Tuning in Tokyo

Haven’t yet unpacked my suitcase (nearly breaking my rule of unpacking no later than 48 hours after returning from a trip) or uploaded all my pix, but thought I’d share some initial thoughts on Japan, adapted from a note to a friend visiting in a few weeks.

Got back Sunday night from Tokyo, jet lag has abated (why was it a good idea to come home before a long work week?!). I absolutely loved Tokyo, and totally get why Husband loves it and doesn’t want to leave (he’s currently there until July 1st at a minimum). There is such an amazing energy there, everyone is polite and helpful when they can, and the bizarre and beautiful exists even in the most mundane of things. A couple things you should be aware of if you aren’t already:

1. Get a rail pass if you are planning on doing much train traveling. I went to Kyoto and back on the bullet train and used the JR
trains a lot in Tokyo, the rail pass was not a huge savings for me but if I had taken any more side trips, they would have essentially been free. You have to buy it before you leave for Japan, and for me going to the All Nippon office in Rockefeller Center was my first amusing Lost in Translation episode, spelling my last name for security was pretty hopeless.  Thought about reverting to maiden name, but apparently there is no word for lamb in Japanese, and might be Meg Little Sheep or something.

2. Japan is obscenely, shockingly expensive. Seriously, it makes NYC and London look like chump change. It is really easy to go through several hundred a day even without going to high-end restaurants. Only two things are cheap: cigarettes and umbrellas, since it rains a lot. Cabs are particularly pricey and should be taken sparingly. On the plus side: tipping is pretty non existent, so the bill is the bill. Some bars will charge a cover, but they’ll put it on the menu. We spent an impressive sum at the Park Hyatt bar one night, totally worth it for the Sakura martinis and views, but FYI, not very well-located, a long hike from the subway.

3. Most important thing to know: Japan is largely cash-based, and you can only use ATMs at Citibank (which you will hear pronounced “shitty bank,” try not to snicker), post offices, and 7-Elevens. Again, due to expensiveness, you’ll probably need to carry a lot of cash at a time.  The ATM tip should really be on the cover of every guidebook, it’s absolutely crucial.

4. Women are immaculately made up and polished. I never wear make up other than lipstick but felt like I had to go out fully done or I might scare people. Also, women (especially in Tokyo) tend to fall into two categories: very ladylike and demure in designer twinsets and pleated skirts, or tarted up in miniskirts, thigh highs, and high heels. After a few days, I was
no longer phased by the scandalous outfits everywhere: at the zoo, at a Buddhist temple, you name it. H refers to the outre fashions of Japan as Adult Swim (referring to resemblance to anime characters on Cartoon Network), but its fascinating to see that completely turn off during the work day when it is replaced with a sea of suits. I was amazed in general by the fashion there, so cutting edge, it makes New York look boring and mainstream.

5. Children are insanely cute and really well behaved. There were several Japanese kids on my flight and not a peep was heard on the 14 hour flight, when even I was ready to start crying and kicking seats. They are so cute and good, we should just give up, we can’t compete.

6. Smoking is everywhere, but it’s thoughtful. It’s allowed in pretty much all restaurants and bars, but not a lot on the street. This is not to restrict people’s behavior, it’s just because there are so many people and lit cigarettes can cause accidents and tons of litter. So instead you see ashtray stands and smoking areas all over the city. Same with drinking, you never see people drinking even a bottle of water on the street, it’s all done standing by a vending machine.

7. When H first arrived, he kept referring to taking a debit on the gaijin card or wondering how to refill the gaijin card. Gaijin means foreigner, not really derogatory but sometimes used like gringo. The gaijin card is a real thing, for extended visitors, but he’s referringto it like playing the gaijin card whenever doing something wrong. Japan is a very rule-based society, but you will generally be forgiven for your offenses if you’re a foreigner and maybe not know better. So anytime we walked down the street with a coffee in hand or crossed against the light or did something wrong at a restaurant, we referred to it as taking a debit.

8. The food is fantastic and fresh, don’t know why Tokyo is not thought of as more of a foodie destination. Like New York, it has
something for everyone, and I only ate sushi once, also having great Chinese, Korean, French and Italian food. Even prepared
noodles at a conveni (how they call convenience stores like 7-Eleven) are yummy.  I’m generally a wine drinker, somewhere in between a connoisseur and the less socially acceptable wino, but wine is generally overpriced and not that great.  Love sake (have to resist urge to say “sake it to me!” and grinning like a goon everytime I have it) but found shochu to be the most cost effective drink: stronger than sake but weaker than vodka, good for sipping with water and ice.

9. We went to Kyoto on the recommendation of everyone, and while it’s full of important and interesting temples, I was underwhelmed. Maybe I was expecting the whole city to be more magical and charming, but it just seemed like a smaller city without the edge and energy of Tokyo, and a lot more gaijin tourists than the typical gaijin expats in Tokyo. I’m glad I went there, it’s certainly worth the time, but I don’t think I’d go back. Biggest letdowns: Silver and Golden Pavillions.  Most awesome: views from Kiyomizu Temple and the statues at Sanjusangendo Hall. The bullet train is hella cool, though, and I’d be interested in seeing Osaka, Nara, and Kobe in the future.

10. As I mentioned often on Facebook and Twitter, the toilets are amazing, nearly all are outfitted with the electronic washets that can make music, spray you with water, auto open and shut the lids, and heat your seat. I can’t believe these haven’t caught on in the US, and now regular toilets seem so dull.  On the flipside, I used a squat toilet for the first time there, and got sort of used to them too. Generally, if there are multiple stalls in a public bathroom, there will be a western option. Also, I loved how
public restrooms were abundant, free, and clean, though many don’t have paper towels/hand dryers, so you may want to carry a little towel or hankie.

Bonus fascinating fact learned from H’s business: when golfing in Japan, it is customary to go all out if you get a hole-in-one, meaning you not only buy everyone a drink, you get your wife a new piece of jewelry, your buddy a car, etc. Because of this
chance of a major expense, most Japanese insurance carriers will have a hole-in-one rider covering you for the loss.

More to come after I have photos uploaded.

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