The Floating World

The language of Brotherly Love in the heart of Japan.

By G.W. Miller III
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Aug. 13, 2008

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There are now around 13 million people crammed into Tokyo, with more than 30 million in the metropolitan area.

They've mastered the ability to live en masse. You can ride the subway during morning rush hour and be so packed in that you're lifted off your feet. You won't fall down, and you won't get pick-pocketed.

It's a humbling experience.

We take the train to the Harajuku neighborhood to visit the shrine dedicated to the emperor who ushered Japan into the modern world in the late 19th century. The traditional shrine with 100-feet tall entry gates is set back in a dense forest. Thousands of people reverently march in near silence. The only sounds I hear are the shuffling of feet across the gravel path and the high-pitched buzzing of cicadas.

Immediately outside the park grounds, however, Harajuku becomes the raucous center of youth culture. Hyper-techno J-Pop blares from stores selling the latest fashions, teenagers squeal into cell phones, and street hawkers badger pedestrians to eat in their restaurants.

Some teens wear pastel dresses and blond wigs like anime characters, and others sport pink, spiked hair. There are Goths and kids with dreads, a few hipsters and a bunch of Paris Hilton wannabes--young girls in short, frilly dresses and oversized sunglasses, some with trucker hats on backward.

"In Tokyo, there's a scene for everything," says Mari Saito, a 20-year old Tokyo native who went to high school in New Zealand, attended Temple University in Japan for one year and now studies at the North Philly campus.

Saito escorts us to a store called Love Me Tender that features a life-sized bronze of the King in his Sun Records-era heyday. Inside, they sell old Elvis 45s, Elvis suits, Elvis movies and countless other Elvis collectibles.

On Sundays, the various subcultures crowd nearby Yoyogi Park.

"There are different groups of everything out there," Matt Hein tells me. "There are these rockabilly guys who sit around with their hair all slicked up and a bottle of Jack Daniels at their side. Every once and a while, they'll get up and dance to old Elvis songs."

Looking at them, you'd think it was 1956 all over again.

"Everyone will do their best to do their scene," Matt says. "You know--they're Japanese. They'll study the stuff and perfect it."

Tokyo is a dizzying place of dichotomies. Salarymen--office slaves who work 12-hour days--ride the subway reading sexually explicit manga. Electronic chirping bird sounds are piped into concrete subway tunnels. Rebellion only surfaces in a pack mentality.

"The surreal has become my everyday life," says Jon Cascarella, a South Jersey native and Drexel grad who moved to Japan 15 years ago.

You get used to seeing people who "GOT JIGGY WITH IT" walking past ancient-looking buildings.

"After six months," says Fishtown native Chris Brzozowski, a 16-year resident of Japan, "you'll want to stay here forever."

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