The sounds of Tokyo are what I remember most. We arrived in Shibuya to the sounds of chanting and pounding drums. We found traditional Japanese drummers dancing under neon and flashing lights, screaming for their ancestors in a part of the city bright enough to keep away any ghosts.
We crowded into a bar with about ten other people surrounding two sushi chefs who quietly slapped fish onto rice. “Aji! Hotate!” “Samon! Maduro,” “Sake kurasai!” the patrons chanted. The chef silently placed our food on an enormous bamboo leaf. I ate, relishing the sound of raw squid popping between my teeth.
We found an Irish bar and I sipped a Guiness while Irish-accented English rained down all around us. Our American accents embarrassed me into silence, so we left.
The bells of winning and the synchronized slaps of arcade dancers called us into an arcade. We boogied to anime theme songs and shrieked gleefully as Mario screamed when I shot him with a turtle shell.
We sat down for a quiet breath on the third floor of a forsaken hotdog stand. I ordered the seaweed and mayo, Raquel the pickled onions. We listened to American music recorded in Australia while the glass kept the sounds of the city out. We watched the streets, silent vignettes of life in Tokyo. A group strolled through the city, then one collapsed, too drunk to continue. Her friends laughed and one of the men hoisted her onto his back. She slumbered on.
We followed the loud drone of a bass drum and found a club hidden beneath a thrift store with people lined up to get in. But we heard too much English, so we abandoned it for a deserted dance club where the bouncer screamed our drink orders over the blaring cumbia masic.“What are you drinking?”
Kirin’s fine! I yelled over the music.
“We have a cheaper beer, you want that instead?”
The DJ kept the Latin beat as we sipped our Black Ninja lager. The bouncer and a smiling Japanese woman trounced a Latin couple at darts as they encouraged them to take more shots. Two Japanese men danced at the bar.
“You know this song?” A dancing Japanese asked, fist pumping in time to the bass.I nodded.
Satisfied, he danced away.
Exhausted, we checked into an internet café filled with the muffled sounds of Karaoke. Our residency cards earned us a room on the top floor so small I had to lay down diagonally to fit. We fell asleep to the sounds of keyboards typing and the man in the cubicle next to us snoring in fits.
We rode the train to the fish market at six AM, hoping to hear men bartering over tuna in another language. We raced crowds to get on the train, then found ourselves crammed in with droves of children in Mickey Mouse ears and teenage girls humming Disney princess songs.
We pressed on, only to discover the fish market was closed. We allowed ourselves to be lured into a tiny sushi place by an elderly couple who promised us English and fresh seafood. I ate sea urchin, tuna roe, and different cuts of tuna on a bed of rice. I drowned it all in hot tea and a bowl miso soup overflowing with seaweed; it seemed more decadent than fish after living in the mountains for three months.
I slept to the mumbled conversations of the Japanese as we rode the train to Akihabara. Raquel woke me with a whisper, and we ventured out to the videogame and arcade district of Tokyo. A sound stage promised a show at noon. Maids promised an escape from the madness of the streets in their cafes. We fell for the false promise on an arcade. We clanked coins into claw machines, and fought each other’s avatars as an announcer said “ready, fight!” and, “Way TO go!” in English thick with a Japanese accent.
Back on the street, crowds jostled for space at the sound stage. Japanese women dressed in elaborate costumes sullenly moved to prerecorded voice tracks of their characters introducing themselves. Only the girl with the gun looked happy. With all the girls on stage and looking miserable, the announcer revealed a new pachinko machine that promised animated versions of the women standing before us. Most people crowded closer, we slipped away into a maid café.
If you ever go to Japan, go to a maid café. It is one the most bizarre things I have ever experienced. We walked in, and the head maid announced us, and all of the diners applauded. The maid taught us how to order. We had to pretend to clean our faces and say “meow, meow,” like a kitten. The maid vanished. We watched other people meow-meow, couples, old ladies, even a table of leather-clad bikers.
Thirsty, we cleaned our whiskers and meow-meowed. The entire café responded, “Kawai!” and shook their hands like our cuteness might make them explode. Our waitress arrived with water, took our order for coffee, and taught us to say kawai anytime someone meow-meowed. Now we would be able to overwhelm new diners, and pay the experience forward. She put rabbit ears on Raquel and cat ears on me and left us once more. The bikers laughed mercilessly at me, so the maids put ears on them and silenced their laughter. Finally the head maid dimmed the light, and began her maid dance. We were lucky to witness it. Normally one must pay double and stay for two hours instead of one, but another table had paid her for the show, so we got to watch, voyeurs of cuteness. She bounced back and forth, twirled around, and sang high pitched Japanese lyrics. It was the most adorable thing I have ever seen an adult do. The lights came back on. We snapped polaroids with the maids and caught a train to Harajuku.
Harajuku’s biggest shops had people boasting outside, begging us to enter; the smallest shops had persistent shop-keeps, who dared us to try their style. Overwhelmed, I hung on to Raquel as she whirred from shop to shop, like a song bird listening to competing males defend their territory.
We piled back on the bus home. Our bus driver was a tiny old man who whispered to us like a grandfather who didn’t wish to wake his youngest grandchild. He only spoke Japanese but I think he wished us dreams of soft blankets and kittens, and perhaps reminded us it was OK to have a cookie before bed. We woke to his gentle voice in Takayama, he waved goodbye and whispered “Gon ban wa.”
We crashed into our bed, hearing nothing but the sounds of the crickets, and the babbling creek at the end of our street, thankful for the noise of Tokyo, and the quiet of Takayama.
If you want to read more about sightseeing in Japan, maybe visit Kyoto or Nagoya with Joe and his wife, or stay in Takayama for an amazing weekend.Joe Darris Mitchell lives in Takayama with his darling wife, and wants to know:
What sounds are unique where you live?