My buzz has completely worn off.
Throwing back Asahi, Japan’s rice beer equivalent to Budweiser, the entire 12-hour flight over seemed like a good idea at the time, but now, standing in line at Japanese customs, I was beginning to rethink my decision to make friendly with the flight staff.
When you’re flying with a band that’s hauling enough electronic equipment and musical gear to power a small military base, making your way through international customs is enough to sober up even the most comatose of frequent flyers. Not to mention that handing over your passport to a customs agent somehow puts a person in a constant state of feeling like you’re only moments away from being asked to step out of your vehicle to perform a roadside sobriety test.
Just as I’m about to voluntarily extend my arms out to offer up a finger to nose test proving my clear-headedness, my passport is stamped and passed back through what reminds me of the bulletproof glass window at the SuperAmerica three blocks from my home in South Minneapolis. With a wave of a hand and a “Yokoso,” the international state trooper has declared his verdict. The entirety of Japan has pronounced me worthy of entrance.
Soon after leaving Narita International Airport, I check into Shibuya Excel Hotel, a “hoteru” whose charm lies almost entirely in the fact that it’s located in the heart of the city overlooking what someone told me was Tokyo’s version of Times Square, Shibuya Crossing. Having just left New York City’s ‘Great White Way’ performing on one of their many garden variety morning shows broadcasting out of Rockefeller Center, just off Times Square, I was skeptical Shibuya Crossing would be my speed.
But when I surveyed the sweeping expanse of the city from my window on the 20th floor, I was completely surprised by mesmerizing views of rooftop soccer fields and throngs of people filling the enormous intersection. Looking directly below me, I felt like I was looking into the largest aquarium I’d ever seen filled with pedestrians eerily resembling schools of fish swimming their choreographed dance, waiting their turn to join 2,500 of their peers in crossing the intersection in one fluid movement. There was order among the masses. It had a heartbeat, a pulse, a rhythm, an unspoken code amid the chaos that everyone seemed to understand and adhere to. This was not Times Square and the only thing pulling me away from this newfound discovery outside this window was my empty stomach.
A friend of mine recommended a restaurant near the hotel called Matsuya, describing it as Japan’s equivalent of a Denny’s. I’m not one to frequent chain restaurants while visiting a new city, preferring to seek out the lesser known local haunts, but all decisiveness was long gone by this point. I needed the closest resemblance to something edible, and although disappointed by the fact that this was going to be my first meal in Tokyo, I knew the first course to choke down would need to be my pride.
In a daze, I joined the throng on the street and made my way towards the well lit diner—its yellow sign a beacon of welcome for all those equally worn and hungry. I took a seat on one of the stationary stools, squeezed my legs between myself and the bar style counter and patiently waited for a menu. As the seconds turned to minutes, I gazed around the bar to see sideways glances cast in my direction as if I had stumbled into a small town dive bar somewhere in the Midwest wearing a tuxedo. A few minutes later, and the majority of the kitchen staff had stopped what they were doing and were shamelessly staring at me as though I had walked in completely naked and started rubbing my bare ass on their once squeaky clean retro vinyl stool.
One of the staff , who couldn’t be older than 16, approached me hesitantly. After mumbling something in Japanese, he quickly realized that any amount of verbal communication was not likely going to happen and pointed at the exit. I didn’t need an undergrad in international communications to recognize this as sign language for “don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”
Confused, starving, and completely deflated, I stood up to leave when I realized that he was actually pointing to a kiosk I had passed on the way in. He followed me over to the eight foot tall ordering apparatus and pointed out the now obvious procedure. Simply insert your yen and press the button corresponding to your meal of choice. My suspicion of everyone watching me place my order was confirmed when it printed out my meal ticket and the entire restaurant, filled with nearly 15 customers and staff began clapping. My embarrassment was eclipsed only by my relief that I had finally figured it out and I high-fived my teenaged tutor without thinking. Within seconds of returning to my seat I was delivered my order, a frosted glass of Asahi accompanying a steaming bowl of ramen.
As I sat alone and enjoyed my meal, I looked around the restaurant. Sure, there were a few similarities, but this was nothing like a diner back home that I had envisioned it to be.
I took a sip of my beer. Crisp, malty and sweet, it tasted nothing like a Budweiser.
And Shibuya Crossing, in all it’s brilliance and excitement, was nothing like Times Square.