First Impressions of Japan

Tokyo, Japan - 

Matt Haas wrote:

What are the buildings and environment like?

In Asakusa, the neighborhood of our hostel, everything is pretty downtempo. Buildings are small, crowds are about what you'd get in LA, and things have a shabby but impeccably clean feeling to them. Much of the Tokyo area is like that. Any neighborhood that wasn't touched by the "economic miracle" of the 1980s still consists of 1950s-era low rise buildings with a few prefab skyscrapers thrown in for good measure.

The prefab skyscrapers are really odd. I've only seen two so far. They're smallish buildings, maybe 10-15 stories and seriously no more than 20 feet wide. Probably not much deeper than that, either. They appear to be made of one solid piece of burnished metal, and they're usually wedged into an alleyway between two larger buildings. They are extremely strange – I don't know if they're actually prefab, but they sure look like it. They tend to stand out from the surrounding scenery.

Downtown in Shinjuku, the story is much different. This is the Japan you always see in movies and TV: buildings soaring above the street, huge lit neon signs, animated video displays that take up the entire face of a building, etc. Crowds everywhere! I had dinner with Levi last night in Shibuya, and he took us to see Shibuya crossing which is the largest pedestrian crossing in the world. When the "Walk" light turns green, more than 1500 people cross the street at the same time in all directions. And this was at 8:00pm!!! Standing on the curb, all I could see was a sea of glossy black hair bobbing up and down, floating on top of black trench coats.

The black trench coat is the nighttime uniform of the salaryman army. When you hear people talking about how the Japanese are all conformists and have identical beliefs, habits, tastes, etc, this is who they're referring to. In fact, Japanese conformity is a myth; I've seen as many different styles of dress and haircut and personality here as you'd see in the West. But business here is steeped in tradition. During the day, everyone with a decent job speaks and acts and dresses the same. There's even a special (and extremely complicated) set of bowing rules for business situations.

Remember how I showed you the web page explaining the formal order of seating in a car? Everything is like that in business, from the exchange of business cards on down to the order in which people walk through a doorway. I can see how Americans have gotten the idea that Japanese are all interchangeable units. If we don't come here and see them in patrie, all of our impressions are based on the behavior of Japanese businessman in the US, which in turn is based on a system of rigid etiquette.

As for the insides of the buildings, it's pretty wild! In the worn-around-the-edges district where we're staying, doorways come up to my neck. Windows are about at chest level. Yesterday I told Max that, for me, living in Japan is like living aboard a ship: everything is in miniature. Public spaces aren't so bad; businesses, subway stations, and the like tend to make their doors and ceilings higher to accomodate foreigners and ever-taller Japanese youth. But 50s-era private homes and guesthouses are so small, it's surreal. Our room at Khaosan Tokyo guesthouse is about 1/3 the size of my room at Sylvan, and most of the space is occupied by a bunk bed. Not that I'm complaining, mind you – for $22 per night per person, I'll make a few sacrifices.

I find myself ducking almost nonstop as I walk around the city – I've worked out a kind of waddling motion where I drop my hips in order to avoid bowing to get through a doorway, because bowing in public soemtimes leads to a return bow from some poor Japanese who happened to be walking past.

As foreigners, we aren't expected to know or follow the rules of bowing. When someone bows to us we can just sort of nod our heads, and when we bow, we get a perfunctory, halfhearted bow in return. Still, I've been trying to work on my bowing skills because they seem impressed when I speak my few words of Japanese and do my bowing. It's all about the timing, which they taught us in aikido, but which I'm still not very good at. Ideally, you bow in unison with the person who initiated the bow, starting and ending at the same times. This, of course, requires that you develop a sixth sense that lets you know when someone is starting to bow, and when they've finished (even though you can't see them directly while you yourself are bowing). With a couple years of practice, I'm sure I'd get it.

Yesterday we spent knocking around Ueno, the university district that's definitely part of the run-down, older Tokyo. Today we're off to the sleek, ultramodern (and frighteningly expensive) Shinjuku, Roppongi, and Shibuya. We're hoping to find another hostel to move to day after tomorrow, so we can experience the crazy Tokyo nightlife without coming home when the subways close at midnight. I fear the guesthouses and hostels might all be too expensive, though. As a basic comparison:

So you see, it is possible to eat and live cheap in Japan. You just need to know where to look.

The Hard Rock was the smallest one I have ever seen, EVAR. It was about the size of the McDonald's on Fairview, minus the parking lot (since it was inside a train station). That didn't change the prices, though. If I were to inclined to eat a burger while I'm here (which I'm not), I would go to Freshness Burger, a popular nationwide chain.