Sunday, February 1, 2009

Electric Town!

"The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel."
-- William Gibson,
Neuromancer

My images of Japan prior to our visit were
murky at best, overly influenced by bits and pieces of Shogun, Black Rain, Blade Runner (yes, OK, technically that was in LA), and Lost in Translation. By far the most most enduring vision, though, was from the opening scenes of Gibson's 1984 masterpiece. I was a bit disappointed on our initial evening train ride into the city from Narita, knowing we were passing by the streets of Chiba with no way to see what they looked like. (I understand there's nothing really compelling in Chiba, but still...)

But I knew that eventually we'd get to Akihabara Electric Town, the Tokyo district that's the electronics geek capital of the world and probably the one place -- with the possible exception of Osaka, where we unfortunately weren't visiting -- that could live up to the mental images I'd developed. The chance came a bit earlier than I'd thought; I'd left our camera charger back in the States by mistake, and in the quest to find a new one I took a train to Akihabara one evening while Forest and Wendy napped. The place was surreal: more neon than I'd ever seen in one place; tiny booths selling circuit boards, transformers, individual chips and just about every other part you could imagine; multi-level electronics-and-manga megastores; and pachinko parlors everywhere.
Since our camera was more than a year old, and therefore ancient by Japanese standards, I didn't end up finding a compatible charger and was "forced" to buy a brand new camera. I unfortunately had to head back to our apartment near the Nishi-Okikubo station, way across town, sooner than I would have liked. At least I knew we'd be able to take pictures for the rest of the trip!

Flash forward a couple of days to Christmas Eve, the morning after our Tapas Molecular Bar experience. We packed up all of our things, sent the bulk of our luggage on to our next major destination outside of Tokyo [Hakone] courtesy of a courier service in the nearby 7-Eleven, and took the train back to Akihabara, where we were going to be spending the night in a pod hotel. I wasn't thrilled at the thought, but Forest and Wendy had really wanted to try it, so I got out-voted.

The hotel itself, "Capsule Inn Akihabara" (the white building in the center of
this view) didn't look very promising from the outside, but actually was well-maintained and seemingly well-run once we checked in. For some reason, they are completely closed from 10am (when the previous night's tenants have to leave) until 5pm, when they let people back in for the next night's stay. The floors are segregated, so Wendy and Forest headed up to one of the women's floors to put their overnight bags in a locker, while I did the same on a men's-only floor. We walked the couple of blocks over to the main Akihabara streets to explore a bit and find some lunch. With the possible exception of the Harajuku area, "Akiba" probably highlighted the most unusual aspects of Japanese city life and culture. One of the stranger aspects were the "cosplay cafes", where the waitresses dress up as French maids or manga characters. We picked a decidedly more tame destination, a small noodle shop. Even there, though, nothing was quite what would be expected in any other part of the world. We had to purchase our meal by using a ticket-vending machine at the entrance that [thankfully] had pictures of all of our choices. Rather than the fast-food ambiance that suggests, though, we were then treated to an excellently-prepared (and welcomely warming) sit-down meal at the counter. The rest of Akihabara was a bit overwhelming (especially our brief attempt at playing pachinko.) Forest had left her phone charger in France -- we must have been on the same wavelength -- so we stopped into several shops looking for a replacement, only to be told that nothing like what she needed existed in Japan, despite the fact that her phone was made by Sony-Eriksson. Seems that if something isn't the latest and greatest, the Japanese don't want anything to do with it!

By the time we wandered back to the Capsule Inn for the 5pm check-in, we were pretty beat, so we each went to our separate pods for a short pre-dinner nap. It was at that point that I discovered that the pods were approximately 196cm long (I'm 197cm tall). When laying out straight, I was just barely too long. Fortunately the capsules were fairly wide, so I was able to fit in diagonally.

Since we didn't have rooms per se, this was to be our only night where we couldn't have apéros before going out. We couldn't let Christmas Eve go without some celebration; we'd decided to go to the New York Bar in the Park Hyatt Tokyo hotel, on the 52nd floor of the Shinjuku Park Tower. The bar was made famous by the movie Lost In Translation, although sadly a certain someone was not anywhere to be found on the night we visited.
We hadn't realized that the bar didn't open until 8pm, so we had a small wait, but the place was absolutely stunning, with unsurpassed views of the Tokyo cityscape. They had a lounge band and singer, but as an added bonus we were serenaded with Christmas Carols by a visiting group of Harlem gospel singers. The Hyatts in Japan seem to run top-tier bar programs, and the New York bar was no exception. Unfortunately for me, though I wasn't paying attention to the tabletop snack mix and inadvertently ate a peanut, to which I have an allergy. Almost immediately, I lost all my appetite and wasn't able to even enjoy my martini, which considering the 2,000 JPY cover charge was especially annoying.

Since I was feeling pretty miserable and just wanted to crawl into my pod, Wendy and Forest went on to eat near
Shibuya Crossing (which I was sorry to miss) and I took a train back to Akiba. Upon arriving, I was surprised to find that the seemingly near-empty hotel was now packed; all but one or two of the pods on my floor were occupied. The next morning, after meeting up with the girls again, we boarded a train for Hakone.

Our complete Tokyo album can be found here.