After work, I sometimes walk down the road to Shibuya station instead of taking my usual train home from Yoyogi-koen, even though I can’t use my commuter pass there and end up having to pay and extra 130 yen. My office is on a significantly higher elevation that Shibuya station, so to say that I am walking down to it, isn’t all that inaccurate. I start up in the hills of Kamiyama, and snake my way through expensive neighborhoods and small two story shops. Rising just above their roof tops I can see the neon buildings of Shibuya down below. It’s always amazing to me how quiet everything is for the first 10 minutes of my walk. My attention is drawn by individuals, by doors opening and closing, and on warm nights, the sound of unseen mothers andchildren preparing for diner. By the time I reach NHK, my attention is drawn to groups, restaurants filled with early diners, cars approaching from behind, music that pours out on the street when the automatic doors of convenience stores open to the flow of customers. And then finally, I reach Shibuya proper, by the Tokyu department store, and sound is no longer a reliable source of information, there is just too much of it.
People generally walk on the left side of the street, but there is no rule. Walk where you can. Izakaya staff stand on the street outside of their front doors, enticing customers. All you can eat and drink for 3 hours, 1980 yen! Private booths available now! Black men, Nigerian I’ve been told, stand in groups of two usually right in the middle of an intersection. They have stacks of postcard sized fliers in their rear jeans’ pockets. I don’t know what they are selling, but they never try to sell it to me. There are an overwhelming number of school girls in their school uniforms, their gym bags piled on the ground, some are talking about another friend who isn’t there, others are texting on their phones. Everyone is looking around at everyone else. A business man walks towards me hunched over and looking down. He is walking in too straight a line to fit in. I know I’ll have to move out of his way. He plows past me and I’m slightly irritated.
By the time I get to the intersection in front of Shibuya station, I’m ready to go home. I wonder what it would be like to just casually meet a friend here, slip into a 7th floor bar, take off my shoes and hand them to the hostess, and after being lead down an intentionally narrow and dark series of hallways, sit down next to a low table and tell the waiter that we need more time to order.
To the left and right of the station is the bridge that holds the Yamanote train tracks above. Behind the station, about 6 stories up is a highway, cars are always stopped on it at this time of day. I still can’t visualize just how everything is connected, but I do know that I’ve taken that highway before several times. Beneath the highway and the trains are rows of restaurants and bars. Their roofs, the underside of the bridges above. In between two of these restaurants is a small staircase, about 10 steps leading up, into a gap in between the train up above on the left, and the highway, up above on the right. The road here is so narrow only pedestrians and bicycles can pass through. To my left is a bare wall that supports the train. To my right is a line of old buildings, built in what the Japanese would probably call a Showa era style.
When Japanese people refer to Showa, they mean the time in Japan’s history when remnants of the past were quickly being stamped out by technology and progress. When even large cities like Tokyo had a small town feel to them. When people didn’t shop at supermarkets, but bought their rice from a rice dealer, their fish from the fish monger and their vegetables from the local vegetable stand. It’s a nostalgic term that generally carries connotations of the-good-old-days. Of course, this is just what people want to think, in reality just about everyone who was alive in the Showa era couldn’t wait for change, partially because they wanted to rid themselves of all memories of the war and the totalitarian years before it. It wasn’t until late in the 1990s that people started to really talk about the Showa era in a positve light. I was born in Showa 59, that’s 1984. I like the fact that I was born in the Showa era, I’m part of a club.
I’m walking down the road, the two story Showa buildings to my right. I peer in doors and arches that look like doors only to reveal outdoor hallways that reveal more doors. Occasionally I see inside a cracked window or an opened sliding panel, and see what appears to be a bar, usually with one bartender, 4 to 5 seats, and another employee, usually female that stands on what must be some of the steepest stairways in the world (one might go as far as to call them ladders). These buildings are all connected in one way or another, they have no bathrooms, those are all outdoors, men only of course. The buildings themselves are old, but they have been remodeled to highlight their retro feel. There are no halogen lightbulbs, everything is yellow and brown and orange. Chairs are upholstered in green tweed with glints of gold thread. I’ve been to a bar like one of these before. They are very expensive. I imagine that if you went enough you could get away with only having a drink or two and chatting with the staff the rest of the time. First timers are always met with an unsettling combination of silence and curiosity. It doesn’t help that I’m a foreigner either.
Past these buildings is a small park. A group of young office workers, male and female, huddle in a circle. The men want to go out to the next bar, the women want to also, but not tonight.
Then finally, following the train tracks above on the left, the highway having peeled away back a ways, I come to a line of bicycles all parked in a row. The inner most bicycles are neatly parked with an amorphous grouping of bicycles around them, parked wherever there is space. There, between the bicycles and the train, on a small platform about 2 feet off the ground that was once probably a flower bed, is a line of blue tarps and cardboard walls. These are homes built by the homeless. Some of them have name plaques attached to their doors, most are equipped with padlocks. It appears that some even have electricity. They are filthy, but not dirty. Well ordered and cared for. Like the Showa houses behind me, they all seem to be connected in some way, perhaps some passage exists between them that I cannot see.
I walk past a tall machine on the left where you can buy time for bike locks installed in the area. A ragged man leans over in front of the machine without looking at it, runs his fingers through the change return slot and quickly snaps them back, its lid clapping shut behind them. We walk past one another, he seems to be looking a head at something else, but I imagine that he is just looking forward because that’s the direction his eyes happen to be pointed.
On the left, past the row of tarp houses is a group of similarly shabby men. Two are talking, one doesn’t appear to be homeless, but rather some kind of laborer, a janitor perhaps. Another man is huddled over a table built out of scraps of wood. The table is covered in spots of paint and stains, but is clear of any mess. A single toaster oven sits on top of it next to a table lamp. The lamp is turned on, but where it is drawing power from, I cannot say. I had a similar lamp when I was still a student in Aichi. The man is turing the toaster oven over and over, slowly, as if checking it. Next to him is a large cardboard box, I recognize it as an iMac box. Inside I catch a glimpse of other electronic devices, rice cookers, DVD players etc. Another man is laying nearby on a cardboard box and wrapped in a pink futon. I can smell him, he smells like I did once after not taking a shower and wearing the same clothes for a week. It is the smell of sweat and piss and hair that has clung to your skin with grim. This man reeks. He makes me realize how none of the rest of them seem to smell, how their houses didn’t smell, how in general, very little in Japan smells as potently as this man.
I’ve walked quite a distance by now. Surely beyond beyond the station now, I think. Any yet, there in front of me is a plastic illuminated sign hanging off the side of a building, it reads in English: JR Shibuya Station New South Exit. Below it is an escalator, wide enough for me to pass the people standing on the left. On the third floor is a restaurant/cafe. I ask where I can use a plug to power my laptop, order the daily special and a burbon on the rocks. The restaurant closes at 12:00, I’ll probably be paying my tab then.