Not To Spend the Night in Tokyo...
7 PM., a week before Christmas, and I’m in a corner store
on Plastic Food street in old Tokyo. I’ve managed to borrow
a bowl of miso soup and I’m endlessly turning it upside-down
in order to prove to my camera that it really is made of plastic.
It’s been a slow day.
But that’s all about to change.
Soon I’ll be on my way to Shinjuku, to film the last train
leaving the station.
had been described to me by various wild-eyed foreigners using large
gestures and huge adjectives. Shinjuku is the busiest train station
in the world –- every morning over a hundred thousand people
get disgorged onto its platforms, filter through its underground
tunnels like a great termite army and disappear into the steel gray
skyscrapers nearby. Inevitably, some of these millions are still
working or drinking or partying at midnight, when they all simultaneously
look at their watches and realize that they are about to miss the
last train home. For most Tokyo suburb-dwellers, that would put
their household slippers and floor-level futon a $200 taxi ride
away. What follows is a stampede to the station and, hopefully,
a bloody battle to get on the train.
This is good. I could use a little
more blood in my film.
Problem is, if I film the last train
leaving, how am I going to get home? I check a map – it’s
a bit far, but I can walk back to Tokyo station in a pinch. Or better
yet, take a taxi and spend the remainder of the night at the nearby
Press Club Library, buried in back issues of the Atlantic Monthly
and People Magazine.
I arrive at Shinjuku just before midnight.
I run up and down the stairs to every platform until I find one
that’s packed. Standing off to one side is a tall, long-haired
Australian who’s been in Japan for nine years. He tells me
where to wait for the train and offers lurid stories about how terrible
it will be. Apparently all the station staff stand outside the carriages
like football players and shoulder the seething mass of humanity
through the doors. I’m thrilled.
"You know why the trains stop
running at 1 A.M., don’t you?" he asks. I don’t.
"The taxi lobby is incredibly powerful in Tokyo. They should
run one train per hour all night, like they do in New York, but
the Taxi Association gives the politicians so much money that they
voted to shut the stations down."
A train approaches. People crush forward.
The Australian is actively fighting, like a sperm trying to swim
upstream, while I am allowing myself to be passively jostled in
classic Brownian motion. He gets in and I am shunted aside. Darwinism
I hang out through several more trains, waiting for the Big Moment.
I notice that on the next track over there is still one train bound
for Tokyo Station. I even go over to investigate it. I have some
good footage… should I just hop on board and not worry about
a taxi? No, I have to know what that Last Train is like. It should
More people trickle into the station.
I’m watching the clock, urging those last-minute hoards to
hurry. The last train pulls in. It’s virtually empty. Everyone
gets on board in a leisurely fashion. There’s plenty of room.
The doors close. It pulls away. I’m alone.
Like the great buffalo herds of yesteryear,
they never came.
I leave the station. I find a taxi
stand just outside the door. There are over a hundred people waiting
in line and not a single taxi. The guy at the very front is holding
a bunch of flowers. I go to the very back. Two very drunk businessman
fall in behind me.
It’s cold. I’ve been running
around with a heavy pack so once I stop my sweat immediately turns
into Ben-Gay. I’m bored. I’d give two healthy molars
for a trashy paperback. The businessman behind me keeps poking me
in the ribs to ask me a question in Japanese. He’s so drunk
that he sounds like he’s stuffed an entire Big Mac into his
mouth and is trying to blow it out through a snorkel. I tell him,
politely, that I don’t understand Japanese. He forgets this
fact every three minutes and pokes me to make sure. "You doan’
unerstan?" he shouts. What I really want to say is, "My
Japanese is fine. Yours needs a cup of black coffee. Now please
stop poking me."
An hour later – 2:30 a.m. –
I look to the front of the line and see a bunch of flowers. Our
steady forward motion has been nothing but compression. Everyone
is either too drunk or too tired or just plain resigned to the wait.
I’m not. I decide to walk.
I’ve left the taxi line I pull out my map. My, that’s
a long way. Looks to be eight or ten miles. I remember that my good
friend Roberto will be in a restaurant in nearby Harajuku all night
listening to Brazilian music. Restaurants are warm. He told me to
call him if I wanted to come by.
I call. I get his cell-phone message machine. I stand there in a
quandary. Should I walk to the restaurant? It’s not on the
way to Tokyo Station. And Roberto’s a sweetheart but he’s
not exactly… reliable. He doesn’t reliably have toilet
paper in his bathroom, for example. He could be anywhere by now,
or the restaurant could be closed and impervious to knocking. I
decide to head for Tokyo Station. I’ll flag down a taxi along
Everyone knows that taxi drivers don’t
like Gaijins. I’ve heard bitter diatribes from the Tokyo party
crowd on the subject. Until this moment I’ve never felt much
sympathy. What are they doing out in the city after 1 A.M., anyway?
Isn’t six hours in an expensive, crowded, smoky bar enough
for one night? Secretly I’ve even sided with the taxi drivers
– Gaijins rarely speak Japanese, usually can’t give
directions to where they want to go, and have notoriously short
tempers. If I were a Japanese taxi driver I’d probably avoid
But then, I never expected to be out
on the streets of Tokyo at 2:30 in the morning trying to flag down
one of the unfriendly beasts. I hike
about a mile down the road until I start seeing empty taxis with
their "vacant" lights on. I wave. They speed by, their
faces as cold and impassive as samurai warriors. I walk to the next
stoplight and waylay them there. One pulls up. I tap on his window.
No response. His hands have the steering wheel in a death grip.
As soon as the light changes he nearly blows me over as he accelerates
away. Green-yellow-red light. I manage to get the next guy’s
attention. Infinitely slowly he reaches down to pull the back-door
opener. The door opens. Hooray! I scoot around the back of the taxi
to get in. The light changes. The door slams shut and he takes off.
The next wave of traffic has three
empty taxis in it. They see me signaling and their "vacant"
signs blink off like Xmas lights, then blink on again as soon as
they’re past the intersection. Merry Christmas.
I give up, hike about a half mile back
up the road, and find a hotel lobby. Would they, I ask, be willing
to call for a taxi? I’d be happy to pay for the favor. "Absolutely
not," the receptionist -- another samurai warrior -- says.
"We only offer that service for our guests." "If
a guest were standing in you lobby then they wouldn’t need
a taxi home," I point out, but I know it’s futile. Back
out into the cold.
By now it’s 330 A.M.. I’m freezing. My feet ache from
the weight of my pack. Death To All Taxi Drivers, I think, I’m
takes three hours to cross the city. I follow the silent train tracks
and skirt the stations. Halfway there I spot a soda machine. Its
blinking sign advertises hot corn soup. As I’m popping the
top off the can I hear a sound behind me. A homeless woman sits
cross-legged on a piece of cardboard, sound asleep. She’s
bent over forward, her head nearly touching the concrete. I sit
down beside her and drink my soup, surprisingly comforted by the
way her head bobs slowly up and down in time with her rumbling snores.
My body wicks up the icy cold from the floor until I’m shivering
under layers of fleece and down. I climb stiffly to my feet, feeling
a great deal more respect for homeless people and cardboard insulation,
and even less for taxi drivers. I leave 120 yen – the price
of a can of soup – beside her bags.
The first train bound for home departs
Tokyo Station at 6AM. I’m on board. So are two dozen other
people in an assortment of wrinkled eveningwear. One woman is wearing
a long slinky dress and sparkling high heels. Everyone stares vacantly
into the distance with guttered eyes and sallow skin. I bet they
taxi drivers too.
I get off the train at my station and
hike past the taxi stand. Business is slow and a dozen cabs are
lined up. I catch the eye of one driver. I nod. He opens the back
door. I march right past. Boy that felt good.
Of course, my little apartment isn’t
equipped with heat. I have, however, discovered several ways to
warm up – a cup of hot tea, my hair dryer, my sleeping bag,
or calisthenics. I make the tea, shove my hair dryer into my sleeping
bag, and climb in after it. Stuff the calisthenics. Three minutes
later I’m asleep
Excerpted from Japanland © 2005
Rodale Press. To purchase, please visit japanlandonline.com