And left Japan kicking and screaming…
The first time I traveled to Hong Kong, I fell in love. I had an inexplicable affinity for the place, and on subsequent trips, discovered many new parts that ultimately led to Hong Kong’s classification as my favorite city in Asia. Now I think Tokyo has equally captivated me, if not possibly surpassing Hong Kong in my personal ranking…in fact when my travels came to an end, I honest to goodness did not want to leave! What is it that makes Tokyo so special?
Tokyo is weird and wonderful all at the same time. There are things as Westerners, we will probably never understand about this magical place. Japanese culture is built upon so many rigorous customs, and then there is micro-culture of Tokyo itself – crazy workaholics, hard core drinkers, the fetishizing of all things cute, an obsessive attention to detail, J-pop and cos play dressers, wacky themed restaurants and the most inventive fashion I have ever seen. It is both the things I can see and understand and those that I cannot whose enigma has so captivated me.
Every strange thing you have ever heard about Tokyo is most likely true. And then of course there are the secrets of Tokyo that one has to experience on one’s own. Here are a few of my own personal highlights and observations:
The city that TRULY never sleeps
NY ain’t got nothin’ on Tokyo…this is a 24 hour city. The area of Roppongi in particular has a Mardi Gras anything-goes feel, with gaijin (foreigners) and local revellers mixing and mingling and kicking it off until dawn. In fact because taxis are sooo expensive, many folks stay out all night purposely, because the metro shuts down at 12midnight. And really when there is so much to see and do in this crazy place, who has the willpower to make a timed exit at 11:30pm? For those who don’t want to booze until dawn, there are countless coffee shops and bookstores open late, like the Kinokuniya in Shinjuku made famous by Haruki Murikami’s books, which by the way has the widest selection of English language books in Tokyo. Or the world famous quirky, weird, wild and naughty Don Quixote store – where they sell everything from sex toys to shampoo and Hello Kitty paraphernalia to ice cream.
If you are still not ready for bed, have a sunrise sushi breakfast at Tsukiji fish market. My god, I am exhausted just thinking about all one can do in this place – and the energy is totally addictive. Remember, you can always sleep when you travel back to your home country. Now, how the locals do it day in and day out is another question…
Obsessively detail focused
I had heard about the Japanese view on quality. During my MBA studies, we studied the post-WWII quality movement inspired by W. Edwards Demming who revolutionized manufacturing processes, such that there was rolling impact on worldwide production in nearly every industry. But honestly I had no idea this extended to every (pause) single (pause) thing (pause) that the Japanese do – it is in fact inherent in the culture. The belief being that everything that is worth undertaking, is also worth elevating to perfection. Even buying a Global knife at Takashimaya was an example of this, with the item in question being so carefully handled and wrapped that is was like a present to myself when I unwrapped it later at home. Being a perfectionist myself, I was inspired – the level of execution was even beyond my slightly particular expectations. In a word…is heaven!
Wildly extreme fashion
I totally admire the Japanese fashion aesthetic and could sit in Shibuya and people watch for the rest of my life. Funky, cool, street style is the norm here – an average outfit pairs unlikely layered combinations and can consist of 3 t-shirts custom-cut at home to have clever openings to showcase the one underneath, topped off by a floral vest and then a denim mini skirt over black leggings with Converse All Stars and Hello Kitty socks ….topped off with a plaid hat. And somehow it works. And then there are the more niche looks – like the Gothic Lolita, Cosplay and J-Pop looks. If you really want to get an eyeful, go to the bridge at Yoyogi Park on Sundays to see the Cosplay boys and girls in their glory. I mean seriously, for someone like myself who trends more toward basic black and the sleek silhouettes of New York fashion, I found it absolutely fascinating. In fact, I flirted with the idea of mini skirts with leggings and Converse when I got back home, but:
- it is very hot here in Singapore
- I suspect I might be pushing the age appropriate boundary on that look
- somehow outside of Tokyo, it just doesn’t seem to make sense.
Food as an art form
Part and parcel of the attention to detail above, Japanese food and eating is elevated to an art form. They say that to master the making of soba noodles takes a lifetime. And in well known sushi places, apprentices can spend 2 years just forming the rice….before they even get to touch the fish. And this culinary perfection holds not only for Japanese food, but also for Western as well. I had a stunningly good apple pie in Kichijoji that makes my mouth water when I think about it – somehow they actually made it better! And my memories of the ethereally light and crispy Tonkatsu at Maisen bring tears to my eyes. The Yakitori….well, I could eat Yakitori every day until I die and not only would this not be a sacrifice, it would be a terrific honor. No detail is spared in the preparation and execution of meals – and while sometimes this means mealtimes take a bit longer than one expects, it is totally worth the wait.
Heated toilets and other bathroom idiosyncrasies
And in the spirit of making everything better, comes the Japanese bathroom. This may be rather indelicate, but I never enjoyed the bathroom so much as I did in Japan. For starters, toilet seats are heated – probably doesn’t sound so spectacular….until you try it yourself. And the side of the ubiquitous Toto toilet comes equipped with a control panel, fortunately with instructions as icons, so one can decide which….umm…..area to wash and at which water pressure and temperature. Peculiar to Japanese culture, it is inappropriate and embarrassing for others to hear your intimate going-ons, and so there is also a button to play music or to give a flushing sound effect. In my company’s Tokyo office, there is actually the sound of birds chirping…because imagine the scandal if a co-worker hears you tinkle. Further, in many public toilets they have removed the question of “to touch or not to touch” with fully automated soap dispensers releasing warmed, creamy soap already lathered, motion sensing water faucets and super high speed drying machines (don’t linger too long, it can burn). It’s just…so…civilized.
The cute fetish, “kawaii”, and Hello Kitty
I am of the practical sort. I never understood the allure of Hello Kitty – it always seemed a bit juvenile and frivolous. I couldn’t make out why grown women (and some men) would have Hello Kitty plush toys or Pokeman waffle irons. But something in Japanese culture makes it indescribably attractive and somewhat addictive. This fetishizing of cute, or “kawaii” in Japanese (pronounced like Hawaii with a “k”) is oddly and magnetically attracting. Once the cute bug bites it’s over! You too will be buying Pikachu socks and Hello Kitty cell phone charms. And why on earth would you buy a plain writing pen when you can have an endlessly entertaining pink pen with a creature charm on top. When you really think about it, there is unlimited potential for cute-i-fying everything. And believe you me, this opportunity is not lost on the Japanese. If you are in Tokyo, you must go to Kiddyland in the oh so chic shopping area of Omotesando (like NYC’s Fifth Avenue). We somehow lost 2 hours in this emporium of cuteness, with me getting stuck on the Hello Kitty floor. If you cannot make it to Tokyo, then check out these websites dedicated to cataloging Hello Kitty items, House of Kitty, and Kitty Hell. It’s a slippery slope – consider yourself warned!
Smoking is the national sport
While I don’t love this about Tokyo, I do find it rather amusing. Everyone here smokes. I am nearly certain that citizenship is conditional based on smoking status. And then ironic thing about the Japanese smoking culture is that just like everything else, they are super rigorous about how this is done. First, smoking is preferred indoors! That’s right, just about every place you go will allow smoking inside. Whereas smoking outside is frowned upon and limited to very tiny and hard to find smoking areas where Japanese salarymen jockey for the position closest to the refuse bin. The end result is the entire indoors of Tokyo smells faintly like an ashtray. Weird, huh?
A life lived outside the home – Cat Cafés, Izakayas and more
Tokyo apartments are exceedingly tiny. And so really for many, they serve the barest of functions…mostly for sleeping. Living happens outside the home – at bars, restaurants, tea houses, etc – with one returning home very late in the day (if at all). Even the usual comforts of home are outsourced as evidenced by the phenomena of cat cafes – where people go to relax and pet kitties, since they cannot accommodate pets in their own flats. Izakayas are in fact often homes away from home…”izakaya” meaning “be here and drink” in Japanese…it’s just a place where people hang out and while away the hours before returning home. It’s not exactly a restaurant, it’s not exactly a bar, it’s kind of both merging into a convivial place to go alone or gather with friends…have a drink, a snack, a smoke before going home to bed.
The Tokyo Metro & Bullet Trains
Taxis are crazy expensive. In fact, to take a taxi from the airport into downtown Shibuya, you would spend about $250 USD. And in town the meter starts at $7 USD and spirals up quite quickly. At the end of the day, the train is really your only option for affordable travel around town. So it’s rather lucky then that it goes damn near everywhere. I have never seen a more extensive network…ever. It makes New York or London look infinitesimally small in scale. And then there are the bullet trains – the 300km / hr (185 mph) high speed lines that cover greater Japan, from end to end. We took the Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto – easy peasy, 2.5 hours later you’re in Kyoto sipping sake. And I am pretty sure if it is not on the train line, it is not worth going to. While it is a little intimidating the first time out, the automated systems are actually quite easy to use thanks to an English language interface. So don’t get overwhelmed….take a deep breath, refer to your map, and really what’s the worst that can happen?
Technology & Anime Madness
Japan remains at the cutting edge of technology with the 3rd largest R&D expenditure in the world. Since 2006, you would have noticed commuters on the Tokyo Metro watching TV on their mobile phones on the way to work. Why this has not infiltrated TV-loving America, I have no idea. The area of Akihabara in particular is world famous for its mega-electronics stores with endless varieties of cameras, computers and tech gadgets. I am sad to say the days of cheap prices on these are gone though – while not overpriced, their prices reflect the global economy we live in today. You the best deal on a digital camera or computer? Buy it in the US – no kidding, the world’s best prices are in America, where none of this is actually made…because the consumer buying population is larger, the US can garner the most competitive wholesale prices.
But what is distinctive and also in the Akihabara area are anime and manga stuffs. The instantly recognizable large heads and big eyes of anime characters spill out onto the streets. Anime specifically is an abbreviation for “animation” but it has over time become a subculture referencing a certain type of TV, video game, movie, etc that is also usually very cute in nature. Manga on the other hand is a comic book form of cartoon characters. While these books can take on many themes, the most popular are science fiction and hero stories. Further, the cartoon comic format has extended into well, umm, less dignified forms known as “hentai.” Pornographic hentai cartoons are extremely popular and also explain the influx of teenage boys to the Akihabara area after school every day. Someone said you could be arrested in the US for the sorts of things you can see in Akihabara, and I am pretty sure they are right.
No doubt you’ve heard about the preponderance of vending machines in Japan – its true. The most obvious uses are drinks and cigarettes – Paul was beyond words when he found both Mountain Dew and Dr Pepper in vending machines in Tokyo (neither of which favorite soda we have seen elsewhere in Asia).
But what was more surprising were vending machines selling hot meals like bowls of noodles, a machine selling umbrellas at the Tokyo Dome, another selling shirts and neckties (presumably for those who have stayed out all night, but still have to go to work), machines for charging your cell phone in 7 Eleven stores, another selling batteries or even flowers to take home to the wife (possibly also for the guy who stayed out all night 😉 …the list goes on and on.
Prepare to open your wallet (and keep it open)
OK, it’s true. Japan is crazy expensive. I asked our friend Troy about where lower income people live in Tokyo and he responded quickly that there really aren’t any – most of the average population of Tokyo is what we would call “middle class” or “upper middle class.” The average price of a mobile phone is about $500 USD, yet everyone seems to have them.
We’ve already talked about taxis where the meter starts at $7 USD. It’s nearly impossible to have a restaurant meal for less than $30 USD per person – and this is the low end. And a glass of wine will set you back about $20 USD.
But somehow I don’t mind paying for such perfection.
And so much more….and even after all these observations and experiences, somehow I know I have only scratched the surface of Tokyo and Japanese culture. And yet I am totally, completely hooked.
Haiku to Japan:
All things Japanese
From cute to toilet to nosh
Somehow are better