Sunday, November 18, 2012

Tokyo Calm

I took my first-ever visit to Japan in mid-October, checking out Tokyo for the weekend while my friends Charlotte and Alex were visiting. I didn't want to travel out of Seoul again so soon (5 days) after my trip to China, but when your friends from America say they will be hanging out a two-hour flight away from you and you live in Asia, you go!

My health wasn't at its best when I arrived in Tokyo as I was battling one of the worst colds I have faced in years (I blame the awful Chinese air pollution for weakening my immune system). But I was comforted by the fact that I wouldn't need to worry about any of the nasty surprises to my health (drinking water, dubious food, etc.) that one finds in China. Tokyo has smog but nowhere close to the level of Chinese cities. I had heard that the language barrier was difficult to navigate so I hoped I wouldn't get too lost.

Those quirky maid cafes

I didn't have much time on the ground and Narita Airport is far away from the center of this massive city.  Charlotte invited to sneak me in to her Friday night fancy dinner sponsored by the The Institute of International Finance (IIF), a group of bankers responsible for doing important things like renegotiating Greek debt. I had very specific instructions from Charlotte to pack a tie and work attire, but I packed in a rush and totally forgot to pack these.

Though I thought this meant I would need to find dinner on my own, it unexpectedly led to my first Japanese cultural experience – the convenience store. Now in Seoul, convenience stores are ubiquitous and generally awesome. In addition to snacks and drinks they usually carry items like fruit, vegetables, milk, umbrellas. So when I'm too lazy to walk the 6 minutes to my local grocery store, I can walk 2 minutes to 7-Eleven and get my basic essentials. The Japanese convenience store takes this concept to another level – you can buy ties and dress shirts!! Granted, this is not runway fashion we're talking about here. I bought the largest shirt I could find but the arms were still too short...I guess I am a little bit bigger than the average Japanese man. However, convenience store shirt and tie paired with khakis I had packed turned out to work great and I greatly enjoyed my fine steak dinner and wine as I listened to boring bankers speak about monetary policy!

Tokyo Imperial Gardens. Clearly I wasn't feeling my best, but it was a lovely day.

Charlotte was working on Saturday so I headed with Alex to Akihabara, Tokyo's electronics mecca. The area is quirky and ridiculous – quintessentially Japanese. You can find comic books and DVDs of every anime character that has ever existed or crawl into one of the "maid cafes" that dot the neighborhood. If you need stimulation you can queue up for the Pachinko Slot rooms, massive floors with nothing but Japanese men and women of all ages watching spinning slot wheels and smoking. It's colorful and busy and everything I pictured Japan being.

We took in the Imperial Gardens also that day but I was tired in the evening with my illness and never made it out to see the Tokyo nightlife. Alas, maybe another trip. Sunday morning we walked through the Azakusa area and saw the famous Buddhist temple there, and I took the elevator up Tokyo Tower to get a glimpse of the city from up high, though the city is far too big for you to be able to see all of it.

In my limited time in Tokyo, I was impressed by a few things.
  • The quirkiness of Japanese culture – maid cafes and body-pillow girlfriends and Hello Kitty and those crazy slot machines
  • The incredible cleanliness of Tokyo – I have never seen a cleaner city. I think one could even eat off the floor of the Tokyo subway in the morning. Seoul is safe and clean too but Tokyo is simply the highest standard.
  • The calm and harmony amidst all that activity. At rush hour you find millions of people going every which way but somehow no one bumps into you. I walked quiet sidewalks in the center of one of the most densely populated metropolitan areas on Earth. Incredible.
  • The strong attachment to individuality, so different from Korea. The non-businesspeople express themselves through fashion so much more confidently than the conformist Koreans (Japanese businesspeople still conform). You see a lot of people alone in Tokyo...people eating alone, playing slots and video games alone. I imagine Tokyo could be an immensely lonely place for a foreigner (much like was shown in Lost in Translation).
I might go back to Tokyo while I am in Asia but I am definitely going back to Japan. It seems so relaxing.

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