Pology Magazine  -  Adventures in Travel and World Culture.
Travel and World Culture   
 Photo: Lawrence Karn

Toyko: Neon, Fluffy Bubbles 
By Elizabeth Renomeron

It had been awhile. I was sure I had started to smell. At least, that’s what my tired reflection showed in the dressing-room mirror: stained shirt, wrinkled pants, dirty bare feet missing the sneakers I had to leave outside to enter this “room.” It seemed everyone around me was clean and had the luxury of freshly laundered clothes. Especially the young women who traveled in groups of clicking heels and sparkling handbags with their hair perfected in a fashionable mullet. They taunted me with their access to closets full of shoes and dresses instead of a single backpack stuffed with crumpled and practical fashions.

I thought I could do it – two weeks of traveling through Japan without doing laundry. But three days before my return home, I reached my breaking point in Tokyo. Even in this impossibly huge city, cleanliness was a given. As in the other places I had visited in Japan, streets were practically empty of garbage, money was exchanged with cashiers on a tray (to avoid touching hands), and some people never left the house without their white cotton gloves and surgical masks. Equally novel was the hood of disposable cloth I had to wear on my head to try on shirts, a ritual some clothing stores skipped altogether by not letting you try on shirts at all. I felt like a big, unwashed, foreign germ. Buying a new shirt wasn’t going to hack it. Something more needed to be done.

The directions to the laundromat from the hotel were fuzzy at best. Fuzzy was sometimes the best you could do as an English-speaking tourist in a country that didn’t use the Roman alphabet on a regular basis—especially on signs for small streets. I was left with directions like, “Off the main street, turn right at the tempura restaurant.” The free maps of Tokyo weren’t helpful either, as they avoided the hassle of naming all of Tokyo’s streets and labeled only the big ones. It’s possible that Tokyo’s city planners felt the same way.

I was staying in the Asakusa neighborhood of Tokyo. It is marked by the huge Nakamise shopping arcade that surrounds the Sensoji Temple, first built in 645. Japanese and foreign visitors alike marvel at the temple while navigating the maze of stands and stores selling traditional and tourist-oriented items. 

During the day, Asakusa’s streets are packed. Groups take turns posing in front of the huge red lantern of the Kaminarimon Gate, while men in tabi boots (with split toes) and rickshaws await requests for tours. Wandering through this area was fun during the day, daring yourself to get lost in confusing streets that seemed to go on forever, even if you stood on tiptoe to peer over the crowds. With less than two hours left before the laundromat closed, those streets now posed a challenge: finding a fixed destination.

With my arms wrapped around my laundry bag and my directions poking precariously from the small paper between my fingers (so I could read and walk at the same time), I set off into the windy night. By 9PM on a Wednesday, Asakusa’s streets had emptied of shoppers. Because the area isn’t known for its nightlife, there only remained a sparse number of diners surveying the neighborhood’s restaurants. Teenagers licked ice cream cones outside of Baskin Robbins; young men sat around the counter of a noodle shop; and Japanese businessmen led stumbling foreign clients from bar to bar. The foreigners’ glazed eyes latched onto me as I passed by – I understood how spotting a non-Japanese person in Japan was like spotting an elusive jaguar, even in the big city.

Walking down the main street, I passed three restaurants displaying plastic food models of tempura dishes. These models, which are typically found in the windows of restaurants, give an eerily realistic preview to the menu. Although I usually found them entertaining (and perfect for pointing when there is no English menu), now they made me nervous – they offered three chances to make a mistaken first right into the maze of streets. None of these intersections had English signs indicating the street I was looking for: Sushiya Dori, the only street name the hostel directions had supplied.

From experience I knew Japanese people were generous when it came to giving directions to lost tourists. At the airport one woman helped me buy my bus transfer ticket and directed me toward the correct bus station, rather than watch me struggle with the ticket machine. At a fast-food restaurant an employee stepped out from behind the counter to guide my friend down the complicated path to the bathroom.

The biggest obstacles to receiving such help were communicating the question and understanding the response. I put down my laundry, pulled out my phrase book, gave a quick customary bow, and asked, “Where is Sushiya Dori?”


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