[Travel] Tokyo – 13 years later (東京、13年後。)

By Frankey

Reading time: 5 minutes


ようこそ[2]! Welcome to old country. Wow. This is where dreams are made of. And this is where dreams are lost. This is the land of surmounting ironies and contradictions – the land of contrasts. Black-crested tsunamis of suited salarymen oversaturate the horizon against measured and strong-willed gendered binaries. 葛飾 北斎[3] would have had a field day. Tall organic impositions float across the immaculately painted zebra crossings connecting footpaths and highways in orchestrated chaotic movements. Neither litter nor rubbish a tumbleweed concept in spite of a noted absence of rubbish bins. This is the harmonious disharmony of Tokyo that separates it from the plethora of smog-infested metropolises across the globe.

And yet I long for the once reliably predictable free sample of pocketable tissues. I yearn for the ubiquitous flip phone. For this is a now a new Tokyo for me: a matured perspective projecting against a well-fermented culture.[4] Sure there exists a renewed sense of openness about the streets and neon lights,[5] but as I pan across the gentle horizon, it’s hard to escape the fact that homogeneity pervades as the plat du jour.

[1] Round 2.

[2] Welcome.

[3] Kastushika Hokusai.

[4] See further, sake, mirin, umeboshi, natto, etc.

[5] Now more LED in its second wind.

People and Culture – 人と文化

Waiting in line remains the favoured cultural pastime, second only to unreserved kindness and hospitality. Dedicated footpaths dictate where to stand, while friendly instructors[1] guide patient bystanders through relevant places in omnipresent queues, unafraid to employ the use of loudspeakers to deliver relevant announcements in the nicest way possible. They beat to a rhythmically tamed drum that’s readily melodic, helping to pass the time.

Unspoken/unwritten notions of decency seem to guide all behaviours. Vocal inflexions extend beyond general courtesies into realms of warm welcomes and pleasing goodbyes that instil positive vibes and fevered smiles in perpetuity; a positive juxtaposition against the plastic grins of the United Static Statues of Americanos. Going above and beyond is a minimum accepted standard and I feel incredibly at ease and at peace everywhere I go, cheek to cheek.

Deep in the multiple hearts of the metropolis, restaurants and establishments concentrate within towering skyscrapers. If something’s not on the first floor, it’s likely on the 2F, 3F, 4F or 5F. Never before has it been so important to always look up. And never before has it felt so possible to walk through a street over and over without having fully grasped its contents.

Crowded step-by-step migrations fill the jam-packed Shibuya-style-crossings in the same vicinities as quiet, peaceful backstreets. In the same breath, I can feel the heat of the commuters beside me, and by the same exhale, find myself in an eerie tranquil abandonment. Claustrophobia and intimacy somehow manage to meet each other in the same stride. While admittedly, peak hour seats trade at commodity prices equivalent to handfuls of wasabi roots,[2] the experience is never too exhausting.

[1] Identifiable occasionally by primitive arm bands clipped to their left biceps.

[2] Pre-grated, of course.

Hygiene – 衛生

Not to be confused with the appropriately timed Halloween festivities, surgical masks adorn the faces of the weary and wary, enforcing barriers to protect them from others and to protect others. This is a cultural norm that takes some getting used to. At first rather daunting and peculiar, they’re eventually non-eventful. Oh and they’re readily available at local 7-Elevens and Lawsons for a cool ¥200-300 should you wish to assimilate.[1]

Going to the bathroom is an entire experience. Toilet seats lift and open automatically upon entry, cleaning you before they clean themselves (Tokyo water being notorious for moisturising you from the outside in); robotically yet cannily thanking you for your efforts and wishing you a pleasant day. どうもありがとうございました。[2] Although admittedly baffling at first, they’re surprisingly enjoyable in spite of the alienating buttons and symbols. Do try it. #bidet4life

But every now and then something throws you off to remind you that you’re still in Asia,  and there’s still a ways to go, despite the technological advances. Smoking remains an occasionally acceptable behaviour indoors, sometimes even encouraged. A sudden derelict whiff slaps you at the oddest moments. On the streets, however, under the gaze of the public eye, smoking is prohibited in all but designated squares like cordoned timeouts.

[1] Or appropriate.

[2] Thank you very much.

Food – 食物

Eating is a respected ritual. Magical portals extend from winding corner bends to replenish drained fuel reserves with umami-laden feasts, ad ramen, ad udon, ad soba, ad infinitum. Pre-meal hot towels (お絞り) are provided on entry to almost every restaurant, to assist with cleansing your hands and face.[1] It’s important to note, however, that according to deciphered signage, food and drink must only be eaten within or directly outside establishments. Although takeaway is sometimes available, it’s a social taboo to walk and eat/drink. ママ[2] says no.

[1] And to remind you of being on an airplane, of course.

[2] Mama.

Drinks – 飲料

Beer exists to the extent that it flourishes moreso in the alleyways and streets, readily available at suburban vending machines a stone’s throw away from your typical classy establishment. Generally accompanied with 焼肉,[1] beer provides fun for all ages. Saké (酒) is slowly falling out of fashion, but where available, is poured vigorously, decadently, and overflowingly into subsisting saucers in gestures of grandeur and over-accommodation. It’s important not to freak out. When in doubt, fake it ’til you make it. In most circumstances, you’ll consider it to be more than deliciously adequate. For something harder to end the night, whisky is most accessibly consumed in its Nikka variety, served on the rocks; floral and light, this eponymous variant is reminiscent of whimsical frolics through cherry blossom orchards.[2]

[1] Grilled meat.

[2] Naked.

Money – お金

Cash persists as king and it’s the only universally accepted form of payment. The typical Tokyo inhabitant is said to walk around with wads of it. Look closely. Credit cards are rarely accepted, except for perhaps significantly large purchases like art and electronics or transactions in museums and fancy restaurants. ¥100 coins grant limitless access to baggage storages all over the area, provided you have one on you.

Feature image taken by Frankey at Arashio-Beya.

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