We’ve lost count of our visits to this unbelievable city. Everything we had heard about the place jabbed at our curiosity, and when we finally got here, the reality blew our mind. It’s even bigger, better and crazier than we had first imagined. And we simply love it.
But a question struck us this time around as we filmed something unexpected amid the classic onslaught that is Shibuya crossing.
We had lined up a shot from a great vantage point (see our post on Filming Shibuya Crossing) as several thousand people below us formed opposing battle lines. As if the crossing isn’t dramatic enough already, something crazy happened just a fraction of a moment before the lights went green.
Some random nut-bag galloped across our viewfinder into the middle of the crossing and cartwheeled into a handspring. It was as if he was doing a solo dance-off in the world’s biggest dance battle ring, centre frame. The hoards surged forward anyway, and the pedestrian battlefronts collided in the middle of the road as they always did, swallowing him back up.
We had to admire his work, and at least Saxon can’t say he didn’t feel pretty impulsive when he was down there filming earlier too. And then we wondered – why does Tokyo inspire crazy? The great people of this awesome city go way outside the envelope when it comes to finding new ways to get zany. Examples are easy to stumble upon:
Go to Harajuku station on any Sunday and by the entrance to Yoyogi Park, you’ll see a small crowd of Rockabilly-types. Greased quiffs, leather jackets, tight jeans and pointy boots, blaring that Ol’ Time Rock n’ Roll – with a Tokyo twist, of course. You wont see more enthusiastic dancing this side of Glee. They’re not simply there for the tourists either – they’re not busking for change – they do it for the sheer joy. They have been for 20 years or so.
Cozplay and Tokyo Fashion
All cities like to say they have style. Paris, Milan, London and New York – all can lay claim to being centres and generators of fashion. But step foot on the streets of Tokyo and you’re playing a whole new game here. Your favourite anime and computer game characters might brush past you at any moment – no matter how colourful or outlandish.
There are tribes of fashionistas, each loyally subscribing to their trend – inspired by fiction or game characters, by pop bands, toys, manga, or almost anything. It’s mostly teenagers, but who can blame them – even the school uniforms have swagger.
Advertising and TV
OK, this one isn’t just Tokyo, but a lot of it either starts here or is taken to the next level. The Japanese didn’t invent variety shows, but they make them damn entertaining.
They did invent “Brain Wall” (Human Tetris) and where else can you watch an Olympic sprinter race a giraffe? Whether you should or not is another question, but you can’t say that it isn’t the type of entertainment that crosses the language barrier.
Just. Plain. Weird. ‘Electric City’ Akihabara has a bunch of these – pretty girls in frilly French maid outfits speaking like children, encouraging grown adults to ‘Nyang Nyang’ for service (that’s ‘Meow Meow’ in Japanese) and addressing you as ‘Master’. You pay triple for this of course. No filming here, so I’m afraid you’ll have to go to Japan and see it for yourself.
Yes, they are all they’re cracked up to be (ehem). A panel of buttons beside the electrically warmed seat give you complete control over guided water jets, air blasts, air fresheners and even flushing sounds to disguise other noises. You’ll feel a little like you’re seated at the controls of a fighter jet.
Water temperature, blast pressure and direction can all be mastered from here. There are even helpful (and amusing) illustrations so don’t be scared, give all the buttons a try and hold on to your seat.
All over Japan, they’ve ditched standard icon-style instructive signage in favour of much more detailed comic illustration. Extremely helpful when you don’t understand the language, but moreover, so much more amusing – don’t show us an icon of a labourer with a shovel like the classic ‘men at work’ road sign. Instead, we want to see a little pink bunny in a construction helmet and high-vis jacket, bowing deeply and apologetically for the disruption to traffic.
You wont see a simple ‘no littering’ sign. Instead, you’ll see an angry little fish’s disgusted reaction to the trash washed down the drain into the sea. And you’ll have nothing lost in translation when, on a ‘no dog poop’ sign, you even see the cute little puppy’s facial expression as he contemplates what he’s just done.
Wait – bikini girls battling futuristic tanks while riding neon-lit robot dinosaurs as you dine? Yes, really. Book your ticket to Tokyo. Now.
The list would be about as long as the list of neighbourhoods in Tokyo, multiplied by the length of time it takes for a crazy fad to run its course. Which still begs the question, what is it that inspires such extremes?
It may be the culmination of a huge number of things – population density (over 35 and a half million people squeezed into the greater Tokyo metropolitan area), strict rules, rigid social order and pressures might all mean there’s a greater appreciation for new and inventive entertainment and ways to blow off steam.
There’s also a rich history of appreciation of the arts and design, and of refinement and presentation, and a culture of embracing new technology. Then there’s the great attitude of the people of Tokyo. The positive welcome you feel when you’re here, and a sense of encouragement, like the people you meet really want you to enjoy this city and the marvels in it. They want you to try new things, to experiencing the Japan they’re proud of, and they love to see you enjoying it.
Crazy seems to loves company too, so each Next Big Thing needs to be just a little more over-the-top to get noticed above the clamour of fresh and creative new ideas. And once an idea gains a little traction, trends, fashions, events and general craziness spread fast through the most densely packed, wondrous and most fascinating city in the world.
The Trans-Siberian: Moscow -> Vladivostok
You’re plugged in. If you’re reading this, you’re online right now, so you’ve already checked status updates from distant mates and some breaking international news. Now you’re about to go on a digital journey halfway across the planet with the Rat & Dragon crew, all from the comfort of wherever you’re sitting – and that is pretty special.
This makes the world inside our heads and handsets more massive, while the physical world seems ever smaller. So with our brains increasingly plugged into the digital world, are we losing touch with what distance in the physical world really feels like?
9,288. That’s the number of kilometers between Moscow (technically Europe) and the terminus of the Trans-Siberian railway at the edge of the Pacific Ocean. There’s even a plaque on the platform at Vladivostok Station that says so. As we feel its cold bronze numbers with our own fingertips after departing Moscow 10 days ago, it’s fully apparent to us what 9,288 kilometers looks, feels, sounds and even smells like. The staggering breadth and beauty of the entire physical world is back in sharp focus. Welcome to the Trans-Siberian…
Days and Days on a Train
The steel hulk of our new home rolled out of Moscow’s Yaroslavl Station and we set in for the first 4-day section. In one go, it would take about 7 days on the Rossiya Train to Vladivostok, but we would break the journey a little over half way. Gradually, we slipped into the rhythm of the wheels on the tracks and filming, eating, sleeping and staring out at the frosted landscape all fell in step.
Early on we discovered our Internet access was not what we’d been promised by our mobile network providers and frustration set our brows into furrows. After all, we had work to do. Rat & Dragon are in the business of broadcasting our business, so without reliable Internet, we were feeling the strain. There was plenty of shooting and planning to do of course, so we carried on with our mission for content to knock your socks off, but always with the niggling feeling that while what we shot was amazing, we had to keep it to ourselves for the time being…
Irkutsk and the Greatest Lake in the World
Irkutsk is a sprawling town en-route and home to Anatoly, a Siberian mate from way back, local tour guide and linguist. Irkutsk is also our journey break-point, and perfect for accessing Lake Baikal, ‘The Pearl of Siberia’.
We joined Anatoly (or Toly for short) for a home cooked meal and drinks straight off the train – this happened to be New Years Eve after all, the biggest party on the Russian winter calendar (with Christmas lagging far behind in importance) and the perfect occasion to share in authentic Russian style.
First thing on the very first morning of the brand new year, we shared a bus to Listvyanka on the shore of Lake Baikal with a bunch of energetic explorers on a Vodkatrain tour. We spent the next 3 days catching up with Toly, getting our wifi fix, and filming around the greatest freshwater lake in the world.
Lake Baikal smacks you in the face with it’s beauty, it’s backdrop and it’s statistics. It’s the deepest lake on earth, the frozen chalice to 20% of the entire planet’s liquid freshwater supply, and home to the world’s only freshwater seal, the cute-as-hell puppy-like Nerpa. After filming lakeside it was off through the crystal-white forest on a sled behind a husky team.
Huskies are gorgeous, but entirely bonkers – which makes for excellent filming. So desperate to run, the howling rabble of about 30 huskies went nuts in the hope of being chosen. As soon as a handler clipped a dog into the harness, it’s legs started running, even if the harness was pegged to the ground. That meant once the team of 8 dogs was in place behind a tethered sled, they became a writhing, yelping, hilarious tangle. As soon as you’re aboard and the sled is released however, the dogs power forwards in military formation and whisk you away at speed with the wind in your furry hat.
The sensation is something magical. The sled is smooth on its snowy track, the dogs finally shut up and all you can hear is the swoosh of sled on snow and the soft panting of the huskies – an elegant soundtrack for the winter forest as it rushes by.
London -> St Petersburg
The first stage of our Epic London to Sydney overland journey is behind us. Belgium, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have all rushed past our frosted train or bus windows.
While you could count the miles, the journey – as they say – is best measured in friends, although we’ve been lucky enough to measure a huge number of both. Some are old mates from way back, some previous film collaborators, and others brand new to the Rat & Dragon experience. All of them are damn gorgeous, passionate about their cities, and all of them have carved their wonderful signatures onto our projects, our journey and our memories each in their own ways. Here’s a quick rundown:
London to Brussels. Train. 373 km (232 miles)
A seasoned traveller and long-time friend to Rat & Dragon going back to the early East-Coast-Australia backpacking days when he offered a lift in exchange for a place to stay – and ended up in a tent in the back garden for a month. A walk around the old town, Belgian Beers at his favourite local bars and dinner at the restaurant to meet the waitress he fancies made the perfect first stop of our Epic Journey to Sydney.
Brussels to Berlin. Train. 765 km (475 miles)
Coffus and Bjorn
Reaching into our filmmaker network for The Berlin Project, we meet Coffus, a talented film Director and our host to some of his Berlin favourites. Then Serendipity and Social Networks led us to Bjorn, The Social Traveller himself. Find their pick of Berlin’s highlights here.
Berlin to Vilnius (Via Warsaw). Train and bus. 1028 km (638 miles)
Vaiva, Ange and Gerda
Once again plugging into our film contacts, we meet up with Vaiva, photographer to the stars and a celebrity of sorts in her own right. A crazy dinner with Ange (Art Director of Cosmopolitan Magazine) and Gerda (Blonde Bombshell with eccentric German mates) then a bar tour of the old town, Vaiva introduced us to pop stars, bar owners and friends, leaving a frothing wake of admirers behind her.
Vilnius to Tallinn (via Riga). Bus. 601 km (373 miles)
We’d worked with Rob before. A passionate sound recordist, audio engineer and Tallinn native, between gigs he found time to show us a side to this gorgeous city we would never have found on our own. As well as the sumptuous and snowy old town, Rob hosted an impromptu photoshoot on an abandoned pier in the angry Baltic Sea, and an after-hours tour of deserted Festival of Song stadium, a monumental stage structure we had to ourselves.
St Petersburg. Bus. 368 km (228 miles)
Completing the first leg of the journey we arrive in Russia and into the hands of our contact Dasha – talented filmmaker, artist and designer whom we’ve collaborated with before. Straight off the train and into a home cooked family dinner, Dasha and her family treated us to traditional specialities Borsch (meat and vegetable soup), Butterbrot (rye bread topped with cured pork fat), delectable homemade pickles and by the end of the 2nd bottle of vodka, a Russian dynamite fishing demo and a catwalk strut in a genuine military uniform. Welcome to Mother Russia.
The tightest friendships, whether forged in travel or tempered on filmsets – on a personal level – really make this Epic Journey what it is. And as locals in their own environments who understand the rigours and requirements of filmmaking, have been invaluable in our quest for travel content to knock your socks off.