As the bus approached the 5 star Keio Plaza Hotel, I tried to pay attention to the coordinator at the front, who was telling us what to do when we arrived. Unfortunately I was too mesmerized with the sights and sounds of Shinjuku, which is one of the wards in the center of the Tokyo metropolis.
The bus halted to a stop, and we all grabbed our luggage and piled out onto the street. I gazed up upon the huge building in front of me.
Wiping the sweat from my brow, we marched onwards into ritzy lobby. WOW this place was ritzy. Or should I say – totally ballin.
There were more JET people directing us along in the lobby. It felt like we were hitting little checkpoints every 20 feet as we passed by greeters and JET people. There were signs everywhere, further officializing the occasion. As I would later find out, there were over 800 new JETs from around the world in attendance that weekend.
We grabbed our room keys and proceeded to separate to check-in. I was placed in room 3222, the 32nd of 45 patron floors. When I opened the door, I saw a couple familiar faces; two of my fellow Toronto JETs, Ky and M. After some introductions, we decided we’d all separate and go exploring Shinjuku. I quickly booted up my laptop to update everyone on facebook that I made it to Tokyo safe and sound, but by this time I had only 5 minutes left until the assigned meeting time with the others downstairs. Like my friend T said, I too opted for the ‘poor man’s shower’, which consisted of changing my clothes, towelling the sweat off my brow, reapplying deodorant, and washing my face. Hey, you gotta do what you gotta do.
I took the elevator back downstairs and found a crowd of friends waiting around for me and some of the others. We waited another 5 or so minutes but no one else came or showed up so we figured everyone had already left. I was a bit sad T wasn’t part of our group as we had been planning to have a blast in Tokyo together. Ah well, c’est la vie.
With no particular destination in mind save for finding a bite to eat, we walked out the Hotel and onto one of the pedestrian shopping strips. There were about 10-15 of us, and at this point we encountered the age-old dilemma of what to do in large groups: We couldn’t make a decision on where to go to eat! This is a common occurance for large groups of travellers. Also, I will come back to this topic, but this was the first time the JET bubble would be on at full strength, although this is something that would not become apparent just yet.
Anyways, we wandered around the streets and eventually came upon a corner restaurant that looked big from the outside but was actually kind of cramped inside. Not even knowing what type of place this was, we got seats on the second floor. It was actually a normal izakaya (bar style) restaurant that served beer and appetizers save for one interesting feature – there were tablets at every table that you used to order food from. As in Ipad style tablets. It was pretty cool, although we struggled for awhile trying to figure out how they worked.
After having a few drinks and some dishes which we all shared, we all piled into the elevator back downstairs. Except there was only a limit of 5 people on this particular elevator. So the remaining 6 piled back out. Interestingly, the elevator STILL wouldn’t go. So another one of us had to exit the elevator as well to meet the limit. This tells me that the average Japanese person weighs 4/5 the average Canadian. Actually probably less. Does that logic even make sense?
We spent the remainder of the night wandering down the colourful streets of Shinjuku, and I, with my trusty new DSLR, did my best to capture the sights of the night. What struck me about Shinjuku, and Tokyo overall, was the absolute density of the culture. There was SO much to do and see everywhere. However, since we were still firmly ensconced within the JET bubble, it was more like we were observing things happening around us from within the bubble, rather than actually BEING there in the thick of it.
As we continued to wander around, we found ourselves in a large, multi level pachinko arcade. I tried to take pictures, but was reprimanded by the staff. I didn’t want to push it and I’ll explain why later.
This is basically what a pachinko arcade or ‘parlour’ looks like. It’s sort of hard to explain what it is, and I don’t think I fully understand how it works myself, but courtesy of wikipedia;
A pachinko machine resembles a vertical pinball machine, but with no flippers and a large number of relatively small balls. The player fires a ball up into the machine, controlling only its initial speed. The ball then cascades down through a dense forest of pins. In most cases, the ball falls to the bottom and is lost, but if it instead goes into certain pockets, more balls are released as a jackpot. Pachinko machines were originally strictly mechanical, but modern ones have incorporated extensive electronics, becoming similar to video slot machines, and referred to as Pachislo (パチスロ Pachisuro?).
The machines are widespread in establishments called “pachinko parlors”, which also often feature a number of slot machines. Pachinko parlors share the reputation of slot machine dens and casinos the world over — garish decoration; over-the-top architecture; a low-hanging haze of cigarette smoke; the constant din of the machines, music, and announcements; and flashing lights. Modern pachinko machines are highly customizable, keeping enthusiasts continuously entertained.
Because gambling for cash is illegal in Japan and Taiwan, balls won cannot be exchanged directly for cash in the parlor. Instead, the balls are exchanged for token prizes, which can then be taken outside and traded in for cash at a business that is nominally separate from the parlor, and may be run by organized crime (yakuza).
So basically; pachinko is the slots of Japan. People from all walks of life frequented this particular palour; from tired salarymen (that’s the Japanese term for business man) killing some time before the last train, to rebellious youngsters with brightly coloured hair and jarring Tokyo street fashion, to hunched over old grannies, all the way to Yakuza looking guys in flamboyant suits, with their feet propped up against the next machine, chain smoking cigarettes and yelling ” BAKA YERO” at the screen. It was an interesting slice of the Japanese demographic, but the sights and sounds were overwhelming and eventually we needed to get out of there, lest we run into some trouble with the friendly neighbourhood yakuza.
Walking around some more, we came upon the last main stop of the night – a Pirikura room. Pirikura is basically a photo-sticker booth where you take pictures with your friends, and then you can customize them with clip art and other assorted doodads. That’s interesting in itself, and while looking for a pirikura machine, we expected it to be one or two machines amidst a sea of arcade games. Instead, we found an ENTIRE FLOOR, about two or three times as big as the restaurant we went to, wholly and completely dedicated to Pirikura machines! There were all kinds of them, from ones that made you cute (well actually, they all made you cute)..ones that made you look gothic cute, or bubbly cute, idol cute, or whatever other permutation of cute style they could think of. We eventually settled on the cutest and largest one we could find (naturally) and proceeded to spend half an hour making ourselves beautiful.
Damn, how come we all look so pretty and cute?
Oh, okay, yes it all makes perfect sense now.
After taking pictures, it was actually getting a bit late and a lot of shops were beginning to close for the night (surprisingly). We tiredly marched our way back to the hotel and everyone bid each other goodnight. In keeping with how I feel the night went, this post will end very abruptly, as I basically went upstairs back to my room, flopped onto my bed and passed ou-