Tokyo

{This was an email I sent out to my contacts on my first trip to Asia in 2002}

tokyo is a giant city built entirely for shopping. the subway stations are giant malls that span miles, with everything you’d ever need inside. everywhere you look you see girls walking around with huge shopping bags… and from what i’ve heard of the size of tokyo apartments, i wonder where they put all this stuff?

the station we stayed near was underneath the biggest mall i’ve ever seen. it was 16 stories high and spanned at least 4 blocks. they even had their own subway line named after the store.

when you walk outside everywhere you go there are random vending machines on the sidewalk selling drinks. each vending machine is run by a different company, so when one vending machine company sets up a vending machine on a certain corner, its 25 competitors also set up their vending machines next to it, creating an endless string of vending machines all selling teas and crazy drinks of neon colors. (the machines spit out hot drinks as well as cold). there are drinks to energize you, drinks to up your dose of vitamin c, drinks to make you feel better, and drinks to diffuse your aggressive mood, as well as coffees, milk teas and green tea, cold cocoa and sodas. some also sell beer and others sell cigarettes.

everything is automatic. there is very little human interaction, and what human interaction there is is very polite. the ticket machines and pay phones have little animated graphics of women who bow at you when you are finished with your transaction. the doors all open for you by pressing a panel on the door. things chime and talk to you everywhere. little sensors by doors greet you as you come into shops and thank you as you leave. toilet seats are heated and play you little synthetic flushing and water sounds to make you feel more comfortable. there are little lcd panels in the subway cars that display helpful information like stock quotes and this week’s weather.

the japanese all look good and are well dressed. they all have the same cellphone with little dangly bits hanging off which they send text messages to each other on the subway. when it rains they all pull out the same clear umbrella with a white plastic handle.

some strange things we noticed:
pippin and i would come up to a street crossing and the crossing sign would be red, and there would be some people waiting for it to turn green before they crossed the road, which is perfectly reasonable, except for the fact that there are NO CARS on the street ANYWHERE. so pippin and i would just cross the street, to look back and see some confused japanese people looking at each other like, “should we cross?” i fear for the japanese tourist in vietnam where there are no street lights to have walk signals for!

the japanese also ride their bikes in the sidewalk. i almost got run over on a few occasions. i don’t really understand this at all, especially after seeing the traffic situation. everyone drives politely and fairly slowly, and it would be much easier to ride in the empty streets, where there are (again) NO CARS, rather than riding in the sidewalk and navigating through the hordes of people.

i had a really hard time eating in japan. the japanese word for vegetarian is “begetarian”, meaning its actually english, meaning the entire concept is foreign to them. we mostly ate at foreign food restaurants, thai, indian and italian. it was hard because i generally like japanese food, and i know pippin likes it a lot, but it seems that vegetarian japanese food is a new york city only thing. most japanese would just laugh at me when i told them i don’t eat meat, and refuse to serve me all together. we did manage to eat japanese three times, once at a revolving sushi conveyor-belt restaurant, once at a teppanyaki/okonomiyaki place where we cooked the food at the table, and again at a restaurant on the 11th floor of some building where i had bland mixed vegetables with soy sauce.

the subways close at 12:30, which is unbelievable considering the amount of people that live in tokyo. i heard that its a big conspiracy, the subway is owned by the same people who own the taxis, which is the only rational explanation for this madness. we managed to catch the last train back to our hotel every night except once. we asked some japanese guys how to take a night bus to the neighborhood we stayed in, and they told us there was no night bus there, our only bet was to take a taxi. they were really nice to us and offered to split a taxi, even tho they were not going in that exact direction. they turned out to be ramen chefs who work in a noodle shop in shinjuku, and had a good laugh when i told them i’m vegetarian, after they offered us some fried squid balls. “begitarian???!?? oHHH? no meat??? OOHHH? no fish???? OOOOOOOHHH? WHAT DO YOU EAT??!?!?”

out of all the places we’ve been so far, tokyo was the least english-friendly. it was surprising for me, i assumed everyone would speak english and it wouldn’t be a problem. it was also the first place we’ve been that’s economy wasn’t largely supported by tourism, and the language of tourism is english, so that might explain it. it seemed near the end that people actually could understand english a bit more than we thought at first, but seemed wary of speaking it, maybe they were afraid of mangling it up in front of english-speakers, for fear that their english was a bit rusty after school. maybe its just the general shy-ness and not wanting to attract attention of the japanese people.

another thing i was surprised about was the amount of women i saw wearing kimono. i didn’t expect to see any, except maybe if we took a short trip to kyoto. each day at least i would see a woman fully geared up, buying drinks from a vending machine or shopping for video recorders at the sony store. i think kimono are beautiful, and it was a nice surprise to see.

tokyo is not as expensive as i was told it is. it could be due to the economy crash in recent years, or due to the fact that i’m used to new york city prices. i think its on par with new york, in similar ways. you can go out for a 200$ dinner in tokyo as well as new york, or a 20$ dinner. you can spend $2000 on a hotel room or spend $50 like we did. its not the $5 hotel rooms we were getting in vietnam, but i think it would be hard to get a $50 hotel room in new york or london. impossible i think to get a nice clean room like the one at our ryokan with tatami floors and a comfy fouton.

tokyo is also one of the safest cities in the world. we passed numerous high tech bicycles sitting on the sidewalk with no locks or chains. i passed a sign on a lamp post reminding people not to leave their purses in the front basket of their bicycles when they left them on the street! they might get stolen! there are something like 100 registered handguns in the entire country. our friends were asking us if we liked our neighborhood we were staying in.. apparently its a “shady” neighborhood. pippin and i were hysterical about this, shady??? it looked fine. but apparently for tokyo, it was shady. i bet the japanese freak out when they leave japan. everywhere else is not as safe. for us, it was a nice break in a way, to not have to watch your back every second.

i really liked japan. at first i didn’t, but now that i look back at it, it wasn’t japan i didn’t like, but it was the first taste of a modern city i’ve seen in months. the things i was scared of i would have seen in new york or paris or london as well. the order scared me, it seemed so robotic.

we ordered two chocolate croissants and the clerks put them in wax paper, then proceeded to put them into two separate small clear plastic bags, then another larger bag, and tape it closed for us. all this trash for something that was to be eaten right away. it was unbelievable. we created more trash in a single week than in a month of being in south east asia.

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