The first thing that hit me on arriving in Tokyo was how misrepresented Japan is by the media outside the country. Linguistically isolated as it is, the constant portrayal it commands seems inadequate and sometimes downright wrong. We had a vision in our minds, generated by movies such as "Lost In Translation". We found that major parts of the movie exaggerated a few tiny aspects of the Tokyo-ite culture, and completely missed the cooler aspects of the country, which it has in such profound quantities as to make most other cultures look downright stuck-up.
Let's consider vending machines. While the world looks on vending machines as the crowning stone of retail marketing, most of Japan has machines that deliver heated cans with the beverage of your choice in winter as a matter of course; this apart from the thousands that serve other needs such as cigarettes. And there are 2.7 million of them in Tokyo alone. In front of the Tokyo station, we saw groups of little girls in bowler hats and grandmas on bicycles, strolling about with ease amongst groups of exceptionally well dressed men and women. This juxtaposition was astonishing and cool at the same time – showcasing a unique culture.
After an initial scare seeing the maze the natives call the subway map, we were frankly amazed at the effortless efficiency with which it all worked. There are several private lines, meld together into a sort of seamless whole which exists to transport you from point A to point B with the least bit of hassle and fuss. The people are quiet inside the subways out of politeness to other travellers, quite surprising. This amount of courtesy in a culture was new to me; I have never before or after seen it in such situations. Cities have a habit of turning slightly unruly and ugly as more and more people cramp into smaller spaces. Tokyo however, seems to have perfected the art of being a modern metropolis that works like a dream.
Thirty minutes from one of the most populous, largest cities in the world, is Chidoricho, a small town that retains its small-town charm. It has tiny pastry shops and bakeries where fresh bread is baked in the mornings, with little streets and packed houses adding to the small-town charm.
Tokyo hides its tiny little oases everywhere. We wandered around, lost, asked directions of a woman at which point she actually turned around and walked us to our ryokan (the Japanese style inn where we were staying). This was fairly typical of the sort of effort people took when we asked for any sort of help. The kindness the Tokyo-ites showed us went way above the call for normal politeness. Tokyo has been institutionalized, but this doesn’t seem to be causing any bad effects. To some extent, institutionalizing is a good way to develop a culture in which courtesy is valued.
For the weekend we met up with a couple of friends – Mamoru-san and Kurata-san – who took us around Tokyo for a Saturday evening and the entire Sunday. They completely altered our perception of Japanese executives as soon as we started in on the sake. They took us to an Izakaya, a Japanese drinking and dining house, something uniquely Japanese where each group gets its own tiny room of tatami mats and sunken floors. In translation these are often called the pubs of Japan, but like no pubs I have gone to ever before or after. It is a totally different atmosphere. “In Tokyo, everyone friend", Mamoru-san proclaimed loudly and confidently. This seemed to be the overriding motto as he backed his claim up by going and talking to the strangers at the table next to us. Soon we were cheering together to Bombay, Tokyo and Seattle for some reason in unison, while the Izakaya hosts very politely repeatedly asked us to keep our cheering down. Four bottles of shochu later, the cheering didn’t quiet down in any meaningful fashion, I must say. As night wore on, everyone else was making enough noise and having fun. We didn’t seem out of place at all.
The next day, armed with massive hangovers, we had our breakfast in one of the millions of cafes scattered around the city. This one had a 60’s Hollywood decor, with old posters and musical instruments lining the walls, inside a café with approximately six tables. Later that night we went to a tiny basement club called Jazz Club Intro in Shinjuku, one fourth of the floor space was taken up by a grand piano. Tokyo has a great jazz scene, and this was a good place to go. There were five tables and a bar. It quickly filled up as old businessmen, shunin, found their way in. Some had been patrons of the club for the past 32 years, they told us, ever since the club opened. After a rousing demonstration of jazz skill by the proprietor and his lovely student, he showed us his independently produced, recently released CD.
We later went on a visit to Gala Yuzawa, a town a bit far from Tokyo, which has a ski resort. We used the famed bullet train (shinkansen), an absolute must for anybody who goes to Japan. It’s better to get a JR rail pass, which can only be bought outside Japan, otherwise, travel is prohibitively expensive. The train though, is fantastic – fast, comfortable and undeniably cool.
After we reached the resort, we got the snowboarding equipment like pros and went to the beginner slope. Slipping down snow is not as easy as it sounds. After looking like idiots for quite some time, we decided to stay on for a night and learn it properly the next day. After the lesson, which included some demoralizing demonstrations from Takashi, our instructor, such as snowboarding backwards, we got good enough to climb slowly up the talent ladder. We were now considered merely bad, as opposed to being the worst.
Snowboarding is a sport that makes you look undeniably cool; you feel like a king. Ah! What I wouldn’t give for a childhood near a snowy mountain – I could have been doing all sorts of crazy tricks instead of concentrating on not falling on my face.
We had a short sojourn to Kyoto as well, but had barely any time to look around before we had to head back to Tokyo for our flight. Kyoto is quieter than Tokyo and more laid back. The palaces were a bit of a letdown because they are just very large houses, and not nearly ornate enough, rather drab. Having seen the gold and ivory inlaid arches of the Mughal palaces and the stone and timber marvels of southern maharajas in India, probably jaded me. There was a great sense of charm about it, especially in a minimalist elegant sense. I like palaces to be large, overpowering and ornate. As the guide pointed out, the palaces kept getting destroyed frequently by fires, so I think the builders might have gotten fed up of constructing buildings only to have them burned down.
The best part of Japan is that even with the language barrier, you feel like you want to communicate, but don't try. This common feature had us stumbling through our arigatos and sumimasens while the people we spoke to battled valiantly through their English. The bad communication was irritating, but the effort the Japanese put forth helped us be more determined to communicate better.
From what I have read and heard, Japan is a polarizing place, with people having radically different experiences. I honestly can say that mine was way up in the "awesome" column, even accounting for the communication breakdown. I am trying hard to learn Japanese, which speaks for itself.