What the…?


Who the hell are you calling drunk!?

The ATM emits a warm harp welcome as I enter my card. Not for the first time (by a long shot) since I have arrived in Japan, I say: “what the…?” I don’t have time to dawdle, there is a task afoot, and the ATM’s music lets me know that. It plays during the entire process, so that each button I hit is met with a song that makes me feel like a sword-wielding character named Zelda on an adventure.

After the harp welcome, I am awarded little tunes at each touch of a button (English – wawawaaaaa, withdrawal – wooowhoowhoooo, 40,000 Yen – habadabadabaaaaa, checking – frimfrimfreeeeeeeee). And then the gravity conveyed by string chords in D as ATM deliberates over whether I am worthy of cash. I wait with baited breath, as does the woman waiting behind me, who has unwittingly become invested in my monetary adventure. When the happy, excited tune of success plays (bleebleebleeeebleeeeeee) I release my breath and wipe my brow of sweat. The woman resists the urge to hug me. I take my cash and walk away, emotionally spent. Later, when I realize that I abandoned the woman on her financial trek, I feel genuinely bad.

Like many of you, I have found that every trip to a foreign land has its “What the…?” moments. What the…? Is the most genuine query of confusion. There is no humor, no wit, there is only confusion at seeing or dealing with something completely baffling.  I said it when I got caught up in a surprise lamb stampede in Petra, and being offered the head of goat to prove the freshness of lunch in Ethiopia.

Japan, I say with confidence, is a What the…? country. There are toilets with so many buttons that it’s like pooping in a mercury capsule. These buttons cause water to be sprayed at your butt, music to cover up the sounds, and heat to toast your buns. The bathrooms may be chock full of “what the…?” things, but they are ingenious. The sink on the back of the toilet serves the dual purpose of cleaning your hands and filling the tank at once.

I see you….

Then there are the animals. Drunken animal statues, long-nosed goblins, cutesy stuffed animals that hold our toilet paper, our remote controls, our television. Abnormally wide-eyed animals stand in the aisles and guide us through shops and stores. This is only after two days in Tokyo; I am going to be asking “What the…?” a whole lot.

After leaving the ATM, jolted by the success of my journey and the 40,000 Yen (about $400) in my pocket, we step off into the heat in the search for Akihabara, or Electric Town. Akihabara is called Electric Town because it was where people bought household appliances as well as black market electronics after World War II. It has since become the capital of Tokyo’s videogame and Otaku culture, which is the Japanese term for people with obsessive interests, including anime and manga. It is known for its maid cafés, which I would tell you offhandedly to describe using your imagination, but if you are like me then you can’t do it either. A maid café is not a strip joint, but rather a café featuring young girls dressed as maids who serve you drinks and food at a ridiculous price because you get to eat it while looking at young girls dressed as maids. Sounds stupid, eh? The places were jammed packed. If the guidebooks are any inclination, Akihabara is going to be one major “what the…?” part of town.

I always wondered what it would be like to live in a Super Mario Brothers game, and now I know. Every window boasts anime and manga characters. Some are less discrete about the pornographic aspects of the shop, but most are not. The streets are decorated to resemble video games, bike racks as bushes in Super Mario, trash cans as mushrooms. Pretty girls in maid outfits hawk their wares, but also pretty girls dressed as fireman, police officers, nurses, and animals. Each time an arcade door slides open to allow an eager man in or a glassy-eyed man out, the intense electric shrieks escape onto the street with a rush of cigarette smoke.

The place is crawling with members of the Otaku culture and Mark and I know that to blend in we need to put away our What the…? faces and observe with keen interest. I stop to take notes and Mark stops to take pictures, sometimes surreptitious ones when it comes to the maids, who we are not allowed to photograph.

Before my brain reacts to over-stimulation by replaying an old Sanford and Son to the ATM song, I realize that if Japan in the center of the What the…? world, then Akihabara is its capital.

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