Japan: Tokyo

Godzilla!

Godzilla!

So what’s up with the title, “Japan: Tokyo”?

I was lucky enough to experience a 17-day odyssey through the Land of the Rising Sun.  This was part business, but all pleasure.  It was an amazing voyage filled with food so good it made me want to cry, gorgeous vistas, and amazingly friendly people.  In short, this was the trip of a lifetime, something that I’d been dreaming of doing for years.  Somehow, this October, the stars lined up and the gods smiled down on me, and off I went, taking a short hop to Chicago, from where I grabbed an ANA flight to Tokyo.  Luckily, I had enough points to upgrade to Business Class, something absolutely essential for a 12+ hour flight.

Welcome aboard

The moment I stepped on the plane, things became Japanese.  Flight attendants bowed to their guests, and service took a serious step up (note to all American carriers: this is how to do it right).  I was so excited, I couldn’t sleep on the flight, but luckily the food was shockingly outstanding, and the Champagne (so-so but I wasn’t complaining) free-flowing.  And of course, the entertainment system was top-notch.

First Udon, still on the plane

Landing in Tokyo and making my way to the hotel was surreal (and not just thanks to jet-lag): though I knew they drove on the left side of the road, it was somewhat disconcerting at first.  The whole left/right thing continued on the sidewalks, where it seemed that no side was correct, though most folks seemed to gravitate to the left side (opposite of the US and Europe). In the subways, some stairs were marked Stay Left, others Stay Right, as if they couldn’t make up their mind.  Even though I had been culturally coached by my travelling companions, all my gestures felt clumsy and aggressive.  And though I am not that tall, I did feel like I was standing out like a sore thumb (warning: they are not afraid to stare, something I encountered more once we left Tokyo).  The language barrier was rather intimidating of course, but luckily there are apps for that (for offline use, unless I was within a Wifi signal – phones with Wifi calling capability ROCK, BTW).  And of course there was all that bowing.

Tokyo, BTW, is huge.  I mean HUGE.  Living in NYC you often feel that it’s large, which it is, but this was on a completely different scale.  After walking around for hours, I thought I’d seen a large chunk of the city, but a quick glance at my map shocked me: there was a LOT left to see…

Of course, there were some things I HAD to see: Tsukiji Market, the Sword Museum (a childhood passion of mine, even now at my advanced age), and famous areas like Ginza, Meiji Shrine.  But to me, to really get the feel of a city, you have to walk its streets, see the way its people live and work, and immerse yourself fully in the culture.  Happily, I walked a LOT, along avenues, across streets and even through alleys under train tracks (the city’s very, very safe).

Speaking of the culture, did I mention how amazingly good the food was?  From my first bowl of ramen under the main train tracks in Chyoda, to the Kaiseki meal in Ise Peninsula, to our meat-tasting orgy in Kyoto and Takayama, this trip probably had the best food I’ve ever eaten.  And I’ve eaten a LOT.  Granted, it was, except for one slightly shamefully yummy hotel hamburger (yes, it was pouring in Kyoto and we didn’t want to go outside, sue me), all Japanese food.  But I was there to learn about the culture of the place, and food is a big part of that learning experience.

Ramen!

There is a respect for the source and history of ingredients that I found extremely interesting.  Hida beef tastes that way because it comes from there, Hokkaido butter is the way it is because it’s from that northern island, and so on and so forth.  It’s very similar to the French idea of terroir, that things taste the way they do because they come from certain places.  It’s an idea I respect and appreciate, and something I seek out as much as possible.  If everything tastes the same, then it comes from nowhere or anywhere, and how interesting is that?

Say Bonjour in Japanese!

In fact, there were many similarities to French culture, which was pretty surprising.  The unattainable quest for perfection in all aspects of life was very evident.  Several times my pronunciation was corrected by shopkeepers or waiters/waitresses, something that someone learning French in France should be used to.  The formal and polite aspects of interpersonal relationships were also very comparable.  In addition, you always greet shopkeepers upon entering their establishments (granted, this isn’t French-only, but it’s where I’ve seen it the most).  Maybe this is why, despite the language and the writing, I felt very comfortable very rapidly.

Another very fascinating aspect of Japanese culture is how technologically advanced they are in the real world, yet their virtual presence is still rather lackluster.  Trying to get hotel information from the Web was sometimes frustrating, and using the Internet to get train timetables nearly impossible unless you can read Kanji.  There is also the well-publicized push-pull tension between ancient customs and modernity.  The mindset can be sometimes maddeningly rigid, which is quaint unless you’re in a hurry or need to do something in a different manner.  Then you’re in trouble…

TGV Japan-style

But then you get on a Shinkansen bullet train, and find yourself flying along the tracks at 200+ mph in comfort and safety.  That certainly makes up for any frustrations.  And of course the people are warm and friendly, and luckily patient as I mangled their language more often than not.

Take me to your leader (Meiji Shrine)

Strangely enough, I found myself almost responding several times in Spanish, of all things.  The only explanation I can come up with is that I travel mainly between the US and France.  If I’m not in either nation, I’m usually in Spain.  So my mind was automatically switching to the non-US/France filter, which was rather odd.  Especially as the Japanese language has a sing-song quality that is reminiscent of French.  Then again, maybe I’m just screwed up…

Some Tokyo food porn pics.

Next- Japan: Market Watch- Tsukiji