Japan Day 23 - Shibuya, Tokyo

Our last four days in Tokyo were spent at a much slower pace, wandering around the city, exploring, and watching the fast-paced world turn around us. That is what Fletch and I have become good at over the years, planting ourselves in a spot and getting to know the neighborhood like locals. I notice the cultural nuances and he has the uncanny ability to never get lost. I pick up bits and pieces of the language, and he reads context and people’s intent, making language almost unnecessary. It makes for good wanderings. Now that we were done zipping around the country, we did just that. It wouldn’t be for a whole year like some of our previous spots had been, but maybe when life moves that much faster, you don’t need as much time to observe.

My proudest moment in Japan was getting Fletch as hooked on okonomiyaki as I was, and so that afternoon we sought out a restaurant that served the cabbage pancakes, and ended up finding one that would let you make them yourselves. The pictures on the menu just showed bowls of all the raw ingredients. We ordered a veggie and a seafood, and that is exactly what arrived at our table, two bowls of raw ingredients. The girl turned on the grill that was built into our table, and asked if we wanted to do it ourselves. We had absolutely no clue what we were doing; she might as well have asked us if we wanted to stand and sing the Japanese national anthem for the restaurant. So we asked her to do the first one so that we could watch and learn.

Cabbage Pancake Yumminess

She pulled out a regular old silver spoon and started using the edge to seamlessly chop the ingredients, as if the spoon was built for the job of chopping, while simultaneously stirring the entire contents of the bowl together. The ingredients of the bowl were poured onto the grill in one graceful swoop, and then she procured two silver spatulas to form the eggy puddle of chopped vegetables into a perfectly round pancake. She walked away to tend to her other tables, every now and again returning to flip and pat the pancake flat. When she was happy with the golden color the edges had turned, she covered the pancake in okonomiyaki sauce, which is like a thicker and sweeter version of Worcestershire sauce, and mayonnaise, then proceeded to draw symmetrical lines through the contrasting colored sauces with a toothpick, like a barista creating foam art. To finish off her effortless masterpiece, she powdered the top with bonito flakes, which wiggled around with the heat as though the fish was still alive (I used to think this was the case when I was little). The entire process happened in less time than it takes me to make a cup of tea.

Now it was our turn. We felt confident in our ability to assemble the second pancake after seeing our waitress make it look so easy, but easy it was not. Spoons are not meant for chopping, and when I tried to do so, the vegetables went flying all over the place. Fletch had a slightly more productive time mixing everything together. We poured the mix onto the griddle and try as I might with the spatulas, the shape was nowhere near as spherical as the perfectly shaped pancake sitting next to it. for every vegetable I nudged into line, another one would pop out of formation someplace else. Fletch did a nice job of making the lines through the sauces on top all pretty. Ours might not have been quite as aesthetically pleasing, but guess what, they were both delicious!

There's the pretty pancake our server made on the right, and our jumbled mess on the left. 

After lunch we decided to catch a showing of Solo: A Star Wars Story. I know that on the surface, seeing a movie in another country may seem like a waste of time to some hard-core cultural enthusiasts, because you can enjoy that activity back home. I would like to disagree with that thought. Seeing a movie in a foreign country is exactly the insight into another culture that you never knew you needed. It doesn’t even have to be a foreign film. In Thailand we learned that you can buy VIP tickets that include blankets, and everyone stands for the national anthem before the film starts. In Fiji we learned that serious drama can’t be taken seriously, and usually results in a laughing audience. Intellectual jokes are usually met with silence, and potty jokes result in the entire theater roaring with laughter.

Since Tokyo doesn’t have room for anything to extend outwards, the different theater screens were all on different floors, and we had to get on an elevator to find our theater. The seating area had a higher capacity than any theater I have ever been to, including Imax. Fletch estimated maybe 1250 people could have fit inside. Our popcorn and drinks came on a little tray that actually connected to the drink holder on the seat. How convenient. The popcorn was fantastic, and the butter tasted real, which was odd for a place with funky dairy products. Just like they do in America, there was a cartoon at the beginning with cute characters asking us to please silence our cell phones and remain silent throughout the entire film. Unlike in America, the audience took this request extremely seriously. Not a peep was heard from the entire audience the entire movie. It was dead silent, and there were some funny moments in that movie. No one laughed at any jokes though. The lady sitting next to me finally stifled a small giggle when Chewbacca said he was 190 years old. I felt slightly relieved to know that we weren’t sitting next to a bunch of robots. (And found it ironic that a culture know for never aging chose that joke to laugh at).

The oddest part of the entire experience happened when the movie ended, and the credits started rolling. No one moved a muscle. The entire audience sat there, still as statues, through all of the credits. Only when the very last name had rolled off screen, did the entire audience rise and quietly exit. Maybe we were sitting in an audience of robots after all. Trying to fit that many people into the two small elevators heading downwards was organized chaos, but you’d be surprised how many Japanese people you can pack into an elevator. (That sounds like the beginning of a bad joke). I can only imagine how comical the view from Fletch’s vantage point was, staring down at a jumble of people my height.

We walked the Shibuya Scramble again, this time under the magic of the brightly lit nightscape. All the other tourists were out as well, and watching them was almost more entertaining than the actual scramble. The organized flow of thousands of Japanese pedestrians would be interrupted, usually smack in the middle of the street, by oblivious tourists, jumping with their selfie sticks, trying to capture the perfect jump shot. Some had set up heavy duty DSLRs on tripods, again, smack in the middle of the street. All were trying to catch that perfect Instagram shot before the lights changed. You would have thought we were at a music festival rather than a busy city intersection with cars waiting.

So many people! Shibuya Scramble, Tokyo.

We were having such fun people watching that we decided to buy some drinks at the nearest conbini and sit by Hachiko and play “spot the grifters” again. I know a lot of people have fun at bars and nightclubs, and I’ve had my fair share of fun there too, but my best nightlife memories from my travels over the years have been sitting next to the people I care about, drinking cheap liquor from Seven One One Bar, and watching the rest of the world go by. Watching tourists happily making fools of themselves (it’s ok, we’ve all been there. Actually we were there just for drinking on the street, that’s pretty much a no-no in Japan, even though it’s not illegal). Watching grifters trying to get lucky. And watching the locals, immune to all the nonsense, just going about their nights with practiced disregard. Just like going to the movies, we’ve learned a lot about cultures from sitting outside and watching life happen. I’m not recommending you be a bad gaijin and drink next to the Hachiko statue, but once in a while put the phone down. Stop trying to find the next big thing to do, or posting photos of all the big things you did, and just enjoy the moment. As Ferris Bueller says, "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."