Where my friend and I wander into 1980s Tokyo, walk around a red light district, and get to experience drunk Japan.
After Asakusa, we took the train to Odaiba, a man-made island in Tokyo Bay, across the Rainbow Bridge from Central Tokyo. It was built for defensive purposes in the 1850s that became a shopping and entertainment district in the 90s.
Odaiba is also known as Tokyo’s “Future Town,” built to imagine what Japan would be like in the future. The first thing we saw was the Fuji Television building, all lit up against the night sky. it seems that there are no dark places in Tokyo; everything is bright and colorful and pretty. We are here, they say; you need never be alone. It was a beautiful night. There was a slight breeze, and there were just enough people wandering about to make us feel welcome, but not too much that we were suffocated.
First, we went to see the Statue of Liberty, 18 meters tall, a replica of the one installed in the same place in ’98-’99, flown in from the Ile aux Cygnes, a man-made island off Paris, on loan in commemoration of the “French Year in Japan.” The statue proved so popular that the replica was installed in 2000, and still remains a popular attraction to this day.
18 meters sounds tall, but when you see it from the viewing deck, it really isn’t, especially in a city of skyscrapers. But that doesn’t mean that the statue isn’t beautiful.
There are many things to see in Odaiba, especially in the daytime. The island is chock-full of malls, all of them differently themed, each with its own unique attractions. There’s a Venice-themed mall with a ceiling whose lights change color depending on the time of day, and a bunch of malls dedicated to different aspects of an imagined Japan of the future.
We headed to Sea Mall, which, along with Island Mall, make up Tokyo Deck, a Hawaiian-themed retail and recreation area. Island Mall is home to Nostalgia Town, a small indoor theme park made to look like Tokyo in the 1980s to early 90s. My family used to go to Tokyo a lot during that time, so a lot of the stuff was more familiar to me than the Tokyo now.
The colorful toy stores, everything crammed together to create slightly strange juxtapositions, a patina of dust seeming to settle over everything despite constant handling by kids and their parents. This is also where you can get Puri Kura–photo booths that glamorize you by enlarging your eyes and elongating your body, making you look kind of like an anime character. We tried it out, of course. There is also a replica of the front room of a Japanese home, and a Takoyaki (octopus balls) museum. Who would not want a museum dedicated to takoyaki?
Afterward, we had dinner at a tempura restaurant. Earlier, I had remarked about how it was too bad that we had to leave Asakusa right away because the place is known for their tempura and I wanted to try it there. This may not be Asakusa, but the tempura was delicious all the same. What I love about Japanese meals is that they are always complete–soup, salad, main course, rice, dessert–and they are always done well. This, I think, will be something I will keep repeating throughout this series: how no matter what you eat in Japan, it will always taste good because you can always taste the craft and respect put into their food preparation.
Next stop was Diver City Tokyo shopping center, the mall where the life-sized Gundam stands guard. I was glad that we got to see it at night since there were almost no people there, and because it is gorgeously and strategically lit up at night as if waiting to be put to use.
We thought that the cockpit looked kind of small, but decided that perhaps that was why most mecha pilots tend to be of slight build.
The Red Light District
After paying our respects to the giant robot, we took the train to Shimbashi Sation so that we could walk around Kabuchiko, Shinjuku’s well-known red light district. The area used to be swampland that, in the 1800s, got turned into a duck sanctuary and a girls school respectively, before it was bombed during World War II. There were plans to build a kabuki theater on the site, which is where the area gets its name. The plans fell through, but the name remained.
The first thing we saw when we entered the archway was a bar girl escorting a very drunk older man back out of a restaurant. “You love me,” he said in broken English. “You love me.” The bar girl smiled, giggled, made the appropriate noises back. The man smiled. She was good at her job.
We walked through small streets lined with nightclubs, many of them advertising Filipino bar girls, capsule hotels, and restaurants that always seem filled. Since it was cold, many of the girls were in coats and pants, but you could tell what they were by the way they waited outside, stances at a ready, steely eyes scanning passers-by. We also passed a couple of men in dark suits. They were just standing around, really, but you could feel the menace emanating from them. H and I didn’t even look at each other; we just moved surreptitiously to the side and continued on our way.
“Was that–?” I asked, pertaining to Japanese gangsters.
“Yes,” she answered.
All throughout our exploration, we kept seeing restaurants, tiny spaces filled to overflowing with hungry, happy customers. We wanted to try some of the places, but we had already eaten, and everything was full.
Go Home Tokyo, You’re Drunk
And then it was time to go home. This, for me, was the most exciting part, riding the subway late at night, because you get to see normally well-mannered Tokyo folk turn into uncontrollable drunks.What you see in the movies and anime is real: people pushing each other, laughing like maniacs, hopping over turnstiles. We actually saw one guy lean against a pillar and throw up. It was a madness that was fun to watch because it looked like the drunks were enjoying it too, that it was something they looked forward to, getting wasted at the end of the week, that this was the only time they could let loose, forget to be adults.
The drunks were harmless for the most part, keeping to their groups or their friends keeping them in check so that they weren’t a menace to anyone else. It’s a different side of Tokyo, one that I thought I would never get to see, but am very glad that I did.