Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Tokyo notes

  • At first, I was underwhelmed by Tokyo. There was a lot of neon and not enough grandeur. Because of the ravages inflicted on the capital city by war and earthquakes and the zealous rush to build quickly during the bubble economy, I found the city to be lacking in the visible history, elegance and diversity that makes other modern cities such as London and NYC so full of character. However, the more we explored, the more the city's diverse personality revealed itself to me. Glitzy Ginza, tawdry Roppongi, nerdy Akihabara, hip Naka-Meguru, swish Aoyama, flashy Shinjuku, gaudy Harajuku, trashy Shibuya, grown-up Ebisu... And there are some ultra modern architectural treats in each neighbourhood. The city quickly grew on me.

  • Road signs are difficult to spot. You have to be guided by familiar buildings or landmarks. However, there are vicinity maps on most streets and whether people speak good English or not, everyone will help you if you are lost.

  • Everyone waits at the crossing until the walk sign lights up, even if there is no traffic. We found this a very stress-free way of navigating the city. And despite this being a rich, capital city where a lot of money is made and people are very busy, we found that people walked at a slower pace than in NYC or in London or even in Paris.

  • People are addicted to their mobile phones here - not for chatting but for surfing the net or reading or texting or emailing. On trains, in stores, in elevators, on the subway, meandering down the middle of a busy street, in restaurants, with friends - everywhere, everyone with their noses in their clamshell cellphones.

  • The streets are the cleanest I have ever seen. People will carry their litter rather than throw it to the ground. Where bins exist - usually beside the numerous drinks vending machines on every street corner - they are separated into various types - paper, plastic, cans.

  • We didn't see any Tokyoites snacking on the streets and the vending machines sold only drinks or, more rarely, ice creams. The only people we saw snacking on chocolate and crisps were European or American tourists. Obviously we don't know what goes on in peoples' homes but we were also struck by the smaller portion sizes in restaurants, even in McDonald's.

  • I expected more people smoking. I get more bothered by people smoking on the street in London than in Tokyo and this surprised me. There are even signs embedded in the pavements requesting that people refrain from smoking on the street. In restaurants, the extractors were quite efficient and we were only troubled a few times.

  • People pay a lot of attention to what they are wearing - even on the weekend. Smart or casual, designer-clad or Harajuku-mix n' match, the attire was always clean, tidy and well thought out. Baggy pink ti-shirts, dirty trainers and messy hair were more likely to be seen on tourists than on a native Tokyoite. In fact, the attention to fashion detail and the overall chicness reminded me of the Marais district in Paris.

  • I didn't see a single female commuter in sneakers. Kitten and high heels everywhere, all the time! These girls will suffer in order to look good.

  • Tokyo is the city of neon - lots of it, flashing everywhere, even in the most nondescript of neighbourhoods.

  • The pachinko parlours, video game arcades and slot machine bars were crammed with suited men and women after work - perhaps preparing themselves for their long commute home to the suburbs.

  • Service in restaurants and stores and even on the subway was impeccable and attentive. People saying Hello and Goodbye and Can I Help You and Thank You.

  • Manga and anime are huge here. We descended into Shibuya's vast underground Mandarake store and saw numerous women alone or in pairs with other women browsing the shelves of romantic or sexual "boy love" manga and anime. There were fewer men on the Saturday night we were there, but they were browsing the manga (often quite violent) porn and the glass displays of new and rare manga figurines, comic books, stickers and posters, even original art work.

  • Books we finished on our trip: Haruki Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and South of the Border, West of the Sun; Ryu Murakami's 69; and Banana Yoshimoto's Hardboiled / Hard Luck.


Bombay Beauty said...

Great notes! I went a long time ago with my parents (long ago indeed!) One additional thing I remember is the dignity with which everyone performed their tasks, no matter how trivial. In the US, the waiter or the porter gives you some "I'm just doing this for now and am really better than you"-attitude. Whereas in Japan they would not take tips or appear sullen. I was also amazed by social etiquette: there were greeters as you enter shops, when lifts open and close, and the young girl carrying the food trolley on the bullet train bowed as she entered and exited the compartment, even though no one was looking at her. I'm told by the Japanese that all of this can be stultifying as well.

Lastly, now that you're back, you must see Tokyo-ga by Wim Wenders. Not sure how profound it is, but very evocative.



I love Lucy said...

Wowie!That made for a very interesting read!
I used to deal with the Japanese on a regular basis during my previous job and the one thing that I can say with confidence is that they believe very strongly in hierarchy and rank and formality!
And nice pictures too!Look forward to reading some more Tokyo tidbits!

Olivia said...

Thanks for the very succinct and descriptive notes, they were so interesting to read. will there be more? :)

Great pics too - how do you tile them like that? I am getting bogged down in mine and don't quite want to do a Picasa mosaic...

Joop said...

wow! sounds like a lot of fun and yummy food :)

I agree with the smoking comment you made there. Japanese are more considerate by smoking in designated area. The thing I hate the most is walking right after a smoker and sucked in all his/her puff.

Wish there would be more photos :P

Planethalder said...

Thank you all for your comments. More photos and posts on our trip to come, I promise.

Olivia - email me planethalder at gmail and I'll send you code I use as it's all pure HTML (or you may be able to right click on post and view source to see).