The white plate costs 200 yen. Yellow, 180. Red, 250.
I look around and see people around me sitting on round stools, slouching over their plate, their chopsticks moving effortlessly, like they have a mind of their own. There is a buzz around the place, but strangely no one seem to be talking. The workstation of the chefs is in the middle of the conveyor belt circuit. They make an oblong rice ball, put a piece of raw fish on top, pat it with their fingers to give it the sushi shape and then it goes on a coloured plate. They do it quietly, expertly, with no wasteful movements. The looks of concentration on their faces not only shows how disciplined there are but also how seriously they take their jobs.
The lady next to me has built up quite a stack of plates. Red, white, yellow.. there is even a brown one that I do not see on the menu. I watch as she picks up a round rice thing with something red in the middle, wrapped in seaweed and puts the whole thing in her mouth. All at once. No half measures.
I pick up a yellow plate from the conveyor belt, nervously. A couple of tuna sushi. This is going to be my first sushi, ever.
I later find out that the sushi she is having is called a maki. What I have is a nigiri. A dab of wasabi on it, and it is ready.
“Okay, here goes.”
I pick up a piece gingerly with my chopsticks, dip it a little in the soy sauce before putting it in my mouth. The wasabi goes straight into my nostrils and the vinegared rice combined with the soy sauce turns my mouth sour. But the surprise element was the slab of fish, which I thought I will hate. Sure, the texture was a little unfamiliar but I liked it.
I pop in the other one. Now that I know what to expect, it tastes even better.
Few plates later, I signal the waitress that I was done. She came out, counted the plates and presented the bill.
These conveyer belt sushi places are all over Japan and are not regarded as the best sushis. But, when the wallet is a little light, these places do not seem such a bad idea.
I walk out the automated doors and leave the air-conditioned confines to step back out to the city. Neon lights of the night had transformed the hardcore workers’ city to somewhat of a spectacle.
The sidewalks are busy with people heading home from work. The top buttons of their shirt undone, ties a little loose around their neck. Yes, it has been a hard day. A long day.
You see them in the small bars around the darker corners of the district. Sitting with a bottle of Asahi or sake, a cigarette dangling from the corner of their lips, their eyes staring into their phones, while the chef cooks up little bite sized pieces of chicken over a charcoal grill, and slathers it with different spices and sauces. His genius goes largely unnoticed by the patrons of the establishment.
To their defence however, chances are that they have spent most of their lives in Japan, a country that redefines the word “cool” every single day. And with some much “cool” all around, they are probably jaded and have found refuge in the flashy screens of their modern gadgets.
I, on the other hand, am new here. My first night in Japan. I had dreamt of walking around the streets of Tokyo ever since I watched Lost in Translation.
And now, as I am realising that dream, I wonder how could the main characters of the movie been so bored in a city this exciting? Why were they cooked up in their fancy Park Hyatt hotel when they could have gone out and seen the Ueno Park or Senso-Ji temple. They could have had a delicious bowl of ramen soup, with slices of beef on the side. Maybe with an egg on top. They could have gone to the Tsukiji market early in the morning and watched the tuna auction. They could have gone to Akihabara to see people dressed as anime characters.
Or they could have just taken a walk around the streets of Tokyo and let the energy of the city slowly take over.
I would walk for hours if I could but I am a little tired from the flight. And its late. 1 AM, the clock on my phone tells me. I need to go to my coffin sized capsule bed soon. I also want to take a relaxing bath at the Sento upstairs. Maybe even check out the comic book library on the fourth floor.
And then, maybe, just maybe.. catch a few hours sleep.
Shinjuku, however, is an insomniac. The video game parlour doesn’t shut down. Nor does, by the look of it, the “naughty” clubs of Kabukicho. The music coming from different establishments, combined with the noise of traffic, fills the air with a strange pulse that will not let you leave. FOMO is real here.
I guess that is the case with the people crowding the sidewalks, shopping, having a drink, laughing. Seriously, who are these people and why aren’t they going home?
Do they not realise that it is a week night and they need to go to work in the morning? Sir, are you sure you want to enter that sake bar at 1 knowing you have an important presentation at 9? Or what about that report that your boss was asking for? It is not going to make itself!
All around are signboards, written in Japanese, lighting up the dark night. The colourful characters reminding me that I am far away from home. Some of them are cool while others are just plain out weird. I don’t know what they are trying to sell.
The bald guy with a dazed look on his face, for example. Looks like he has been punched in his face a few times. He is drooling and his nose is running. Why did Club Hatch make this advertisement and what are they trying to say?
And then, there is the Godzilla, peeking over the glass buildings. Its eyes, blood red.
The Shinjuku station is a small city in itself. There is always an endless stream of people, going in and coming out. It is home to numerous shops, bakeries, book stores and restaurants. One of its many corridors lead you to Ramen Street, which arguably serves the best ramen in the world.
Just at the corner of Kabukicho is a restaurant specialising in takoyaki balls. I watch as the staff rotate the balls, one after the other, in the moulded pan. Once the wheat flour based balls are crispy on the outside, they add some takoyaki sauce, mayonnaise and a sprinkle of seaweed.
As I chew through it, the crispy outside gives way to the gooey inside. In the middle of it, is a piece of octopus. It literally burns the insides of my mouth, but it is sinfully delicious.
Sentos, the public bath houses of Japan, can be a bit of a culture shock for visitors. You first enter the locker area, where you take off all your clothes and lock them up. Then you enter the shower area to clean yourself. Then comes the pools of different temperatures and the saunas. You feel strange at first, but it gets easier.
You see others sitting in the pool, talking to each other or watching soaps on TV. Extreme consciousness subsides as you realise being au naturel in these places is not a big deal. This is how the locals rejuvenate after a hard day. And as weird as it sounds, as you step out of the Sento, you feel the Japanese are onto something. They may have cracked the code to relaxation.
The comic book library on the fourth floor is a bit odd. I do not see kids, but adults reading manga comics, while drinking Chu-hi. They are on the couch, on the floor, in the smoking area, with these comics in their hands. I walk to the shelf and pick up a comic with a samurai on the cover.
Flipping through the pages, I see the samurai going on a rampage. In one picture, his sword impales a hideous beast in the chest; a fountain of blood turning the page red while in the background, a lady chows down on a bowl of noodles. Not giving a fuck.
I wish I knew what this was about.
At 3.30 am, I decide to call it a night. The capsule bed looks comfortable, but I wonder if it will be suffocating inside. I enter the capsule, careful not to bang my head on the metal wall. The ceiling is so low that I cannot even sit up straight. Thankfully, the air conditioner works.
I turn the lights off and am instantly engulfed in impenetrable darkness.
As tired as I am, I lie in my capsule with my eyes open, finding it hard to fall asleep, knowing that there is so much going on outside. There is so much to see. So much to do. So much to taste. After all the crazy sights, sounds and smells of Shinjuku, this sudden isolation is strangely unnerving.
The eerie quietness is punctuated only by the sound of a man’s muffled cries, coming from a capsule down the corridor. His cries a reminder that underneath the glamour of flashy hoardings, modern gadgets and fast trains, is a city inhabited by real people with real emotions.
I lie there, listening to him, until I finally fall asleep.