Tokyo – Expectation and Reality

I had a vision of Tokyo, formed from popular perceptions, colored by movies and photos, enhanced from books I have read and stories told by one traveler to another;

I imagined a city of crammed streets, bright lights, pockets of glitter and gold catering to the jet setting rich of multi-national corporations, the populous eating ramen in late night stalls that fit only 4 so good it would challenge New Orleans for flavor, a city of strange unspoken habits and customs, ancient Shinto rituals at animist shrines vying with the Buddhist monasteries on holidays.

That’s not what I found.
I think Tokyo is all of that, only different.

The first thing that strikes you (me) about Tokyo is just how spacious it is; totally destroyed during WWII, the city was rebuilt with wide boulevards, an extensive metro and city rail, and plenty of green space. Its as if Manhattan was rebuilt today, only with better roads, spread out in twice the area (or more), and kept spotlessly clean. I expected the Taipei/old HK/Bangkok style building on top of building built into another building urban density. Not here!

I did quickly learn that Tokyo is the most expensive city in the world; its like London where if you have a job paid in pounds its fine, but all foreigners suffer. The dollar looses about 20% in exchange, and everything has South Beach prices to begin with. You can find anything you want here for the right price.

The food in Japan is dichotomous; chains and “cheap eats” are ever present and, at least to my pallet, terrible. Akin to going to a Japanese restaurant in State College, PA, run by Chinese chiefs that learned how to cook after opening a restaurant by reading the recipes on the store bought boxes of noodles they serve.
On the other hand, the high price specialty restaurants and the “low price” local restaurants are amazing; turns out sushi is about more than subtly, hand made soba noodles are less filling than a similar amount of pasta, miso is a digestif, and raw horse meat is a potent aphrodisiac.

It took a while to find the strange unspoken habits of the young Japanese; the formerly edgy Harajuku has been reduced to a hip name brand shoppers paradise , Shinjuku is an upscale version of Harajuku, and Ginza is where you go to buy jewels and clothing for those who can afford jewels.
Yet there is some strange fashion in Japan, particularly used American clothing, and modified Cowboy outfits; I like to describe them as postmodern beatnik retro cowboy. The really strange stuff seems to be concentrated at Electric city in Akihabara  where you can find the office telephone super store next to a maid cafe (“welcome home master”) next to a porn store (so much for censorship) next to a high tech computer store. Things get worrisome the deeper you walk in because it gets harder to tell the differences between the stores. Also strangely, in the hour it took to walk through electric town, I saw more foreigners than anywhere else…. who exactly comes to japan?

Finally, japan has an ancient culture (if you don’t ask the Chinese) held in a comfortable purgatory between “western knowledge” and tradition (as so eloquently written about by Okakura (Book of Tea), only sometimes its more western than you expect, only to be more Japanese when you don’ are Japanese on the outside and western on the inside….  The Buddhist monasteries all have Shinto shrines on there grounds or right next to them (the saying is “Japanese are born Shinto, and die Buddhist”)…

Tokyo is a world class city, and a week is far too short to know it; for all my time there I know I have barley scratched the surface. I’ll be back, and next time I’ll bring more money.

Migrated Comments

Emily Huang

So accurate on the cultural aspects of the city- especially Akihabara! There’s a documentary just about the whole ‘western frontier’ influence on the Japanese and their fascination with it. How the interpret it is the amusing part.

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