Hear Ye! Since 1998.
Please note: This post is at least 3 years old. Links may be broken, information may be out of date, and the views expressed in the post may no longer be held.
23
Aug 10
Mon

Lost Without Translation – Observations on Tokyo

The local train from Narita International Airport was quiet. Some of the Japanese around me were intently fixated on their phones, fingers darting in response to some e-mail or game. The rest had assumed their other default train position: heads slumped forward in languorous slumber, as the endless Tokyo suburbia rolled by the window on a steamy summer’s day.

(Click here for selected trip photos)

Signs in the compartment reminded commuters not to speak on phones while traveling. I turned to Aya and remarked that it was strange to discriminate between people conversing on the train – like her and I were doing – and those using a phone. She just shrugged and agreed.

The Japanese are well-known for their reserved politeness – a necessary survival mechanism, it is said, because they live in such densely populated conditions. I have my doubts. Hong Kong is perhaps even more densely crammed, and reserved politeness is not something the sharp and opinionated Cantonese are known for. Neither was the Tokyo megapolis always a concrete jungle teeming with 30 million inhabitants – the single most productive area on the globe. Somehow over the years, the Japanese have preserved the quiet village attitude portrayed monochromatically in Kurosawa’s samurai-era films, with eyes lowered, going about their business in mute among the steel and concrete.

Nowhere is this politeness reflected more visibly than in store service. From the ubiquitous irasshaimase greeting, to comping a meal if a strand of hair is found in food, the level of service is not driven by the promise of tips (since none are usually expected, or indeed accepted) but ingrained culturally. It is almost a form of self-flagellation, for none of these courtesies are expected to be returned by the customer. Greetings and thank yous go unanswered. A simple arigatou is considered excessive when receiving change back from a cashier. A friend remarked that he once inquired in a clothing store for a product, and the store clerk made a great show of looking literally high and low for a t-shirt they clearly didn’t have. For what gain?

On my first night there, I followed my hosts in Tokyo, Christoph and Aya, out to Ebisu. They were in Ebisu because they wanted to buy a bike off Craigslist from a Frenchman. It was an electrically-assisted bike, which gives you a burst of speed with every peddle to help you on your way. Naturally, it was manufactured by one of the gigantic Japanese keiretsus for just the domestic market. The only problem was getting it back home, because bikes aren’t allowed on the trains and we had come by train.

Christoph is a tall, lanky German lawyer whom I had met at Stanford. Fluent in Japanese and, on a good day, three other languages, he held a doctorate and two master’s degrees. But today, he was going to play the dumb, clueless gaijin. Aya wheeled the bike over to Christoph and told him to pretend to only know English – or even better, only German. Surely, the confused stationmaster would let him through rather than have to deal with an indignant foreigner.

Aya and I walked through the gates. Christoph trailed us, but as he passed by the stationmaster’s window, the stationmaster stuck out his arm and waved Christoph down. We turned around to see the stationmaster pointing down at the bike and then making a cross with his two index fingers which he waved vigorously up at the towering German. Christoph was momentarily flummoxed, and I could see him trying to decide what language to reply in. He started to object in English, but it was clear the stationmaster was having none of it. Switching to plan B, Christoph abruptly swapped to Japanese. The stationmaster, to his credit, didn’t flinch, and now had free reign to express in no uncertain terms that bikes were not permitted and he needed to turn around now.

More words were exchanged and the stationmaster disappeared back into his booth. It turns out that Christoph, in fine form, had asked him what the legal basis was for not allowing bikes, and the stationmaster had dutifully gone to fetch the rule book. Moments later, the stationmaster returned with a tome as thick as a phone directory, and began to leaf through it without any fuss. We waited, and I had to turn away to hide my amusement. The stationmaster eventually managed to locate the relevant section (and field a phone call at the same time). Outwitted by Japanese resoluteness, Christoph was left with no choice but to ride the bike home.

My roommate in California, Roger, had previously lived in Tokyo for six years. Before I left, he remarked that the kids in Japan have life too easy these days, meaning that society has been engineered to be easy to use. All the systems are in place for an efficient, well-oiled society. The system engineers have already put in the hard work and thought for the consumer. Wall maps in the public transport systems are individually oriented to face the direction the map reader is facing. Vending machines offer all manner of objects – pressing a button is far less complicated than having to talk with another human. And just about any service that you need performed, can be provided in Japan (for the right price). Moving companies will move cupboards across oceans and replace the objects inside them in the exact same position they were when they left.

Back on the train, Aya pointed across the aisle at a newspaper an elderly man was reading.

“You see that woman on the back page? She was recently arrested for killing her kids.”
“What? Why?”
“One day she left them in the house and didn’t return for more than a month.”
This had provided clarification, but not really. “What? Why?” I repeated.
“She had enough of taking care of them. When they found her children, they were dead.”

This rather morbid event was an outrage in Japan. Kids are pampered here, like in many Asian countries. On a bus, I saw parents and grandparents standing over their seated children like a protective shield. Many Japanese could not comprehend how a mother could treat her kids in this way, even lying to her friends that her kids were being cared for by their grandparents.

Yet it is these strange occurrences and kooks that Japan is perhaps better known for. Japanese society has always been insular and it is tempting to conclude that this insularity has bred a culture that is more foreign than most foreign cultures. The Americans had tried fruitlessly for years to convince the Japanese to enter into a trade agreement with them in the 19th century. They finally succeeded when Commodore Matthew Perry sailed his Ironclads into Uraga Harbor. Armed with new Paixhans guns, which were capable of firing explosive shells with accuracy, the Japanese – at that time only armed with wooden cannons – had no choice but to capitulate.

Japan is still quite insular today, reflected by aspects such as the relatively low level of English proficiency and the vast amount of goods that are produced for domestic consumption and not export. This insularity appears to have bred certain unique “subcultures.”

The fascinating thing is that many of these subcultures are not just a case of cultural relativism – they really are quite peculiar by any objective standard, including by the admission of “normal” Japanese. I refer to the legendary sadistic, but hilarious, game shows, the women-only train compartments (as protection against groping during peak hour), kancho, the cubic watermelons and heart-shaped cucumbers, the Harajuku girls, the elaborate toilets, the hikikomori phenomenon, the myriad and often disturbing fetishes that are said to encapsulate much of the Japanese male psyche (leading to a popular fixation with schoolgirl rape fantasies and buying used womens’ underwear, to note some of the tamer ones).

When I was back in the States, one friend confided to me: “I know maybe five Japanese students on my floor. They are all super nice people – well-mannered, polite, kind of shy. And I am totally confused because I see some things on the net from Japan that are just fucked up. I mean, have you seen this site, what the fuck japan seriously dot com? I don’t know what to think – are they all like this when they get home or what? I don’t know.”

The incongruity of it all is one of the things I found fascinating.

As I spent the second night in Tokyo climbing Mount Fuji, it wasn’t until the third day that I got a chance to begin exploring the city. Paul Theroux likened Tokyo to a “lit-up necropolis” in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star; a “stifling” and “soulless” place with a character that all large cities will eventually and unforunately tend towards. That is not a sentiment we have in common. Just as Japan has developed a diversity of sub-cultures, so too is this reflected in the city’s contrasting and vibrant districts. A city demands people. In an environment where artificiality has replaced nature, a city devoid of people loses its balance and acquires an unnatural, surreal feel, like a deserted New York avenue in a dystopian movie. The mass of people around Tokyo do not stifle the city, they enliven it.

Ginza is known for its luxury goods. There is nothing particularly special about its wide boulevards, flanked with global brand name stores and boutiques. These are the same as those you can find anywhere in the world where there are people with enough coin nearby. However, it is the concentration of these kinds of stores which is remarkable. For instance, the number of Tiffany & Co. outlets in Tokyo is unmatched anywhere else in the world. Ginza alone has three of them, including a flagship store.

In a district like this, you would expect the locals to be well-dressed, but this good sartorial sense extends throughout the central districts of Tokyo. It is easy to spot the foreigner, simply by the way they dress. The temperature was in the low 30s and the humidity was oppressive, but I still spotted more than a handful of businessmen walking around Marunouchi – one of Tokyo’s commercial areas – with a coat, or a singlet under their shirt. I would see men wearing shorts as often as I saw women not wearing heels – that is to say, rarely.

This attention to aesthetic detail extends to the appearance of the streets. Litter was almost non-existent. I saw elderly shopkeepers sweeping up stray leaves from the footpath in front of their stores. On a boat, I saw a young man drop a glob of ice cream on a seat he was standing next to. He froze, and this momentary look of panic flashed on his face as he stood there wondering what to do. He walked to the other side of the boat, asked a friend for a tissue, and then walked back to wipe it up. Public toilets were reliably clean, and free. Tokyo easily rivals Singapore in cleanliness and order, except that the Japanese achieved this without a public social engineering campaign and, remarkably, without rubbish bins. The sarin gas attack perpetrated by the Aum Shinrikyo cult in subways during the 90s saw bins around the city disappear. People simply started carrying their trash around with them until they got home.

Superficially then, Tokyo has all the appearance of a prosperous city, so it is interesting when you consider that Japan has been languishing in economic doldrums for the better part of the last two decades.

Japan’s economic recovery after World War II was extraordinary. It rapidly became the world’s second largest economy and during the 1980s, it more than doubled its GDP per capita, peaking in the early 1990s at a level more than quadruple that of 1980. At its zenith, the Tokyo Stock Exchange soared to a stratospheric 38,957 points, and property prices for prime locations in Ginza were several hundred thousand US dollars per square metre. The best locations in Ginza were on sale for absurdly astronomical levels of a million US dollars per square metre.

Unfortunately for the Japanese, much of the growth in the latter half of the 1980s was the product of a massive asset price bubble, with the wealth generated by a hungry economy generating large trade surpluses fueling rampant speculation in financial assets. With so much cash flying around, banks relaxed their lending standards and credit began to flow easily.

You know what happened next, because the similarities to the last couple of years are obvious. In 1989, Japan raised its interest rates in an effort to burst the bubble. Unfortunately, the bubble had already grown out of control and the result was financial chaos. Default rates skyrocketed, banks required government bailouts, property prices plunged and the stock market crashed. The banking industry consolidated.

The interesting thing is that life for the average Japanese person did not dramatically sour in the same way. Unemployment never became out of control, and because savings levels were typically high (a by-product of Japanese cultural values and an aging population), there were no bread lines forming out on the street despite a complete shutdown of Japanese economic growth during the 1990s – something now referred to as ushinawaret junen, the lost decade.

In addition to falling asset values, as the Japanese tightened their belts the resulting fall in demand led to reduced prices for goods and services. Japan entered a “deflationary spiral”: prices of things were actually falling. And falling. As cool as this sounds for an individual, it is not a good thing for an economy.

Suddenly, having cash was even more attractive than owning stuff, because the purchasing power of the cash was increasing, even if you just kept it under the mattress. In fact, keeping it under the mattress was becoming attractive too, because banks were going bankrupt. Liquidity dried up, and unlike the recent credit crunch, banks who were left with collateral (mainly property) from defaulting borrowers chose to hang on to the property rather than sell it, hoping that prices would recover. This had the effect of tying up more money.

With no one wanting to spend, the Bank of Japan tried to stimulate things by reducing nominal interest rates to almost zero. This failed to work, because with a negative inflation rate, the real interest rates were still positive. The Bank of Japan then resorted to “quantitative easing,” which is a term you hear the US Federal Reserve throw around today, in an effort to produce inflationary forces. It is effectively the same idea as printing money.

Today, Ginza real estate sells for around a hundred thousand dollars per square metre, and the Nikkei is stuck at 9,241 – a mere shadow of the heady days of the 80s. Even the high-brow composition of stores in Ginza has begun to shift down a gear, with more mainstream fashion retailers like Abercrombie & Fitch, Gap, Zara, and Forever 21 moving in on territory more familiar to Chanel, Bulgari and Fendi – an effort to capitalize on the decreasing tendency for Japanese consumers to splurge. Ironically, it has been the cultural attributes of frugality and thrift and a lack of conspicuous consumption – usually viewed as positive traits for individuals to have – that have impeded Japan’s ability to recover.

However, as already alluded, you could be forgiven for thinking that conspicuous consumption is the norm. In Japan, people drive on the left-hand side of the road, but I was amused to discover that some hotel car parks have ticket dispensing machines on both sides of each lane. This is for the affluent Japanese who decide to import supercars from Europe and, in an effort to further distinguish themselves, leave them as left-hand drive cars.

Moving around Tokyo’s districts is efficient, with ample public transport servicing the metropolitan areas. The public transport route maps are intimidating at first, but they are really no more complex than any other city, except that there happen to be multiple train and subway systems that intertwine and interconnect, each run by a different operator.

On another day, I emerged into Shinjuku station, which is the busiest ground transportation station in the work, with literally millions of passengers passing through it each day. A human-sized version of an ant’s nest. In contrast, Beijing West is Asia’s largest station by physical size, but it only processes a couple hundred thousand people each day.

Shinjuku itself is another commercial district, home to a variety of older skyscrapers and office buildings. From the Metropolitan Government Building, you can take a trip up either of its towers and get a free view of Tokyo from above.

Looking down, it is hard to identify a central business district in Tokyo to which the eye is naturally drawn. There’s no Pudong, or downtown Manhattan, or Canary Wharf. This is not to say that there isn’t a downtown, because there are several. But apart from the bright orange Tokyo Tower, Tokyo lacks distinctive buildings and has virtually no skyscrapers that are particularly tall. The Metropolitan Government Building, Tokyo’s second highest, is only 243 metres. The result is a relatively uniform skyline in which districts tend to blend together in a grey-brown morass.

What makes Tokyo striking, however, is that everywhere you look, there are buildings. From literally horizon to horizon, the earth has been unrelentingly carpeted with roads and buildings. Circular splotches of green representing Tokyo’s parks occasionally break up the pattern, but those too, are human constructs. One article from the Tokyo Reporter noted, “Japan’s construction industry is renowned for its proclivity for paving over anything that does not stand still.” On a clear day, you can see Mount Fuji rising on the horizon to the south west, but on most days the haze obscures it, leaving only the sea of buildings.

Another stop was Akihabara, the famed electronics-heavy Mecca for geeks and nerds. Actually, as one, it was places like Akihabara that first captured my interest in Japan back in high school. Japanese technology at the turn of the millennium seemed otherworldly. They were the first country to have a 3G mobile system, and the average Japanese consumer’s mobile phone could do things the rest of the world could only read about in sci-fi novels while puttering around with their monochrome Nokia 5110s. Most of Japan’s technology was produced for the domestic market and anything that was exported felt like breadcrumbs from the table.

A friend spent a gap year in Japan and periodically sent me updates during his time there, including descriptions about the technological marvels. However, it must be admitted that his descriptions of the technology were comparatively drier than the tales of his exploits, including one memorable e-mail where he remarked, in a postscript line, that he had finally gotten laid. (In a Shinto shrine, no less. Four times, apparently.)

I still have some of his emails, and I think it’s now time to dig one of them out to see the light of day.

“So when I came to stay at the hotel, I gave her a phone call to tell her I was coming, and asked if she wanted to do ‘something’ together. On the second night I was there (I was busy with my family on the first night – hey, I hadn’t seen them for almost 9 months) I gave her another call, and we decided to go to the baths together (ofurou ni ikou). Now you have to decide for yourself what that meant, I wasn’t fully sure myself. Baths here are always naked, but the men and women are separated, so I didn’t know what we going to get up to exactly. Then to muddy the waters further, when I went out to go and met her on the way, she’d brought a friend along (another girl). Don’t even try to imagine the fantasies running through my head by that stage. So we go down to the men’s bath, and I can’t help but feel positive about the situation when they stick their head in through the door to see if there are any slippers (ie. other people) in the area. By the way, it’s about 11:30 at night. Unfortunately there are.

“So we stand outside the bath for about 20 minutes chatting about everything and nothing in particular (I had a bit of fun telling them how I’d eaten kangaroos and koalas). Then this old bloke came out of the bath, and lecherously looked the two girls up and down (21 and 20 respectively, one with a cute face and a gorgeous body, the other a bit chubbier and not as attractive), then he turned to me and winked, bursting forth in an American accent ‘So which one are you going to do? Oh, that’s right… both of them, right?’ My face turned a bit red.

“But I thought to myself, ‘Well, at least the girls can’t understand English’. Oh too soon. He turned to the prettier girl and said the same thing to her in Japanese. I was dumbstruck. So, the old codger went his way, but not without first propositioning both girls himself (apparently he had more experience than young virile me).”

This was over ten years ago, and the world has moved on since then. Not so much the white people going to Japan to get laid bit, but the fact that the balance of technology has evened out throughout the world. Today, Japanese queue up for iPhones, and Android phones are making impressive headway into the local smartphone market. The stores of Akihabara sell a mind-boggling array of electronics goods, but most of it is variations of variations and I didn’t find anything particularly exciting. Still, the volume of goods on display is notable, and I got to prod and poke at a Dyson bladeless fan, look through a $9,000 Canon super telephoto lens that must have weighed close to five kilos, and check out the new range of 3D televisions. All technologies that you can find elsewhere, but rarely on display (all in the same store).

One night, I told Aya that I wanted to see Harajuku, and she scrunched up her nose and pointedly asked, “Why? Why do you want to go there. All the… funny… people go there.” And by funny, she meant strange. “That’s exactly why I want to go there.”

If the 80s were a decade of consumerism, encouraged by what Barton Beebe calls a system of “consumption-based social distinction,” social differentiation based on luxuries must have become passé for some Japanese. Fueled by the inflow of wealth, the greater accessibility of European handbags and shoes would have had a commoditising effect on luxuries. When everyone has Prada purses, they cease to be a mark of distinction. My speculation is that some Japanese found alternative ways to pursue their desire to acquire social distinctiveness.

Harajuku is one place where such Japanese can be found. Starting in the 80s, groups of young girls began to congregate on a surprisingly small bridge next to the Harajuku train station. The Harajuku Girls, as they came to be known, dress up in unusual fashions and hang out on the bridge every Sunday morning.

The fashions can be broadly categorized. Ganguro-styled girls walk around with bleached hair, long fake lashes, brightly coloured clothes, way too much eyeshadow and shocking orange-brown skin that makes them look like they lost a wrestling match with a spray-on tan can. There are goths, which are pretty much like those in the West, but less emo. There are Lolitas – girls in Victorian-era frilly petticoats and pastel dresses – who apparently claim to have no connection with Nabakov’s novel (but you could understandably be mistaken). You have loligoths, who are exactly like what the portmanteau sounds like. There are cosplayers, who dress up in costumes portraying a menagerie of characters from anime, video games and other media. The list goes on. The place is a taxonomist’s wet dream.

Today, the bridge is a popular spot for tourists to gawk, mingle, and pose with the local denizens. Gwen Stefani even abducted four of them as back-up dancers (not really, but when they’re on stage, they would look at home in Harajuku). Just down the road from the bridge, near one of the entrances to Yoyogi park, two other groups have made their home. A group doing 50s-style dancing, complete with period attire – shirts and slacks for the men, and long, loose skirts on the women that revealingly fly up when their partners spin them around.

Next to them is a bunch of dancing Elvis impersonators. They are the most ridiculous of all. Big hair, slicked up with gel till it glistens. Leather jackets and tight black jeans. Look closely, however, and you can see that they are probably hard-core gangsters. The tell-tale tattoos up their arms and necks. The leather shoes, whose thin, long tips curl up at the end. The cracked, weathered faces. And there they are, every Sunday, engaging in what would be, in most any other part of the world, ritual self-humiliation.

Just down the street is heavily postcarded Takeshita Street – a relatively narrow pedestrian walkway, jam-packed with people and lined with food outlets, indie boutiques, and shops aimed at teens. We stopped by a crepe stand, where a line of about ten people efficiently filed past a display case showing tens upon tens of sweet and savoury crepes. We ordered. “Numbers 58 and 62, please,” and within 30 seconds they had delivered our crepes. I was impressed, because they had committed all the crepe numbers and variations to memory.

Around the corner is Omotesando – another shopping street, but more mainstream and classier. It is sometimes called Tokyo’s Avenue des Champs-Élysées, but that is overstating things. There are a few brand name stores like LV and Tag Heuer, an unremarkable shopping mall called Omotesando Hills (despite the lack of hills), and Kiddy Land – a toy store with an unfortunate name, because a lot of grown-ups hang out there too. How do you say it without sounding dirty? “I’m going to pick something up at Kiddy Land?”

Literally, right next to all the fashion explosions is the Meiji Shrine. The clean, minimalist lines of a torii gate mark the entrance, and a long gravel path approaches the shrine itself. Only a hundred metres down the road, I was suddenly in the midst of greenery and the drone of cicadas. Two traditional weddings were being held that day around the shrine. An expensive location to book, and it comes with an entourage of foreign paparazzi, whether you want it or not. Even with all the tourists about, I could sense a certain serenity about the place and I made a mental note to visit a more remote shrine if I ever came back to Tokyo.

Shinto is not a particularly sententious religion, and the relative tastefulness of Meiji stood in contrast to the temple at Asakusa, which is a large, well-visited, but otherwise typical Buddhist temple – smoky, filled with people praying for good exam scores, health or wealth, or all of the above, and set to the staccato soundtrack of thrown coins clanging against the metal grates of donation bins. Instead of a torii gate and long gravel path, the approach to Senso-ji is guarded by a massive painted wooden structure from which an oversized red lantern hangs and through which lies a flea market. As far as flea markets go, this one was quite nice – stalls full of trinkets, snacks, and other things that would make good gifts. Among the riff-raff, I found a shop selling ukiyo-e, Japanese woodblock prints. Posters of Hokusai’s famous Great Wave off Kanagawa adorned the wall, surrounded by other prints – mainly contemporary reproductions, but some originals as well – from other well-known artists, like Hiroshige and Utamaro. These artworks had an influence back in the West, and Van Gogh painted copies of several of Hiroshige’s works in his own style.

Roppongi is the base of ex-pat nightlife, but the area is not that much different to any other club and bar district back in the West. On the way to a bar, we passed a miscellaneous side alley and Christoph remarked that his favourite club used to be there. It had since shut down, but back in the day, it would charge a 1,000 yen cover if you were a girl, or a foreigner. But if you were a regular Japanese guy, you had the misfortune of having to fork over 3,000 yen for the honour of entering a place where the girls were obviously on the look out for something a little more… different. Christoph admitted the discrimination was unfair, but there wasn’t exactly any indignation in his voice.

Tokyo’s younger crowd prefers to hang out in Shibuya, and I found it to be a much more interesting place. I was told only to meet Christoph after work at the dog. “The what? The dock? The dock? The dog? What?” I had repeatedly asked him over the phone.

“The dog” referred to a bronze statue of a famous Akita named Hachikō. Hachikō was owned by a university professor back in the 1920s, and his daily routine involved him greeting the professor at the end of the day at Shibuya train station. After the professor died one day at the university, Hachikō was obviously confused, but he continued showing up each day at the train station, at the same time. For nine years.

Perhaps inspired by the symbology, Hachikō’s statue has become a very popular meeting spot, which struck me as counterintuitive because it makes it difficult to spot who you are supposed to be meeting if there are so many people around.

When I emerged from the subway, I ran straight into Hachikō crossing – famous for being the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world. It’s a five way intersection set up as a pedestrian scramble. Large crowds of people rapidly gather at the curb and then, every minute or so, the pedestrian crossing lights turn green all at once. Like opening the sluice gates of a dam, people pour across the street and take over the whole road. People drinking coffee by the second-storey window at Starbucks have a great vantage point of this mesmerising, unending cycle.

Along with Christoph, I also met up with Justin, a Malaysian friend that I hadn’t seen in two years who had been working in Tokyo for about a year. We ate at a “family style” Japanese restaurant and took a walk through the neighbourhood – past the love hotels, clubs, Shibuya 109 (a multi-storey building full of shops selling exclusively stuff for women) – and ended up at a bar only to be told that they were closing soon (it was 11.00pm on a Friday night). We grabbed a quick drink and then, at Justin’s suggestion, moved on to another place which was a popular for Japanese women to hang out if they were looking to pick up a gaijin. To be sure, it was full of whites and blacks. “We’re at the bottom of the food chain here, man,” Justin said to me. Christoph had, of course, been there before.

At about midnight, people began filtering out of the clubs and bars. People as in almost everybody. Unlike California, where most bars and clubs shut down at 2.00am because they’re not allowed to continue serving alcohol, there is no such curfew in Tokyo. The reason why people were leaving was that the last trains in Tokyo depart soon after midnight, and people have no other way to get home. Taxis were prohibitively expensive if you lived out in the ‘burbs. Justin was staying in Yokohama, and the thirty minute train journey would cost over US$200 by taxi. If he missed his train, it would be better to just hole up in a hotel for the night.

This state of affairs leads to two things: a de facto curfew, and a “go hard or go home” mentality to partying – you either go home, or you stay out until 5.00am, when the trains restart.

I would be remiss if I did not mention one major part of Japan, and that is its cuisine. When the esteemed Michelin guide started rating Tokyo restaurants only a few years ago, it granted more stars in Tokyo than it had for Paris. Some of the high quality sushi joints can easily set you back $300 and up. Japanese cuisine is one of the world’s great cuisine cultures – up there with the French and Cantonese.

Fresh sushi is available in the wee hours for a more palatable price at the Tsukiji fish markets. The wisdom of waking up at five in the morning to walk among crates of squirming seafood and to have a breakfast of raw fish is questionable, but part of the standard tourist regimen. Opening well before sunrise, the volume of seafood that flows through the markets is impressive, including a haul of massive frozen bluefin tuna, which they auction off every morning. A single tuna weighing in at a couple hundred kilos will fetch well over ten million yen (about $100,000), depending on its quality. The markets start to wind down by the time most people are still on their way to work. When we arrived there, the auctions had already concluded and some vendors were using buzzsaws to carve tuna into smaller portions.

I had actually first heard about Tsukiji at a lecture at Stanford. One of the professors spoke about the “Tuna Court,” an intriguing forum controlled by government ordinances that resolves disputes between fishmongers quickly and efficiently.

Actually, the main impetus for coming to Tokyo was to attend the wedding of one my former Stanford classmates. Noriko had spent two years in America – one year at Harvard Law, followed by a year at Stanford – before returning to resume her position as a judge. Soon after arriving back in Japan, she hooked up with an old classmate from the University of Tokyo who was now a state prosecutor, and promptly became engaged. It had been a matter of months, so the speed of events had caught most of us off-guard.

We managed to catch up with her before the big day at a teppanyaki restaurant called Ten Honmaru in the Shin-Marunouchi building. The timing of service was unsettlingly quick for a restaurant like that – as soon as one person finished a course, the waitress served the next course to everyone without waiting for the rest of the group to finish, so the table was often stacked two dishes deep – but the food was tasty. In between the most rapidly served courses of eel, abalone, foie gras, and sirloin steak that I had ever experienced, I managed to catch up with Noriko.

She was currently doing a judicial rotation dealing with criminal cases. The courts had sent her off to Fukui, a tiny town by Japanese standards, some distance away from Tokyo. I asked her what it was like, working out there. Unsurprisingly, not much happens out in Fukui, and the cases she gets aren’t particularly juicy. Low-level theft, assault, that sort of thing. However, she had become sufficiently senior to be able hand down sentences by herself, and it seemed that due to the general lack of excitement in the city, the local television station liked to show up in her courtroom and broadcast her sentences. This made her something of a minor celebrity and she mentioned that she had been recognised by a few restaurateurs when she ate out.

One interesting development in the Japanese judiciary system was the introduction of lay judges. These are ordinary citizens, mostly without any formal legal training, who join the panel of professional judges and provide certain input into the deliberation process. I inquired how this affected Noriko’s job and she replied that there was a general sentiment that while this measure was intended to bolster the public’s perception of the judicial system, it made things less efficient. Laypeople had a different feel for cases, and required more explanation about how things worked. Situations that were unanimously obvious to judges were not so obvious to lay judges who, similar to western jurors, only needed to meet minimal age and education requirements.

The wedding itself was a compact, efficient, and formal affair. A more traditional family-oriented ceremony was held in the afternoon where Noriko donned a kimono and white face makeup. A reception was held in the evening that was primarily attended by friends. Lots of lawyers and judges. After the bride and groom entered the room – Noriko in an eye-catching blue wedding dress – they were seated at a table in the far corner of the room. Gradually over the course of the evening, guests lined up at their table to offer them well wishes, take photos, and just generally catch up. There was a toast. Buffet style food was served, and then there was a round of games. Contestants were called up to the stage at random and given multiple choice questions about the married couple, with prizes being awarded to correct guessers. Only two hours later, Noriko and Ryozo exited the room and, instead of being whisked away by a waiting car, remained outside to farewell everyone, who now lined up to depart.

With the wedding ending so early, Christoph and I went out to a bar in Roppongi Hills, then to another in Ginza. After wandering around the block a couple of times with a similarly confused group of Caucasians, we found the place we were looking for and stepped into the gently air-conditioned lift well, where a Frenchman was greeting guests in Japanese. We ordered drinks from a heavily tattooed Japanese bartender with an impossibly sized Afro (through which he had trouble hearing), and settled down to reminisce about our respective college days like old men.

Japan in July was hot and humid, but I didn’t realise quite how humid it was until Justin remarked that he couldn’t stand it and that it was much worse than Kuala Lumpur. Up until then, I assumed I was sweating more because I was out of shape. But, the Japanese have figured out the right way to air-condition their buildings. The method favoured in South-East Asia is to blast cold air everywhere, which provides instant relief to people coming in from the street, only to leave them shivering minutes later. Japanese buildings do not provide the same catharsis, but also do not require you to carry around a sweater.

Nonetheless, it was nice to escape the heat for a couple of days when I took a bus out to Mount Fuji. The relief from the heat was temporary, however, and was replaced by increasingly excruciating pain through my legs and back while I climbed through the night in a bid to make the summit before sunrise. Me and several thousand Japanese.

Fuji’s official climbing season is only open for two months in a year. During the other months, the temperature plummets, and the windy, snow-covered trail becomes very dangerous. In July and August, a couple hundred thousand people make the climb, including small kids and grandparents. It is not the hardest climb, but it is not an easy climb, either. The summit is about 1,300 metres above the entry point at Kawaguchiko Fifth Station. The ashy trail starts off wide, but narrows past the Eighth Station into a rocky, boulder strewn path capable of fitting only two or three abreast. The result of the bottleneck is that at about 2.00am, a human traffic jam forms. People shuffle a few steps forward, then stop as they wait for people to clear a narrow or steep section of path in front. There are frequent stations spaced up the mountain, where climbers can get food, water, and their wooden “I climbed Mount Fuji” walking sticks branded with the name of that station. Some people break their climb into two stages, spending a few hours sleeping at a station before making the final push up.

An Aussie to whom I had spoken at the entrance reported that it took him a snappy four hours to summit during the afternoon. However, the popularity of the night climb doubled that. The frequent stops gave me a chance to take in my surroundings. Looking ahead and behind, a long, long river of headlamps bobbed and weaved up and down the mountain. Across the plains below, you could see faint streetlights, and in the distance, a large red moon was rising over the glowing lights of Tokyo.

The reward was worth the effort, and as the dawn light began to creep over the horizon, the plains below were gradually illuminated, revealing a wonderful view of Japan: a wispy layer of clouds atop a valley, spotted with ultramarine lakes surrounded by soft green forests. It was a surprising amount of nature after spending so several days among the black and grey metropolis, and after climbing in darkness for seven hours.

The way down was highly unpleasant. The route is a barren, Sisyphean switchback path with nothing but rock and ash to keep you company for a couple of hours. The scenery doesn’t change as you make turn after turn down the mountain in the harsh sun. Eventually, I returned to the Fifth Station after the despairingly long descent in which I had sworn at the mountain several times. I had run out of water some time ago, so I bought a bottle of Pocari Sweat, quaffed it and then boarded the bus home. The bus was silent as a tomb, filled with exhausted, passed-out climbers.

I paid the price later though, and I couldn’t walk properly for several days afterwards. Negotiating flights of stairs was an effort, prompting Noriko to quietly ask at one stage, “Why is Stu walking funny?”

On my last night in Tokyo, I went back to Shinjuku with Justin and Christoph, and headed up to the New York Bar at the Park Hyatt. The Bar is a recurring venue in one of my favourite movies, Lost in Translation. In its opening scenes, Bob Harris (superbly played by Bill Murray), suffering from jetlag, wakes up in the backseat of a taxi and watches the neon signs of Tokyo pass by. The cinematography is gorgeous, portraying the bright lights in a surreal haze, seen through eyes still foggy from sleep, the sounds of the city muted against a soft, ambient soundtrack. It is a feeling we can all relate to, landing in a foreign land in a dazed state of mind. This discombobulation is sustained metaphorically in the film, as he traipses around Tokyo with a similarly displaced 18 year old Scarlett Johanssen, while his passive-aggressive wife Fedexes him carpet tiles from a world away.

We sipped our cocktails and looked out the windows at Tokyo, whose myriad lights were beginning to flicker on as the sun set. Somewhere over the horizon, maybe a couple hours away by plane, loomed China. The recent news was that China had recently overtaken Japan in GDP. Justin had worked all around the world, spending substantial periods in Mexico, Brazil, California, Sweden, Japan and China. Apart from Tijuana, which was in the middle of a drug war when he was there, his least liked place was mainland China.

“Japan is an easy place to work. It’s orderly and civilized. There’s this view that to be civilized you need money, wisdom, and class. So many Chinese from the middle- and peasant classes came by a lot of money overnight. Farmers were offered bags of cash as cities expanded and developers needed their rice paddies to build skyscrapers on. So many became wealthy, and suddenly they thought they were better than everyone else. You would think that coming from poverty, they would always remember how hard things were – the hardships, the struggle, the austerity. But that wasn’t the case. They all seemed to forget their roots too easily. They have money, but no wisdom, and even less class.

“I was out at a lunch with a local boss man. One of the newly rich. This guy would have been plowing fields not so long ago. The waitress came and served us some roast chicken. This guy turns around, calls the waitress back and angrily asked her, ‘What is this? I ordered roast chicken. This is not roast chicken.’ The waitress assured him it was chicken, but he wouldn’t relent. ‘This is not roast chicken!’ As he became more and more agitated, the poor waitress became more and more scared.

“My lunch was ruined, because I had tucked into the chicken and was eating it happily until this joker started complaining. And of course, I couldn’t very well continue eating it while he is complaining how bad it was. So I pushed the chicken aside and hid it under some other food.

“Meanwhile, the guy had started threatening to call her manager. What is that? I mean, sure if you want to complain about the chicken, you can, but don’t make such a big fuss about it. And don’t pull a stunt like threatening to call the manager. But he did that just because he could. It was so distasteful. I never went out to a lunch like that again. The mainlanders may have money now, but they still have a long way to go.”

  8:00am  •  Travel  •   •  Tweet This  •  Comments (3)

s