The first thing 他 did when the plane landed at Haneda was take a shit.
He should have gone before the landing, but the captain turned on the fasten seat belt sign too soon. Were he on a domestic flight, he'd chance a futile "sir" from an underpaid attendant and rush to the lavatory anyway. However, his Lonely Planet guide to Tokyo and the myriad of websites he'd read before embarking on this trip had given him a complex: Each stressed the rigid, unspoken social codes by which the Japanese lived, as well as the extreme politeness they would exhibit. How would he know if he were, in their eyes, behaving as an ungainly, uncouth gaijin, if he was too dense to detect the subtle disapproval beneath their smiling facades?
Thus his pressing need to relieve his bowels upon arrival.
他 entered the empty men's room. It was showroom-clean and smelled like a department store. Depaato, his mind chimed in. He strained to build a mental image, syllable by syllable, of that word in katakana in his mind's eye: デパート. He entered the farthest stall in the room, the lush one with handicap access and a diaper change table. He dropped trau and sat on the toilet seat.
Holy Mother of God, the seat was heated. It was magnificent, a salve to his shanks, sore from eleven hours wasting away in economy class.
He thought he heard birds tweeting. No, he did hear birds tweeting. It was coming from the toilet. The control panel on the wall to his rightーand that's what it was, a NASA-grade control panelーhoused big plastic buttons with paragraphs of indecipherable text that filled him with an unexpected glee. Here was his first real encounter, the first of many stories he'd no doubt be able to bring back home with him. He imagined his family and coworkers, poor saps who had spent their whole lives thinking their needs had been met with a simple flush lever and cold vinyl toilet seats. He felt a little bad for them. He'd just taken the red pill, and his neighbors were still back in the Matrix.
The big, shiny metal button marked "FLUSH" reminded him of the push ignition on an electric car. It was rimmed with a green ring of light. His kanji recognition, remedial though it might be, was good enough to recognize the character on the button for "Stop". Another was for the bidet, a ladies-only front bidet, and a dryer feature. These buttons sprouted their own sidebar control module, with smaller plus-and-minus inputs for water intensity and positional fine-tuning. Finally there was the "Privacy" button located on a separate module, marked with a music icon that looked like the iTunes logo. Presumably the source of the nature sounds now projecting from the unit.
After evacuating fully, 他 reflexively reached for the roll of toilet paper. He stopped himself and hit the bidet function instead. He wasn't sure what to expect.
A tiny robotic nozzle emerged from the back of the toilet bowl on the end of a plastic wand. It shot a pleasing, if unexpectedly vigorous, stream of warm water directly at his bunghole. His traveling companion, 苦, would later speculate that a child army somewhere in China was remotely targeting the bidet streams like military drone operators.
He let this process go on for a moment or two longer than he was comfortable with, before remembering he'd have to hit that "Stop" button. He did so, and a blast of warmth air-dried the area in question. Then the wand retracted, its servos whining, and performed a cleaning cycle of its own. 他 reached for a single square of toilet paper, more for ritual than anything else, before deducing that no further work would be required on his part here. This was a fully automated affair.
He stood up, zipped his pants, and threw on the overstuffed backpack that held everything he'd saw fit to bring along.
In the mirror, he examined his own 6'1", string-bean physique. His straw-colored hair was greasy from too many hours of international travel. His sallow features, meanwhile, had been thinned out not just by the journey but the gnawing awareness of what had brought him here.
他 left the bathroom to meet up with 苦. Then they'd go find the train to take them to Shibuya. One way or another, they'd find K. And they'd find out what had happened to the man who'd once been their closest companion.
Pasmo. Suica. JR Yamanote. Fare adjustment.
Tiny bursts of Roman lettering, peppered and repeated along the corridors of the light rail station. He fumbled through the uncanny English-language version of the ticket dispenser's UI, depositing coins that felt like Chuck E. Cheese tokens into the slot when prompted. The traffic flow here was expert, fluid, routine. Again, he felt the paranoia of silent judgement. He took his ticket and in turn walked 苦 through the process.
苦 was the Hardy to 他's Laurel. He was moderately overweight by American standards, which set him far apart from the near-universally waifish men and women of Tokyo.
他 had read more than one account that described the experience of spending time in the city as being in a kind of perpetual low-level delusional state, and he was beginning to believe it. Sound, light, and motion—it all felt a half-second ahead of him, like his brain's throughput was insufficient to handle the incoming sensory data.
他 & 苦 passed through the station gates and headed in the direction of Shibuya. At their platform, they joined the single-file rider line already forming before the train, which wasn't yet in service. A cheery ringtone blared out over the PA, and a moment later, a train pulled into the station on the opposite side of the platform, coming to a precise stop in line with the queue indicators painted on the platform.
On their side, the train doors opened and let them on. 他 followed the locals ahead of him, and filed calmly into the cabin. Jitensha, his mind said. Train car. Or, no, wait, did that mean "bicycle?" Maybe he was thinking of densha. He couldn't remember.
He gave a little head nod to acknowledge 苦, who responded in kind. 他 grabbed ahold of a strap as the doors closed. Tsugi wa, Keikyu-Kamata desu. Then, in slow, precise English, The next station is Keikyu-Kamata.
The flatscreens built above the doors played a commercial for a product 他 couldn't identify. In it, a young woman with long, perfectly-coiffed hair ate ramen and smiled, content. But the text-heavy cutaway suggested it might be an ad for a domestic travel website. The next spot featured a different young woman with long, perfectly-coiffed hair who drank a cup of coffee and then smiled, content. This one actually turned out to be for a brand of coffee.
The other riders appeared to be working professionals, wearing suits and ties. Most did not have luggage with them, despite having arrived from the international terminal. Strange that it was almost 4 PM local time, and they looked like they were gearing up to head into the office.
他 became acutely aware that he might fall into that old trap: filtering his encounter with another culture through the prism of Orientalism, the paternalistic old chestnut that invariably led to terms like "inscrutable" and "mysterious." Surely there was a rationale to everything here. It was mundane to the people living it, judging by the disaffected neutral expression on each of their faces. 他 tried not to stare for too long at any one of them.
The train hit its next stop, and more people filed in. Still, it was quiet onboard. 他 had never been any place so quiet with so many people present. An executive in his sixties read a baseball manga, peering at its densely packed illustrations over the bridge of his glasses. A man in his twenties wore bright blue Converse with his stovepipe business suit, a tiny act of rebellion. He was hunched over a PS Vita, mashing buttons in what 他 could only imagine was some sort of tediously difficult real-time strategy game.
Tsugi wa, Shinagawa. Then, the recording announced something he couldn't totally parse, though he grasped that they were to transfer here for Shibuya. Best to get one of those Leeloo Dallas multipasses. They'd be riding a lot of the rails.
Shibuya Crossing is one of those things that seems at once greater than, and less than, what it has been made out to be. The Statue of Liberty is best appreciated while riding a free ferry to Staten Island at sunset. Like most paintings, distance is mandatory in order to "get" Lady Liberty in context. Likewise, it is entirely possible, while in a jet-lagged daze and with a hot shower as your singular objective, to participate in the largest and most curious traffic intersection in the world totally unaware. (If it's the middle of the day on a weekday and traffic flow isn't at its peak.)
From the vantage point of the high-rise Starbucks on the street corner, however, the improbable precision of the all-lights-red pedestrian scramble hit 他. That terrible, annoying tourist voice buzzed in his ear: "It's just like Lost in Translation!"
And yet, it was just like Lost in Translation. A thousand peopleーa conservative estimateーcrossed in all directions, to and from the station and into the avenues of the shopping district. And it was an intoxicating sight.
The delirium meter fills up just a bit. +2 points.
他 watched the traffic for several cycles. 苦 stood beside him and did the same. Neither of them said much, none of it of substance. They hadn't so much as uttered the name of K since they landed. Strange, considering that he was the reason they were both here.
Their mutual friend had disappeared into the concrete jungle six months ago and perhaps been swallowed up by...by what, exactly? The Japanese mafia? Fallen overboard into the harbor? Squashed by a giant cartoon robot?
From this vantage point, 他 couldn't decide whether the city looked totally gray, or hyper-saturated. It was both at the same time, he reasoned: the buildings were all post-war, vaguely Brutalist towers built on narrow plots that shot up ten floors or higher, but their concrete-and-glass skins were adorned with all manner of candy-colored signage and videowalls.
He finished the last of his coffee.
On the opposite side of the crossing, buried amongst the visual noise of the citizenry, 他 observed a solitary tree.
It was small, its own hue outshined by the hyper-real depictions of nature scenes in billboards and commercials all around it. But it was there. So easy to miss. It imparted some advice for 他 to hold true to, while on his hunt here in the city.
A worker exited a nearby shop and improbably, effortlessly picked up the tree. He carried it into the store.
他 realized it hadn't been a tree at allーjust a sandwich board with a picture of a tree on it, advertising more coffee.
他 tossed his cup into the garbage and told 苦 it was time to go. He needed that shower.