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February 02 Issue

Shibuya No Techno
... if I try to understand everything about Shibuy
a, then I would not be really experiencing something that, by nature, defies understanding.

Brian R Wood in Tokyo

This 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 city’s geopolitical areas called wards (there are 23 wards that make up central Tokyo), but rather the nearest train station.

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 Japan’s 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 city’s 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 don’t 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 Tokyo’s 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 track’s base beat and club Shibuya’s main dance floor.

Photo:Hachiko Statue

verything 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 baby’s 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.

Zabou’s 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 don’t 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 country.

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 weren’t, 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 - Shibuya’s little sister, Harajuku.
Brian R Wood
Tokyo, Japan

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