Fear and Self-Loathing in Tokyo
I looked down to see my phone submerged in the squat toilet. Through hazy eyes, I could see its top protruding from the water. The sun had set eight hours ago, but the air was thick and my fringe stuck to my sweaty forehead. I tried to steady myself against the wall. Hesitating momentarily, I reached into the toilet. I wiped my phone on my jeans and walked out of the public toilet on to the emptying street in Koenji.
It was sometime between last and first train, so the street was occupied almost solely by couples who were hurrying off to love hotels. As we walked back to the party, I ranted to my two friends about how glad I was that I didn’t have an IPhone or a Samsung because my phone only cost $150 (actually $350), how I’d had my phone for ages (literally two weeks) and how people who paid for insurance were stupid and wasting money (this was my fourth phone in six months). My phone seemed to work barely, so I kept sending Snapchats desperate for people to know how fun and interesting my life was. As the night progressed, I could no longer see the videos I was taking through the flickering of my phone screen.
So that’s how I ended up with no phone in Tokyo. Given my track record with phones, I decided not buy a new one and opted to leave mine turned off in bag of panko crumbs for a week and hope for the best. Yeah – panko, not rice, because I was too drunk to find rice in Japan.
I thought if I travelled without a phone I was going to get lost and experience something transformative. Well, look, I’m not saying that can’t happen, but that wasn’t my experience. In my week without a phone in Tokyo, surprisingly I didn’t get lost once and I guess I did learn a lot. Just not about Tokyo.
On my first day without a phone, I ventured out of the hotel pretty apprehensive about my lack of maps or Google translate. My Japanese was basic at best. I got on the train and went to put my earphones in before quickly realising no phone meant no music. I loved listening to music on public transport, and at times, given the way my brain works, it was almost necessary. I sat silently, scratching the train seat with my index finger.
I looked at the boy sitting across from me; he was probably six and had bandages on his legs. But really futuristic netted bandages. I’d never seen anything like them. The woman next to him was in a kimono. On the other side, a man was asleep with his suitcase in front of him. I guess he was going to the airport.
Shit, I thought. What if my phone isn’t fixed by the time I get on the plane? Actually, I think I left my passport at 7/11.
I wonder if it’s safe to leave an international adaptor plugged into a wall. Surely not? Tatami is almost certainly flammable. My whole room will be on fire when I get back.
It’s so hot. How are my legs so itchy?
By the time I got off the train at Ueno Park, my cheeks were flushed and my nails were jagged. I took a deep breath and headed to the lake where there were swan paddle boats for hire. But they were shut. I guess it was after 5pm. I needed to buy a watch. Some couples were still paddling around. The pastel swans looked like shimmering confetti on the lake in the beating afternoon sun. They’d look great on Instagram.
After about 20 minutes I left. I felt strangely isolated, and wanted to go home and check on my laptop to see if anyone had liked my photos from the night before. Silently wishing I wasn’t a piece of shit, I headed back to my flat. On the train, my legs became itchy again and I began to subconsciously carve my legs with my nails.
After three days my legs were red raw and bleeding. My hands didn’t look much better. I found myself in limbo. I was consistently bombarded by people, but was unable to really communicate with anyone. I was having interesting experiences, but was constantly reaching for my phone so I could share them with someone, anyone, and get a little endorphin rush. I needed it. My skin was prickling with heat in the aircon, my breath seemingly unattainable. Yeah, I needed a phone.
I got to my apartment and turned my phone on. It flickered for 30 seconds and then turned off.
Accepting my fate, failure and the fact that I was about to be at least $400 poorer, I headed to buy a substitute. I’d bought a David Sedaris book the day earlier and decided to start reading it on the train on the way. I missed my stop. I decided to just head home; the shops were closing soon anyway. At the 7/11 on the way back, I grabbed a disposable camera. I hadn’t used one since I was 10.
The next day, I got on the train to head home. Fuck, I forgot to get a phone. I opened my book.
It’s fine – one more day without one will be fine.
The next night, I headed to a bar filled floor to ceiling with records. I took two shots with my disposable camera and then tucked it in my bag and attempted to chat in broken Japanese to the bartender, who was spinning records and flicking casually through reading the Holy Bible of Hip Hop.
Five whiskeys later, I walked to the train station buzzed, feeling warm not hot. The scratches on my legs had begun to heal. I got out my disposable and took a photo of the train that passed by on the bridge above. I wanted to be able to remember the sense of solidarity I felt. It felt kind of nice. No. Not nice; melancholy maybe. Bittersweet. I’d get a phone tomorrow.
Friday morning came and I knew it was my last day before I could check if my phone worked. There’s no way it would.
That night, my eighth whiskey highball blurred my eyes. I blurted to a friend that tomorrow I got to use my phone if it worked.
“But it’s cool you’re travelling without a phone. You’ll keep travelling without it right?” he asked.
“Oh yeah,” I lied, “most definitely.”
The next afternoon, I decided to go to the river. I packed my bag for the two-hour trip. I looked at my phone next to my wallet. I pressed the power button. It worked.
On the train to the river, I put my earphones in and began flicking through Facebook. It was the perfect soundtrack for the scenery we were passing. I closed Facebook and put my phone in my bag. I placed my hands calmly in my lap.
I remember on my first day without a phone, I had a splitting headache and was sweating out the alcohol from the night before. I went to 7/11 to grab some water. When I opened the bottle and took a swig, it wasn’t water but rather a sickly sweet peach drink. It tasted like shit. I walked down the street wondering how I was ever going to live in a foreign country without a phone if I couldn’t even buy a bottle of water. I resented myself for continuing to drink the peach water but I was so thirsty and too anxious to go back to the store.
As I continued to walk, my hangover quickly lifted. I tried to read the label on the bottle. That’s when I realised the drink was actually a Gatorade equivalent. Full of electrolytes.
It wasn’t what I wanted, but it was probably what I needed.
Cover by Ben Blennerhassett