The First Adventures of Don Quijote

Local Pub near Daitabashi Station

After 25 hours of travelling, Mark and I hurtled via metro into the increasingly and disconcertingly darkening Tokyo suburbs until a fellow passenger informed us in Englapanese that this train was the express and had skipped Daitabashi Station, which is where our flat was. He yogaed his hand free from the nine people pressed to him to point out the stop we should go back to in order to backtrack.

When the train finally stopped (nothing moves more endlessly than a train going away from your destination) we tried out our Japanese, saying “arigato” (thank you) and bowed. He bowed back. We bowed again. Arigato. As did he. Had the train doors not closed, we could still be bowing now.

We backtracked. Thirty minutes later we stood on a street five minutes from Daitabashi Station comparing a set of photographs to local landmarks like walls, bushes, drainage pipes, and signs. The pictures had accompanied our packet of walking directions and were supposed to help us get from the station to our flat. Instead, a number of linguistic and pictorial miscues made it seem more like a game involving a character named Carmen Sandiego. After we broke the riddles and matched the photos, we gingerly entered a code into a lock box to find a key. This brought us to our beds, toilets, strange teddy bears, and, most importantly, air conditioning.

We dropped our bags on our futons and ran out the door to our pre-established local pub, which we had passed four times on our quest from the station. The pub greatly modeled the compact, efficient layouts we would see in the major Japanese cities we visited, making use of every inch of the place in a city with limited space. We were starving and thirsty, and the owner pointed us to two seats at the bar. We ordered ramen with pork and were told that this was the lunch menu, but then the owner’s cultural instinct not to offend us clearly took over and he instantly revised his answer that he (and his ancestry) would be only too glad to make our ramen, five hours after its menu was no longer pertinent. We, too hungry and linguistically intimidated to disagree, both thanked him and bowed in profuseness. “Arigato.” Bow. “Arigato.” Bow.

When we’d all stopped bowing, he called in our order and the cook and the dishwasher shouted out something that we took to be confirmation of its acceptability. We have cleared your order; you’re all good. He then brought us what I think was boiled cabbage and a chili sauce and freezing cold Asahi beers. We breathed.

I looked around the pub. The people there seemed relatively normal and just like me (insert your own joke here). They smoked, drank, talked. One guy rolled his eyes as his phone rang and he excused himself to take the call outside where he almost certainly made excuses to his wife or girlfriend or mother. I know that people are the same everywhere, they roll their eyes at Michael Bay and love their mothers, but I have to admit that I was a bit surprised. I suppose that I had expected something more culturally unusual, not just because it was Japan, but because it was Tokyo. But nobody in this pub looked as though they wanked to tentacle porn or bought used panties in a back alley vending machine. None of them looked like people who might purchase a set of windshield wipers for their glasses. They looked, well, with some minor physical differences, just like Mark and I. My acute disappointment was dismantled by a ramen meal so delicious that I would choose over a massage in heaven, two more Asahi beers, and a bed after 25 hours of travel.

Me and Hachiko: a dog who my students should emulate a little more

The next day we made our plan. First, we would find a famous statue, then a Japanese breakfast, walk around Shinjuku, the love hotel section, and then the Imperial Palace grounds.

We did find found the statue of Hachiko, the famously loyal dog who waited outside Shibuya station every day for the rest of its life for his owner who died one day while teaching, thus fulfilling every teacher’s greatest nightmare. Should you care to weep openly for 93 minutes and can stand Richard Gere, there is a film adaptation. Naturally peckish after deeply sorrowful contemplation, we followed a group of very drunk revelers into a greasy café where we ate a Japanese breakfast of pork fried rice and egg and a side of miso soup.

Shinjuku was a little more in line with what I was thinking about in terms of things uniquely “Japanese.” Many shops sang songs at us, and many of their windows were filled with hentai and anime characters. Godzilla peered over a tall building at us, and vast crosswalks shuffled huge groups of pedestrians to, fro, and diagonal. The little green and red men on the walking lights wore fedoras. Later there will be neon lights so overwhelming that visitors literally have to be assisted by the Japanese. But now, at 8 a.m., young kids sprawled drunkenly on the ground from the previous evening’s intoxication. We were heartened to see passing strangers helping them, giving them water, and finding people in their phone to inform. This was perhaps slightly different from what we do in Prague, which is shake our head, roll our eyes, and smirk when their wallets are lifted, which they deserve for combining fun with irresponsibility.

Before the Imperial Palace and grounds, we needed some respite from the heat and humidity, which was already extreme and relentless. Every place was air conditioned, so we decided to find the department store called Don Quijote, which our friends in the know had unanimously demanded that we visit. We walked looking at our map and trying to orient ourselves. This would be the second of several days of this action. It’s pretty easy to get turned around in Tokyo, and we rotated the map and squinted at landmarks. From a cacophony of city life and shops with musical greetings just left of recognizable, we heard the name “Don Qui-Hote!” sung to us from nearby. We looked straight up; we were standing beneath the shop itself.

This chocolate better deliver or I’m complaining about my destroyed happy talking time!

Don Quijote is a multilevel department store which sells everything you never realized you needed in your life, but everything you need in your life. There was a stationery shop, a party section which boasted 3 liter jugs of every alcohol on Earth and packs of snickers bars and chocolates that could feed the 1st Marine Division. Advertisements on boxes made outlandish promises concerning the level of enjoyment to be had by inviting this product into my life (see picture) and was only aided by the exotic English. Despite my cynicism, I have never believed an advertisement more, especially if it worked in conglomeration with the 3 liter bottles of Jim Beam for sale next to it.

Shirts asked things such as: Did you make friends in the honey forest? or proclaimed to be things such as Hamburger Friends or Determined Collector with Train. A lingerie section offered those unhappy with their pubic situation the option of dressing up their genitalia with toupees and an anime section which frankly made me uncomfortable (or it was possibly its leering customers at 10 a.m. on Saturday. The Don Quijote song was on permanent repeat and though I could not understand any words other than “Don Qui-Hote!” it has remained in my head since then. We had found our Unique Tokyo, I felt satisfied as we stepped back into the heat.

We made our way to the seedy section known for its “love” hotels, which offered rates for sleeping and a rate that came with an elbow jab and a wink for resting. Though the implication was clear, it was also clear that no Japanese proprietor of a love hotel would call attention to this, even if a drunk guy checked in for a “rest” with a squad of hookers and a bag of rubbers. Despite our elbow jabbing, the love hotel section was alive with work. People washed the sidewalks and tended their little tree gardens. Others began the laborious task of ornately decorating for the evening’s clientele. Delivery trucks and trash trucks spewed men with jumpsuits and helmets. Though the heat and humidity were already unbearable, the workers sprinted to gather trash bags or worked with the efficiency of ants to deliver their goods.

As we went off in the direction of the Imperial Palace, I jotted some notes. Yes, I had had a taste of the unique and weird world of Tokyo and Japan, but these people were far from weirdo caricatures that many of us (guilty as charged) may categorize them as. The few Japanese people we’d interacted with, the women who worked at the rail station, the owner of the pub, the people helping the sick drunk, were absolutely dedicated to doing things well and with pride. It oozed out of them whether it was the garbage men who sprinted to gather trash or the owners of sex motels who made them enormously aesthetically pleasing. The culture may have some weird bits to it, but many of these weird bits come from trial and error, with an eye on service and efficiency, and from a culture of people who do everything they do, whether cleaning toilets or making your lunch, with 100% dedication and pride.

Plus, 3 liter bottles of Jim Beam to provide me with deliciousness for my relaxing tea time and my happy talking time. The adventure had begun.



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