Thursday, August 20, 2009

Things I'd forgotten about Tokyo

Walking around Shinjuku this afternoon, brushing past offers of cheap beer, moderately priced women and a room to sing songs, I realized I had forgotten how aggressively people sell things here.

You learn to tune it out, because as you walk down the street people – and robots -- are constantly beckoning you into shops. If you stop and show interest, you instantly get an enthusiastic, “please come in and take a look!” Yet fortunately, once you get inside, sales are usually not high-pressure. Tokyo people work hard to draw you in the door, then let you browse in peace.

This is just one of many things I'd forgotten about Tokyo. I left here 11 years ago, after spending nearly 8 years. Much of the time I spent selling stories about modern Japanese culture to various magazines, and with each story I learned a little more, so by the time I left I knew Tokyo as well as one could hope to understand an ever-evolving city of 20 million.

But in more than a decade away, I had forgotten some of the day-to-day realities. So here are a few random observations that people who live in Tokyo take for granted.

* Tokyo people are so earnest about their jobs. It's inconceivable to imagine the “I just work here” attitude you get from most American store clerks. And even though the service is great, you never have to tip anyone.

* I'd rather get my eyes examined by a Tokyo eyeglass shop employee than by an American optometrist. The Japanese are more accurate.

* Tokyo police are genuinely happy to give directions. I wouldn't ask a US cop for help unless, literally, my life depended on it. But I stopped a bicycle cop the other night, while looking for a certain noodle shop, and when he heard my question, he smiled immediately because he knew the answer, and he went out of his way to lead me there.

* There are free public toilets everywhere, and they're clean! Try saying that about a US city.

* Speaking of which, there's no vandalism, which allows many civilized touches. For example, every subway station has a defibrillator – that anyone can use -- with illustrated instructions. Can you imagine how long that would last on the New York subway before people starting shocking their homies?

* Most buildings have staircases on the outside, so they don't have to be heated and air-conditioned. That makes such good sense that it makes you wonder why more buildings worldwide aren't designed that way.

* When I lived here 11 years ago, a well-to-do area named Azabu-Juban had no train stations within a 15-minute walk. Now there's not only a subway station there – two entirely new subway lines serve it. In contrast, in California half of the Bay Bridge was destroyed by an earthquake 20 years ago and it still hasn't been rebuilt. Don't tell me that's a more difficult engineering project than tearing up Tokyo and adding two entirely new subway lines. In Tokyo, when people decide to do something, it gets done.

* There's no reason to ever go hungry here. Every street is teeming with quick noshing options: noodles, grilled meat skewers, rice balls. And there's more delicious food to be found in the average Japanese convenience store than in the average American supermarket. What's amazing is that, surrounded by all this, Japanese manage to stay thin.

* There's no societal prohibition here whatsoever against alcohol. Feel like a drink? You can buy canned cocktails from vending machines or 12-year-old whiskey in a 200 ml bottle from your local convenience store. If there's an anti-alcohol lobby, I never heard about it.

* Speaking of no societal prohibition, sex is for sale casually and cheaply under a lot of different guises, even in business districts, if you know what the signs say. (Hint for non-Japanese readers: Look for bathtubs, soap bubbles and signs in bright pink.)

* Coca-Cola is way more omnipresent here than in the US. You can barely walk 200 meters without passing a Coke-owned vending machine.

* Shinjuku train station handles four times as many people in a day as the entire BART system in San Francisco. You could sit anywhere in the station with a camera all day and not be bored.

* That said, Tokyo is so frantic that if you're goofing off for a couple hours, you feel out of place. There's endless shopping and eating, but so little green space. Sitting and reading a book, a favorite activity of backpackers everywhere, makes you stick out like the proverbial nail that must be hammered down.

* Older coffee shops, selling mediocre weak coffee for twice the cost of Starbucks, are still useful because what they're really selling is a quiet place to sit for awhile. I had forgotten how fast, crowded and hot-in-summer Tokyo is, so I retreated to these coffee shops twice in one afternoon.

* People generally shower at night instead of in the morning; this gets very apparent by afternoon on a hot day.

* On the trains, women read books; men flip through big manga (comics). There are fewer exceptions to this than I remembered.

* You always have to wear nice socks when visiting businesses because you never know when you'll have to look professional with your shoes off.

* Movies are expensive (about $18) and the last show starts at 6:30 p.m. in a country where most people are still at work then. I have no idea how movie theatres stay in business.

I grant you, none of these observations are original or ground-breaking. So maybe they're not worthy of Tokyo, which is both. I had also forgotten how much I love it here.

1 comment:

goma@sf said...

I'm gald that policeman on bicycle lead you to the ra-men shop. how kind!
I wonder if I could ever go back to live there again. Maybe little too fast? SF is good place, not too fast, not too slow... Well, I miss Tokyo life.