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3 May 2018. I walk up the stairs and step out of the Metro into a swirling crowd. There are people all around me coming and going in every direction. There are stores on either side of me, and a newsstand in front of me. The crowds are intimidating and relentless. I can hardly move.

How will I ever find them in this?

I make my way to the other side of the newsstand and look around, then back to the subway entrance. It feels a bit hopeless. It feels wrong.

I go back down into the subway and have another look at the exit options.

We’d arranged to meet at the Hachikō exit of Shibuya Station. Shibuya Station has more exits than a centipede has legs, but meeting at Hachikō sounded simple enough. When I get there I see there are three exits labelled Hachikō.

I choose a second exit. This one brings me to a more open space, though it’s still busy. I stand and wait. There’s an old man there. I use the translation app on my phone to ask him if this is the Hachikō exit.

Yes yes he says, and shows me a big open square to my left filled with people. So I come back to the top of the subway stairs and wait.

I’m to meet Jess and Hai, an Aussie couple who have lived in Tokyo for several years and teach English. They’re taking me out for the evening.

I realise I’m a complete idiot! I have no way to contact them. I don’t have my Wi-Fi device with me so I can’t send or receive an email, I don’t have their phone number entered in my phone so I can’t call or text. There is nothing I can do but wait.

Suddenly I see Jess running towards me. She found me! She had tried to email, but of course I couldn’t receive it. Anyway it didn’t matter.

Perhaps I should have given more clear instructions she said. Whatever. She’s found me and we quickly join Hai and the adventure begins. It turns out to be one of my best times in Tokyo. There is nothing like having locals to show you around.

We are at the famous Shibuya Crossing. Said to be one of the busiest street crossings in the world, it’s an iconic Tokyo scene. The lights change from green to red to green like a pulsating machine.

On the green light people surge forward, up to a thousand at a time during the busiest periods, walking in all directions, flowing around each other like water finding its own level. I join them, weaving my way through the crowd, then make my way back to Jess.

Then the lights change and it’s the cars’ turn to navigate the five-way intersection. Cars, then people, then cars, then people, in a rhythm that never stops.

Jess and Hai know of a newly opened observation deck overlooking the crossing. From here the people look like a stream of ants. We discover we can stand on a small dais, and a camera above takes a shot of the entire crossing, and us. Cool!

From Shibuya we make our way to Tōkyō Tochō, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, in Shinjuku. We line up to go to the observation deck on the 45th floor for some sunset views of the city.

The line moves gradually forward until it’s nearly our turn. In front of the elevator there is a young woman dressed in a smart uniform complete with white gloves and a cap perched on her head. She ushers the people ahead of us into the elevator. When it is full, she does a deep bow bent almost double at the waist with arms out-stretched behind her in what feels like a profound honouring of those in the elevator. As she straightens up the doors close and the elevator begins its journey upward. The young woman, her chic uniform, the ushering of people into the elevator, the bow – it is all so full of courtesy and grace, and a kind of reverence for others, that it remains one of my enduring images of Japan.*

The views are a reminder of the inconceivable size of this city that seems to stretch to infinity. And of the beauty of light.

We watch as the sun sets over the largest metropolitan area in the world, and the evening spreads out before us.

The night before I’d caught a glimpse of the night-lights of the city from a train window. I figured out they must have been the lights of Shinjuku and I wanted a better look. Jess and Hai know just where to go. From a bridge spanning one of the major arteries we look down a street that is so bright with lights it’s almost like daylight. The teeming Tokyo that never sleeps dazzles me with its brash audacity.

I have to confess I’d never eaten ramen, not even the kind that comes dry in a cup and requires boiling water poured on it, so when Jess and Hai ask what I’d like for dinner I say ramen! I only have a vague idea of what I’ll get but I’m curious to find out. We sit at the counter in a restaurant in one of the many modern buildings in the area and I eat one of the best meals that I have in Japan: a mouth-watering broth topped with chicken slices, vegetables and mushrooms. It is the Japanese equivalent of the best Vietnamese pho. I’m in heaven. I thought ramen was just some kind of noodles. It is so much more than that.

After eating we enter again into the brightness of the city. I feel a little as if I’m walking on air, buoyed by the noise, the lights, the crowds, the sheer energy and vitality of it all. It’s sensory overload in the best way.

There are two areas of Shinjuku that belie this modern city of steel and glass skyscrapers, designer stores, shopping malls, billboards, and neon lights. One is known as Golden Gai, the other Omoide Yokocho. Both areas consist of a ramshackle collection of tiny bars and restaurants in narrow alleyways dating back to post-war Tokyo. Most of these establishments seat only six or eight people, and some have a regulars-only policy. Somehow both areas have managed to avoid the developers’ wrecking ball.

On my first day in Tokyo Osamu, my guide, took me first to Omoide Yokocho which consists of two short alleys. The main one called Memory Lane, is commonly known, completely without justification, as Piss Alley.

Later we went to Golden Gai. The alleys of Golden Gai contain dozens of tiny bars with names like Troll, Rocket, Dangerous Party, Hair of the Dogs, Blue Rose, Ghetto, and Slow Hand. Golden Gai was sleeping except for the occasional supply delivery. There was nothing happening there.

In Omoide Yokocho a couple of restaurants were open,

but it was clear that these are places of the night and that it is only after dark that they come alive.

With Jess and Hai I go back to Omoide Yokocho when it’s awake: noise, barbecue smoke, steam, and a multitude of languages spill out into the narrow alleyway.

Office workers, locals, and tourists crowd the space as the workers in the tiny kitchens serve beer and yakitori – skewers of grilled chicken or other kinds of meat, seafood, or vegetables.

It is about as far as you can get from the Tokyo of the neon lights of Shinjuku and Shibuya,

where Godzilla, another of Shinjuku’s landmarks, menaces the crowds from the top of the Toho Building,

or about as far as you can get from the Tokyo of the serenity of Ohkunitama Shrine in suburban Fuchu, or of the many quiet neighbourhoods like Kameido. There are so many different Tokyos.

Thanks Jess and Hai for giving me a taste of the Tokyo that comes out to play at night. It’s an after-dark world with places so bright it feels like daylight and all is exposed, side by side with places so dim and tiny and cosy that intimacy inevitably arises. Both have a vitality that beckons.

*This scene is etched in my mind, but I didn’t take any photos so I can’t place it with accuracy. It probably happened at Tōkyō Tochō, but it may have happened at Mori Tower in Roppongi Hills. Either way, it spoke deeply to me about the respect the Japanese show for others.

Next post: A festival in Tokyo that had me shaking with excitement: taiko drums almost as big as houses!

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2018.