This is somehow familiar, like watching my own movie. Once again I'm one of many on a cramped, neon-flooded street, staring at Japanese faces and smelling Japanese city: food, piss and exhaust.
Kabuki-cho in Shinjuku is lit like the rainbows in a puddle, thousands of restaurants packed into a few square blocks. I eat at a standing sushi restaurant appropriately named "Standing Sushi Restaurant." Instead of plates, they placed the sushi on long leaves.
Outside, glowing vertical signs climb the sides of buildings, advertising entertainment of every stripe. Hyperrealistic plastic food in store windows, women in doorways that spill red light.
"You wanna massage?" one asks me.
Maybe if you hadn't asked me in English, I want to growl at her. Being addressed in English irritates me. My English might be more expensive than your massage. But I walk on to the bus stop.
I'm returning to Osaka, my old home, for the first time in eight years. From my bus window I see passengers massed on the Shinjuku sidewalk. Behind them looms a half-finished rocket-like tower with latticed metal fins that run the height of its convex glass core. Banks of blue-white lights illuminate the site like a bomb blast on freeze-frame.
The bus eases through a Skyscraper District jammed with cars at midnight on a Tuesday. On a sidewalk, homeless man sweeps leaves into piles with his foot and kicks them into the bushes. Keeping Shinjuku beautiful.
And Shinjuku is beautiful. New Japanese Affluence is visible on an unimaginable scale in Tokyo. Artfully-designed towers rise every year, all black marble and potted trees. I teach so many rich men at work that it's easy to imagine Japan is all owners, financiers, hipster ad men, fashion magazine editors.
But beneath these people crouch the less-fortunate, who unquestioningly perform drudgery for twelve hours a day because Japan needs them to do it. Millions live in tenement hives in distant, inconvenient semi-suburbs. Inequality seems inevitable. Someone must commute two hours to sweep these marble sidewalks blurring past.
Storefronts line the street. A clothing store called Second House, with a neon sign that says I (HEART) NY MORE THAN EVER. A restaurant called Casa Brillante. Mercedes Benz dealer. Yanase, whose purpose I can only guess at. Bar Recover, in the basement of an apartment building. In fifteen minutes I have passed more apartments then exist in all of Minneapolis.
There are kilometers of road work. From an overpass I look down into a ravine-like street strung with blue Christmas lights. Tokyo doesn't flow like Minneapolis, which is to say reasonably straight and predictable. It's all switchbacks, curves, splits, shortcuts, overpasses, underpasses, footbridges, deadends, one-ways, alleys, suballeys, untersuballeys, walkways, crawlways.
I wonder what neighborhood I'm in. There's a Honda dealer in a Greek-looking building. Eneos Gas Station. More construction. Hello Storage's waving disembodied hand logo. Denso. Vending machines vending machines vending machines. A sudden rash of Japanese restaurants: udon, soba, soba, udon. Pippini Italian Restaurant. A bar with wooden screens over the windows. Natural Lawson, an all-organic convenience store.
We're on an overpass again, this time over a second overpass. We've been passing road work for twenty minutes now, and we're not driving slowly. Road cones are a bright orange, illuminated from within. I imagine Japanese construction warehouses in the off-season: twenty thousand cones stacked tidily on polished floors.
In a city this size no one can win. There's always a nicer apartment or a better restaurant. No one can pass the entire highway. In Minneapolis I had a sense that there was a top to rise to, but that sense is gone now.
We're seven stories above the ground on an elevated highway. A red sea strobes before me, hundreds of buildings tipped with blinking red lights for aviation safety. A lonely white tower flicks past and on the top floor I see two Budweiser signs that match the red points. Anonymous, imagined strangers sit in that bar, discussing trivialities that will never be resolved.
In this huge pond there's always a bigger fish. Excellence is more commonplace, magnetically attracted to wealth and status. Minneapolis was more black and white, good and bad, wrong and right, in and out. People could agree on some things. But group consensus is impossible when the group is this large. It's impossible to get any sense of unanimity. I can only do what I think is best, which is what I should have been doing anyway.
Everyone in the bus is sleeping but I am wide awake. I should be tired, I suppose. All in good time.