... if I try to understand everything about Shibuya,
then I would not be really experiencing something that, by nature, defies
Brian R Wood in Tokyo
is the first in a series of articles about the station areas of
Tokyo. Tokyo is the largest city by population in the world. According
to an almanac I leafed through recently, this megalopolis has a
metro population of about 27 million inhabitants. To put this in
perspective, the entire country of Australia has a population on
a little over 19 million. The city is so immense that there is really
no one downtown, but many hubs centred about the main train stations.
When Tokyoites say where they live or work the urbanites usually
do not mention the citys geopolitical areas called wards (there
are 23 wards that make up central Tokyo), but rather the nearest
One of these station hubs is the post-modern downtown of Shibuya. The
name "Shibuya" is translated from the Chinese Characters (Kanji)
into English as "Bitter Valley". You will have most likely heard
this name if you are an on-the-ball techie. Bitter Valley or affectionately
"Bit Valley" is Japans version of Silicon Valley with
small IT and other technology related businesses calling it home. You
would never know this by walking through this compact and confusing hub.
If you are not a techie, like me, you would have never known this because
of what one sees when first exiting Shibuya station.
The citys youth haunt Shibuya and its culture. It is commonly said
that Shibuya is no place for anyone over 30 or 35. I pick the latter because
I am still under that age. I dont think anyone over that age would
want to be there if he or she did not have to be. Many times I cringe
at the prospect of going to the capital of Tokyos garish youth.
Even though I do cringe, I think it is a way for me to hang on to my own
youth for a little while longer. I bet that is why I witness a few fellow
interlopers meandering their way through the maze of thick soled boots
and sparkling lips and spidery more specifically tarantula-like
eyelashes. If you are a brave sole, try entering the cylindrical "city
hall" of the district, the 109 (read ichi-one maru-"o"
kyu-nine) mall. You will get this strange vertigo feeling when heavily
tanned faces with glowingly contrasted silver eye-shadow and lipstick
whisk by you in every direction making you want to wake up and believe
it was only nightmare.
The main exit into this adventure travel park of Tokyo is nicknamed Hachiko
after a loyal dog of that name. It is a sweet 80 year old story of a dog
that always waited for his master at the train station to accompany him
home. Legend has it that one day his master died and Hachiko kept his
vigil never to see his master come out of the station exit again. He still
waits but as a statue commemorating this loyalty. Hachiko exit is the
techno tracks base beat and club Shibuyas main dance floor.
starts from here. Because of the lack of distinguishable landmark
architecture the predominant school of Tokyo architecture
is the drab concrete utilitarian approach, even in vibrant Shibuya
the bronze statue of this Akita breed of dog polished by
tourists, is an easy to spot thus popular meeting ground for the
start of the migration into the acid coloured jungle of shopping
and pop fashion. Once out of Shibuya station terminal, I am immediately
caught up into this non-stop track of grooving beats Shibuya
no techno (the techno of Shibuya).
To get to this jungle, we migrants must pile up at the crosswalks to venture
to the feeding grounds on the far bank of the traffic river. After a few
syncopated dance steps to the Hachiko beat, with background samples of
a Christian group spouting out their view of redemption over screeching
loud speakers, the techno trance screams to a halt and in front of me
the beat changes to a dull drone. If a sound could be a colour this sound
would be a mind dulling khaki. The monstrous drone is coming from an immense
Starbucks across street. The two story behemoth threatens to steal away
the crazy disjuncture that makes Shibuya, Shibuya. But after saying this,
it is the quintessential post-modern downtown. I guess it is part of that
kind of personality to have a Starbucks type contradiction in the greater
perpendicularity of itself. But, if I start to see Gaps that size (any
genre; normal, kids, baby, fetal) and a Pottery Barn then Shibuya will
sadly be on its deathbed.
When I first experienced Shibuya, the movie "Blade Runner" came
to mind. Giant television screens were competing for the attention of
the dance floor below with their electronic hypnosis. The grimy but very
much alive feel of the area transported me to a near future disporia.
I crossed the street, passed the menacing Starbucks, and found myself
in a La-La Land where the Teletubbies "Twinkle, Twinkle Little
Star" was diffused through speakers along the narrow street. The
frighteningly cute song was accompanied by street bands competing in loudness
and a lone gaijin (foreigner) playing the bagpipes in front of Starbucks.
Today, the Teletubbies are no longer serenading us as we graze in shops,
boutiques, and restaurants. Now there are the battles of music stores,
both gigantic and miniscule. Every few meters we get a sampling of techno,
rock, or J Pop. The music samples are like guide posts through the multiple
dimensions of reality and punk fantasy making up this neighbourhood of
fake tans, mismatching colours, filth, and its soul the techno
beat. The Teletubbies banners on the street lamps are now replaced by
banners picturing a babys face telling us that Shibuya is a "Heartful
Town". For some reason it has a need to advertise itself. I quickly
stopped trying to understand things like that, because if I try to understand
everything about Shibuya, then I would not be really experiencing something
that, by nature, defies understanding.
This afternoon I took a last look at Shibuya before finishing this article.
I met my partner and we went to the brand new Cerulean Tower for something
to drink. The Cerulean Tower houses the Tokyu Hotel and high-end restaurants
and lounges. It is behind Hachiko exit and thus much quieter and reserved.
We knew we would not be able to find a decent café in Shibuya (for
that matter anywhere else in Tokyo) that was not full of smoke, had empty
chairs, and was not Starbucks. So we decided to have a drink in the lounge/lobby
café called Zabou of the Cerulean Tower, knowing it would be overpriced
as only Tokyo can be. We did have a drink (I had a fine cup of caramel
tea and he had a red wine and quiche set) and the atmosphere was another
world from the other side of the station. We were still in Shibuya, but
in a much more upscale atmosphere, with classical music being quietly
released instead of the latest overplayed J Pop hit; yet another abrupt
90 degree turn in this wonderland of contradiction.
Zabous décor was soothingly earth toned and seemed to absorb
all the over-stimulating confusion outside. The first thing I noticed
was that I was severely underdressed with my white oh so American
sweatshirt, baggy pants and sneakers. A couple minutes later I
saw a middle aged American man sit at a table making me feel even more
uncomfortable because he was also wearing a sweatshirt and sneakers, but
jeans instead of baggy pants. There were several beautiful young women
dressed in their finest silk kimonos. I particularly noticed this one
young woman in a beautiful winter (dark background) kimono checking her
face with a compact. I dont really know why, but that was just a
very elegant scene for me. It was something out of a Degas painting. I
guess I am used to the teenage Shibuya patrons checking their orange tube
tans, tired dyed hair, and making sure their 3cm long fake eyelashes are
still in place while on the train commuting to their paradise; escaping
the harsh realities and pressures of being a teenager in an exam frantic
Wether you love this city within a city or despise it (which is often
both for me) there is a feeling of thankfulness that it is here. If it
werent, Tokyo would be a very, very dull megalopolis indeed. The
Bitter Valley of Tokyo is a definite bitter-sweet experience but at least
it is not all bitter or all sweet. It is always good to have a mishmash
of good, bad and just downright annoying possibilities all in one meaty
plot of city.
Next stop - Shibuyas little sister, Harajuku.
Brian R Wood
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