Day three was dedicated to seeking out the weird and wonderful world of Japanese collectables.
I’d been pointed in the right direction by my friend Josy, she again of the Japanese intel, and headed towards Nakano Broadway. I had been promised “old movie posters, models, panty vending machines, godzilla statues etc” – basically everything I could possibly want from four days in Tokyo, or indeed any holiday destination. Primarily I was after the vending machines full of pants, if only to confirm that such a thing actually existed, but I figured I might as well take a gander at the other stuff too.
Nakano is an old-style shopping mall: countless outlets, some barely bigger than a cupboard, are crammed into the centre, lining both sides of the maze-like corridors with nary a window in sight. Five floors are filled with incredible amounts of kitsch, collectables, badges, dolls, trinkets, retro goodies, anime and manga (I still don’t know the difference), vintage toys, clothes, comics, video games, and items for which I don’t even have a name. I explored the whole place, rounding every corner thinking “this surely must be it, there can’t be anything else left to collect”, only to be proven categorically incorrect. If you ever thought it wasn’t possible to dedicate an entire shop purely to anime posters, or plastic dinosaurs, or muscle-bound statues of WWF members, then you would be very wrong.
I’m normally all for a wordy description but on this occasion, several pictures speak several thousand words, so . . .
At one particularly memorable shop it was possible to build a doll from scratch. Every single body part was laid out on a shelf; dozens of tiny eyeballs in every possible colour; miniature busts for miniature hairstyles; bodies in varying shapes (all equally unattainable). Despite this staggering variety of physical possibilities, it was quite telling that the only skin colour available was ivory.
I didn’t buy a single thing but still managed to spend hours wandering around the place with incredulity and fascination. Shop owners could clearly tell that I was merely a tourist, often barely raising their heads before dismissing me as a waste of time as I gawped at their produce with an unprofessional lack of appreciation. Inside the shops, dedicated punters critically examined and quickly dismissed seemingly identical objects.
For those focussing on the real question, yes I did eventually find a vending machine for knickers – I think. It wasn’t quite what I expected but it was located in a particularly dingy corridor, alongside another machine selling small models of women in compromising positions, so I’m relatively certain that it wasn’t just an alternative to the M&S lingerie department.
It was interesting that this place existed, and still maintained considerable popularity, given that Japan leads the world’s digital way yet everything here was defiantly analogue. The shops offered a real blast from the past, but thankfully not in a remotely hipster way. These weren’t people embracing gramophones for their aesthetic value or ironically eschewing pop culture for a post-modern self-consciously retro alternative. They were just fans – and there were a lot of them.
On the way out, I walked past several rooms packed full of claw machines. I was drawn inside when I glimpsed a very normal-looking young man around my age feeding several pounds’ worth of yen into one machine which offered a couple of gigantic blue teddy bears, each the size of a beach ball. I discovered that the bear was balanced delicately on a grill, held by a lever, which needed to be knocked by the claw in order to secure the bear’s tumbling release into the shoot below. Mesmerised, I watched the man spend a good five minutes – and probably £5 – methodically banging the claw into the lever. Eventually, he succeeded. The shop owner came over, opened the machine, propped up another bear, and it was ready to go again. But the man was already over at a different machine. Who was the blue bear for? How often did he come here? I can’t remember the last time I saw one of these in the UK, outside Brighton Pier. Yet in arguably the world’s most technologically advanced country, it transpired that a viable pass-time was to feed money into a machine pre-determined to be weighted against the player, and spend increasingly excruciating multiple minutes manipulating a brain-meltingly cumbersome hanging claw in an attempt to grab totally unnecessary items.
Obviously, I had to have a go.
I decided that since a blue bear half the size of my rucksack would be a less than ideal companion for the subsequent six months, I would select a more practical option and so went for some sort of raccoon keyring instead (part of any savvy traveller’s kit).
After much huffing and puffing, gritted teeth, the beginnings of a red mist, and depositing of more coins than I care to admit (less than £5 . . . just about), I came away triumphant, bearing not one but TWO raccoons, punching the air and selfie-ing all over the place.
Meanwhile the man I had been stalking casually left the shop with heavier pockets than mine, three enormous teddy bears, and a determined grimace which suggested he’d be back tomorrow for the rest.
I headed for the metro with my winnings, feeling like I’d stolen a glimpse into the secret life of Japanese teenagers. As I wandered along the platform at my interchange, my attention was grabbed by two women in full, beautiful kimono, shuffling down the platform in their wooden flip-flop sandals. I was transfixed and not-so-subtly followed them towards the train (if I was going to be done for stalking Claw Machine Man then I might as well make the conviction worthwhile) whereupon I shamelessly grabbed a photo. It seemed to me a wonderfully incongruous moment, although judging by their fellow passengers’ total lack of interest, is no doubt quite a common sight around these parts.
It’s probably no more noteworthy for the locals than me seeing a punk board the northern line at Camden or a drag queen at Vauxhall. Or a Morris dancer at . . . um . . . Harrow on the Hill? Where do Morris dancers congregate?
That evening, I decided I needed to get in on the raw fish action. But all of the posh sushi places seemed geared towards groups of hungry diners. So I perused the conveyor belt options – something I’d never even tried in London – and was instantly grabbed by a gimmicky option which sent the fish on a little train directly to the diner’s area. From defiantly old-school to unnecessarily modern. Why not?
I’m not a regular sushi connoisseur (as we Londoners are frequently informed by international gourmands, decent and affordable sushi is one culinary area in which we are still tragically lagging) and so had relatively low standards. Which was probably a good thing, since I imagine that what I ate was rather unremarkable; although it was good enough for me, and seemed pretty fresh, which I’d imagine it was given the speedy turnover of customers and considerable queue. But really I was there for the serving method.
Order are made via each diner’s personal computer touchscreen. Waiting time is just a few minutes; suddenly a tray whizzes along one of the three tracks and slams to a stop immediately in front of the customer. He or she removes the plate, presses the smiley-face button to confirm receipt, and off it zooms back to the kitchen. Magic!
I was so transfixed by the trays zipping past that I kept forgetting to order . . . although I still heroically managed to polish off a fair amount (when each order is so small and cheap, it’s remarkable how quickly they mount up. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it).
After such a cheap dinner, I decided I could justify spending twice the cost of my meal on a single drink and followed my friend Georgie’s advice to the Park Hyatt Tokyo. This is the hotel where Scarlett Johansson meets Bill Murray in Lost in Translation so given all of the similarities I share with Scar-Jo (we’re both blonde, we both . . . look, I’ll get back to you on that), it seemed a given I should spend at least one evening gazing pensively at the view with an overpriced cocktail in hand.
It does put things into perspective, being up that high. It’s humbling enough being surrounded by huge crowds at street level in Tokyo’s incessant rush, and feeling like just one amongst countless thousands of people in the immediate vicinity.
Up there it’s even worse; a quick glimpse out the window suggests not countless thousands, but millions. And who am I? Just one irrelevant human having a caipirinha on the 41st floor and pondering life. No wonder Bill Murray felt so gloomy.
Luckily the booze soon took effect and I relaxed into the glow of the city lights, marvelling instead at the fact that from this high, really, it could be anywhere. I’m lucky enough to have observed several huge cities from a bird’s-eye view: London, Bangkok, Shanghai, New York. From that level, unless you’re eyeballing the Empire State or Pearl Building, frankly, they all look pretty similar. They’re all admirable, terrifying monuments to the spread of humanity, and can make one feel tiny or tremendously important in a single instant, largely depending on the amount of alcohol previously consumed.
But really, nobody needs such deep ponderings at that time of night, especially not in a climate-controlled bamboo forest 700ft above one of the world’s most interesting cities, not least when one is attempting to make a £15 drink last as long as humanly possible. So let us instead revel in the twinkly lights, slowly sip the icy dregs, and marvel at the intricacy of the human spirit and its complex, finely-tuned, bizarrely-implemented abilities. Collectable Mexican masks. Sushi served on a dedicated train. Raccoons, delivered by claw. Cocktails at 700 ft.
For what more could one possibly ask?!