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The Magnet 080: : Tokyo Journal, Part 4
Before I get started with my trip report, I’d like to share why I am fascinated by Tokyo.
Tokyo was Anthony Bourdain’s favorite city. In the Tokyo episode of his fantastic TV series Parts Unknown, he said, “The first time I came here, it was a transformative experience, a powerful and violent experience. It was just like taking acid for the first time, meaning, ‘What do I do now that I see the whole world in a different way?’”
I had the same experience as Bourdain the first time I went to Tokyo. It was 1987. Carla had just graduated from college, and we decided we wanted to go to Malaysia and Indonesia. So I quit my job as an engineer at Memorex’s disk drive plant in Santa Clara, California, and we flew to Kuala Lumpur. We found an un-air conditioned hotel room for $10 a night above a brothel with genial trans prostitutes and ate $1 meals served on banana leaves from the nearby restaurants. After a few weeks, we decided to get out of the sweltering heat and check out Singapore. It was just as sweltering there. After three more weeks, we’d had enough and no longer had an urge to go to Indonesia. We booked a flight back to California. Our return ticket to California had a 20-hour layover in Tokyo. Instead of camping out at Narita Airport, we opted to explore the city by spending a night in a hotel — little did we know we would end up staying for five months.
From the moment we entered the train station at Narita, Tokyo began to reshape my nervous system. Everything seemed to fit together. The brightly lit vending machines on the platform offered mysterious drinks like Pocari Sweat. The drinks were on display behind large glass panels, so open and inviting compared to the armored Coke machines in the United States. I was attracted to the bold colorful minimalist graphic design and typography of the advertising placards above the train windows. The houses I glimpsed through the train window felt more dimensional and human-scaled than the ones I was familiar with. A lot of them were made from a combination of dark wood and smooth concrete with terra-cotta tiled roofs and had many potted plants in front. “Where am I?” I wondered.
Our train stopped at Ikebukuro station. It vibrated with energy, yet there was an underlying order and intelligence to everything. The orderly queues of smartly dressed passengers, the immaculate station — even the rhythmic announcements were melodic.
We took a short walk to the Kimi Ryokan, an inexpensive hostel recommended by a nice woman at a tourist kiosk at the airport. We dropped our luggage in a small room with a futon rolled out on a tatami floor, then stepped outside to find something to eat.
It was dark by then. We walked up a narrow street. Red paper lanterns hung in front of most of the businesses. Tiny trucks passed us on the street. Though there were many people walking on the sidewalk, they spoke quietly to each other instead of talking loudly like they did in the United States. Every detail seemed to have been deliberately designed to create an intriguing aesthetic experience.
We found a small restaurant with a glass display case of plastic food out front, and we went inside. It was warmly lit, with wooden tables and chairs. It felt cozy. As we ate tempura and noodles and drank cold sake, Carla and I couldn’t stop talking about how incredible it felt to be here.
The next morning, we forgot about going back to California and canceled our flight.
Earlier this year, a psychiatrist diagnosed me with ADHD, something my family members long suspected me of having. One of the symptoms is hyperfixation, an obsessive preoccupation about a subject. I’ve gone through a lot of hyperfixations in my life which last about a year-and-a-half before I lose interest, like ukuleles and magic tricks. But my obsessive preoccupation with Tokyo has lasted for 35 years.
Carla remarked a couple of days ago that Japan is the only place she’s ever been that feels as magical as places in her dreams. I feel the same way. Every day when I'm not there, I think about it, and when I'm there, part of me is sad knowing I'll have to leave. Tokyo, for me, isn't just a city — it's an obsession, a dream, a part of who I am.
Giant Cat in a 3D Billboard
A 1,600 square foot advertising billboard in Shinjuku, Tokyo is wrapped around the corner of a building to create a remarkable 3D effect. Every few minutes, the ads are replaced with an enormous animated calico cat. I recorded a video of the cat, above. It looked like it was rolling around on a shelf, and I felt like it might roll over the edge.
The billboard was erected in 2021, and now there are a total of three 3D billboards in Tokyo. The other two are near the famous Shibuya Scramble pedestrian crossing.
There’s a live video feed of the billboard on YouTube. Unfortunately, the camera is positioned at the level of the sign, so the 3D effect doesn’t work.
Flipper’s Fluffy Pancakes
One of our favorite things to do in Tokyo is eating fluffy, or soufflé, pancakes. In 2018, when we spent six weeks in Japan, we had them on at least eight occasions. This time, we only had them once, which is a shame. There are a few different soufflé pancake chains in Japan: Flipper’s, Gram, and Happy Pancakes. In our opinion, Flipper’s are the best. They have four locations around Tokyo. You can always expect to wait in line at least 30 minutes before getting a seat at Flipper’s. (Gram is even more restrictive because it makes the pancakes according to a set schedule.) The pancakes are the opposite of dense, so light and airy they are like edible aerogel. You can order them plain with whipped cream, or with fruit. This time I ordered them with strawberries. They can also be ordered with eggs if you are hungry.
Warning: There’s a Flipper’s in New York City. Carla and I went there in 2022 with high expectations. But as soon as we stepped in, we were disappointed. It was dirty, and loud music was playing. The people working there were bored and distracted. Against our better judgment, we stayed and ordered pancakes anyway, and they were not nearly as good as the ones in Tokyo. It reminded me of the difference between a 7-Eleven in Japan (clean, great food) with one in the U.S. (messy, junk food).
Angry Smoke Alarm
Our hotel room had this sign in the bathroom. It was a warning for people to keep the bathroom door closed while taking a shower. Apparently, the steam can cause the smoke alarm to go off. The drawing of the alarm looked a little odd, so I put on my reading glasses to take a better look, and I was surprised to see that it had a face. The alarm on the left shows an angry alarm with lightning bolts coming out of it and saying “ブ—!” (Boo!). The alarm on the left isn’t angry, but it still looks upset, like it’s just waiting for a dumb hotel guest to take a shower with the door open.
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