Man In A Suitcase

Tokyo, Japan

For six years running I made an annual pilgrimage to Tokyo. It seemed there was always a trade show or seminar or training session that requires my peculiar skills. A visit to Japan is a fine chance to indulge my fascination with technology and with varieties of architectural style. Here are a few examples of the latter.

The building on the left is part of the Tokyo government complex in Shinjuku. Shinjuku train station is the busiest in Tokyo, in part because of buildings like this one. On the west side of the station are many more enormous government buildings, offices, hotels, huge department stores and shopping complexes like the one at right and a whole lot more.

East of Shinjuku station is an area called Kabuki-cho, home to Tokyo's sleazier and cheesier side. Here you will find hostess bars, casinos and a lot more interesting stuff that the locals never show me. Although they certainly tried; walk around here with a camera on a Saturday night and you'll be amazed at the services you'll be offered.

On the left is the Meiji Shrine, the burial place of the emperor under whose reign Japan took on the centralized government it still enjoys (if that is the proper word) today. The Shrine is an oasis of peace; during the long walk from its entrance at the edge of Harajuku to the Shrine proper you could almost forget the noise and insanity that are Tokyo. At the right is Budokan, famous for rock concerts and martial arts events. (These are two separate categories.) The day I was there it was full of students of kendo, which is interesting if you like to watch people try to hit each other with sticks.

A five hundred year old pagoda in the garden at the Four Seasons Hotel. The hotel is attached to Chinzan-so, the place to hold a wedding ceremony in Tokyo. In addition to the pagoda, the garden has stone lanterns that are a few hundred years old. There must be something profound in the fact that the Japanese make lanterns out of stone and shrines out of wood and we do it the other way around. I just wish I could figure out what it is.

On one of my visits I worked Sun's booth at CASE Japan, a trade show that was held on the top floor of a shopping mall in Ikebukuro. I spotted this game center a few blocks from the show on the way to the mammoth Ikebukuro subway station. There's something about a modern building with a cave entrance that appeals to me.

Two of my favorite neighborhoods in Tokyo are a study in contrasts. At left is Akihabara, an audio-, video- or computerphile's dream. Block after block of televisions, sound equipment, computers, cameras, cell phones, software of every kind - to a Westerner this is modern Japan. At right is Asakusa, home to an important shrine and, equally interesting to me, the kind of shopping you don't find at Akihabara. Here is all the touristy junk: the cheap toys and plastic samurai swords, handkerchiefs with subway maps or sushi menus printed on them and all kinds of strange and interesting foods. Where else do they make dessert cakes filled with beans? (Why is another question entirely.)

My first exposure to the wonder that is the Japanese department store took place in the Ginza. This is a great place to window shop and to people watch. It's also a place whose similarity to mid-Manhattan is so great that the differences are even more pronounced. Walk into a major store to use their facilities and be confronted with illustrated brochures touting their opulence. (I couldn't read the Nihongo text, although the title The Toilets of Ginza was plain enough.) And I'd love to understand the thinking behind the billboard on the building at right. Just what is a giant bagel doing so high above the Ginza? And is its significance so obvious to the locals that it needs no explanation in Japanese or English?

Every hour on the hour clocks like the one at left pop open all over Tokyo. Inside are electromechanical performers that even Disney might admire, putting on performances for passersby. There's something appealing (I almost said striking, but would never stoop to a pun that obvious) about the knowledge that people around the city are all enjoying little Seiko concerts before continuing on their way. The clock at right eschews such presentation; it glories in its mere existance, a fitting adornment for the interior of one of Seiko Epson's office buildings in Shinjuku.

It took seven trips to Japan before I finally got my first glimpse of Mt. Fuji. We were on our way to Kyoto aboard the Shinkansen, the famous bullet train that may not be quite as fast as Europe's high speed trains but is, in my limited experience, far smoother. I captured the picture at left as the train previous to mine was pulling away from the station. The one at right was taken at 250 kph, around 150 miles per hour for the metrically deprived. Perhaps some day I'll have the chance to view the mountain at a more leisurely pace.

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 Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California