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13 September, 2005

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This is the "Bladerunner" alley in Shinjuku where there are a bunch of tiny food places, all of which have incredible atmosphere.


It's strange where familiar images pop up.


Along another narrow alley, all kinds of tiny bars exist.


And if you make your way inside one, you'll instantly feel like you're part of a family.


It's traditional for customers to mark their bottles here.

13 September, 2005

Day 59. I think I truly witnessed magic tonight in Tokyo. It being my last day here, I really wanted it to be somewhat memorable. Unfortunately I also had to scramble in order to get things done before I left. Not having any net access at all for the next ten days meant that I really had to be completely finished with issue stuff, radio research, email correspondence, and any web updates since it was all about to be put on hold. The irony was that I wouldn't really have anything to worry about while on the Pacific. It almost sounded like a vacation.

But I wasn't about to let work dictate all of my activities. Dave had been exploring the city intensely and I was envious. So I contacted someone in the city who had been referred to us by someone else in the States. Actually, I should explain how *that* came about because it's rather interesting. Last night when we returned to our hotel room we discovered a fax had been slid under our door. It was a letter from one of our listeners back home who was recommending that we contact a friend of his in Tokyo named Tomoko who would be able to show us some parts of town that we probably had missed. It was exactly what we wanted to do so I left his friend a message and sent email, hoping to hear back from her before our time ran out. The interesting part of all this was trying to figure out how in the world this guy in the States had tracked us down to convey this message. We were both pretty impressed. Did he call every hotel in Tokyo or have access to some sort of master database? Or perhaps he simply thought like I did and reached the same inevitable conclusion as to the best place to stay. What I finally realized was that he must have listened to the most recent "Off The Hook" and heard my hotel being called live on the air. To all of us, the hotel name sounded completely incomprehensible when the operator picked up. But to someone who understood Japanese, it was a smoking gun. Still, it was pretty cool to just get a message like that out of the blue.

Late in the morning I got a phone call from Tomoko, who said she'd be able to meet us sometime after 5:30 when she got off of work. That gave me the time to finish the loose ends I had to tie up before going out. I also got a call from the freighter people who told me I had to be at the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau at 3:30 tomorrow. It was all coming together.

I got in contact with Tomoko shortly after 5:30 and we settled on a place to meet up. But I had to somehow convey this information to Dave who was wandering around Tokyo somewhere and had just gotten off the phone with me a couple of seconds before Tomoko called me back. I guess this was the flipside of my earlier tirade about making plans with people who didn't have phones. This time I was the one who didn't have a phone (not a mobile anyway) and I was going to attempt to meet up with two people, one of whom *also* didn't have a phone. But I wasn't worried... until half an hour went by and I still hadn't heard back from Dave. Tomoko was waiting at Shinjuku station and I had to somehow convey that to Dave which was very difficult when neither of us had a phone. So I figured if I left a message with the front desk of our hotel, they would hopefully give it to him when he finally did call. You would not believe how incredibly complicated that became. It was like a Monty Python sketch.

"Would you please give this message to Dave when he calls this room number?"

"Dave?"

"Yes."

"You are Dave."

"No, I'm *leaving* this for Dave. He should call this phone number (Tomoko's mobile) when he calls here."

"Who is Tomoko?"

"We're meeting her. That doesn't matter. Please just give him the message."

"Give Tomoko - "

"No, Dave."

"Who are you?"

Well, by the time we got it sorted, about ten minutes had gone by so I really felt the need to get to the station so Tomoko wouldn't waste her entire evening standing around. I was starting to have a bad feeling that Dave wouldn't get the message and I couldn't think of any other ways to get his attention. I got to the station and looked for someone matching the description Tomoko had given me. Lots and lots of people racing by but no hits. Well, this was great. I was spending my last evening in Tokyo watching a bunch of strangers running around in a train station while my friend was probably having just as much fun trying to figure out where the hell I was. Not quite what I had in mind.

After scanning everyone in the vicinity I figured the best thing to do would be to call Tomoko's mobile from a payphone. The first phone I found said I had to deposit coins or a card. Well, I didn't have a card and the phone didn't even have a coin slot. Not good. I found another style of phone that did take coins but Tomoko's number wasn't going through. Every time I called I would get some sort of recording and my money would come back. Since this had happened when I had called her before, I figured she was just out of range. So I stood there for the next 15 minutes or so trying over and over again, at the same time trying to see if either she or Dave were passing by. I didn't dare call the hotel to see if Dave had left me a message because they would probably give the message I left for Dave to me and then not give it to him. The evening was starting to have disaster written all over it.

Finally I was able to reach Tomoko from the payphone. But it was a bad connection and we had trouble understanding each other. There seemed to be some confusion over where the shuttle had dropped me off. Tomoko was somewhere in the station. She suggested we meet at the department store entrance and I said I was right by the one downstairs where the shuttle and taxis were. I wasn't sure if she understood where I was but I knew moving around and trying to find other department store entrances would probably ensure that we missed each other. So I kept my fingers crossed and waited. After another 20 minutes had gone by I figured this was probably not going to work out. So I made a vow to get back on the shuttle that would be leaving in another 25 minutes. I only hoped that I would at least be able to track down Dave. Yeah, I know it was a mistake to make plans without having a phone. But it was either that or don't make any plans. It was a chance I took and sometimes chances just don't go your way.

And then with less than three minutes to go before the shuttle left, I suddenly spotted Dave heading in my direction. He had figured out where I was. And he was with someone who matched Tomoko's description. And I knew at that moment that things like this only happen when it's going to be a great evening.

How the mixup happened doesn't matter. It's a one word answer anyway: Shinjuku.

The first thing I wanted to do was get food since all that waiting around had made me grow faint. I had also just plunged into doing work after waking up so I would have been starving anyway. After everyone was introduced, I asked Tomoko if she knew of a place nearby with decent food, perhaps a place we hadn't yet been to. And as any self-respecting Tokyo native would, she did. We were led to an extremely narrow alley with tiny restaurants on both sides, each with an L-shaped seating arrangement around the front counter. This was the famous "Bladerunner" row which supposedly inspired the well known set in the movie. I had been looking for this along with other people we had been hanging out with and here it was. We walked up and down it a few times but all of the places were full, not a particularly hard feat if your entire seating capacity was six. I was quite content however to just be on that street, relishing the sights and the mood. If we did nothing else, this would have been a cool way to end my stay here.

But we wound up doing quite a bit more. Tomoko got one of the places to squeeze in an extra chair and we wound up at a really nice place that served a variety of small dishes. And one of them was the ever elusive horse sashimi. There it was, just sitting there on the menu after Dave and I had been looking for it for days. This was clearly a sign.

So yeah, we all ate horse sashimi. We had to try it, after all. And it was pretty damn good. So we got several more dishes of it. And it remained good. We got rid of any moral dilemmas we were clinging on to and had a great time.

But the night was still young. We strolled around the area a bit and learned a few pieces of trivia about Tokyo from Tomoko. We decided it was time to do some filming for "Speakers' World" and so we got Tomoko to answer some questions. Then we tried to get some passersby to also participate. We picked a small street at random and looked for potential people. It took a while but Tomoko managed to get a businessman to answer our questions. And after he was done, he seemed to want to stick around. As it turned out, he had some film and broadcast connections in both Japan and the States. He seemed very curious and sociable even though he didn't speak English. I had almost gotten used to this sort of thing.

He then offered to bring us to a better place where we could meet more people. It sounded good. And so we all walked through a maze of little streets into a part of Shinjuku we hadn't been to before. Both Dave and I wondered if we were being set up somehow. Even if we were, I figured, it would be an interesting experience. But that was just our suspicious New York nature speaking. While you would hesitate to be led by a stranger back home into dark alleys and questionable establishments, here this was what you did if you wanted to witness a part of the culture.

And so, mere meters away from the busiest train station in the world, we found ourselves in a narrow series of streets with peacefully sleeping cats and a distinctive buzz in the air. He described the neighborhood to us through Tomoko as a kind of a Greenwich Village. His words. It was perfect. He brought us into a bar where he told us his friends hung out. It was another of these super tiny establishments. Eight people would be a crowd. There were bottles of alcohol with the names of regular customers written on them. You buy your bottle and it's there for you when you need it. Pictures and memorabilia of all sorts adorned the walls. The bartender was a middle aged woman with a funky hat and a hardened yet sweet disposition.

The businessman treated us as if we were guests in his home. He made sure everyone was given drinks. He went out to a vending machine to buy Cokes when the bar didn't have any. And whenever one of them was in danger of running out, he would go somewhere else and get another one, each time a little bigger and each time apparently a little further away judging by the amount of time it took him to get back. He kept refilling beer glasses and ordering more bottles whenever one would run low. I remembered the rule about how your glass would keep getting refilled if you kept finishing what was in it so I made a conscious effort to leave it full when I had had enough. Suddenly little pizza slabs appeared from the toaster oven in the back. Now it was the bartender's turn to show her generosity.

Tomoko and the businessman had both spent some time in New York. We very quickly started to reminisce about our favorite places there and it was quite stunning how many of them we shared. Everything from restaurants to grocery stores to sake bars. The businessman had even stayed in the Hotel Pennsylvania! The language barrier meant nothing here. We walked into a bar with this guy and it was instant friends and family. I had heard of this sort of thing but had never expected to have it unfold in front of me through such a fantastic series of chance events and encounters. The guy wound up paying for all of us and made us feel extremely welcome.

We interviewed the bartender for the movie and said our goodbyes as the time of the last train approached. I felt like I had been through a most remarkable experience and had somehow been part of a very human encounter. Would such a thing be possible in New York? Of course! But would we be able to shake our hesitancy and suspicions? I think if we believe in magic, we're going to have to.