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 tokyo

jugatsu 24 (oct)
The trains dive underground as they approach Tokyo city, morphing into subways. When they pull into the station, the doors pop open and people pour out and scurry and spread like a disturbed ant colony. The cars in formation spit out a few more last minute riders like watermelon seeds. Then they inhale the waiting queues of workers and shoppers; a whale sucking in baleen. White gloved attendants push passengers in just a little further - breathe in everyone - until the doors are able to close.

I decided to explore one neighborhood at a time, avoiding rush hour times. Shinjuku, the downtown business center of Tokyo, is about 25 minutes by train. A tight grid of gleaming, silver skyscrapers defines the Tokyo skyline, teeming with life in conservative, business attire even on a Saturday. I found a quiet park just beyond the steel canyons with a little shrine. Having bought lunch from a street vendor, chopsticks and all, and a cold latte from an ever-present vending machine, I escaped the crowds for a few minutes. It's not considered appropriate behavior to eat or drink while walking. I found the popular Kinokuniya bookstore with a sizeable English section on the 7th floor, and bought a couple of Japanese novels to further my understanding of this new world. To the east, just beyond the ritzy department stores, is Golden Gai, an old bar district with tiny stand-up bars packed into its narrow streets, flanked by the neon, red light district on one side and the Hanazono-jingu shrine on the other, a little oasis.

When the lights change at Shibuya Crossing, one of the world's busiest intersections, the crowd surges like a wave from every direction until the center is covered by criss-crossing feet, and then subsides for the cars to do the same. Video ads play on huge screens. Shibuya is shopping heaven. Come to think of it, every center is a shopping district in Tokyo; my students describe shopping like a hobby. And of course restaurants are plentiful - one high-rise is filled with 109 restaurants.

Up the hill from Shibuya is the trendy and fun Harajuku. Along one side of Yoyogi park, bands set up and play for free, food vendors and flea market offerings on blankets complete the scene. Harajuku's narrow shopping streets are jammed with cute, trendy stuff - it seems to be the place to be seen. Girls dressed as video game or anime characters hang out in fluffy petticoats or other oddball outfits. I found the stately Meiji-jingu shrine next to the park particularly interesting. A couple of wedding groups entered ceremoniously in a line, the bride in traditional kimono. Uncommon explanations in English for tourists were welcome, especially those describing all the little amulets and trinkets for sale and what they represent.

The old and beautiful Senso-ji temple at Asakusa, from classic Edo times (Tokyo was called Edo before the 1800s), is a draw for visitors from all over Japan. Its shopping area offers kimonos, swords and other traditional objects in authentic style as well as the usual tourist fare. My first meal in a sushi train restaurant was a delight - the chef cooks in the middle of the room, surrounded by a conveyor belt of little plates bearing different dishes. Just lift off the dish you want and stack them up as you finish. The wait staff can tell the prices by the pattern on the dishes, adding them up when you leave. Help yourself to green tea, ginger, soy sauce and wasabi (hot stuff). And the prices are so cheap, considering it's all seafood!

After my stint in Europe, I am missing the ornate architecture with its artful details that make walking down any street an experience in art appreciation and keeps you looking up. The Japanese infuse everyday life with delicately attractive food presentations, flowers, indoor decor and other niceties but, except for the many shrines and temples, or smaller buildings in some villages, the city buildings tend to be colorless, boxy and unadorned or sleek and modern. Maybe it's a holdover from older days, when flimsy wood and paper buildings were thought of as temporary, to be rebuilt after frequent earthquakes. Each place has its own charm; perhaps in some ways it's a reflection of the values of the culture.

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