The other ‘juku
A key bragging right to living in Tokyo is that when your friends come to visit and ask if you really live in this crazy place, you get to smile like the Cheshire cat and laugh maniacally. Okay, so maybe that's just me. My friend Marina is in town, and although my six tatami-mat room is a bit cramped, it's worth it just to hear her exclaim, "Ohmigod," every five minutes. I get to relive the whole experience of meeting Tokyo vicariously, and it's just as fun and weird as the first time around. There are many important first-time-to-Japan experiences that anybody who's lived here for at least a month can regale you with: first onigiri, first ride on the Yamanote, first sushi in Japan. The list goes on, and can get nauseatingly conceited if one isn't careful. But the most important thing for a visitor to Japan to do is: Get your money before you fly. Do not, under any circumstances, expect a hearty "Irashaimasen!" from a Japanese ATM. Marina is an intelligent, witty, responsible woman with an oft-underestimated love for The Simpsons, but she was no match for the devious cunning of the Japanese ATM system. While she was trying to shake hands with it, so to speak, it was doing a fine job of gutting her sanity. Details are still sketchy, so we'll find out tomorrow if she'll make it. To help her deal with what we think to be a withdrawal cap set in Japan that she violated by $0.84, not that any of the 17 ATMs she visited mentioned anything along those lines, I took her to Harakjuku. The place is notorious on weekends for hosting the kind of crowds endemic to Japan, and featuring Gothy Japanese kids decked out in their finest leather and lace. In other words, it's the perfect place to see modern Japan. The crowds were there, no doubt about it. But I guess my expectations got the better of me. There were only a few brave souls wearing costumes found more often in fetish videos than in casual street wear, even though Takeshita-dori, the major shopping boulevard with the craziness and the hoo-ha, looked even younger than Shibuya. It's often joked that there's nobody over 25 in Shibuya, and I'd take that down a few notches for a Saturday stroll through Harajuku. Part of the problem was that I go to Harajuku to hang out at a bar I like, and hadn't been around enough during the day to experience a flock of 16-year-olds dressed like maids meandering down the street en masse. When the flock didn't materialize, my faith in Japanese youth sub-culture was wrecked. The other part is my admittedly unfounded fear that Japanese sub-culture is going through some sort of sea change, and the days of bizarre costumes worn by suburbanite teens are soon to be no more, much as the platform shoe has largely disappeared from the fashion landscape. Or maybe I just hit a bad day for the freakshow. Regardless, Japan is wacky and wonderful, all over again.