Sunday, May 21, 2006

White Noise in Tokyo

Neon Walk
Originally uploaded by Nate-san.
Confession: “Staying Alive” by the Bee Gees was not only a hit song in the 70’s but it is also one of the songs on my iPod.

Discovery: Walking down the street while listening to “Staying Alive” will cause you to strut.

Now picture this – a tall white guy strutting down a street full of short Japanese people, nodding his head casually and coolly to the Bee Gees’ high pitch brand of disco funk. That’s me. That’s the guy I’ve become. The guy this place has turned me into!

Ok, so I can’t vouch for the casual/cool thing but from the inside looking out that’ how things appeared. On the reverse side of the coin I’m sure there’s a Japanese guy out there writing up his blog just as I type this one – and where I’ve written casual and cool he has written geeky and awkward. But, each to his own perspective I guess.

If I’m honest Tokyo is starting to get to me. It’s not that the people aren’t friendly and the place isn’t interesting it’s just… different. For a start there is a noticeable lack of birds. Ok, so there are sparrows, crows and pigeons but I hardly think they count. I don’t think I’m the only one who misses them though. If you happen to be up and walking down the main street in my city first thing in the morning you will notice the lovely bird sounds all around. The first time I heard them I was reminded of my grandfather’s garden and started looking around delighted trying to find the source. My delight soon turned to dismay however when my search revealed nothing but speakers at the top of every lamp post in the street.

This leads me to my second grumble about Tokyo… The place is almost never quiet. Every shop, bar, street, street vendor and pachinko parlour feels the need to pump noise pollution into the atmosphere – each one clashing with the next.

A typical evening in Kiyose:
Stepping out of the train station you are immediately accosted by eight people trying to hand you various things from tissues to discount vouchers and candy. Once you’ve managed to get beyond those you hit the pachinko parlours. As you pass, the doors open to reveal a smoke filled room full of flashing lights, jangling little silver balls, bells and sirens from 1000 machines, and an assortment of inane tunes, all of which combine to create an invasive and abrasive white noise. If you are having a hard time picturing it just imagine a large pinball arcade on crack.

Beyond that you enter the main street where you are assaulted by sounds coming from every shop and drug store you pass. Some of the stores have their own annoying jingles they like to pump out into the street, whereas others like to go for the more popular but just as annoying J-Pop. If that wasn’t enough however there’s also a street vendor in the street selling gyoza (kind of like a Chinese steamed dim-sim) from the back of a van. This wouldn’t be so bad if he didn’t have a PA system rigged to the van loudly playing the same high pitched nasal recording over and over and over and over!

“Gyoooooooozaaaaaaaaaaaaaa”…. wait… take the pitch up a notch… go again… “GyyyoooooozaaaaaAAAAA!”

This is all on a normal day by the way. It’s even worse during election time. Then the politicians actually ride around on the back of trucks with microphones giving mobile policy speeches! Something I’m sure would never happen back home in Aus. The first politician to try that would probably have something very nasty happen to him/her. Luckily the politicians back home have the decency to stay behind closed doors where we can ignore them peacefully.

Finally, to top it all off, the street actually plays music at you from the very same speakers that like to chirp like happy little electronic birds first thing in the morning. I think last time I actually listened to the music in the street I heard the toy piano rendition of the Carpenter’s classic “Close To You”. It was a touching moment.

My ranting and raving aside however, this place also manages to dish up some very funny, peculiar moments (look a segue!).

Last week I was standing in the train station waiting for a friend when I noticed something rather odd – a Japanese guy in drag. Ok, so in a city of 20 million people I’m sure this isn’t so odd but I haven’t painted the whole picture yet. Firstly the guy was immaculately tailored in what appeared to be a very expensive skirt suit – the kind worn by powerful women executives. In addition he had a full ensemble of matching accessories and his hair and makeup was perfect. Ok, again this is probably not such a big deal in a place like Tokyo but, what made it odd was this… he was standing in front of a ringing pay phone.

Now you need to step back and get a bird’s eye view of this picture… There was me unabashedly staring at a transvestite wondering whether I had time to get my camera; there was the transvestite staring at a ringing pay phone wondering whether he dared to answer it and; there was the rest of Tokyo pouring past us without even registering that anything was slightly out of place. It was, if anything, a surreal moment in my life.

Of late I think that’s what Tokyo has become for me – a serious of surreal moments linked together by long stretches of hum-drum. I go to work, I come home, I go to work, I come home etc…

I suppose it’s time I got off my ass and did something about that. If I’m successful I’m sure I’ll write about it here so, assuming anyone actually reads this, wish me luck.