Tokyo Tell All

I write this as I’m sitting at the Sakura Lounge in Haneda Airport, waiting for our flight to Korea, our next destination. I feel depressed, and I’ve been trying to find ways to spend more extended time in Tokyo in the future. For years, Japan was on the top of my list of places to visit, and after finally making it over, I can confidently say it exceeded all of my expectations.

A gloriously lucky clear day to see Mt. Fuji after Typhoon Trami blew by. On Lake Ashi in Hakone. Most times, Fuji isn’t visible at all or just a faint outline disappearing into the clouds.

In my last week, I’ve been trying to synthesize all my experiences, observations and conversations with both natives and expats about Tokyo and Japanese culture. Originally designed to be shared across multiple blog posts, I felt it would be more accurate to describe it a la kitchen sink style: exactly how I experienced it with all its surprises, contradictions, and nuances filled with full sensory overload. It would be foolish and unfair of me to suggest that I’ve absorbed any more than just a small scratch on the surface of a very deep pool, but I’ve definitely learned: I now look at both Miyazaki and Murakami differently after these last 5 weeks (they make so much more sense); I look at Japan’s technology in a new light; and I see a population primed to emerge from the Asian Financial Crisis that drove so much of Japan into a depression for the last twenty years. In an attempt to express my 5 week impression of this beautiful, strange and unforgettable place, here is my Tokyo Tell All.

Hakone Shrine on Lake Ashi

Nature and Human

From Shinrin-yoku to the Robot Cabaret

Since our time here, we’ve been through two major typhoons and two earthquakes that rattled our roof, windows, and left us whispering to one another through the night, “This is kinda scary.” As a series of islands in the Pacific that sits on the great ring of fire and battered by typhoons, earthquakes, tsunamis and mudslides, Japan has, understandably, a deep connection with and respect for nature.

After a few weekends exploring Tokyo and its surrounding mountains, we decided to venture further to Hakone and experience the famous onsens (hot spring spas) and try to catch a view of Mt. Fuji from Lake Ashi. It was also, coincidentally, the same weekend that Typhoon Trami was rolling in through the southwestern side of the island. The first day we arrived, Lake Ashi was clouded over with fog and a light sprinkle of rain. There was a warm stillness that gave premonition to the storm to come. That evening, while sitting in an onsen overlooking the mountains and the lakes, the storm started raging and wouldn’t stop until the early hours of the morning. It was ironic to me that while Trami was wrecking havoc – uprooting trees, small pavilions and dumping inches of rain water – we were enjoying the hot, natural, open air onsen (separate, of course, since men and women are separated) listening to it all around us and feeling the sprays of rain water evaporate against our skin.

Here’s a look at our Hakone trip. Notice the before and after shots often in the same places. Despite the sunny and clear day after the storm, there would be no boats going out on the lake. All trails were closed as well as lifts to the top of the mountains.

Shintoism, one Japan’s folk religions, places a deep emphasis and respect for nature for each element, rock, tree, grass, sky has an essence and spirit.

At a shrine on Mt. Takao

After Trami and two earthquake rattles later, I understand why. With a population 1/4 the size of the United States and with a land mass smaller than California, Japan is a mountainous land surrounded by oceans that bring typhoons on bad days and wealth from the ocean on good ones. Nature is both destructive and life giving: On a clear day, look south to see the outline of Mt. Fuji from Tokyo or take a walk through Tsukiji market to see the fruits of the water; On a stormy day, feel your windows shake against the rain and winds in fear.

It isn’t just the life force and destructive elements of nature that the Japanese respect so much, it’s also the connection between human and nature on a spiritual level. Shinrin-yoku originated sometime in the early 1980s and is the concept of quite literally, bathing in the forest for nature therapy. It’s believed that doing so relieves stress and cures mental illnesses like anxiety and depression. We spent as much time as possible during the month running along the River Sen, just outside our Airbnb, and walking into the woods. Despite being in one of the largest cities in the world, this was fairly convenient to do.

What I thought was a striking balance against nature is how while technology pervades Japan, nature is never just in the backdrop; it’s still front and center. The deep practice of shinrin-yoku is not to take a person away from technology; it’s a response to it.

Akihabara at night. Take a walk through the electronics market.

A few days after I arrived, I went to dinner on a rainy night near Hibiya Station in Ginza. With the brightly lit multistory buildings and shops carved out all along and under bridges with trains blowing by on top, I felt I had entered Bladerunner. From the electronics outdoor markets in Akihabara to the crazily technological hotel rooms (and public mega-automatic bathrooms with singing toilets), Japan’s mastery of electronic technology and attention to engineering detail is incredible. Thirty years ago, the technological future had existed here, and I think it was only recently that the rest of the world has caught up.

In even the most urban neighborhoods in Tokyo, however, I never got the sense that people felt more powerful than Nature. On the contrary, a sense of protectionism existed along with the acceptance that Nature can always defeat what humans make. In the ridiculously strange, incredible, and visually spasmodic Robot Cabaret in the red light district of Shinjuku (I cannot recommend this show more – it was absolutely entertaining and weird), one of the main events was a fight between the enslaved humans and the robots. In the end, it was the nature gods who come to humanity’s rescue to defeat the robots, not the other way around.

Introversion against Tokyo’s Nightlife

How to be polite and see Tokyo’s underbelly.

By now, if you’ve read any Murakami or seen shows about traveling to Japan, you’ll learn two things: it’s an extremely polite and introverted society; you can also find really weird, blush-worthy activities especially of the night time variety in the red light district of Shinjuku, the gaming bars of Akihabara or disco clubs of Roppongi.

When you first arrive in Japan, know these rules:

  1. Speak quietly. Everywhere. Soft voices are spoken while walking on the street (we were whispering all the time), in restaurants, and especially on subways or other public areas. As you can imagine, this was really hard for my Company but he soon learned.
  2. There’s no eating or drinking while walking on the streets. There’s no eating or drinking on any public transit.
  3. There’s no garbage cans on the streets – take it home.
  4. When buying something like food, clothing, etc, say hello, thanks, and goodbye at least half a dozen times because that’s what the host will do. Honestly, saying thank you and good-bye took us longer than the actual shopping sometimes, mixed in with about 6 bows.
  5. Shoes off at all times indoors.
  6. This is one of our travel rules but try to learn a few words in Japanese. Japan always surprises visitors when they come and realize that no, most people don’t speak English. A little bit of Japanese goes a long way.
Despite having vending machines everywhere, you must drink your order standing next to the machine.

Then, also know these rules:

  1. It’s perfectly okay to read near pornographic manga in a public restaurant. In fact, restaurants really cater to people eating alone. In ramen shops or casual yakitori places, there’s quite a few “privacy screens” set up just for people to eat alone. Most restaurants have a bar to eat at, where you can prop up a good read and watch your food being cooked.
  2. It’s okay to pass out after drinking in a bush, on the side walk, on the subway, on the platform of the subway, on any public bench, or actually, anywhere publicly. Most the people we saw doing this were in suits on a Friday night, some even using suitcases as pillows.
  3. “All is forgiven” if you said or did it while you were drinking. We learned from a few friends who have lived here that once a drink is had, general rules of decorum seem to be forgotten and no one brings it up the next day. This may include talking smack about your boss, job, venting, fighting a little “too hard” with a friend, amongst other things.
  4. Do not take photos of the “maids” from the maid cafe. Don’t worry, the photo below is from Wiki commons.
From Wikipedia Commons

5. It’s also generally unacceptable to take photos of anyone’s face directly without  their explicit permission and definitely not in a bar.

6. If you’re a foreigner misbehaving in the foreigner heavy, disco district of Tokyo – Roppongi – know that at 5am a police car may drive up next to you, a few officers ,ay step out, and if you continue to misbehave, you will definitely be rolled up in a carpet and taken away to the station. Honestly, this is one of my regrets of not witnessing; I was tempted to stake out early one morning on a club heavy corner in Roppongi to catch this, but I was afraid there’d be a mistake, and I’d be rolled up and away.


7. Don’t be late checking out of a “love hotel”; they charge you by the 30 minutes. Designed originally during times when Japanese young married couples lived with their families, these hotels offered newly weds and young couples some privacy from the in-laws. We were less exciting; we booked one on our last night because it was close to the airport.

For the Love of Process and Mega Corporations

Overlooking office buildings in Akihabara

If you’ve ever worked with a Japanese company, you’ll know how important process is. Between the 400 question emails prepared before a big business meeting to the 6+ hour meetings that then follow, process, rules, hierarchy, and consensus based decision making are integral to Japanese corporate culture. Japan’s attention to detail doesn’t escape its meeting rooms, and while process can be attributed to leveling up almost all workers to having a high standard of output, the downside is also bureaucracy, slowness, and long hours (14+ days, 6-7 days a week) that are typically a result of tradition and overhead versus productivity. It’s a butt-in-seat culture, and no one leaves before the boss.

The salaryman has become a famous icon for Japan’s corporate culture and its associated exhaustion. Karoshi, or death from overwork (either by suicide or literally dropping dead) is a noted, rampant problem in Japan. In the old days over twenty years ago, your corporation was your family. Back then, young females were hired as executive assistants or office secretaries to later be married off to one of the employees. Your boss found you your wife, signed your lease to your mortgage, and controlled your wage. Today, organizations have begun to try to limit hours to combat karoshi, and there’s definitely an interesting start-up scene that seems to be budding (one of our friends here is at a start-up, and another one is trying to create more innovation within his company).

People I’ve spoken noted that Japan hasn’t fully recovered from the Asian Financial Crisis of 1994-1995. While there’s a complex web of variables – from liquidity issues in the 1990s, speculation and panic to industries moving across Asia – one idea that my Company and I threw around was whether the megacorps (ex: Sumitomo Mitsubishi Banking Corp) have controlled too much of Japanese industry. That, combined with the culture of process along with the liquidity constraints of the financial crisis, may have unexpectedly stifled Japanese innovation from moving ahead of the times as it did thirty years ago. I’m hesitant to speculate without data, but I do believe it shadows a warning to Silicon Valley’s (plus Seattle’s) own megacorps: Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon. With these large corporations keeping senior engineers there with their infamous golden handcuffs and absorbing smaller start-ups to stifle competition, acquire technology and or improve their user access, I can’t imagine innovation would possibly move as fast within those organizations versus competitively amongst a sea of starts-up outside them. And if I ever had to choose between betting on a large corporation versus a small underdog, I’ll always choose the underdog.

Final Remarks

Of all the things I learned in Japan, something I’ll take with me on this trip and beyond is the treatment of tourists. This has, by far, been the most hospitable place we have visited on our global trip. From finding and reporting my Company’s camera on our first day in, to the katsu lady who helps us order even though she doesn’t speak English, to the welcoming responses we get throughout all of our walks in neighborhoods where tourists rarely visit, Japan has welcomed us at each step. No one takes advantage of you because you’re clueless (like many other places), and if anything, there’s a genuine desire to help. I think back on my blaise or slightly annoyed attitude at tourists in the US, and I feel shameful.

If you’re visiting Tokyo for a short vacation, budget how much you’d spend as if you’re visiting a major European city like Paris or London. Definitely spend heavily on food (sushi has the widest price variance), onsens, coffee/drinks and the robot show. If you’re here for longer, I highly suggest finding a place outside the beaten path of Shinjuku, Shibuya, Roppongi or Ginza and ride the amazing public transit to visit those tourist heavy places. Buy a pasmo card at any train station (Shinjuku station has English speaking folks to help guide tourists), top it off at one of the machines (there’s English options), and explore Tokyo slowly. Typically a one way trip on train is between $1.50-$4 depending on where you go in Tokyo. For us, staying in Tokyo for a month was less expensive than a month in Southern Spain (what?!) and Germany. Rent was less than half the price of our place in Menlo Park, and unless you decide to spend every meal in Azabujuban, Roppongi, Ginza, or another really tourist/business heavy area, there’s plenty of very well priced and equally delicious options. Four months on the road now, and we have become better travelers. It’s an art. What I’ve learned is that the best memories on the road are made in unexpected places, fully immersed in the culture and place. None of those places are usually ever expensive, nor are they jam-packed with tourists.

So I’ll leave you with one of my favorite finds during our entire time in Tokyo, a beautiful garden on one of our long walks in the suburbs. I don’t even remember where this was, but I’ll never forget the feeling of shinrin-yoku while we walked amongst the bamboo stalks after a long night out in Shinjuku.

Bamboo forest just outside of the farm.

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