Next stop Ikebukuro: a “pond” in a “bag”

“Why on earth did you choose to stay in the countryside?” Of all the things people told me in Japan – compliments on my Japanese, as well as on my straight teeth – this was definitely one of the questions that struck me most during my years in Japan. Up until that moment, I wasn’t even aware that I was living in the countryside.


 

I had been living and working for a few months in Sendai, in the Tōhoku region, a city with a population of more than one million. Yet, whenever I traveled to Tokyo to visit my friends and told them I came from Sendai, their reaction was always the same: why did you decide to stay in the inaka (that is, the countryside), instead of the capital?

In retrospect, my “country outings” in the metropolitan area of Tokyo-Yokohama were a dive into hypermodernity in which I could see where the city began but never where it ended. Whenever I was in Tokyo I felt like the classic “country mouse” lost in the big city.

Everything looked so new, shiny and even exotic sometimes. Those skyscrapers, with their red flashing lights on their roofs that warn aircrafts of their presence, those signs written in Chinese characters…and, above all, a constantly moving crowd I wasn’t used to seeing.

In my Northern inaka, I lived right behind a grove, while right outside the city there were rice fields, hills covered with forests, snowy mountains, and onsen (bathing facilities and inns around a hot spring).

At the time, the moment the highway bus passed through Ikebukuro Station marked for me the end of the journey between those two different worlds. Several months later I found out the story behind that funny name that linked the word “pond” (ike) with the term “bag” (fukuro) (for those who are interested, here’s a post about the origin of the name)

Some time later, I found out through friends that there is a TV series set in that same district. The series – a mix of comedy, thriller and romance broadcast in 2000 – is called Ikebukuro West Gate Park. The main characters are boys who work part-time at a bowling alley or a 24/7 convenience store, street gangs that fight for control of the district, girls who approach men just to get free dinner or free karaoke, cops colluding with yakuza clans. I must admit that those weren’t exactly things I would have associated with my idea of Japan: a welcoming, neat and formal country. Behind that mask, something completely different was going on at the same time, and that TV series perfectly represented that gap.

(If you don’t really know what I’m talking about, take a look at that TV series. It can be found on YouTube with English subtitles; here’s the first episode)

…And a brief research on the internet was enough to show that Ikebukuro is so much more than that. The “ambient” mood of Brian Eno’s song “Ikebukuro” doesn’t fully capture the liveliness of the area.

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According to the data published by the Japanese Railways, over half a million people passed through Ikebukuro Station, making it the second busiest station in Tokyo (and in Eastern Japan), surpassed only by Shinjuku. The station is a crucial metropolitan railway junction for a constantly busy human traffic in Tokyo while being, at the same time, a district for shopping and leisure: shopping malls and amusement parks are indeed the real attraction of the area.

Theaters, universities and cultural attractions are not lacking either. In Western Ikebukuro, for example, still stands a building designed in 1921 by Frank Lloyd Wright, the Jiyū Gakuen Myōnichikan, literally “the House of Tomorrow”. The building complex was originally a school but is now a cultural center where concerts, conferences and lectures are held. Yet the underground dimension of Ikebukuro is present in real life too, and not just in TV series: the National Police Agency of Japan has disclosed that the district also serves as headquarters for the Kyokutō-kai, a yakuza organization with 1,200 active members.

Ikebukuro, which comprises so many varied worlds – from drama and anime’s pop culture to yakuza crime news – appealed to me as the most appropriate metaphor to talk about Japan. I tried to reveal the different levels hidden behind a single news: I tried to gather this “pond” of information in a “bag” of only a few hundred words.

 traduzione a cura di Sayuri Romei

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