« Troublemakers | Main | Yes or No? »

Exotic Shinjuku

Posted by Dave Bull at 12:06 AM, November 2, 1995

A while ago, I took a trip to downtown Tokyo for some reason or other, and on the way home I happened to come through Shinjuku Station, which, for those of you who don't know much about this city, is one of Tokyo's largest 'hub' stations, serving the western suburbs of this huge city. Literally millions of people pass through it every day. The train I boarded was carrying the usual mix of passengers, with salarymen, shoppers, and students making up the bulk of the 'cargo', and as usual for a Tokyo train, it was a fairly cheerless scene. You don't generally see many smiles on Tokyo trains, even when it isn't very crowded. Although any students on board might be chatting together noisily, nearly everybody else just sits there staring at nothing in particular, probably thinking about nothing in particular, just trying to pass the time until the train arrives at their destination. I don't exclude myself from this description. Sometimes, I might remember to take a book along when I go downtown, but if I haven't been so thoughtful, I too just sit there with a blank stare on my face.

This time though, I was neither reading nor 'dozing', but found myself looking around me and remembering ... remembering back to the time ten years ago when I still lived in Canada, but was busy preparing for my trip to Japan. For use in my planning, I had obtained somewhere a map of Tokyo, just a simple cheap tourist map that didn't show much more than the basic outlines of the city. I spent uncountable hours poring over that map trying to fathom the 'reality' that lay behind the names I read on it ... Ueno ... Ochanomizu ... Roppongi ... Shibuya ... What were these places like? Where would I end up living? (I had no way of knowing it at the time, but the place in which I would eventually settle, Hamura City, even though it is part of Tokyo, is so far from the centre of town that it would not have shown up even if my map had covered an area three times as wide as it did ...)

To try and 'fill in the blanks' in my knowledge of Tokyo, I read many books about Japan, and eagerly absorbed what they had to say, referring constantly to the map, and gradually building up a picture in my mind of what these exotic places were like. Akihabara ... Kanda ... Aoyama ... and yes, of course Shinjuku!

Some of the books I read were quite old-fashioned, but I tried to take this into account while creating my mental images of Tokyo. I certainly didn't expect to see things like rickshaws in the Ginza, or elegant 'ladies of the night' parading through the Yoshiwara. I knew those images from the books were gone forever ... But just what would I see? To a dreamer from thousands of miles away, the real city that must be 'hidden' behind the names on that map seemed like an exotic place indeed.

And now here I was, actually riding my train through Shinjuku itself, a trip I have made probably hundreds of times in that ten years since those days in that far-off country, studying that worn map. Perhaps you are thinking you can guess what I am going to say next ... that I am going to 'confess' that Shinjuku turned out to be not exotic at all, but just another urban jumble of concrete, crowds, and noise. That rather than being mysterious, Japan was 'just another place', full of McDonald's restaurants and modern office buildings, pretty much the same as the place from which I had come. That the reality of living in a foreign country could not approach the magic of the dream ... Are you expecting me to say these things?

Well if so, then I must apologize, for I have to disappoint you. Because the overwhelming feeling I had as I was passing through Shinjuku station the other day, was not how mundane it was, but how ... exotic it was! Because you see, even after nearly ten years of living here in Japan, after passing through Shinjuku more times than I could possibly count, even after so many days spent here, now nearly a quarter of my life, I still haven't been able to get over the feeling that I am living somewhere 'special', somewhere very, very special. My friend Terry can't understand what I see here in Japan. His overwhelming impression of this country, after three years of living here, is that urban jumble of concrete, crowds, and noise that I mentioned. He has had enough of it, and very soon now, he will be heading back to Canada, where I hope he will find the peaceful and restful living environment he is seeking. Westerners who come to stay here in Japan for any kind of extended period do seem to fall into one of two types: those who hate it, and those who love it. Terry can only see the concrete Japan ... I can't see the concrete Japan.

What do I see, then? What on earth can somebody find 'special' about a place like Shinjuku? Well, I guess I can start to make a list, but will you understand what I am saying ...?

Hearing the bells that signify that the train doors are about to close, I run up the last few steps toward the platform. Too late. The doors close, and the 'pea-green' train pulls away. But it's no problem, because two minutes later, the next one pulls in to pick me up. It's comfortable, clean, and on time.

Strolling around the food floor in the basement of a large department store, I stop to look at a booth selling 'gyoza', small oriental-style dumplings. It's no larger than 3 meters on a side, and in that space are stoves, refrigerators, display counters, etc., and seven men, working elbow to elbow, moving as fast as I have ever seen people move, snatching up small rounds of pastry, stuffing them with the filling, and pinching them into shape. The impression is that of seeing the inside of some kind of wonderfully crafted watch ... all the parts of this 'machine' fit together so well ... One of them, who obviously thinks he's pretty hot stuff (he is!), looks up and grins at me watching in awe ...

Browsing through the stacks in a cart outside a bookshop, I find a treasure - a book I read decades ago as a teenager about a canoeing trip through Canada's northland ... Here it is again, bringing back a flood of memories, on a sidewalk in Tokyo ...

A friend visiting from overseas has a somewhat unusual request ... he needs information about bassoons ... No problem. One phone call to a local friend for advice, and then, off to Shinjuku, where we drop in at a ... bassoon shop.

Spending the day with Sadako in Tokyo, we find ourselves in this area at lunch time. We window-shop among the restaurants. What shall we eat? Sushi? Tonkatsu? French? Udon? Ramen? Italian? Sandwiches? We eat at 'Healthmagic', where I have a bun filled with 'okara', which she tells me is something left over after making tofu ...

Is there a pattern to this? I don't think so. All these examples are irrelevant one-by-one, but taken together into a large whole ... I guess it's just that Shinjuku (or rather, Tokyo) (no, rather Japan) is just the kind of place where anything and everything can be seen or found. But of course, by 'anything and everything', I simply mean things that I didn't see and couldn't find back in my Canadian home. When you come down to it, 'exotic' simply means 'different'. For me, living in Japan is an endless exotic adventure. Even after all these years, I still get that feeling every time I step out of my door. I'm living in Wonderland. But there is another important part to this ...

The lady walks along a back street behind one of Shinjuku's largest department stores. A small poster catches her eye. She stops to inspect it and then enters the building, taking the elevator up to the third floor. An exhibition of woodblock prints in a 200-year old style, depicting 1200-year old poets. Carved and printed by the man she sees standing there in the gallery, a scraggly-bearded Englishman ... She had heard about this guy somewhere on TV or in the papers, and always wanted to see what his stuff looked like ...

You see, I'm not just an observer of all these things, I too am part of it. Terry, who was unable to find a way to participate in life here on terms that he could live with, will soon be living in Canada again. But David, either through dumb luck, good planning, or some combination of those, has found a way to join in.

In some ways, it has been easy for him. He is a bit selfish, taking what he wants from this society (the grin of the gyoza maker), and ignoring what he does not wish to see (I can't think of any examples just at the moment ...). But he thinks that he is making a worthwhile contribution here, and that on balance, he gives as much to this society as he takes from it ... And what a treat, to be living in Wonderland ...

I didn't see it while passing through Shinjuku the other day, but have seen it any number of times before - a young Japanese girl or boy sitting on the train, oblivious to everything around them, head bent over a pamphlet filled with coloured photographs. A pamphlet published by some travel company ... 'Visit exotic Canada!'

I smile at them, and wish them a very very pleasant journey. I truly hope they can find what they are looking for ...

(November 1995)


Add Your Input

Remember Me? (with a cookie ...)

(you may use HTML tags for style)

Back to the Main Page