Tokyo - lost in the megalopolis?

Chatting with eastwest1k and his buddies made the wait in front of the immigration counters go by in no time, and by the time I was stickered (Japan doesn’t use stamps anymore) into the country, my bag was waiting for me on the carrousel. I changed some money and then bought a ticket from “Airport Limousine Bus Co.” for a ride into town, which turned out to take over two hours before finally dropping me off at my hotel, the Shiba Park. mjm had very kindly offered to be my guide to Tokyo, and he laughed when I informed him of the hotel I had chosen – the Shiba Park Hotel is literally 150 meters from his doorstep! Check-in took a while as the staff could not locate the booking that I had made using, and in the end they decided to just make a new reservation for me, honoring my original rate of JPY9500 per night. When I finally got my room key, mjm was already sitting in one of the sofas waiting for me – ain’t that just great? After a quick stop in my room (small, but perfectly satisfactory as clean and quiet) and another one at mjm’s next door to drop the Starbucks mugs that I had brought and to admire his massive collection, I followed my guide to the subway, which at first sight seemed incredibly complex and strange to me. I was glad for not having to deal neither with the ticket machines nor the choice of the correct track, and just let myself be led to Ebisu and the Yebisu Garden complex, which not only hosts the Westin Tokyo, but also an excellent Japanese BBQ restaurant where we had dinner. The restaurant has an open kitchen which is surrounded by a bar-like area where patrons can enjoy their food while at the same time watching the skilled chefs preparing dishes. We took advantage of this possibility, and while mjm ordered a selection of Japanese delicacies, I let myself be impressed by the speed and efficiency of the staff as well as the barbequed food which is very unlike what one would expect from “typical Japanese food”, but nevertheless very tasty and extremely tender. The maguro sashimi that we had along with the different skewers was much more like what I expected. As I had never before tried sake, mjm figured that this would be the right moment for me to try, and ordered us a glass of top-of-the-line stuff each. Thinking back now, I seriously ask myself why I hadn’t tried it earlier on: It at a subtle, yet excellent in taste – and very dangerous as one hardly tastes the alcohol in it. To make things short: I’ll definitely have it again sooner or later (rather sooner). After dinner, we took the subway to Roppongi Hills, a massive compound built by mjm’s employer, featuring among others a hotel, a shopping mall, a museum, a garden, a lot of office space – and “Heatland”, the stammtisch of my guide and his expat friends whom we met there for a couple of drinks, some serious people-watching accompanied by remarks unfit to be reproduced here, and a couple more drinks . Despite having had a very good time there, I eventually decided to call it a day and asked mjm to put me into a cab back to the hotel, which he did. Using his fluent Japanese, he made sure that the driver knew where he was going, which was a good thing as I was still totally overwhelmed and lost in this fascinating city. The cab ride was short but expensive, but I must admit that the level of service in Tokyo cabs is impressive. The passenger door is opened automatically as the cab approaches, and there is a neat little screen above the meter that continuously displays the cab’s position and route on a map. Taking foreigners for a figurative ride is much harder that way. The cabbie also accepted my credit card without charging me anything extra, and made sure that I got a receipt in English. Considering that Zurich cabs are not only much more expensive still, but also feature cabbies that don’t speak or read English or any Swiss national language, I was truly impressed. After this first day in Japan, I fell asleep exhaustedly, but with a smile on my face.

Sunday saw us having a late morning start (I think mjm had another couple of drinks after I had left ), but I had by now had enough time to familiarize myself with the city’s subway system. Once you realize that there’s several independent companies running the different lines and that the ticket machines disperse tickets by value (and not by destination as in most other cities I’ve been to), it suddenly becomes quite manageable. The first stop on this day’s program was the Shibuya area, home to many young fashion designers and a great place for (window, alas) shopping. mjm pointed out that this being Sunday around noon, the area wasn’t busy at all. It would get much more crowded later in the day. I don’t know, it looked like the day before Christmas in Zurich’s high street to me….

Next was something that I had asked to see and was glad to have gone to: A Japanese temple, this one dedicated to Emperor Meji and located in the middle of a quiet and shady park, which offered a most welcome relief from the heat and noise of the city. mjm introduced me to the ritual washing before entering the temple, and even without the religious connotation, the process was very refreshing. What struck me was the temple’s very clear and sober design and the attention to detail and symbolism that went into its construction. There were also several newly wed Japanese couples in traditional costumes around, they came to the temple to have their pictures taken – a wish that I gladly fulfilled them, albeit clandestinely. Leaving the temple grounds, we returned to Roppongi Hills where I was shown another example of Japanese efficiency: A pasta restaurant featuring a “ticket machine” where you chose between the five meals on offer, insert the corresponding amount and then receive a ticket to hand your waiter once you’ve managed to snag a seat. While the process is a bit impersonal, it speeds up the ordering and paying considerably. As for the actual food served, I did not have high expectations as far as Italian food in Japan goes, but was positively surprised by my simple, yet tasty spaghetti. My only complaint with the place was that the entire furniture (bar stools, counter etc.) were very obviously not built for my size – it felt like being in an all-coach charter plane! During the meal, we had an interesting discussion on the movie “Lost in translation”, which I had quite liked when first seeing it. mjm said that based on the experiences he had made in his 14 years in Japan, he found it to be very unfair and heavy on clichés. Now, after my trip to Japan and after having watched the movie a second time, I tend to agree with his assessment.

To walk off our light lunch, mjm took me for a tour through the garden in the Roppongi complex, and then gave me instructions on how to get to the “Electronics Town” in Akihabara to spend the afternoon there while he had other commitments. By that time, I considered myself able to navigate the subway on my own, and indeed found my way to the correct stop without problems. The Electronics Town is probably best described as an approx. 1km long stretch of street lined with nothing but electronics shops on both sides. As this was a Sunday, the street was closed down for vehicular traffic and offered plenty of space for the masses to walk on. The goods on offer ranged from PC and Playstation games to household appliances to cell phones and PDAs. Most of them looked a lot more advanced than what we get back home, but unfortunately the tags giving the detailed specs were in Japanese only, and the salespeople were not as fluent in English as I had thought. But then again why would they need to with hoards of locals invading their stores every day? In any case I did fall in love with a tiny little Panasonic MP3 player, but the price was a little to steep for me to buy it right away. I made a mental note though to ask for it in more affordable Singapore (where, as it later turned out, it hadn’t yet arrived!). In the muggy weather, I also very much appreciated the free refreshing towels and fans that charming Japanese girls handed out on the street – that’s catering to your customer’s needs! The goodies were of course accompanied by advertising material and lucky draw tickets, but as they were all in Japanese only, I could throw them away and just enjoy the refreshment without feeling guilty. Before returning to the hotel for a cool shower, I stopped at a Patchinko parlor and just observed the – exclusively male – clientele play these weird-looking slots. The noise level in the place was incredible, and the games played seemed highly complex and very fast to me. But apparently they still don’t offer enough excitement for well-trained Japanese people, as the slot machines also feature little TV screens for a bit of extra entertainment!

That night, mjm took me out to a place in his neighborhood that offers “Japanese curry”, something I didn’t even know it existed. Unlike other curries that are ordered as a set meal, the Japanese variant allows you to add ingredients to taste (I had mushrooms, eggplant and beef if I remember correctly) and even to determine how hot you want your dish to be. On a scale from one to ten, I heeded his advice and chose level two, which was perfectly acceptable to me. mjm went for level three and told me that he’d never seen anyone going beyond level five. On our way back, we strolled through Shiba park, where a traditional summer festival was going on. With the traditionally dressed women and kids dancing to typically Japanese music and the countless colorful lanterns lighting up the night, this was a very cliché Japanese impression for me, but its tranquility and peacefulness were still soothing after a full day in a buzzing city, and lulled me into a relaxed sleep afterwards.

It was a fairly early start for me on Monday as I had to do my packing before hopping on the subway back to Roppongi, where mjm met me in front of his office building. He had sneaked out for a moment and now used his employee pass to buy us ticket to the “Tokyo city view”, an observation deck on the 52nd floor of Mori tower, the tallest building on the Roppongi site. Wearing casual shorts and a shirt and following my host in his smart business suit through the glass and steel entrance into the elevator, I felt terribly underdressed and second-class, but the Japanese were obviously polite enough to pretend not noticing anything… The elevator ride reminded me of my last visit to a SixFlags as it soared to the 52nd floor in no time. When the doors opened, I was immediately amazed by the view offered, despite this not being the clearest of days (Mt. Fuji preferred to stay covered behind a layer of clouds, pity.). Just like the entrance area, the observatory, which spreads over the entire floor and offers a 360 degree view, has been built in a very sleek, glass and steel design with some lounge chairs and a 70ties-style café. It also features two outside galleries, but unfortunately they remained closed throughout my stay. Being pressed on time, mjm gave me a quick tour and pointed out the major sights to me before having to return to his office (where he just started a new job that very day!). So we said our goodbyes high over Tokyo, a city mjm helped me a great deal to explore and enjoy during my very short stay. As this was still fairly early in the day (around 9.30am), the observatory had very few visitors only, and for the next hour or so, I marveled not only at the views of sprawling Tokyo below, but also at the neat light-and-shadow contrasts that the building itself offered:

Mr. Mori, whose company built the complex, had the intention of adding to Tokyo’s appeal to tourists, and thus also included an art museum in the Roppongi site. It is located on the 53rd floor of the tower and was my next destination for a quick look around – the ticket mjm got me was valid for it anyway, or so I thought. The lady checking the tickets at the entrance told me that it’s not, but I insisted and so she took my ticket and left, I assume to consult with her supervisor. A short while later, she returned smiling and saying “yes, yes, yes”… She pointed towards the escalator to the 53rd floor, I thanked her and was in. At the time, the “Mori Art Museum” featured an exhibit which was produced in cooperation with the MoMA in New York. I found it to offer a good cross-section through the last 100 years of art, and it occurred to me that since the closure of the MoMA building in 53rd street, I had seen its art in Queens, Berlin and now Tokyo – not bad. When it was time for me to leave, I followed the exit signs and was led down several escalators and through two or three shops before I finally stepped into an elevator. When the doors closed behind me, the Japanese lady guarding it outside bowed – and I plummeted down to street level and back into the hustle and bustle of Tokyo again.

Monday was my last day in Tokyo, and my Cathay flight was scheduled to depart Narita around 3.30pm. Now as most of you will know, that airport is not quite in the heart of things, and getting into town from there took me over two hours and cost JPY3000. For the way back, mjm had given me detailed instructions on how to get there using the trains, and the train I wanted to get on left the Daimon station at two minutes past noon. So I quickly hopped on the subway back to the hotel from Roppongi, grabbed my luggage, checked out and then – much to the surprise of the hotel staff asking about taxis or shuttle busses – told them that I would just take the train. The expression on their faces was priceless! So I rolled my Samsonite through a quiet residential area to Daimon station, followed mjm’s step-by-step instructions on how to buy a transfer ticket to Narita from the ticket machine (it only cost JPY1100!), and shortly afterwards hopped on the 12.02 train, which was perfectly on time, just like every other train I used in the country. While this might seem pretty ordinary to us Swiss, it’s certainly impressive to anyone else and even more so if one considers how complex the Tokyo rail network is with several independent companies running their own operations! Maybe the people of the UK’s Strategic Rail Authority should come to Japan once…. But I digress. After a 30min ride, we reached Aoto station where mjm had instructed me to change to the train across the platform. It pulled in simultaneously to ours, I crossed the platform, boarded the other train, and we pulled out. How’s 30 seconds for a minimum transfer time? Unlike the first, subway-style train, this one was more of a suburban train without aircon, but it had fans mounted to the ceiling which offered a most welcome breeze in regular intervals. I was the only Caucasian on the train, but felt sure to be on the right train as several other people also carried luggage. At Narita city, the last stop before the airport, a group of Germans boarded the train and sat down across the aisle from me. I could not help eavesdropping on their conversation a little bit, and it seems that they didn’t enjoy the local cuisine as much as I did – they probably went to the wrong places! Anyway, as we reached the airport, I handed them the German magazine I had finished reading earlier on and asked them, in German of course, if they needed something to read on the flight home. They were surprised, but then gladly accepted, and I was off.

To conclude the Japan chapter, I’d like to add a couple of general impressions I had that somehow didn’t fit anywhere else. From what I can tell after such a short stay, I found the Japanese to be very friendly, courteous, efficient and smart. They had a couple of ideas which I like very much and wonder why no one else had ever thought about that before. Examples include the guides in each subway station telling you through which of the numbered train doors you should board to be closest to the elevator / exit / escalator etc. at the station you’re getting off, or the naming and numbering of each subway exit. This way, foreigners like me don’t have to remember an unfamiliar street name to reach the right exit, but merely “4a”. Another thing that struck me were the very polite expressions used on signs. Without really knowing it for sure, I assume that they are literal translations from Japanese. Here’s one example that I’ve seen several times and absolutely loved: In front of a closed door, one would expect a sign saying “no exit”. The Japanese have one featuring an arrow depicting a 180 degree turn. Below it, it says “suggested route”. Sweet, isn’t it? Another one is the description for the ticket machines in the subway where you can top up your ticket if you have ridden further than allowed. Instead of “penalty payment” or something similar, the signs refer to “fare adjustment”. And finally, the few Japanese I’ve spoken to in mjm’s absence seem to understand a lot more English than they speak. Using a bit of common sense and body language, I still managed to get along nicely. People tell me though that outside of large metropolitan areas, it’s a lot more difficult to communicate without at least basic knowledge of Japanese. Who knows, I might find out about that myself when I return – something I most certainly will do!

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