Sometimes, when you spend a lengthy period of time exclusively with one person, you start developing your own language, made of jokes and references that only you two, thanks to your common experience, can understand.
This was the case of my first visit to Japan, when – amongst many other things – we’d come up with the idea that all the country had to do in order to adhere to the greenhouse emission limits set by the Kyoto protocol, was to switch off one neon tube every three in its shops, pachinko arcades and districts such as Akihabara. Or turning off the lampposts in Shibuya, for they clearly weren’t needed.
Shibuya, Roppongi, Akihabara, and even the often tired-looking Shinjuku looked exotic to us, remote and alien. There were youngsters, over there, with hairdos that defied gravity and the basic law of physics; tan foundation and white eyeliner were all the rage for males and girls didn’t think anything wrong about hanging around with miniskirts that struggled to cover even the end of their bums. Neon lights shimmered into our wide open eyes, jaws scratching on the floor.
I returned to Shibuya crossing to find it relatively unchanged. The giant screens still broadcasted noisy J-pop videos of groups that had an English name and all the rest in Japanese. The adverts were quite the same, with Tommy Lee Jones still looking quite pissed about the fact of earning millions to borrow his snout to Suntory.
The neon lights were still there, even though they were being increasingly substituted with LEDs – more economical, granted, but possibly a lot brighter – but nonetheless blinking with some sort of familiarity. Welcome back, they seemed to say.
I ventured deeper into the streets as the night grew darker. Clubs begun opening, music became more fast-paced, thongs of youngsters began cruising along the pedestrian streets. I even spotted a Straight outta Shibuya sign, printed on a billboard the size of a building.
Yet, despite all its outlandish looks and atmosphere, Shibuya – and Roppongi, and Akihabara – were still Japan, a place where everyone bowed to each other in shops, orderly queues spontaneously formed almost everywhere, and were all the plights of modern metropolises (drugs, alcohol, violence, weapons) were as alien as the looks of the happy, polite strolling around Shibuya crossing.