Japan Trip - Around Shibuya

>> Monday, April 5, 2010

Konnichiwa! We go from the world's busiest train station in my last post (Shinjuku) to the world's busiest pedestrian crossing this post: Shibuya. I went on a Friday night, when I was sure to catch the neon splendor. Shibuya didn't disappoint in that regard, but I found it to be a bit more inaccessible for this non-Japanese-speaking gaijin (foreigner).

My journey through Shibuya began, as most visitors' journeys do, at the Hachiko statue outside Shibuya station. Hachiko was a dog who belonged to a Tokyo University professor in the 1920s. Every day, the professor would go to work, and every day Hachiko would meet his master at Shibuya station to walk home with him. One day the professor suffered a heart attack at work and died, never meeting Hachiko at his usual time at the station.

For nine years after the professor's death, Hachiko appeared at the station at the precise time his master's train would have arrived, waiting for him to return. Commuters who had seen the two together understood and told others why the dog was there, and people who frequented the station began bringing Hachiko treats and spending time with him. Hachiko died in 1935 on the Shibuya station steps, still waiting for his master to come home. In a culture where loyalty and dedication are honored above all else, the statue that commemorates Hachiko is one of the most popular and most photographed meeting places in all Japan.

The main intersection outside the Shibuya train station is considered the most congested pedestrian crossing in the world. Wide cross walks form an X between corners, with more crosswalks joining the sidewalks at right angles. The result is that when the traffic lights turn red, the floodgates open and it's basically a free-for-all for anyone trying to get anywhere else. When I crossed I felt like I was a marble in Chinese Checkers--trying to go from one side of a circle to another while everyone else was doing the same thing from other directions.

The view from the massive Starbucks across from Shibuya station.

Shibuya is known for its hip, trendy clothing shops which cater to a very young crowd. This one had appropriated a Colonel Sanders from a KFC (there are a lot of KFCs in Japan) and given him packages from the store and a fashionable young admirer. He also has kisses planted on his cheeks. The perks of buying your clothes here, I suppose! The people I passed on the sidewalks of Shibuya were, on the whole, far more fashionably dressed than Japanese I've seen in other parts of Tokyo. It was the first time I felt like I was slumming in my jeans, t-shirt, and jacket.

A store the likes of which I haven't seen in any other ward of Tokyo: Condomania. The name pretty much says it all.

This is the BEAM building, one of the more interesting architectural designs in the area.

Through the windows of the bottom floor of the BEAM building, I saw this television show being filmed.

It appeared to be very popular with young women, who lined up afterward to meet the two male hosts and get autographs and have their pictures taken with them. Maybe it's a Japanese TRL?

Also in the BEAM building, down below this steampunkish entrance, was a shop called Mandrake (pronounced Mandalak-e here) which was filled with...

Manga! Lots and lots of used manga.

And also...

Toys! I had been looking all over Tokyo for toys, as I'd heard it was a plastic figure collector's dream come true. So far I had been disappointed, but Mandrake restored my hopes. They feature more of the classic variety of toy, particularly classic Japanese toys.

That set of baseball players (which is pretty old, by the way--two of those teams don't exist anymore, and one of them has been merged with a new team) is about $262.50.

There were rows and rows of toys, but I still didn't feel as though I had hit the motherload. That would finally come when I visited Akihabara, but that's another post full of pictures. This was still a fun place to linger and browse.

I found this kids book (I think!) among the shelves. "Doughnuts: 100% Orange." Whatever that means.

Back out on the streets after emerging from the manga and toy fantasyland of Mandrake. You can see the crosswalks branching out in all directions.

A hat store called Shazbot.

A movie theater called "Cinema Rise," which was housed in a really cool building.

It was almost worth buying a ticket to be able to go down there and see what the rest of the theater looked like.

An intersection in Shibuya. That odd little building there that looks like it has two eyes and a nose? That's a police box. They were there not only to keep the peace (which isn't really a hard job in Japan) but to help wayward souls find their Shibuya destinations. A similar duo helped me when I got all turned around while biking too far away from my neighborhood the first week.

A used computer store called "Junkworld."

One little pocket of Shibuya is dedicated to record stores, most specializing in the vinyl used by local DJs. The club scene is very big here, as befits the youthful crowd.

A steep alley of record shops and restaurants.

This was perhaps my favorite place: a graffiti supply shop called "Still Diggin"! They sold all kinds of spray cans and street gear. The counter there, inside and to the right, all lit up, has dozens of holes with different colors of spray paint cans sticking out. That certainly helped explain why there was so much more graffiti in this part of Japan than anywhere else. For the most part, there is NO graffiti--nor much of any kind of stickering and postering like you see in public places in the west.

ManBoo!, which pretty shamelessly borrows the look of another famous internet logo, is a 24/7 "internet cafe," where, for a small amount of money, you can rent a small room big enough for a desk, a comfy chair, and a computer, and surf the internet. These places also usually have manga and DVDs you can read and watch, if you tire of the internet. The places are so common, and so cheap, that some of my Japan travel guides recommend super-budget travelers rent one of these small rooms in lieu of a hotel room and just camp out and go to sleep. The internet cafes don't care what you do in there, so long as you pay your bill. (or make a mess, I guess.)

A list of the more extensive offerings in ManBoo!

A small, quiet fruit and vegetable stand, just steps off the frenetic, neon-bathed sidewalks of the main drag in Shibuya. Little pockets like this still exist here and there, reminding travelers that not everyone here is a gawking tourist. I would often see people ducking into small alleys, and looking after them find they were heading home to an apartment. What an insane place to live...

A turntable, for getting cars out of the one-way-in parking decks under ground. The lengths people go to in Tokyo to drive, and then store, their cars is pretty amazing.

The brand new entrance to the shopping arcade built onto Shibuya station. I thought the cherry blossoms made a nice complement to the nouveau design of the covered walkway.

A capsule hotel, where your room is just a bed in a hole in the wall, like sleeping in the morgue. Only there's a light in there, and a television in the ceiling. And it costs $50 a night. We're hoping to stay in a capsule hotel in Tokyo our last night here, just so we can say we've done it.

For all its glitz and glam, there is a side to Shibuya that is darker and more mysterious. At least that's the feeling I came away with by the end of the evening. Unlike Shinjuku, which really seems to cater to a more cosmopolitan crowd, Shibuya isn't interested in opening up to you. A ten story building, with eight floors above ground and two below, may have ten different stores in it, all accessible only by elevator, and all labeled only in Japanese on a small sign out front. With no other clue as to what the stores offer there's little chance that a non-Japanese visitor is going to go venturing into the jungles of commerce.

This place, for example, looked at first blush to be a hotel, as its name says.

On closer inspection though, I found a crowd waiting for an elevator (back corner on the left) for what I think was a club downstairs. A biker bar, if the motorcycles outside are any indication. The line waiting for the elevator was all Japanese people.

The doors are open, but what lies inside some of these places is only known to those who can read the language or know the territory.

I don't begrudge the people of Shibuya their private world; I certainly don't expect every business in America to label everything in every language, and I'm not a gaijin who expects everyone everywhere I go to speak English. But the overall feeling I got from Shibuya, despite its narrow roads and its claustrophobia-inducing neon canyons, was one of distance. Like I was on the outside of a glass case, looking in. And I don't think that separation bothers the people of Shibuya one bit. There are certainly plenty of establishments ready to separate English-speakers from their yen, but Shibuya was the first place I've visited where an equal number of businesses just don't care.

Like this fellow tucked back behind the canvas sign of a soba noodle shop, I felt like there was far more lurking just behind the surface of Shibuya than I would ever know.

Next up: I go to a ball game!


tanita davis April 5, 2010 at 6:14 AM  

Wow - I now understand why so many Japanese tourists cluster around Greyfriar's Bobby in Edinburgh... same story, different dog. That, to me, is heartbreaking; I would have tried to take the dog home...

Getting the feeling that parts of Japan are like just something into which you immerse yourself, and go with the flow, whether you understand or not.

Alan Gratz April 5, 2010 at 6:20 AM  

From what I know, the dog did get a new owner right after his master died. He kept escaping to run back to his old home, and when he didn't find the professor at home he started going to the station. After a while, they just let him keep going back.

Joy April 5, 2010 at 2:46 PM  

Ahh! Shibuya was my favorite part of Tokyo! Every time I visited, I found something new...and you found more stuff I've never seen! The one building that didn't have any English on it and just a set of steps inside the doorway is labeled "Park Building." The name is just as ambiguous as the building. :)

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