I recently spent ~2 weeks in Tokyo and, as my friends are probably tired of hearing, I loved it. Absolutely loved it. I plan to be back soon. Here are some things I learned. These are purely personal observations, I grossly overgeneralize where I can, and no fact-checking was involved. That said!:
1. Renting a cellphone at Narita costs ~$3/day, and ~$1/minute for domestic calls. Incoming calls are free. You can also rent a wifi card – with unlimited data, emails, etc – for $12/day. I may try the latter option next time so I can check emails more frequently (surprisingly I found free Tokyo wifi harder to find than expected)
2. Singapore Airlines is the best. First time flying it in Economy (I was lucky enough to fly business a few times at McK). Huge (free) movie selection, great food…plus the attendants are easy on the eyes ;)
…yes, the lady in the middle is pretty entertaining
3. If you can, fly into Haneda Airport since it’s much closer to Tokyo. From Narita, your cheapest option is the bus. The train is faster but more expensive
4. Getting yen at Narita is the best option. If you’re exchanging a lot of cash, traveler’s checks (which are free for Amex cardholders) are a better option since they provide an ~3% better exchange rate
5. Taxis in Tokyo are fairly expensive. Expect to spend at least $15-20 to get anywhere. Subway is VERY reliable, clean, fast, and convenient (although can be tough to navigate and if you go during business hours expect negative personal space!!)
6. If you plan to use the subway more than a few times, get a Suica/Pasmo card. It costs 500 yen (~$7) and you can return the card and get that money back at the end of your trip. Saves you hassle of buying a ticket for each trip, and you can use it for vending machine and convenience store purchases too
7. The Japan railway system makes it very easy to travel around the country. From Tokyo, you can reach the north and south within a day’s trip. Wish the U.S. had something like this (eg, LA-SF, Miami-Orlando, etc)
Ryokans (traditional Japanese inns)
8. Try a traditional Japanese ryokan, they usually come with an “onsen” (hot bath). Hakone is well-known for this and very easy to reach from Tokyo (30 minutes or so by bullet train)
9. Ryokans typically serve a kaiseki meal (an elaborate multi-course meal). The kaiseki food was average compared to the rest of my Japanese food experience but each dish looks like a work of art – attach pictures
10. Fun fact: the ryokan started as a way for royals to rest & relax while visiting other parts of Japan. Ballers!
Random cultural stuff
11. Harajuku was total sensory overload. First got there around 10pm on a Thursday night. There were hundreds of teenage girls all wearing matching costumes, outfits, in every imaginable shade of pink & red. Wish I had pics – next time!
12. Izakayas are AWESOME. Cheap, delicious food & beer, fun environment, great way to start (or end) a night out. There are tons in Shibuya. Ordering beer in Japan is like ordering a soda in the U.S. – in fact, many fast food combos (local foods, not McDonald’s) come with beer (!)
13. Traffic red lights frequently come with a countdown meter (i.e. 5 seconds until it turns green). Smart
14. Tattoos are a big cultural faux pas in Tokyo. I’m sure there are many reasons why – correlation with yakuza is one example. Some public baths won’t allow people w/ tattoos
15. Of all the countries I’ve traveled to, never seen such a widespread and detail-oriented approach to food and fashion
16. Like Shanghai, there’s a foreigner-heavy neighborhood. In Japan, that’s Roppongi. In Shanghai, it’s Xintiandi. And like Shanghai, you’ll find more locals who speak English and want to socialize with foreigners
17. Went into a dressing room (you take off your shoes before entering) and when I came out, an employee had replaced my shoes with a single clown-sized shoe. Everyone laughed. Him: “Japanese joke” :)
ICHIRAN RAMEN. and other food
18. You’re seated at a bar where there’s a collapsible screen between you and your left & right neighbors. Why? By blocking distractions, you can focus on the ramen eating experience
19. Food is served from a small window so you only see the server’s torso and arms. Again, the purpose is to eliminate distractions from the ramen
20. You’re presented a sheet to customize EVERYTHING to your heart’s desire, such as (full form below):
–> Richness (amount of oil)
–> Green onions (without, thin, or thick)
–> Noodle firmness (my personal favorite because I like extra firm…there is probably a joke here but let’s move on)
21. The focus is eating, not talking. So if you’d like additional noodles (“kaedama”), you place a small tray on a pressure plate in front of you. A little ditty is played, and the server slides your extra noodles through the window. Pretty unique, right :)
Other food notes (I am missing a lot; even if I spent 10 years in Japan I’d probably discover something new every week)
22. Afuri Ramen is apparently a new hotspot. Think there are a few locations in Tokyo. Compared to Ichiran, the broth is subtler. Seating is more traditional (open, u-shaped bar around the food prep area)
23. Many restaurants have vending machines to order food. You insert cash, select your choice, receive a ticket, and hand it to the waitstaff/chef
24. Many restaurants provide a water pitcher for your table (pour your own water). Love this
25. Okonomiyaki (Japanese “pizza”) was DELICIOUS. There are many regional styles. Thanks to Taro, Naoki, and Kevin for hosting and cooking!
26. Tokyo Subway Station (this stop) has “ramen street” with many small, respected ramen joints. We had amazing tsukemen at [name of place]. Next time, I’m checking out all the other places
27. McDonalds has burgers w/ eggs (imagine the egg from a McMuffin inside a Big Mac). I love eggs!
28. Also love how McDonald’s serves regional menu items (I first noticed this in Waikiki, where they had sausage and rice on their breakfast menu). In Japan they have fried chicken pieces sorta like karaage
29. Like in Taipei, I love the frequency and selection of convenience stores. You can get lots of great food, drinks, etc for cheap and they’re open late
30. Tsukiji Fish Market is an interesting place to visit, although I personally felt it was overhyped. Maybe that’s because I prefer ramen>raw fish :)
31. At Tsukiji, there are side stalls serving many types of Japanese comfort food/street food. I might have liked this even better than the sushi :P
32. Thanks to Drew, we went to an izakaya that is actually the owner’s house. He’s very…entertaining. I’ll leave it at that. If you’re visiting Japan with a group of foreigners and want a good laugh, it’s worth checking out (just email me)
More random cultural stuff
33. The emphasis placed on cooperation and harmony influences all ages. I’ve noticed that even kids are better behaved…and better dressed! (yes there are exceptions and yes this is just my impression)
34. Shopping in Japan? One word: Curation. Stores have a smaller selection, but each item is thoughtfully chosen and presented. This even permeates to the sizes – there are generally just one (or maybe 2) items in each size, leading to a sparse, clean feel in most stores (boutiques and department stores). I really liked United Arrows/Beauty & Youth (there are several but the location I liked was right outside Shinjuku station).
35. “Kawaii” (cute) is highly valued. Affects everything from advertising to fashion/make-up to personality development. U.S. seems more focused on sex. Not sure I can draw similar conclusions for other countries (China might be more about expressing wealth?)
36. Even the homeless in Japan seem to conform more to cultural values. For example I didn’t see any homeless person panhandling
37. Smoking is still popular but less so among the young. Like most EDC, smokers are increasingly segregated into smoking zones and restaurants are increasingly banning smoking
38. Read in a magazine: “Aribi-ya” is a fast-growth industry in Japan which sells alibis – for example, if you need: a fake boss to speak at your wedding, fabricated pay stubs, a pretend girlfriend, etc
39. I love Nakameguro. Here’s a 2009 NYT article about the neighborhood. Here’s a picture during Cherry Blossom season (I’m coming back for sure).
40. Random: a man dropped his packet of gum while waiting at an intersection. Several people saw it happen, but no one tried to alert him. 15 seconds later, the walk light turned green and people continued on their way. I feel like that’d rarely happen in the States (am I being too generous here?)
41. Like Shanghai, there are both locals and foreigners promoting adult services (strip clubs, prostitution joints, etc). Most foreigners who do this (apparently) get their visas through convenience marriages to Japanese women
42. Golden Gai is super cool. Small neighborhood PACKED with even smaller bars. The bars average 5×10 feet including seating and everything. Some are members only. I saw quite a few that were run and served by Japanese women in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. Add pictures
43. Pachinko is sort of like a vertical pinball machine and is Japan’s version of the U.S. slot machine. It’s big in Japan and is an utter assault on your eyes (bright flashing lights EVERYWHERE) and ears
44. Pachinko is fairly expensive to play (at the place I went to, the minimum was 1000 yen about 15 dollars).
45. I was greeted by this sign at the pachinko parlor I visited. PLEASE FORGET AN UNPLEASANT THING IN DAILY LIFE :)
46. Was lucky enough to stay at both the Grand Hyatt (GH) and Park Hyatt (PH) for a few days. Park Hyatt was featured in Lost In Translation, and the pool scene was filmed at the Grand Hyatt
47. PH has a mindblowing view of the city (hotel starts on the 41nd floor of a skyscraper). You must get a drink at the New York Grill (thanks Sae for joining me!). However, the hotel is 15 minutes from the closest subway
48. GH is much closer to the subway lines and overall action (in Roppongi), has a better gym, and a slightly younger crowd
49. Go to some department stores (well-known ones include Isetan and the mall at Takashima Times Square). Check out the food vendors in their basements. The quality and selection will blow your mind
50. While the partying continues until late – my favorite of the trip was Muse, which didn’t shut down until 5am – the partying in NY and maybe even LA is crazier. My guesses why:
a. Drinks are more expensive here and I don’t see as much binge drinking as I do in America (very few people ordering shots)…probably a good thing :)
b. In Tokyo, there are more non-club & bar options for night fun – including izakayas, karaoking, and adult services (a small section of the city – kabukicho – is dedicated to it)
51. I find it interesting that Japanese people greet and say farewell without handshakes or hugs. I’m sure this is just a prelim observation and there are many reasons why (eg, a local said this is because they don’t like being touched by strangers)
Some more pictures
52. Beer vending machines!!
53. Oh, and more Ichiran (probably the thing I miss the most haha)
54. Matt sad that we’re leaving
55. Dude passed out on the street. I saw this about as much as I saw, in China, middle-aged men folding their shirts up to expose their bellies. That’s how safe the city felt.
56. Subway!! Didn’t get to try…will have to next time!
I’m planning a trip back soon and would love to check out other parts of Japan (eg, Kyoto, Osaka, maybe even Hokkaido).
March 21st: with some hindsight and add’l time spent learning Japanese, a few more thoughts:
57. Japanese culture highly values time – being on-time and being aware of time. I’m listening to Pimsleur’s Japanese podcasts, and they mention that in Japanese, if time is involved, it usually begins the sentence. An example would be, “At 7pm, let’s meet for dinner”. In English, we’d say “Let’s eat dinner at 7pm.”
58. With several months of reflection and several weeks now in Shanghai, one thing that continues to stand out is how comfortable living in Tokyo would be. Japan goes out of its way to make day-to-day living easy. Now, I haven’t setup a bank account or found an apartment in Tokyo, but I imagine it’d be MUCH easier than Shanghai, and if not much easier, at least the people would be much NICER. By taking care of these “infrastructure” things, it leaves you more time to focus on higher value activities. I’m sure there are downsides, too, that I haven’t discovered
CONGRATULATIONS ON MAKING IT TO THE END!
I hope you were somewhat entertained and learned a nugget or two of (possibly) true stuff. Your reward?
13 MORE OBSERVATIONS FROM FUKUOKA. Yay!