“I often compare the experience of going to Japan for the first time, going to Tokyo for the first time, to what Eric Clapton and Pete Townson must have gone through, the reigning guitar gods of England, what they must have gone through the week that Jimi Hendrix came to town. You hear about it, you go see it, and a window opens up into a whole new thing.
And you think: What does this mean? What do I have left to say? What do I do now?Anthony Bourdain, parts unknown
In many ways, Japan is a land that contradicts itself.
While being remarkably cutting-edge in the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence, faxes are used in place of emails and electronic messaging in the workplace; while being the third largest economy on the planet, debit cards are practically nonexistent outside of Tokyo; and even though there is a palpable culture of emotional repression and self-subjugation, Japan has one of the most unique and marvelous party cultures in the world.
While I have become well acquainted with the prior two, this last contradiction was one that I finally had the pleasure of experiencing this last weekend, and it was truly an endeavor I do not expect to forget anytime soon. Especially because of its sheer difference from my experience in Japanese culture so far.
In my perusals of the internet, one thing I have seen mentioned multiple times is that the Shibuya district in Tokyo is the most ostentatious place on the globe when it comes to Halloween. Sure, you may travel to a night club in New York, London, or Sydney for a fun time, but in Shibuya the entire district is your night club. All around you are people in all sorts of costumes, stampeding from restaurant to club to bar to anywhere else as long as the party keeps on rolling, and through all of this chaos there is a certain Zen to the movements.
You find your way through the cowboys, Naruto cosplays, and bodyguard-encircled Pooh Bears, simultaneously taken aback by the sensory overload and marveling at the grandiosity. Personally, I have never experienced Halloween in any place but suburban or collegiate America, but after observing the spectacle of Shibuya on Halloweekend I am skeptical if anything of an even comparable stature can be achieved by other places in the world. Eventually, through the cacophonous cavalcade of costumed creatures, my compatriots and I arrived at our club for the evening:
And it was here that the real fun began.
During my not-so-distant time in college, I was no stranger to the raging party that persisted through the morning; however, that could not have prepared me for this experience. For the next six hours, from 11 pm to 5 am I danced and partied alongside my friends, Power Rangers, sport team mascots, and more characters from all over the world to all music from dubstep remixes of Talyor Swift to late 90s Dr. Dre to obscure J-Pop, all the while truly letting loose for the first time since I came to Japan.
Compared to this, all other parties that I have been to amount to nothing more than high school gatherings of baby-faced freshmen who came together to split a half-full bottle of Blue Curaçao. A club isn’t quite a place to expect a new lesson, but, walking out of Camelot and back into Shibuya in the early morning with people milling all about me as if nothing had changed, it was a truly an eye-opening experience. The party continued on after I left, and all I could do was walk away, on to the next episode.
The Next Episode: Noh Theatre.
As the sun rose over Tokyo and Sunday began for the people of the city, my friends and I made our way to the Asakusa Train Station, where our train would take us back home to Kiryu. With markedly less pomp and circumstance than when we entered the club, we boarded the train and ventured home, sleeping when we could on the ride home. At the station, we parted ways and returned home to recuperate. I, however, did not have the luxury of time.
Many weeks prior, I had made plans to attend a Noh Theatre performance in Takasaki, a neighboring city, and, as both a Japanohpile and one who has studied the history of Noh Theatre in-depth, I did not plan to miss this chance. After three hours of sleep, I arose, dressed, and took a train to Takasaki, where I observed the performance in a simultaneous state of exhaustion and exhilaration.
Compared to the unrestrained festivities I had partaken in less than 12 hours prior, the obsessively meticulous attention to detail and meaning behind each and every move in the performance was a sight to behold. Rather than a massive motley crew of energetic dancers, instead there was a small, skilled cast of adept performers enacting a play about a naive daimyo who has his sword stolen by a swindler.
Throughout the play, I was virtually unable to linguistically comprehend the performance but for the brief guide that I was given in English prior to the performance, though my understanding was decidedly helped by the audience reactions to each development; regardless, I enjoyed the play.
The instances of slapstick were welcomed, and the addition of the second half, when a representation of a kami, a spirit, came to, essentially, dictate the moral lessons of the play to the audience, was an incredible undertaking. Though, if I had to distinguish a particular aspect of the entire performance as particularly noteworthy, without a doubt, I would say that it was the sheer subjugation of emotion that permeated both the performers and observers of the play.
While the subjugation of emotion is is a forgone expectation in theatrical performance, to see it enacted upon the audience as well as the performers was a truly novel experience. To see an audience rendered virtually emotionless as they watched the performance was something that was truly alien to to me. All members of the audience were expected to withhold expressions until the end, and the English sheet of directions I was given even cautioned against applauding the performance until more of the audience had begun the applause. To see such a wholesale control of human emotion was incredible, and I am greatly appreciative of this opportunity to have observed it.
As if to intentionally contrast the exuberance of my time in Shibuya 12 hours prior, the performance provided a picture-perfect, accompanying bookend of Japanese culture for the opposite extreme. From the nonstop, twenty-first-century lifestyle of the Tokyo night club, to the traditional, subdued style of Noh Theatre, which has not changed since its inception 600 years ago, I genuinely feel as though I have been able to truly experience the breadth of Japanese culture this weekend.
As he is to many people, the late Anthony Bourdain is a true role model for me. Through his travels, he was always able to keep sight of himself and bring his uniquely poignant voice to every ex-patriot experience he had, and for that I ceaselessly look up to him. While I may not be quite as a eloquent as he was, I always appreciate the opening address of his Parts Unknown Episode that focused upon Tokyo.
Taking the Plunge
My parents are both hippies, at least in spirit if not practice, so the idea of a truly revolutionary or revelatory experience was never something outside the realm of expectation for me, but every time that I have listened to this address from Anthony, I have truly felt out of my element. Anxiety and excitement bounce back and forth across my mind as I consider what the largest city on the world has to offer. And never before have I had a chance to test out Anthony’s statements until this weekend.
Both during my time in Shibuya and my time during the Noh performance, I felt, nervous; I knew what I might get from them, but even then my expectations were defied. I truly felt as though I was in those deep waters, wondering, “What next?”
To that question, I cannot provide a proper answer. All I can say is that I will go on and find one, be it in a week or 50 years from now.
In the morning, between Shibuya and the Noh performance, as I walked to Asakusa to take my rain back home, I passed by Senso-ji, the entrance temple for the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. I stopped there, took solace in the moment, and my friend, JP, agreed to take my picture. In the light of the rising sun, with the energy and alcohol flowing through me, I felt incredible.
Sure, my time had come to an end and I was truly exhausted, but I felt incredible. I did not know what would come in the day, but I simply knew that I would be able to rise to the challenge and swim trough those deep waters to reach the tropical paradise at the end.
All I had to do was make a bold start and take the plunge.
Song of the Week
“Feel The Love” by KIDS SEE GHOSTS & Pusha T
KIDS SEE GHOSTS is easily one of my favorite albums of the year, simply for the fact that it features nothing but unadulterated Kanye and Kid Cudi throughout it, be that in the lyrics, flow, or productions. Last week, I was listening to this song almost religiously as I anticipated my christening in Shibuya, and the declarative chorus to simply “Act superior” and the percussive vocals from Kanye at the halfway point were consistent points of energization for me last week.
Listening to this song I simply cannot picture anything but acting “superior,” and I plan to carry that sentiment forward in all that I do. The details may not be ironed out, but I’m not worried. It will all work out one way or the other.
If you would like to listen to this song or any of the other prior Songs of the Week, check out the Spotify Playlist linked above!