Tokyo Stories

It's a Tokyo Thing

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 21, 2007; Page A21

TOKYO -- As a megacity, Tokyo has no rival. It has more buying power than Brazil, more people than Canada, more concrete than can be imagined.

With about 35 million people, greater Tokyo is by far the world's most populous metro area, with nearly twice the people of greater New York. There are 80,000 restaurants here -- six times as many as in New York.

Although it is the political, economic and cultural center of Japan, Tokyo itself has no real center. It's a jumble of densely populated districts that are themselves big cities, hubs for the frenetic inbound rush and exhausted homeward retreat of millions upon millions of subway and train commuters. The cyclical crush of humanity approaches chaos but never quite gets there -- the Japanese being sticklers for rules.

A unifying thread, if there is one, is movement. But transience across such a vast canvas reveals little. To sharpen the focus, consider a triptych of miniatures -- three small stop-frames that suggest the larger rhythms of life in the planet's preeminent urban space.

Goth-Lolita Girls

They commuted in on Sunday morning to soak up the big-city miracle of large numbers of strangers looking at them.

It was not such a long train ride, by Tokyo commuting standards. Two hours.

Yuka Yamai and Mai Kogahara, both 16, had gotten up shortly after dawn. Before the 8 a.m. train, they had spent an hour getting their outfits together: gluing on fingernails, wiggling into petticoats, pulling on black platform shoes.

When they got off the train in Tokyo's Harajuku district, they were no longer shy girls with braces from the distant suburbs.

They were Goth-Lolita girls -- part of a teenage tribe that on Sunday morning dips its collective toe in the bracing waters of urban voyeurism.

These girls wear jet-black bangs, cut straight at eyebrow level across their (sometimes pimply) foreheads. They work hard at looking bored as scrums of American tourists snap their photographs. They saunter down a narrow shopping street lined with stores that sell Goth-Lolita gear -- chains, lacy black see-through blouses, knee-high leather boots with four-inch heels.

Yuka wore a black and white ensemble, with an elaborately embroidered puffy blouse and a poodle-shaped purse. Mai wore a white and black version of pretty much the same thing. There was a blood-red plastic heart stuck in her hair.

They were grateful to their parents, they said, for giving them the money to purchase six complete outfits. Each one costs about $500, meaning they both had about $2,500 worth of Sunday-only get-ups back in their suburban closets.

"At the beginning, when we started wearing these clothes, our parents showed us unpleasant faces," Yuka said. "But they get used to it."

And why come to Harajuku to be gawked at by strangers?

"It is just to be seen wearing something that other people don't," said Yohno Yamaguchi, 14, another girl from the suburbs. "I like the sensation of people looking at me."

A bad-girl look, however, does not require bad behavior. On the train to Tokyo, the girls said, they are careful not to offend other commuters.

They board with their fake fingernails pre-painted and firmly glued on.

"We don't want the smell of nail polish to bother the passengers," said Yohno.


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In-Store Shut-Eye

The routine of the Tokyo salaryman is nothing if not tiring.

He jumps on a crowded train around dawn and often gets home about 10 p.m., after a business meal and a few drinks. (The dinner-booze ritual helps explain why Tokyo needs 80,000 restaurants.)

Akira Muraoka, a 51-year-old salesman, has been grinding it out for decades. And it makes him sleepy, especially after lunch.

So, like a legion of his middle-aged peers, he wanders at midday into department stores that devote a sizable amount of floor space to the display and demonstration of expensive electronic massage chairs.

"I sleep for 30 minutes to get rid of exhaustion and I am a happy man," said Muraoka, who takes off his shoes and suit jacket before sacking out in a chair that marries the comfort of a Barcalounger with the control panel of a fighter jet and sells for about $3,000.

His sleeping hall of choice is the second floor of Bic Camera, an electronics superstore. It offers about 15 chairs that knead the feet, undulate the spine, squeeze the calves and vibrate all over.

In some chairs, herky-jerky action beneath a prone salaryman gives the impression that his body is possessed by demons. Despite all the jostling, however, it is not uncommon to hear people snore.

Bic Camera, which is trying to sell the chairs, has a sleeping policy. A sign says, "Please limit your use to 15 minutes." But a clerk in the massage department said it would be impolite to actually wake anyone up.

Muraoka woke himself up. While tying his shoes, he said he would have preferred more time in the chair. "I wish I could sleep longer," he said. "But I have meetings."

Asked if he had ever considered buying a massage chair, he replied, "No."


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Workaday Epicures

Beneath Shibuya Station, where 2.5 million commuters arrive and depart every day, an evening event captures the pleasures and punishment of workaday Tokyo.

It's the rush hour at Tokyu Food Show, a gourmet emporium where all the food is fresh and all the shoppers are wilted.

The food is really something: Creme caramel poured into real eggshells and topped with buttons of whipped cream. Steamed mountain potato skins stuffed with sweet red bean paste. A shrewd selection of the world's best cheeses, champagnes and chocolates.

According to the store's marketing experts, the people who buy this stuff are career women in their 30s and 40s, as well as single men. They have worked long days and are facing long train rides home. They are relatively well off. They don't want to cook.

About 20,000 to 30,000 of them invade Tokyu Food Show after work. Most it seems, come at the same time. They line up and wait their turns -- and they begin to look sweaty, defeated and sad.

"I was craving tiramisu, but they have run out," said Yuriko Masuda, 41, a single masseuse leaving work with what she said was the flu coming on and facing 40 minutes on the train.

Whatever they buy, they usually don't eat it until they get home. There are rules about eating on the train.

Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.


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Video by Nancy Donaldson and Ben de la Cruz, washingtonpost.com and Blaine Harden and Akiko Yammamoto-Kattoulas, The Washington Post; Music by Ben de la Cruz, washingtonpost.com

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