Breathing in, breathing out, Shibuya. Shibuya station. Its grand intersection. Inhaling. Exhaling. Palpitate. Waves that break with each green man. Trembling like the tides. A flow of figures – an entity – from Tokyo’s endless populace, raging on and whittling off those stretched zebra stripes. Every light change. Thousands. Vertical, horizontal, diagonal. Refilling abundant at red man’s command. The warden of Shibuya.
We’d arrived from Shinjuku station – itself the holder of a hectic record: busiest train station in the world – at five p.m., the universal hour of madness.
There are people. Many. Hordes, yes. But no lunacy. The masses drift briskly by one another, a key settling seamlessly into its lock. A skill intrinsic to people from such crowded lands.
Pausing at the warden till he tags out, we merge with the animal. Under the glare of billboard sized screens screaming kitsch, we cross, and split our separate ways.
Vending machines are littered throughout this city. Every building floor, street corner, alley way and station platform. Lit lively like a cartoon, that even Pikachu’s epileptics can’t refuse. Most sell ice tea, iced coffee, bottled water, Pocari Sweat or Coca Cora, but others work on a loyalty system that trade cigarettes and biru for anybody’s yen. Yet, beer may quench my brother’s thirst, but mine requires less volume. So I grab his Asahi and a pack of Peace and wander into 7-Eleven.
As an automatic door ushers me in, the store-keep babbles jovially at the linguistic wall I’ve become. I smile and nod vacuously, muttering how’s it? Some eigo to shove my feelings back on him.
Head for the corner, my daily pilgrimage, a signal of my ablution – resurrection – confirming a triumph over another wee hangover.
We’ll battle again.
The array glows gorgeous, more piquant than any vending machine could be. There’s Johnny and Jameson, Glenlivet, Glenmorangie, Glenfiddich. But, the transitory patriot I am, I reach for my new brand. Hakushu. Part of the Suntory line. Bill Murray echoes in my ear; for relaxing times, make it…Suntory time.
Lost in translation.
I was that pale face, stumbling with the waiter. Whisky. Huh? Uh. Whii-Skii. Yeah? Scotch. Hai. Um. How bout. Hakshu? Hakushu? Yeah. Hai. On the rocks. Ice, you know? But small ice. Little ice. Yeah? Yes. Good. Thanks. Hai. Arigato.
The menu had it priced moderately. Good enough for me. And it was fresh, crisp, without that rough edge. The little man, grinning like a maniac – mouth as wide as Hokkaido – delivered the glass. No regular dram here. I met eyes with it when it was still coming across the room. I swooned on sight. This dram was roided – doubled up – melted ice snaking through the alcohol like veins on a bicep.
With my kneejerk gasp, he chuckled. They know what they’re doing, get ol’ whitey plump and drunk; content enough to drain his deep Western pockets. Russian doll drinks, smaller and smaller with each one. Like a movie on TV, advert-less for the first half hour, to entice you, and slowly increased from then on, till you’re trapped watching the last act broadcast like it’s buffering.
Still, shamelessly I submitted to their strategy.
A strategy that pulled off, and soon had me creeping through the streets crooning like Nina Simone. Oh Baltimore. Oh Tokyo. Nippon. Hakushu, you put a spell on me. You know I’ve smoked a lot of grass. Oh lord. And I popped a lotta pills. So Sinnerman, where ya gonna run to then? Please help me out with directions here, Lord.
Fluidly slipping into other acts. Tribe Called Quest among others. Here we go y’all. Here we go y’all. So what’s the what’s the what’s the: Scenario. Felt like an oriental Phife, five foot assassin. Knockin fleas of his collar. Hip-Hop scholar. A million stories. Without the diabetes. So I ran to the Devil, he was waitin’.
All on that day.
Oughta be praying.
I cried power.
Crash into a bowling alley – mah na na na nah na – we got the jazz, everything is fair – crash into a bowling alley – when you livin’ in the city. My brother muffling my Afrocentric energy. My power. Crash into a bowling alley.
Don’t ya know I need ya Lord.
All on that day.
Where ya gonna run to?
I return to Shibuya crossing, little leather satchel at my side, impregnated with supplies. Climbing the stairs of Starbucks, I weave through people in search of my brother. He’s managed to occupy two spots at the in-demand bench overlooking the intersection. Panorama window spread ahead. He’s hunched over. I crack a can for him and, hidden up sleeve, grip the bottle of my own. His camera, screwed on a mini tripod, is set up under the barracks of his body – protected like a half-back presented with the ball in a ruck, a ball like a Fabergé egg – in both a defence and offense against stray elbows. This is the second reason to come at such a time, the sun drooping, along with commute hour, allows for a time-lapse of fading pastels, rising neon, and fluctuating throngs.
Memories, in retrospect, will jitter like clay animation.
Below us. The players perform.
From here it’s still some entity, but perception garnered from distance – from our Starbucks auditorium – magnifies the individual. The cell, follicle, gland: makeup of the organism. Each citizen – a single strand of mane – can slip like an eyelash onto the pupil, becoming greater than its ostensive insignificance.
And the crossing is an eyeball teeming with lashes.
The girl in all pink, robotic with the histrionics of her rigid gait. The old bearded yank, jumping into the sea with each light change; posing for shots for his new folk-rock album. The gothic couple floating like spectres. The eastern Louis-Vuittons. Summer collection. Cigarettes. So many sweet cigarettes. Grey wafting afros. Fringes falling like diagonal cut curtains. Jet black bobs. Billowing baby-blue shoulders. Strangled navy hips. Pale thighs. Delectable and spry.
During our stay in the country I had been reading Zadie Smith’s NW and mixing up my metropolises, so a week earlier we journeyed to the top floor of a high-rise to absorb the urban sprawl in all its detailed grandeur. It bled from sight like nothing I’d ever witnessed. A CBD that stretched further than sights limit. The horizon, usually reserved for waterfall drop offs, was stolen by a grey smear. But, unlike Starbucks view of Shibuya, my perception was not reinvigorated. Distance doesn’t always equal understanding. A painter must step back from the canvas to gain perspective, but squinting at it from the end of a runway will transform it into an ink blot.
So instead I stood staring at blobs of concrete and glass, with absurd minimalist sculptures adorning their courtyards. A pattern of expectations. Expectations of how a city should be built. And I could be in any one. With everything that goes along. Sporadic wafts of shit stink, noise, blinding light, bums, and so on.
The bowling alley we found ourselves in, too, looked like it came from anywhere.
Poppy bubble-gum blares from screens and speakers, beer is bought overpriced, and wearing those greasy shoes is like stepping through a ghost. We go alright, despite our mental state. Intensity the alcohol brings amplifying our approach. Flanked on one side is a group of young male Europeans, playing with the cheat lanes up, and on the other, three Japanese guys around our age. I catch a snippet of the Aryan’s conversation: ‘oh yah, is crazy, the guards will even follow you into the bathroom to make sure you don’t finish yourself off and leave before the show ends. You know, stay horny so the girls get all your money.’ And then the other side, near gibberish, with a smattering of Japanese words I comprehend that make me feel like a fluent speaker.
One of the Japanese notices us having trouble with the scoring machine and wanders over. A burly man, with a big gap in his front teeth you could slide a two dollar coin in between, speaks broken English as he fixes the device. ‘Me. Good with machines. See.’ He then points to his friends in a form of introduction. Him – he points to a long haired guy – Musician. Him – he points to a giggling shadow – Alcoholic. He has a perpetual grin on his face and asks what we are doing. Holding up our beers, he proceeds to explain that they are doing the same. They are from Yokohama, but work in the city, and naturally, are drinking till their shift starts. We explain that we’re catching the Shinkansen in the morning, so we ‘guess we’re sort of doing the same thing.’
‘Ah good. You come our drinking spot then’.
As we walk I’m envisioning a poky little jazz bar or sake tavern, something quant and cosy. Maybe an unnecessary fire place or discreet band tucked in the corner whose music I can pretend to ponder. Instead, we are led to a derelict stall slumped on the side of the road. The size of a caravan, it has three stools where an aging man coughs and splutters as he pours beers and serves uncertain foods. The menu plastered on the side of the stall seems particularly proud of two dishes. Written in Kanji, I would be unable to decipher their details had the symbols not been accompanied by photographs; one displaying a horse, the other a whale. So as I drink my beer, and eat the food generously offered to me, I – despite an attempt to be open to new foods – pray the gooey battered balls I am chewing are not horse testicles.
To this day I am unsure of what I ate.
They ask our names. My brother tells them he is Sam, to which they enthusiastically mimic in hushed tones: ‘Ohh…Samu,’ as if they have just been presented with some mystic secret about life.
I then tell them mine. ‘Ohh…Lobu,’ they reply with that same vigour.
‘Uh, not quite. Rob,’ I correct them.
‘No. Repeat after me. Ruh’
‘Okay, sure’. I’m Lob.
Before we leave, they become intent on us trying some type of mustard. ‘Very very hot. Hot mustard’. I think they just wanted to impress us with their capabilities, while reaping a laugh from our feeble thresholds. But, I was confident. I like my spicy food and felt obliged on some grandiose level – in my drunken stupor – to defend all Western faculties. We are given another horse testicle each, this time slathered in the yellow paste. As we throw it back, I clench my eyes and fists shut to focus on the task. I swallow, but hear a burst of laughter as I look up. Damn my brother, letting down the white man. Never been good with hot food. But no, he is still struggling, but getting there. The laughter is directed instead at one of their own. Alcoholic, so cocky beforehand, now sits, dizzy, red eyed, weltered in his own tears, with chunks of testicle splattered down his front and smeared over his fingers like a yellow glove.
A pungent mix of mustard, batter, beer and stomach acid rises in the stalls skinny shelter.
I eventually leave – feeling triumphant – our new friends from Yokohama who we will never see again.
The next day we board the bullet train. We’ll be back in a week, but for now head south to Fukuoka. I concentrate intently on keeping my demons at bay, studying the train layout on the seat ahead of me, memorising the nearest toilet and creating a contingency plan for when the storm of Hakushu and Asahi decide to rip from one of my ends. Outside, the obtrusive view of buildings are slowly replaced by the tranquil sight of rice fields. Still early in the season, kawaii little plants stem from shallow ponds, peppering the countryside. The further south we travel, the more prominent face masks become. Apparently China’s smog drifts across the Sea of Japan, encroaching on the southern areas air. Foreign pollution.
Fukuoka soon looms. My hangover subsides. I look with bloodshot eyes at the acrylic city where my half-brother will marry. A wedding in a temple, where sake will be drunk to consummate the kekkon, raw fish, shelly crab and seaweed will be consumed, washed down with green tea and, hopefully, no whale or horse meat.
We wait with the warden. He continues his eternal job. Indefatigably tapping in and out, circulating the flow of traffic.
Flashing red and green.
I admire his precision. A just representation of his country.
And soon the needle will click again, and I will be released, released back into the animal, the animal from where I came.