness about a lot of the fashion, but that's mainly a reflection of the high level of affluence and the relentless consumerism of all the magazines, whose only mission seems to be making people feel so inadequate they buy a complete new wardrobe every three months. But it's certainly not the horrendous no-go zone Ms. Cone Hill tries to make out. I'm sure one of the most bizarre things about coming to Japan for the first time is how well-groomed everyone is. Even the ripped-jeans crowd are clean. (When you live here you only realise this when you leave.) And yes, some of the teens and twenty-somethings have been brainwashed by the media into a cult of vanity and "beauty".

And complaining about the place being filled with Starbucks - it's hardly a problem unique to Tokyo. I suspect a lot of the hates mentioned by her stem from her problems with "debased European culture". It's like she's saying, "It's our culture, how dare you other people f**k around with it!" Well, if you didn't notice, that's how culture works: it gets synthesised, cross-pollinated and generally everyone steals their favourite stuff off everyone else.

Moving right along, next on the list is the "prefabricated bathrooms", which most people hate. If a visitor is complaining about these, it is a sure give-away that they were staying in some "cheap" business hotel. And while we're on that subject, the person doing all the complaining has got all of two days to see Tokyo and she books a hotel in Tachikawa! (Like going on your first trip to London and staying in Reading for two days.) Only a cursory glance at a Lonely Planet book would reveal that this was a bad plan. There is reasonably priced accommodation in central Tokyo if you are prepared to be flexible and try looking. She hates the cellphones - do I detect a hint of jealousy at all those lovely colours and fluffy dice cultural equivalents? She didn't see any old buildings or trees? Advice: try walking around with your eyes open. Last but not least on the pet hate list is, wait for it, "politeness". Now let me get this straight: people being polite to you in a city you don't know shit about and the language of which you don't speak, is something to hate? Wow. What can I say? Most people in Tokyo aren't arseholes. Bet that'll scare most tourists away, eh? After complaining that there is nothing Japanese about Tokyo (an assertion one could legitimately argue) then she goes on to do a hatchet job of something that truly is part of traditional Japanese culture. As I said, you can't please everyone, eh?

(BTW, a 90 minute commute is not considered short by anyone here. I bet my 40 mins door-to-door is better than a lot of the poor sods who have to use AKL's motorways!)

Anyway, enough of that stuff. What does Tokyo mean to me? I figure Tokyo is the kind of place where if you have the energy to get out there, meet people and do stuff, you will be more than well rewarded. You don't need loads of money, but a bit helps. To put the place in perspective, the Auckland region has about 1.3 million people spread over 5,000 square km. Tokyo and its surrounding three prefectures cover about 13,500 sqaure km, with a population of 34 million. That's a shit-load of people in anyone's book and it's magnified by the high average income levels. Another factor is the high percentage of people in the 18-35 age group. Young people flood into Tokyo for their tertiary education and they stay when they start working. The countryside in Japan is depopulated of that age band. There are huge media and creative industries concentrated in Tokyo - manga, anime, music, film, magazines, literature, TV, art, design, fashion, game software, you name it. And it's getting more cosmopolitan by the year, partly because of the intense international interest lately in Japanese pop culture. I learned along time ago that there is a "scene" in Tokyo devoted to any inane genre of anything you could possibly imagine.

Finally, what do I like/dislike about the place? The likes include the parks: Inokashira, Yoyogi and Nogawa; the food: especially places like Cafe 8 in Omotesando; the coolest ambient/tribal dub label in the world, DakiniRecords and their wicked Dakini Night parties; and just generally hanging out with my friends and loved ones. I don't go clubbing much now in my old age, but if one is looking for a big night out on the weekend, Ageha is a unique experience. These days I get my adrenaline kicks from (occasionally) cycling 20 km to work through an amazing variety of terrain. In the summer, the outdoor party scene has got to be one of the best in the world. Camping up in the mountains and paying homage to the earth sure beats some sweaty club.

What don't I like? Lots of shit, really, but especially the wankers blowing cigarette smoke in your face on the street and in restaurants.

Even when I decide it's time to shift down a few gears and shift back to a nice out-of the-way spot in NZ, I know I'll still look forward to coming back occasionally for my fix of the unique buzz that is life in Tokyo.