Of all the countries I have had the good fortune to visit, Japan is probably the most unique countries both in terms of people and culture. It is unfortunate that I had a bare five days in this beautiful land for I could easily spend a month just in Tokyo and still experience just a fraction of its spoils.
The first thing to be said about the Japanese – they are the most tolerant, respectful, cordial and industrious people I have ever encountered. While there are so many unique things I can point out about the Japanese lifestyle, the one that caught my attention first was the simple gesture of bowing. When Obama bowed to someone in the Middle East, there was a huge furor in the news about how an American president could bow and belittle the entire country. In Japan, bowing in front of the fellow man in so ingrained in the everyday lifestyle, that I think the act does a lot to chip away at one’s ego and cultivate a deep group-above-self way of thinking. Though I initially found myself in awkward situations, for instance, the receptionists bowing to me while I was still ascending in the escalator (was I to wait till I reach them, or do I immediately return the gesture), I quickly developed a deep appreciation for the simple gesture as I saw how everybody from friends, to customers, to authorities, were all equally participant in the constant exchange of bows during every type of interaction. Such an amazing contrast from typical American interactions, where, outside of family, the acknowledgement of equality, the presence of sensitivity and the establishment of superiority are the prime components of any interaction. Americans in Japan would be like eagles in a swarm of humming birds.
Getting off the airplane, we immediately changed into warmer clothes and made for the exit. Every fifty meters we were ushered by bowing airport staffers; for some reason there was almost no international traffic at that time (sunday afternoon). In contrast, it has never taken us less than an hour to get out of LAX. The immigration officers in Japan didn’t ask a single question for the embassy had already done all the homework, and a quick fingerprint later we were in the land of the raising sun. It took all of ten minutes for us to clear the airport and reach the train station. We took the Keisei Line from the airport straight to Ueno station in the city, this turned out cheaper and faster than the Narita Express. The girl in the station counter spoke broken but average English; we later learned that most Japanese speak some English but don’t actually use it in open conversation for the fear of not being perfect. She offered the Metro day pass for a discounted price and we gladly obliged. The train ride was slow and somber, we battled the jet lag as we tried our best to enjoy the scenery as we passed through alternating swaths of barren but green lands and urban outposts. It seems like the first ride in every major city is one that cuts beyond the metropolis and exposes the normalcy beyond the significant center [Reminiscing Paris to Versailles exactly a year ago]. It was a nice train, with LCDs and digital displays showing ads and announcements, but mostly empty but for a handful of locals.
A full forty minutes later we reached Ueno, and immediately felt the mad rush of Tokyo. Platoons of well dressed folk swarmed every square in that station and we immediately lost contact with the notion of a slow Sunday evening. Like we have exits on highways, Tokyo has exits in train stations. When we found exit 2A of the station, we realized that the exit led to a second Ueno station that was run by a different train company. There are only six different companies that have mutually exclusive balance sheets and income statements, that run all the different trains and lines and stations in Tokyo. We quickly found our way out of the second station and landed on a street that had about six different pedestrian crossings all around it. People were everywhere, walking briskly, neither in a hurry nor relaxed, they seemed to be contently preoccupied in their heads as they went their respective directions. Walking five minutes outside the station’s vicinity, we found ourselves in a mostly empty street with a good mix of office buildings and shops. We finally saw our hotel, Oak Hotel, in a small alley right outside another Metro station (Inaricho), and cursed ourselves for not taking the metro all the way there for the walk was mostly chilly and dark.
A quick check-in later, we went inside the hotel room to realize that it was all of twelve feet on each side. Besides the bed, there was only standing room with just enough space to open our fairly small carry on bags. Anybody with suitcases would have suddenly understood the definition of claustrophobia. Call it minimalistic or real estate bubble, if the hotel room was any indicator, suddenly life in Japan seemed harsh and punishing. The bathroom was so tiny that when sitting on the toilet, my legs would actually reach the opposite wall. For once, I get to be the giant among the common folk.
After rudely adjusting to our surroundings, we immediately changed and set forth for our first destination in Tokyo – Akihabara or electric town. Instead of walking all the way back to Ueno, we entered Inaricho and after a quick transfer and two stops reached the Akihabara station. Exiting the station was like climbing the stairs to geek heaven. Blocks of buildings packed on every floor with video games, manga, anime, maid cafes, and electronics for every possible need. The neon lights and the LCD screens outside every building were blinding and mind numbing. Our photos do not do justice as it impossible to capture the excitement and the LEDs of this zip code. Feeling like frontier wanderers, we explored several buildings checking out Manga books, playing video games and arcade games and watching the locals. Manga and anime is something that I never understood fully despite being exposed to frequently enough on Cartoon Network. I guess I never explored comic books beyond Tintin and Asterix to know enough about the media. Manga, typically in black and white and almost always in Japanese, is read back to front and is characterized by vibrant characters with big eyes and long hair. Entire buildings in Akihabara and Shibuya are devoted just for Manga, and everywhere in Japan, you see mostly men and some women reading it, in trains, in cafes, in buses. The overly dramatic expression of Japanese art forms, be it Manga or Kabuki, is a stark contrast from the otherwise perpetual minimalism that permeates every aspect of life there. The Japanese people it seems have forced themselves to live such subdued and minimalistic lives that their art forms have become the only channel for them to release their emotion and creativity. We popped into a few random buildings and wandered aimlessly not knowing what to make of all the toys and books. We played arcade games in the Sega building, an entire floor devoted just to them. I asked for English manga books in two places and the nerdy guys behind the counter had a immediate look of despise.
We had a quick bite of several types of Yakotori (basically skewers) – some delicious and some just weird tasting, in the mall like structure next to the Akihabara station. We were tempted to enter several apparently popular local eateries, but the crowds and lack of English menus scared us off. Finally, we found a tiny corner restaurant in the same building that had English-speaking people and served Japanese curry dishes. It turns out that Japanese eat a lot of food beyond sushi, and curry is more popular and even more spicier than I had assumed. I ate a lentil and tuna salad, which was one of the better salads I have eaten in this millennium, and Anu had a chicken tikka curry with rice which was comparable to the Indian varietal.