Lost in big station: A Kiwi's Tokyo tale

By Lincoln Tan

Despite a six-hour delay on a flight bound for Tokyo, which had to be diverted to Nagoya because of bad weather, I resisted going to the toilet.

True, it was my first time on board the A380 and I'm sure the loos would have been stratospheric, but I was determined to maximise my first Japanese toilet experience in a city that reputedly offers a foretaste of life in the next century.

After struggling through customs and surviving a two-hour coach ride to the Tokyo district of Shinjuku, my first experience with the Super Loo didn't disappoint.

What else can you do but marvel at technology which lets you sit on a warmed seat, flushes to the tune of Star Wars and has a mini joystick to help you control the temperature and direction of the high-velocity hot water when you've finished?

But with only Japanese characters and pictograms in the toilet as an instruction guide, I felt like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation.

Tokyo is a city of contradictions: from its suit-clad, conformist and ritualised appearance during the day, the city is transformed by night into a place of wild passions and weird hobbies.

Stepping out of the toilet and into the city, flashing neon-pachinko signs and the glittering lights in a labyrinth of shopping arcades, department stores, hotels and restaurants combine to make you feel like you're living inside a computer game.

It's a game which comes complete with characters - young Japanese boys and girls who dress as goths or nurses and invalids, their hair dyed anything from jet-black to neon pink.

In a city where no one bats an eyelid at grown men and women walking around in Mickey and Minnie Mouse outfits, or clown costumes with pink wigs, I felt a little out of place in my jeans and white polo shirt.

The back lanes are filled with Filipina hostess clubs and love hotels, and the operator of one tells me that couples are able to rent costumes and masks - ranging from Alice in Wonderland to Angelina Jolie - for their exploits.

Not all these outfits are for foreign eyes, though, with some exhibiting "Japanese only" signs and engaging burly, sumo-sized bouncers to stop foreigners like me from getting in.

The sheer scale of Tokyo is equally hard for a New Zealander to grasp. One of the dumbest things I've done was to make an appointment to meet an old Japanese friend at the Shinjuku subway station. With more than 50 exits, Shinjuku station is no Britomart, and without my mobile phone it took me more than an hour to find that friend amid the two million bodies - half of New Zealand's population - that stream through its passageways every 24 hours.

Eating out is expensive, and a decent meal at one of Tokyo's many pan-Asian or Japanese restaurants can set you back anywhere between $40 to $100. But my Japanese friend told me that dining out the local way usually means eating at a noodle bar, where a bowl of ramen or udon costs barely $8. The downside is that you're expected to down the bowl of boiling noodle soup in five minutes, like the slurping Japanese, or face the wrath of both the noodle-seller and the queue of people outside.

But the most vivid memory I have of my time in Tokyo is the visit I made to a public bathhouse - one where I had been told the yakuza, or Japanese mafia, used to hang out.

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would be in a situation where I would stand, stark-naked, in a room full of other strange naked men, all swimming, sweating and scrubbing in harmony.

From its bullet trains to high-tech warehouses selling the latest gizmos, it would be hard for anyone to argue that Tokyo is a city for tomorrow, although some would argue that it is more a city for the day after tomorrow.

And like a computer game where you get immersed in the quest to get to the next stage, the cutting-edge experiences that this Japanese city offers just make you want to come back for more.

Lincoln Tan travelled to Tokyo as a guest of Singapore Airlines.

- NZ Herald

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