I spent this spring break in Tokyo. The purpose? To meet with Rakuten for an hour to discuss my CS 210 group project. Along the way though, we got to experience Tokyo. A truly amazing city filled with deeply polite people.
I have never prepared less for a trip in my life. We all had finals before we left for Tokyo, and thus were focused on gulping down caffeine to study instead of planning our awesome trip. Literally the only thing we did in preparation was book a place to stay the night before we left. It was a running joke up until we took off to Japan when we realized none of us had any clue what we were doing and none of us spoke Japanese.
As mentioned before, we knew nothing about Tokyo and then were forced to face the consequences upon arrival. Immediately after landing (in Narita airport) we had to figure out how to get to Tokyo. Unsurprisingly, we were stumped at the ticket machine. Luckily for us, a Japanese businessman decided to help three bumbling americans. He showed us which tickets to buy, and then, since he was going the same direction, rode with us back to our train stop.
At the train stop, he suggested we grab dinner together. Who were we to refuse such an offer? So our now good friend Abe (pronounced Ah-bay), took us to our hostel, waited for us to change, and then took us all to a nice japanese restaurant with his girlfriend. Abe began to tell us about all sorts of japanese culture. One of which is drinking. Abe ordered everyone many rounds of beer, of which his girlfriend immediately pounded. I’ve never seen 90 pound japanese woman drink so much so fast. Props.
Abe told us about his company and how many japanese have to trade off between being a family man and a career man. He was of the career type. There is unusual amounts of stress in Japan. So much so that his company averages 3-5 suicides a year! Also in Japan, there isn’t a way to fire a person (at least at his company), so the company will stop giving him work until he quits. This came as a surprise to us considering that if the same were done to us in America, we believe that we’d be ecstatic to receive no work yet still get paid. I think this probably has to do with the deeply rooted sense of honor in Japan, something that doesn’t quite exist in America. At midnight we finished dinner and Abe amazingly picked up the tab for three american strangers.
We were all incredibly thankful for his help and thanked our lucky stars that we had run into Abe. It seemed like something that would likely never happen again. Yet, the japanese surprised us again. Charlie, the 4th member of our group, came late to Tokyo due to exams. We had no cell communication with Charlie, no email, no nothing. The only thing Charlie knew was some outdated plan that would no longer work and the name of the hostel we were staying at.
I was honestly not expecting to see Charlie until our flight home. In my mind, there was no way Charlie would be able to figure out the train system, realize the plan he knew was no longer the plan and find his way through the winding streets to our hostel. Amazingly, Charlie ran into another friendly japanese businessman. The man travelled with Charlie to Tokyo and then rode with him in a cab to our hostel. What’s more, he paid for the cab.
If it weren’t for these encounters, I’m quite sure we would’ve been living on the streets of Tokyo for nine days. And it would have been lonely too; there were very few homeless people as far as we could tell.
One of the most interesting parts of Japan is the concept of capsules. Capsules are pod-like structures that you scoot into and sleep. They’re especially common among the cheap places to live (which is why we lived in them). They’re actually surprisingly cozy and private. We all slept extremely well.
Except for one night. Charlie and I were on a floor together sleeping in our capsules peacefully. When at 3am we were awoken by blood curdling screams. The stuff that gives you goosebumps. I’ve never heard a scream like that in my life and I hope to never hear one again; it is truly terrifying. Then we began to hear things being thrown around in addition to the screaming. There were about ten capsules on the floor. I was trying with all my might to try and figure out if he was right outside my capsule. No one dared to make a move, yet I’m positive everyone heard him. Amped up adrenaline I moved my myself into the most strategic defense position I could think of. I was basically ready to donkey kick anyone that opened my curtain. All of sudden, I heard a second voice, telling him to calm down. Then the screaming and throwing stopped, and he started stammering in a broken voice “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” I was too scared to go outside and look what happened so I have no idea what went on that night, but I would guess it had to with nightmares or stress. Made for quite a night!
Beyond the sleeping situation, the bathing consisted of sitting on a small stool and using a handheld shower head to wash yourself. There was definitely some sort of specific routine you were supposed to go through, but none of us could figure it out. The stool idea was a great one though, sitting in a shower makes so much more sense.
We visited a ton of places in Tokyo. Here are a few of my favorite.
Akihabara is called the “Electric City” and for good reason. This district is filled with lots of random electronics, most of which seem like they have no use. The streets are packed and there are tons of brightly lit buildings – almost enough to cause a small seizure. Within the alleys of electronics and lights, you can find yourself plenty of anime porn. This seems to be really big in Tokyo. Giant posters of half-naked cartoons are everywhere. Girls even dress like anime characters. The posters of women are photoshopped to make them look like children with big eyes which is supposed to make them look like anime.
Ueno park is absolutely beautiful. The park is filled with Sakura trees otherwise known as cherry blossom trees. We were very lucky to see the trees in bloom (they only bloom for two weeks out of the year). During this time of year people come to the park to drink and soak in the beauty. There’s also a zoo right next to the park which features a giant panda that eats bamboo all day long. Literally all day long.
If you want your dose of old Japan, this is the place. It has multiple shrines and temples. The place is usually packed. The streets are filled with stores where you can buy “traditional” japanese gifts (made in China). There are also tons of street vendors selling delicious foods — many of which are bean based.
Great place to chill out and watch hundreds of people cross the street. After walking around for hours during the day, we found Shibuya crossing to be an excellent spot for recuperation and caffeine drinking. It’s actually pretty incredible how many people cross the street at this intersection.
Random cultural observations
I’m by no means a japanese culture expert, and these are just based on my impressions.
This was shown when we first arrived by the businessmen. Beyond that though, it was the norm for us to ask for directions and then have the person actually stop what they were doing and walk us to our destination. They were also extremely understanding when it came to trains. If we bought the wrong ticket (happened often), the staff were more than happy to refund our ticket.
This probably stems from politeness, but, as foreigners, we could get away with anything. There were a few times we walked right through the gates to get to the train without a ticket, having the beeper sound, and no one would say anything.
Work hard play hard
Tokyo seemed to take this to an extreme. These guys really know how to drink. Any day of the week you can see businessmen packed into bars. Then they’ll go to work the next day for 18 hours.
Small portion sizes
With the exception of a few places, most restaurants served us extremely small portions (in comparison to the US). As four college-aged men, we spent most of our time hungry and looking for more food.
I thought Tokyo was extremely fashionable. No one wore sweat pants and the women always dressed up in extraordinarily high heels. Lots of the women were really into pocket mirrors. The men would either wear suits or something very chic. We were definitely underdressed.
Tokyo is very very clean. Especially inside many of the stores. In fact, the floors were so clean, that I felt like my reflection was making them dirtier. In the same vein, Tokyo has the nicest toilets ever. On multiple occasions I used heated toilet seats with multiple pressure bidet settings. One even had a blow drier for your butt after the bidet. The bidet had sniper like accuracy. Not sure how they always found my butt, but it never ever missed.
Go to Tokyo! It’s awesome.