Tokyo Daddy Issues: In Search of the Empty City

Something magical happens in Tokyo during the days preceding Golden Week. Food and the weather are replaced as the top small-talk topics by one question, and one question only: “So, are you folks going somewhere for Golden Week?”

This year, I always answered truthfully: “No, we were too lazy to book early and too poor to book late.”

The reaction I usually got was a tiny, almost unnoticeable flicker of pity on the other’s face, followed by the consolation prize: “Lucky you! You can enjoy Tokyo being quiet and empty for a change.”

The unproven claim that Tokyo is “quiet and empty” during Golden Week quickly went into my pet peeves phrasebook. Right next to: “Tokyo is not really a city, you know, but a collection of villages.” That might be true. Just as it is true for any other city above a certain age and size anywhere in the world, rendering the statement somewhat meaningless.

If I had a ten-yen coin for every time I heard those phrases… then I still wouldn’t be rich, but I would certainly have a lot of change. Surely, during the holidays many Tokyoites flee the city for the countryside or foreign shores. On the other hand, I reasoned, Tokyo is a tourist destination itself so a lot of Japanese will leave their small towns and (actual) villages behind to get a taste (quite literally, in most cases) of urban adventure.

During Golden Week, the villages of Tokyo might be filled with different people, yet I considered it a bit too optimistic to assume that the total number would drop much, especially with the exciting goings-on at the Imperial Palace this year.

Showing Nerves at Oktoberfest

Part of me wanted to believe, though. Right at the beginning of Golden Week, I snatched my wife and our four-year-old daughter Hana, declaring: “It’s April already! High time to go to Oktoberfest!” The Daiba Oktoberfest, that is; traditionally the first of Tokyo’s about 20 official and unofficial Oktoberfests, most of them not being anywhere near October.

I lived in Munich for almost 20 years. I love the city (which is only a collection of villages, really), and I love beer (just typing the word makes me salivate). Getting drunk, however, I find is for amateurs. So, I always steered clear off the long, dark amateur hour that is the Munich Oktoberfest, except when employers or out-of-town visitors made me go.

I am not sure what frequently makes me go in Tokyo, occasionally dragging others with me. Is it homesickness, or irony, or homesickness disguised as irony? Maybe it’s merely that the sanitized, Japanized version is more civilized than the original.

Civilized it may have been, yet so crowded that we didn’t stay much longer than five minutes. My first impulse is to blame Hana getting nervous, but that wasn’t the whole truth. Shifting the blame to my wife’s nervousness about our daughter’s nervousness is also not entirely fair. It was more me being nervous that my wife might get nervous about Hana getting nervous. The least nervous person in that scenario was Hana.

Accompanied by two nervous adults, however, she wasn’t going to have much fun. It didn’t help that there was also a meat festival and a pudding festival nearby. No food item goes without a festival here. Ironically, it’s impossible to get any food under these circumstances; endless lines everywhere.

We ended up at a McDonald’s off the beaten track. It was my first visit to one of their restaurants since the ’90s (yes, I felt a certain sensation of forbidden pleasure), and it turned out to be Hana’s one takeaway from the holidays. Somebody will ask her: “What did you do in Golden Week?” And she will say: “We went to McDonald’s!” Parents of the year.

No Love for Thomas the Train

We did go to other places, too, though. To the movies, for instance. Or rather my wife took Hana to watch the latest adventure of Thomas the Tank Engine. I accompanied them to Ikebukuro, yet I excused myself from watching the film, looking for a café to do some work instead. I really dislike Thomas.

I loved learning about the rich Anpanman universe when Hana was younger. I enjoy figuring out the complex relationships and conflicts of My Little Pony (yes, I’m becoming a Brony). But slapping a face on a train and calling it a character? Lazy.

I didn’t get much work done. I was mostly busy searching for a café with even a single free seat. When we met up again for lunch, Hana said: “I cried, because I missed you!” My wife corrected: “She cried, because she wanted to get out. Turns out, she is not a big fan of Thomas.” That made me feel even closer to my daughter, if that is at all possible.

Despite it being well before reasonable lunchtime, most restaurants already boasted long waiting lists. We had to settle for a Ginza Lion outlet. My problem with that chain is not so much that its culinary offerings seem to be the very definition of so-so. Worse are our own embarrassing memories.

When we went once in a larger group of parents and kids, the children wrecked that place so completely inside and out (no display of plastic food left unturned) that we were banned from ever returning to the premises. We had a system of the adults taking turns reigning in the little ones, but somewhere along the line the system must have failed, and nobody noticed until the damage was done. Whenever we enter a Ginza Lion now, I expect to see a poster with a mugshot of Hana along with warnings in red and many exclamation marks.

Towards the end of Golden Week, we met a friend in Hibiya. There happened to be an event called Viking Park, but it was too crowded to figure out what exactly it entailed. In a less crowded space (still more crowded than on a regular weekday), I asked our friend: “So, did you folks go anywhere for Golden Week?”

She said: “No, we just enjoyed the city being quiet and empty for a change.” I explained: “Well, Tokyo is not really a city, you know? It’s a collection of villages. I guess some villages are quieter and emptier than others.”

This year, I simply failed to find them.

Feature image: Shibuya Crossing | Shutterstock

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