It is, I suppose, a chicken and the egg sort of thing, blended with a healthy dose of confirmation bias. Was Tokyo always a weird place? Or did people seek out weird things, and those things became popular, and thus the bizarre and the ludicrous in turn grew more profitable, more popular, more verdant and lushly crazy? If you go into Tokyo, Japan, seeking mainly to have the weirdest time you can, isn’t it just your own fault for then leaving and thinking of the place as, essentially, an enormous, metropolitan Wonka Chocolate Factory? The answer to many of these questions may be yes.
Which is a way of saying: my weekend in Tokyo was pretty weird, everybody. Just as I wanted.
We are desperately on the hunt for sumo wrestlers. Our hostel in Asakusa is not terribly far from the sumo district, so we leave early and begin wandering the neighbourhood, trying to catch a glimpse. We are too early in the year for the actual matches, but a sighting, like spotting Bigfoot somewhere in the Rockies, will suffice.
In front of the sumo museum, dozens of people are crowded, buzzing, cooing, thrilled. Something is happening. A car pulls up, and an enormous mountain of a man lumbers out. He could very easily crush Thanh and I in one of his ridiculous fists. People swarm him, calling his name, clamouring for autographs and succour.
We search for food, and in time stumble across other sumos just going about life, wandering between restaurants and training centres and the sumo museum. A tank in a kimono smiles at us as we pass him on the street, as he caries several bento boxes to his comrades. We consider following him, and asking if we can share his lunch, but we think we know the answer.
Tokyo, despite being one of the most populace places on Earth, is freakishly quiet.
Living in one of the other most populace places on Earth has certainly skewed me, somewhat, but Japan is positively serene in comparison to Seoul. The subway is practically a Buddhist retreat, as all passengers are politely requested to never answer their cell phones, and maybe even turn them off completely if old-people adjacent, lest your missed-call vibrations cause them some degree of disturbance or discomfort.
The doors on the pachinko parlours could, certainly, withstand any number of apocalypse, and only when they peel open to regurgitate a blinking, mewling patron does any blast of sound escape. Otherwise, people move quiet, they talk quiet, they do quiet. It is an unyielding serenity.
Even in Shibuya, as we desperately hunt for the Banana Vending Machine, surrounded by the hub of lights and music and unadulterated Japanese partying, it is practically hushed compared to Korea.
I have been warned that the English in Tokyo is fairly low, and that I should prepare my grunts, my apologetic Japanese phrases, and my look of quiet desperation. Of course, in tandem, the local levels of philanthropy are absurdly high.
People go out of their way to help us. Politeness compels them through all layers of discomfort and obvious pain at the linguistic barrier, and our guides direct us with obvious pain displayed on their faces. Whereas in Korea, a language barrier might actually cause the other party to flee physically, the Tokyo residents prove stalwart in their resolve to help us despite how uncomfortable and difficult it proves. As we try to find the Parasite Museum, another of Thanh’s discoveries, we eventually sought shelter at a 7/11. The woman behind the counter managed to glean what we were looking for, and painstakingly generated a map of how to find the glorious bastion of grossness. She bowed repeatedly and thanked us in Japanese, despite her doing all the things requiring thanking.
A professional Sexy Nurse stared out at us from the advertisement outside of Alcatraz bar, her girlish pink underpants playfully exposed above her pants. She winked at us. We both grew nervous.
“Thanh,” I asked thoughtfully, noting the numerous love motels and strip clubs that were suddenly looming on either side of us, drenching us in a lascivious neon glow. We certainly looked like perverts. “Are we about to enter a prison/hospital themed brothel?”
“I don’t know,” she casually replied. “Let’s find out.”
It was thankfully, as reported by the internet, just a bar, and one that was really into its theme. We pressed our bloodtypes into the door pad, and were soon ushered into a dark bar with pulsing Japanese techno beats. A man in scrubs and a perky Japanese blonde in pink nurse drag approached. After quickly determining that neither of us spoke Japanese, the woman began to lead us through the bewildering, charming roleplay of their bar. Maybe it made more sense in the original Japanese, but the funhouse mirrorness of the exchange only served to ramp up our excitement. She took our names for her report, which she fastidiously completed on her clipboard.
“This is a hospital,” our nurse reported. “So one of you is sick. Which one?”
Thanh, traitorously, points to me.
“And where are you sick?”
Thanh, traitorously again, points to my liver. “Because of drinking.”
The nurse nods, and records. With actual concern, she then asks, “But… can still drink more, yes?”
I am then handcuffed, and Thanh and I are led to a bizarre archway decorated with vibrators. Our nurse tells us to get in, for we need to be scanned for “willus.” We banter back and forth about what she possibly means, at one point miming wheels, and when we suggest virus, she replies, “Sure, maybe.”
Soon after we are dumped in our cage and left with the English menu. Despite the allure of the variety of cocktail syringes and severed heads filled with booze, we settle for a beaker of sake, and a urine jug full of beer. (“Here is pee,” our waiter reported. “Drink the pee.”)
While we enjoyed our beverages, the lights suddenly turned off. The music grew pulsating, and a man muttered over the microphone in a caustic growl. There are screams, the sounds of metal cages slamming open, people scrambling. Red lights are all around us. Very soon a werewolf burst into our enclosure and grabbed Thanh by the legs, as she both cackled and attempted to take a picture and not spill her beer. Later, a Hellraiser-esque figure also invades our space, but our nurse fends him off and shoots him several times. We are both laughing, and eternally confused, and also the sake turns out to be pretty good.
It is, perhaps, the greatest pinnacle of not making sense the world has provided me. A gift that cannot be forgotten. Thanks, Tokyo.