June 26 – 27, 2009
Super-duper. That pretty much summed up this Godzilla of a city: Tokyo, the monster metropolis.
Cindy and I got off the bus from Kansai right at the heart of the monster – the Marunouchi district, Japan’s financial vortex. The grind of the economy was still a faint buzz at 6 AM. I caught a glimpse of the city before it stirred from slumber: its avenues still widely empty, its sidewalks lazy promenades.
We waited for my friend, who shall be anonymously referred to here as A. B., at the red-brick Tokyo Station (currently undergoing restoration work). He had the unenviable job of touring us around the world’s largest metropolitan area. At first, people trickled by. Not long after, people emerged from the underbelly of the station in dense droves. By the time A.B. arrived, “salarymen” in dark suits were zipping past, well-heeled women in high heels dashing through the street. Godzilla had awakened – its heart engorged with a stream of movers and shakers and their minions, its lifeblood a corporate concentrate of some of the world’s largest financial institutions and manufacturing companies.
We stashed our cumbersome bags into the train station’s coin-operated locker. At Y300 for a whole day, it was literally a load off our shoulder. Definitely a boon for quickie travelers who had no time to waste depositing luggage at their digs.
First stop would have been the Imperial Palace, which was located in the area. Alas, it was closed. As it happened, we were pounding the pavement on “the most expensive kilometer in the world,” as A. B. proudly declared. This patch of real estate in Marunouchi allegedly cost more than all the properties in California. For that alone, we felt like a million dollars.
I would be back for a sushi lunch the next day at Shin-Marunouchi Building, a slick commercial-corporate tower (the tallest in Marunouchi). It was a relief that I was with a Japanese friend who picked up the tab. That sushi plate cost a prohibitive Y3,000 – an arm and a leg for a backpacker like me! Perhaps this was one of those reasons that Tokyo had been accused of being the most expensive city in the world.
After the steel-and-glass sheen of Marunouchi, A.B. sashayed and showed us the way to Shibuya. First things first: I had to pay homage to my canine hero, Hachiko, honored with a statue just outside the station. Shibuya Station was known as one of the busiest in Tokyo. The scene outside was not less frenetic. The intersection of four streets, known as the “scramble crossing” – the world’s busiest street crossing, had swarms of pedestrians coming from every direction simultaneously. The trick was to just go with the flow. With long strides. Tokyoites didn’t dawdle; they skedaddled.
The Japanese came up with a solution to anything. Tokyoites would follow unwritten crowd control measures endemic to the Japanese. Case in point: order in escalators in the Tokyo Metro – the right for people who wanted to walk up or down the steps, the left for those who wished to stand. Not being in the know, I did the unthinkable – I parked myself on the right! Good thing another Japanese trait was politeness; no one shoved me out of the way. This system helped in what A.B. refered to as “Japanese precision.” Trains arrived and left at a predetermined time, down to the nanosecond it seemed. Compared to the free-for-all chaos in Manila, this was rather Stepfordesque. It made me go, “Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto” (the 80s pop song).
The Tokyo Metro also clinched a host of other world records, such as being the cleanest, safest, most punctual and most comprehensive subway system in the world. There were nine lines serving the Greater Tokyo area; together they could be confusing if not for the color-coded train lines and numbered stops. It helped to just remember the color and number of your station and you would be good to go. We also got ourselves a pre-paid Suica card for convenience. I entered an amount into the card, paid through a machine, and used it up.
It was already mid-morning and we needed to grab some grub. We opted for McDonald’s, or as the Japanese would say, Maku-donarudo. I forget now what I had and the price (it was still breakfast fare), but it wasn’t as expensive as I had expected. We considered going to the first Starbucks in Tokyo, overlooking Shibuya’s scramble crossing, but penny pinching brought us back down to earth, i.e. the street. More pounding the pavement followed, which actually went on for two full days.
A.B. was someone who spelled “love” as LoVe, mostly losing o and e. Love became LV – as in Louis Vuitton. A.B. was not alone. It was said that 90 percent of women in their 20s in Tokyo owned an LV bag. Genuine, not fake, mind you. Ergo, LV store-hopping was high up on the itinerary. First stop: the seven-floor LV building (the erstwhile largest LV store in the world, before the newly-opened Paris store dethroned it) on Omotesando, a trendy tree-lined avenue that was also home to Polo Ralph Lauren, Bulgari, Emporio Armani, and Chanel. Each was housed in their own architecturally distinct building. Personally, it was a daunting task for someone from the working class to go window-shopping in Tokyo. But the host insisted; the poor backpacker relented.
I was in the minority in trendy Tokyo. The Japanese was the biggest market for luxury goods. Almost half of all brand items in the world were sold in Japan. This was no more evident than in Ginza, a district in Tokyo known as the high-end shopping capital of Japan. Hermes, Prada, and Dior competed with the aforementioned brands in this fashionable strip. But it was not all fashion with a capital F. Gismo giants such as Apple and Sony also occupied entire buildings for their stores. This was high-tech Japan, after all.
Japanese salespeople were known for impeccable customer service, even in snooty brand stores. In contrast to Hermes’ Oprah incident in Paris, Hermes Ginza had accommodating salespeople with wide sunshiny smiles. LV Ginza, however, was an exception. The store clerk was visibly annoyed that A.B. tried on some scarves and didn’t buy. Her knotty frown said it all. It was the only time in my entire Japan trip that a store clerk, or any employee for that matter, had been rude. There was no love in LV in Ginza.
At Shibuya, its famous “scramble,” to be honest, didn’t throw me off at all. Perhaps I was just a jaded commuter, but I had been squashed worse in Manila’s metro rail transit. Shibuya Station, it turned out, was NOT the busiest train station in the world. Shinjuku Station held that distinction; it didn’t disappoint. The deluge of humanity was overwhelming. I read that three million people would use the station every day! If Godzilla had been sleeping when I first arrived, by this time the monster was alive and kicking, and spitting fireballs too – in the form of kaleidoscopic neon lights. Shinjuku was most alive at night, pulsating with loud music and heaving hordes of young Tokyoites.
And of course, this Godzilla of a city indeed had a literally monstrous landmark. The Tokyo Tower was the world’s tallest self-supporting steel structure, a TV and radio antennae. At 333 meters tall, it was three meters taller than Eiffel Tower, its flagrantly obvious inspiration, except that this one was scarlet, a color dictated, not by taste, but by aviation safety regulations. The tower was touted as “the symbol of Tokyo,” which I deemed problematic. A symbol should be unique or at least original, not an obvious rip-off of the Eiffel Tower.
Tokyo might have been better off with a dino-size Godzilla erected in the middle of the city. That would really embody this megacity: Tokyo, the monster metropolis.