Tokyo, Japan Pod Life

Checking into my capsule hotel involved an elaborate sequence of rituals, each of which I managed to botch up terribly.

The shoes, I learned the hard way, come off immediately upon entering. There are hundreds of tiny lockers off to the side. You put them in an empty one and remove the key.

Hand the key in at the desk and fork over the $40. In return, they’ll give you a manila envelope and a second key for a larger locker. The second key is attached to a wearable rubber wrist band. The shoe locker key, your passport, and any other valuables go in the envelope. They rip off a claim tag so you can get it back, then you go to your locker, take off all your clothes, put them inside, and remove the beige robes waiting for you at the bottom.

The larger locker is still only hand-width — nowhere near big enough for luggage. That goes in a room behind the front desk. They give you another claim tag for it.

Once fleeced of all your belongings, you can make your way to your 6′ by 3′, sound-proofed capsule dwelling.

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I love it in here. Mostly because I get to pretend I’m on a spaceship.

It’s not claustrophobic at all. It triggers something in my brain that makes me revert to fetal mode. They do a pretty good job of simulating it, except with a television and clock radio conveniently molded into the tissue lining.

There are numerous communal facilities to enjoy. The men-only policy gives it a feel that’s somewhere between gentlemen’s club, military barracks, and ant colony. All the tables in the restaurant are one-seat, facing several giant televisions against the wall. There’s a vaguely non-chaste massage parlor filled with perky young women. The internet lounge is handy and free.

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That sign on the wall there is too blurry to read. It warns that you must, at all costs, avoid the urge…

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…to smork.

The open-air baths — now that’s a site to see: naked Japanese men running around everywhere, some crouching in booths to splash water on their armpits and genitals.

I need a shower badly, but I dare not engage in the Japanese equivalent. It’s not modesty that gives me pause — no, I’m unashamed of what I have to display — it’s the constant, looming fear of gross impropriety.

Reading my guidebook’s list of do’s and don’ts filled me with dread. God forbid I should leave chopsticks standing upright in a rice bowl. Evidently there’s no atoning for that insult. And what if spring allergies should force me to blow my nose in public? An unspeakable act, I’m told. I don’t even want to speculate on what offenses I could issue by plunging my naked gaijin ass into a public pool.

These etiquette fears were borne out at dinner an hour ago. I caved to my sushi urge, and at the end of the meal asked, as I often do at home, for a bowl of rice to finish off my appetite. This set the sushi chefs stirring for the rest of the night. They closed the place down still gabbing about what in the world I could have been thinking to make such an inappropriate request.

I’m going to savor my hunger while I’m here. It’s something I must dispense with carefully, cause there’s only so much I can eat in four days. My tragedy is knowing I’m not going to eat this well again for the rest of my trip — at least until Italy, maybe.

My appreciation for Japanese food doesn’t extend to the culture in general. In my line of work, familiarity with its quirks is unavoidable. I find it charming from a distance, but I’m not beguiled by Sailor Moon and Cowboy Bebop like so many of my erstwhile videogame-geek colleagues. My fever, if I have one, is not yellow.

The peculiar interests and habits of the Japanese are well-documented and I won’t dwell on them here, but I think what distinguishes these folks above all else is the unbridled enthusiasm with which they approach everything. If they’re into it, they’re into it all the way. No kidding around. No looking back. There doesn’t seem to be any separation between mere interest and fetish. And the fetishes are legion.

Even things like disenfranchisement and apathy are approached with absolute dedication. The homeless have read all the magazines on how to dress, smell, and behave like homeless, and they’re committed to simulating it as accurately as possible.

I haven’t explored the city much yet, but I’m already having to dull my sensors for all things videogame and comic book-related. My standard practice is to doggedly pursue any hint of either thing. If I did that here, I’d never make it a block.

I arrived here a few hours ago on a direct flight from Seattle, and find myself immediately, hopelessly, unavoidably immersed.

Backing up a bit, my four-day stay in Seattle was frantic and brief. I had enough time to drop off the little lady, see my family a bit, do my taxes (well, start them at least), reinstall windows, run a few errands, and then I was back on a plane for another two months.

I think it was a good idea to visit home at the halfway point of the trip, but I’m still not sure. It was bittersweet and I felt like a ghost most of the time — a reminder at best. It’s hard for people to reconnect when they know you’ll be gone as soon as their back is turned, and it’s hard for me to connect, period.

Talked to my dad on the phone. Asked if he saw the Good Morning America appearance. He said he thought Diane Sawyer was very articulate and did a great job. No, seriously. That was his response. If there was humor to his words, it eluded him.

The weather in Seattle was grim. It’s that time of year now. On the trip, when people ask us where we’re from, we always hear this:

"Seattle? Oh, yes. Rain!"

But it’s not the rain, folks. It’s the gray. I’ve said it before. It’s the gray.

By the time I’m back again, the cloud will have lifted. I look forward to that.

For my flight out, I sat next to an 83-year-old veteran from Eastern Washington who served in Tokyo at the end of WWII. He was assigned to guard the German embassy until its occupants could be shipped back to Germany. He’d come over from Europe where he served in the infantry, crossing through France into Dusseldorf and then sieging a small town near the border with Czechoslovakia.

His unit spent most of the war lost. Everyone was lost all the time, he said. The Germans removed all the signs and the maps were inaccu rate, so they just wandered around hoping to stay alive. The town they attacked — they completely missed where they were ordered to go. They only found it by accident, approaching from the rear at night, inadvertantly bypassing all the German defenses and taking the town without firing a shot.

It was an honor to meet him and get to listen to his stories. So much of an honor that I let him jab me in the ribs with his elbow while he read his book…for the first five hours. After that I sealed off the border and fortified my position until landing.

Anyway, here I am, exhausted, jet-lagged, eyes bloodshot, in this tiny little spaceship pod with chemically sanitized sheets and ionized air.

And now I will sleep the sleep of insect larvae.