Stepping off that express train and into what is undeniably the worlds biggest city was so awe-inspiring that I literally ceased to function for a few seconds. I stood on that platform as a torrent of stimulus pounded me from every direction. I think I was also having a surreal case of de ja vu as I was finally living a dream. It was incredible.
I was at that point in time the furthest I had ever been from my beloved Melbourne. From my family. My friends. My safe place. Despite being on a solo adventure I think it is impossible for anyone to feel alone in a place like Shibuya, Tokyo. I was astounded at the sheer volume of people. Lots and lots and lots of young people from kids to young adults. What I hadn’t known previously was that I arrived on the last day of a long weekend and public holiday. So EVERYBODY was out making the most of it. Teen girls in flocks of amazingly concocted outfits complete with highlights of face paint and dangling Anime inspired soft toys. Groups of young men looking slick and hyper cool with an air of sophistication and attitude. So much energy and effort. Another thing that I did not count on was that to most of these people, I was not just a Westerner worthy of a glance. I was a freak. Big, tallish (compared to the people around me) and with a big bushy ginger beard! I was getting glances, stares, giggles, points and double takes like crazy.
As I knew that I would not likely have data until I was in country and had the time to set up my phone, I had printed (old school) a map of Shibuya station and the surrounds. My hotel was only a few hundred meters from the station. On my map it looked easy enough. And it would have been if I was not so distracted by the intensity of the world I had just stepped in to. What I had not accounted for was the scale of Shibuya station.
Tokyo itself has a population of 35 million people making it the worlds most populated city! The train networks of Tokyo are nothing short of amazing and at first glance so incredibly complex. They have to be in order to move so many people around such a small land area. Shibuya is a very popular area in Japan, especially for young people. Shibuya station is immense. Not the biggest station in Japan. But when you consider the vast number of platforms, the fact that there is a subway and above ground network(s), the pedestrian walkways and underground tunnels that stretch for kilometres; well it is easy to imagine someone coming out kilometres from where they had intended to be. Much of Tokyo is like that actually. Underground stations can often be accompanied by underground shopping districts that stretch for kilometres. It is a good way to maximise capacity in a city so densely inhabited.
Luckily for me, I was swept along with the thousands of people out enjoying the balmy night and the festivities. I was fortunate that between my train platform and my hotel, was the famous Scramble Crossing outside the Shibuya station main entrance. It was as if I fell into a rushing waterway that was heading to the largest space it could find to spill out. I flowed along with the people, unconcerned of the outcome, and we spilled out onto the vast open space that the crossing occupies. More on the crossing later. I think at this point I was still gaping at the sights and sounds. But I had enough presence of mind to know that my hotel was just around the corner. My earlier feelings of crustiness were gone. It was late but I was wide, wide, wide awake. And it seemed as though the crowds of Shibuya had no intention of heading home.
So I made my way to my hotel and checked in. Then I quickly got myself up to my room to see what sort of accommodation I had for the week. The room was pretty small but neat and tidy. A double bed pushed into the corner of the room. A narrow space around the other two sides. A narrow desk along one wall with a TV and space for me to put my camera gear. Not really much room to put my suitcase but I didn’t care. I didn’t plan to be in my room very much at all. The bathroom was tiny! I am not overly tall but I had to crouch a little to walk into it. And standing to use the toilet meant my head was at an angle against the ceiling. Thankfully it had a deep bath – perfect for soaking the tired body after a day of photography and walking.
The whole time I made this inspection I was aware of the draw and pull of Shibuya. I had seen so many interesting people and places to photograph but lugging a suitcase was not the time to get my camera out. So I had such a strong sense of urgency to get back out there. Maybe it was adrenaline. Perhaps anxiety. Perhaps that sense of freedom I explained in my last blog. Probably a cocktail of all of those and just the pure excitement of being in such an amazing place. The place I had dreamed of travelling to for such a long time. Finally I was smack in the middle of it and it was calling to me. I opened my hotel window to air out the room and could hear the activity and hum of the city. I was energised by this point. Grabbing my camera I headed out into the night and the worlds most amazing and enormous city.
Shibuya’s energy is just undeniable. So many people, so many stories. People dressed in all manner of modern and extreme styles. it is very popular among the youth of Tokyo to dress to extremes and then parade throughout areas like Shibuya. It kind of reminds me of peacocks exposing their bright and colourful tail feathers in a fan. The men are no different. They must spend forever getting their hair to be just right – usually in the style of some animation character from a manga or anime. Or is it the anime that is copying reality? And so they parade throughout the main streets and expansive alleys of Shibuya. And coming back to the scramble crossing was incredible. Even though I had witnessed it earlier, at the time I was also focused on getting to my hotel. This crossing is symbolic of modern-day Tokyo. Several main roads meeting in the heart of Shibuya. The crossing is one massive pedestrian zebra crossing. Every few minutes the traffic stops and hundreds of people cross from every direction. Like blood flowing through the arteries and into the heart.
There was a surprising amount of traffic at this time of night. But a lot of it was taxis. Tokyo taxis are epic. They are a unique model of Toyota made for Japan taxis. Each has one or more lit up signs on the roof. Just like any other cab I guess but they are really unique and interesting. I remember seeing a photo book that someone had put together of all the different Tokyo taxi company signs. So they are that kind of interesting. Then there were the cool kids on their imported Harley Davidson’s and other big bikes. And of course lots and lots of people on bicycles. Add to this the occasional garbage truck or delivery van that is always immaculately clean and even plays a jingle as it drives by. Cute.
So I walked the streets of Shibuya. Photographing the people and their interaction with each other and their world. Sometimes I walked amongst hundreds of people. And at other times I was walking down some little deserted back alleys lined with small cafes that would seat only five or six people. Each had a hum coming from within as people smoke and drank and ate. Paper lanterns hung from between power poles and obscure and countless signs with unknown directives were everywhere. I took hundreds of photos that first night. Opportunity was just everywhere.
At about 2am I stopped at a Ramen bar for a meal. THE. BEST. RAMEN. EVER. First meal in country did not disappoint. It was really quite a fun system. There was a vending machine at the front of the restaurant where you put Yen in and chose your meal and drinks. Then it gave you a ticket in return which you handed to the chef when you sat down. They then made your meal. A great experience sitting there watching them cook everything in front of you. I walked and shot and walked and shot. And despite being in a strange country surrounded by people in party mode – many who were drinking, I never once felt intimidated or threatened. They didn’t even behave drunk. On occasion, in the busy areas I would bump into someone. And the response was not one of affront, but these kids went from super cool to being humble and apologetic and concerned. The facade dropped and the gracious and accommodating Japanese culture instantly rose to the surface. Truly impressive.
I finally got foot sore and returned to my hotel not long before sunrise. I was tired but surprisingly not exhausted. I fell into sleep thinking about all that my week had in store.