How to describe Tokyo? Let me try. This city is all about layers. If a highway gets too crowded, lanes aren’t widened, another highway is built on top of the first…or under it. Same goes for the trains. At first glance, the map of the Tokyo train system; a combination of subway and surface trains, looks like something a cranky toddler would sketch on the dining room wall. Every color in the box of Crayolas (that’s the big box with the sharpener), is represented; and amazingly enough it all works. Riding the trains is entertainment in itself. I hold my breath every time I step out of the train station to see what is in store for me. Is it bustling Shinjuku, the business hub; or Shibuya (Shi-BOO-YA), with all it’s dazzling lights; or the historic charm of Asakusa or Ueno? The malls of Odaiba, the endless ski and snowboard shops of Ochanomizu, the buzzing hum of electronics in Akihabra, or the glitz and glam of Ginza? What…….? It is all of those things. But the best part about Tokyo is that no matter what train station you stop at, you feel like you’ve arrived someplace new and exciting. Sure, there are tall buildings and lights and people, people, people. But there are also subtle differences. Here’s an exercise for you. Think of the coolest urban place you’ve ever been. Now inject that thought with a Barry Bonds-size dose of steroids. That’s Tokyo. But despite the bulking up that neighborhoods in Tokyo have done in the past 60 years, they haven’t lost their charm, history, and specific utility. Product specific stores congregate together and compete so that just about anyone, from any socio-economic class, can go into a neighborhood and get what they need. The fashion savvy person will go to the high-end store, pay full retail and walk out happy. The penny pincher will look for the sales. And the folks hard on their luck will go to the outlet store that buys up all of the crap from last year that the other stores couldn’t sell. It’s capitalism thriving, truly. (Don’t tell Walmart.) I have to say that Tokyo is far less intimidating than I had expected. Yes, there are 12 million people rushing by you constantly, but if you’re not on a time schedule and just there to see the sights, they are endless indeed. Come to Japan and I’ll show you.
WelcomeHere lies the chronicle of my three years of travels around the world, mostly in Asia. I've got lots of stories, lots of pictures, and hopefully some useful advice you can benefit from along the way. Enjoy.
Walking down any street in Tokyo, you never get the feeling that you’re in a city by the sea, but you are. Perhaps it’s the inescapable bigness of Tokyo; the endless sea of buildings and roads piled higher and higher on top of each other, blocking out any vista, suffocating the sea. Tokyo has forgotten the ocean. Shinjuku, the center of business and government is several kilometers inland, as is Shibuya and Shimbashi. Odaiba, a shopping district built from the dredging of Tokyo bay has attempted to recapture the maritime spirit with lavish malls and futuristic architecture, but lacks history and nostalgia. It feels more western than Japanese. Tokyo is lucky then to have its neighboring city to the south, Yokohama, to provide an alternative to the hyper-metropolis that it has become. In Yokohama you can take a deep breath and smell the ocean, and while of course you can’t always see it, you always know where is, just over your shoulder. I felt so comfortable in Japan’s second largest city that 3.5 million people call home. Many Japanese people don’t realize Yokohama holds this distinction, often giving Osaka or Nagoya the number two rank, but this may be because Yokohama will forever lie in Tokyo’s shadow. But there it lies, comfortably I think, and welcoming. Yokohama has a long history of welcoming foreigners like me. Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. stayed near Yokohama in 1854 on his second trip to Japan on a mission of cracking what was at that time nearly three hundred years of isolationism. Upon his first trip he headed straight for the capital Edo (now Tokyo), and was promptly told to get lost. But he came back, stayed in Yokohama, and told the Shogun that if Japan didn’t trade with the U.S., his fleet would head north up the bay and start shelling the capital. While U.S. foreign policy has stayed consistently arrogant over the years, Yokohama has from 1854 onward known only change. This event cemented Yokohama’s role as port city for the nation of Japan and remains the largest port to this day. In 1923 the great Kanto earthquake reduced much of Tokyo and Yokohama to rubble and ash. In five years they were rebuilt. Then came the bombing raids of WWII which destroyed 40% of both Tokyo and Yokohama. These are two cities that have both risen from the same apocalyptic circumstance to shape themselves in distinctly different ways. Tokyo is a city of energy and light, both exciting and suffocating. In Yokohama you can stretch out your arms, stroll the boardwalk, or snap a photo of Japan’s tallest building, the Landmark Tower. You could even do cartwheels in Yamashita Park without kicking anyone. (Not an option in Tokyo). And of course no one should miss one of the most vibrant Chinatown’s in the world (chukagai in Japanese). (The food’s great but kind of pricey, but Peking duck makes you fat anyway). Yokohama is vibrant, charming, and by far my favorite city in Japan so far. But keep in mind that the grand total is four. I wish you were all here.
It’s Wednesday afternoon, I’m in a carpeted room, scrambling on my hands and knees to find a little foam letter R. If I don’t find this letter then I can’t spell Mahiro, and if I spell Mahiro in 30 seconds instead of 20, Mahiro-chan’s little four year old mind begins to wander toward the first thing she can pick up and throw at me. All I need is a R…she eyes an orange plastic cone…where the hell is the R…she winds up…ah-hah, here it is, finally! I’m struck in the left temple and she looks at me like I just dropped a second base pop-fly. “Where were you,” her eyes say? Eyes speak every language.
Okay let’s sing a song, let’s find something blue, and let’s say something in English, anything in English! Let’s face it, a few times a week I’m a really expensive babysitter with zero authority. Mahiro can’t even speak Japanese yet I’m supposed to teach her English? Precisely.
Teaching children poses many challenges, of course, but I have to say that teaching every age group at the same time is making me a well-rounded teacher. I’ve been using the same games I play with children with the adults. Of course I don’t tell them that they’re playing kid’s games. That might ruin their enjoyment since these are serious Japanese businessmen. And they do enjoy the games, sometimes more than the kids I think. Adults are easy, though.
And the kids keep coming. There must have been some memo that went around Hitachi that there’s this new foreign guy in town who speaks English really well. He can speak English all day if he wants to. So if you stick your son or daughter in his English speaking presence, some of that golden language is bound to rub off on them, right? Sounds like a good theory, but my company’s corporate genius failed to equip me with the essential Japanese phrases: sit down, come here, put that down, give that back, why can’t you share?, and stop being such a six-year-old jerk. Every two weeks I have a new student. When will it stop?
There are days that are great, where we’re playing games and speaking English, and there are days where I know the kids just need a nap. There’s too much pressure on kids here. Their parents are being jerks by not letting them be kids, so they sometimes act like jerks to me, but mostly each other. It’s fun being a kid. I mean it looks like fun to me to throw stuff, run around, and learn a foreign language like they’re brushing their teeth.
If Japan is really the land of long life that the statistics claim it to be, then the logic behind these facts got lost on me somewhere between the office and the cigarette vending machine. This is the land of workaholics and chain smoking. These two habits go together I suppose. Bed to work, work to bed, butt to butt. That makes sense. But what still puzzles me is how these people live so long. Smoking and hard work aren’t new Japanese customs, yet they keep ticking away with the highest life expectancies. If 70% of the men and 40% of the women are smokers, then something else must be contributing to this longevity.
Could it be drinking, I think hopefully? Could the secret to long life lie in the perfect combination of rice, raw fish, barley, and hops? I’ve discovered that this may actually play a part in the explanation. It’s all about genetics, so my German-Irish ass is out of luck. Japanese people descended from an ancient group of Mongolian Mormons, leaving roughly 40% of the current population as complete lightweights. I’ve seen fully grown Japanese guys get goofy on a beer, stumbling on three, and completely knockered on four. It’s quite entertaining, easy on the wallet and the liver too! This must be why beer here is so expensive. It’s hard to make your way as a bartender with folks drinking at this rate.
Drinking, smoking, and working aside, it all boils down to diet. If you want to live a long time, don’t eat a lot of red meat, get your carbs from an unprocessed source like rice, get your protein from fish and soy, and don’t eat too much. Yes folks trade in your barbecues for rice cookers, go catch a big salmon and just take a bite! Why wait to get home? Rethink your next indulgent night out to the Outback Steak House. Buy a carton of cigarettes instead and take on a second job. Your stress level is probably too low to really live a long time. Seriously though, I’m completely baffled by the working and smoking. Maybe if they relaxed the workload and gave up smoking they’d all be living to 90? Who knows? Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a country of smoking robots, every one on their way to work or the bar, but never home. And if they want, they can keep doing this every day until they’re eighty.
I got really sick this week. The flu finally caught up with me after dodging it for about six years. It sucked, as having the flu always does, but gave me a glimpse at the way Japan does medicine. It was an interesting experience.
In the past five months I’ve noticed how often Japanese people go to the doctor. My coworker is always going, as well as friends and students, and I’ve come to question why. If you have a cold, do you really need a doctor to tell you that you have a cold? I should say that I come from a bit of a doctor leery family, but I’ve come to believe that you should just listen to your body and act accordingly. Well not anymore! I’m going to Doctor Otashiro from now on.
By day two of the flu I had never been sicker in my life. I had a fever of 104, every part of me ached, and I couldn’t move. I went to the clinic where they stuck me with an IV. This seems to be the number one Japanese remedy. Whether you’ve got a cold, the flu, or ridiculously high stress, you should have an IV. This clinic looks the same as anything in the U.S., except that behind the sliding doors lay the IV rooms. Rows and rows of cots are lined up to administer IVs. I’ve never seen anything like this in a small clinic in the states. And everyone that walked through the door was getting the same treatment, and you know they didn’t all have the flu.
I don’t know what was in that magic potion, but it was some good juju. I can’t believe how fast I turned around. I was practically unconscious when I got there and was my normal chatty self when I left. I also received some Chinese drugs that will make me healthy over time, and some Western drugs to get rid of the flu. It’s a great combination of two medical philosophies.
Step inside the living room, the bedroom, and the kitchen if you promise to be discreet or ravenous but nothing in between. Welcome to the classroom and the library where the study lights never dim. Stroll into the live house, plug yourself into your tiny, urban sheik technology and let the tunes wail away; forget where you are. Come inside and choose your place to be confined, that can be anything and everything, It’s your bar stop on the way home, your coffee stained desk, and your paint splattered studio. It’s the A.A. meeting your boss organizes every night that always seems to get interrupted by booze. It’s the boardwalk and the online dating site. It’s the park bench and the number one tourist attraction. It’s stopping and going, shifting and standing still. It’s safe. It’s clean. It’s not Kyoto or Nara, Asakusa or some fat Buddha statue. It’s everywhere and moving to the pulse of Japan. It is the pulse of Japan. Come aboard any train in Japan and this is what I hope you’ll see.
Japan is the land of vending machines. There are approximately 5 million unvandalized machines throughout Japan just waiting to thank you for your next purchase. Sounds convenient, I suppose, and it is if you’re thirsty or need a cigarette. If however, you want something more substantial, nine times out of ten you’ll have to drink away your hunger. But oh the selection you’ll have to do this. There are about twenty varieties of canned coffee that all taste the same. Served hot or cold. There’s Pepsi and Coke in cute little bottle shaped cans. No Super Big Gulps, sorry. Japanese folks love amino drinks that all brag about healing your parched spirit or osmotic pressure in broken English. There are also small bottles of medicinal drinks flavored exactly like the taste in the back of my mouth when I got two I.V. drips last week during my bout with the flu. So I think they actually contain medicine! And we can’t forget the beer vending machines. The beer is only slightly more expensive than at the store surprisingly. When I first got here I asked everyone about the beer and cigarette machines and underage purchases. I received a typical nonsensical Japanese response. It’s okay because all of the machines turn off between 11 and 12pm. What? Aren’t teenagers usually up during the day, going to school, and part time jobs when they might actually want to buy some smokes? Oh yeah, the whole country smokes. I forgot. There are more interesting vending machines in Tokyo. Yes in Tokyo you can buy a curry rice meal, ramen, or a rice ball. If you find yourself in the redlight district of Shinjuku, machines sell some really crazy shit that will remain unmentioned but will tame most of the more common sexual fetishes. Yes you can really buy anything here. But I’ll tell you, all I want is a damn Snickers Bar.
Well here I sit, having lived in Asia for approximately 15 months in the sleepy seaside town of Hitachi(yes, like the TVs), and I feel like my real Asian adventure is truly about to start. Japan has been an amazing experience, but this country is safe, clean, suffocating. I am ready to get out of here and get dirty. I’m turning in my English teacher’s tie and suit and trading them in for a backpack, some boots, and a map or two. I’ve bought the travel books and they’re all staying home. I’ve read them, and whatever was meant to stick in this brain of mine has either stuck, or wasn’t important enough, I guess. That’s the way I’m looking at it. Here we go.
The majority of my time in the past three months has been devoted to this trip. The best time to plan a trip is while you’re on one. I sometimes forget that Japan has been the first step in the larger international trip that I had wanted to embark on since I was a high school student. Since I finally sucked up and sold my shit and got my ass on the plane. It was so easy now that I look back on it. And now the first step is coming to a close, the next step planned. Japan has a big red check mark on it full of beautiful memories, and I can even speak Japanese! So what’s the next stop? That has been the million dollar question for me as well.
It started out that I was going overland and by ferry from Japan to Hong Kong via South Korea, Tianjin, and Shanghai with a buddy. Then on to SE Asia. Then we swapped the trip due to weather concerns. The Great Wall with a foot of snow on it didn’t sound very fun. Then my buddy backed out. So as it stands finally, I’m flying on February 6th from Narita to Bangkok for a few weeks of kicking back in Thailand. Sometime at the end of the month I’m flying to Kunming, China to do a bit of trekking in Yunnan province. Then across to Hong Kong, possibly stopping in the famed backpacker hangout Yangshou. I’m getting my TEFL certification in Zhuhai, China, near Macau during the whole month of March. After that, who knows. I want to see Shanghai and Beijing, slowly making my way back to Japan through South Korea.
This marks the moment of my life where I feel most free, most full of purpose, most focused. It may sound strange to most “normal” people that a young guy’s global wanderings can be self-described as focused. But that’s just because my focus isn’t going with the flow. I’ve saved enough money to be comfortable, and all of my stuff fits in a backpack. Every day I can wake up with the exhilarating expectation to see something new, meet someone new, speak another language, smell the smells, taste the tastes of all of that life out there. Japan has been a bounty, now what’s next. Bring it on.
Japan is one of the safest, if not the safest, country around. I’ve literally never felt threatened in any way here…until Tsukiji fish market made it on my itinerary. I finally woke up early enough on a day in November to visit this famous corner of Tokyo carved out of the buzzing trains and skyscrapers. Up by 6:30, on the train at 7:00, delving into the market at a quarter to eight. I still had a couple of hours to see the action.
First, we need some perspective: Shinjuku station is the busiest train station on Earth. Everyday around two million people pass through this hub all going different directions. You can imagine the tension that this recipe for collision creates. Now imagine that you’ve given half of everyone at Shinjuku a bike, motor scooter, or motor powered cart. This is Tsukiji.
Like most of Japan, Tsukiji is a combination of old and new, but there is something uniquely special here. This market is right in the heart of central Tokyo’s busy business district, yet nowhere else have I felt what I imagine to be the “samurai spirit” thriving so powerfully than in the fishmongers of this market.
But we’ll get back to them shortly. First, I need to clarify that it is disingenuous to describe Tsukiji as a market. Rather, it is an international seafood exposition that occurs every week, Monday through Friday, beginning with the tuna auction at 4am. If it’s in the ocean, then it can be found, dead or alive, somewhere in these eight city blocks where the mouth of the Sumida River meets Tokyo Bay. And being Japan, it’s almost all ready to eat as-is. Yum!
Now I love fish of every variety, but there was some crazy stuff here that I was a little queasy about. Most of it I’ve probably already eaten, but to see it in that raw form is so amazing. For example, let’s take the fish liver. They don’t take it out for display, oh no. They artistically slice the fish open to display how nice this liver is. If you want that fish’s liver you’ve gotta buy the whole fish, buddy.
But there I was, with no intention of buying any of these sea beasts. I stood, bobbed, and occasionally weaved my way through the extremely narrow stall ways. If you aren’t at Tsukiji to buy fish or sell fish, you are an obstacle. You are in the way! Japan has been such a friendly place, totally foreigner friendly, until that day at Tsukiji. For the first time I was sworn at in Japanese…I’m pretty sure. These fishmongers are nicknamed “Edo-ko,” translated “children of Edo.” The Edo period of Japan was the quintessential samurai time, so when I say that the spirit of the samurai still thrives, I meant it. These Edo-ko actually speak a slightly different dialect of Japanese. So I stood and gawked, took pictures like the dorkiest tourist ever, and was sworn at in a strange Japanese fish dialect before pigging out on sushi. And all before 10am! What a cool place.
I speak and she nods; she speaks and I do the same. These nods and subtle gestures allude to understanding, but underneath we’re both holding on barely by fingernails. Nods say, “I understand”, “I’ve got it,” “wakarimashita,” “naruhodo,” but in reality, either one of us is floundering at 60% at any given time by my estimate. We pick up the pace because we’re nodding. We speak more and faster because we’re nodding, because we’re tired and lazy, until finally we are lost among the consonants and syllables.
“Hayai,” I say. “Fast Danny,” she says. These are the daily oscillations of an international, bilingual relationship.
Ultimately, I think it’s a blast. Constantly entertaining and fascinating. When Chiaki does something particularly interesting or cute, I have to ask myself the normal questions like, “Is that something most women do, or just Japanese women?” Maybe it’s not women at all, but Japanese people, or maybe because she’s a nurse, wait…a Japanese nurse! That must be it. They taught her those quirks in Japanese nursing school. Or is it just because she’s Saito Chiaki-chan? I’m lucky to find that most of the time it’s in asking the latter question that I find my answer. I’m lucky.