Tokyo is a city of wonders and isolation. I wanted to wait until I left to write this up, because I didn’t want to besmirch the city. Keep in mind, I had the highest hopes for Tokyo, and expectations are everything.

Tokyo is clean and modern, perhaps more than any other city I’ve been in. What was interesting was how something had to go wrong for me to realize that everything was going right. While walking near the prime minister’s residence, I smelled something bad. Was that… the sewers? Yes, it seems so. In Bangkok, you are constantly walking past a sewer that had become ripe, but that was the only time it happened in Tokyo. Someone beeped, and I realized that unlike Cebu, people aren’t doing that constantly. The weather predictions were accurate. In Bangkok and Cebu, not once was the current weather report correct with regards to precipitation, much less what would happen in a few hours.1 A train is a minute late. Huh, that never happens. Unfortunately, the biggest timing problem in Tokyo was the cherry blossoms arriving 2 weeks early, followed by rain and powerful winds, ruining my chance of seeing them on all but one tree. Thus were dashed by dreams of walking around Yoyogi Park while listening to Cherry Blossom Girl.

Of course, it’s also a city where art meets technology, quite literally in places like Akihabara. Streets are filled with electronics, manga, anime, and trendy clothing and cosplay shops. Girls walk around in French maid outfits and cosplay costumes to entice you into their themed cafes. There’s even a real robot shop. In Shinjuku station, I needed to find a micro-USB cable. I saw a sign for a Bic Camera. Well, maybe a small camera shop might have it. Turns out, it’s not a small camera shop. It’s 9 stories of electronics, with a Tully’s Coffee a few floors up like Everest base camp. Another wonderous place of art and technology is the Ghibli Museum, with intricate artistic installations.2

And the food, of course, was great. The first surprise was how cheap it was. Takeout bento boxes, and even a pizza at a sit down restaurant, were $5-6. The freshest sushi possible at Tsukiji fish market (the world’s biggest) was the best I ever had, yet only cost $40 for a breakfast set.3 My Kobe beef dinner was admittedly the most I’ve paid for a meal, but this was an 8 course kaiseki meal, and the steak and Kobe beef sushi was the best beef experience of my life.

Perhaps the most delightful experience came when I would see someone walking on the street wearing traditional Japanese clothing, such as a kimono and tabi. It was like I was witnessing a little act of magic. As if they wandered through a hidden gate in time and are passing through our world for a moment. Sure, you spend any length of time in NYC or LA and you’ll see people in costume, but it’s not the same. You know what’s behind the curtain. There’s no depth to the experience on the part of the observer. Yes, I know my bliss is due to ignorance, but I’m OK with that. That store with the samurai swords and armor that nobody ever visited? That store is for them, when nobody’s looking.

That said, it was for me a very lonely place. To start with, my Japanese was horrible. A big part of that was my method of language acquisition, which I’ve since improved. However, even if you can communicate your needs, you will have trouble understanding the response. Remember, there are many, many ways to answer a question, and whatever course or software you are using, it probably only teaches one of them. If your conversation partner doesn’t use that, you are out of luck. Despite what I was told about the younger generation speaking English, I found that to be exceedingly rare. And even the expats are there to learn the language and practice it; they’re not interested in speaking English with you. I probably would have had better luck in Roppongi, the main expat neighborhood.4 However, as it is frequented by out of town executives, it’s one of the most expensive areas, perhaps second to Ginza.

The other big shock to my system was the way strangers acted toward one another. Japanese people have a famous reputation for courtesy and politeness. This is true for anyone they have the slightest formal relationship with, including people who just walked into their store. But on the street, it’s a different story. I had just come from Bangkok and Cebu, where I was constantly smiling at people and having that returned. In Tokyo, nobody even looks at you. In rare cases where they did look at me, and I’d smile or nod in their direction, they did not return the gesture. Well, once someone did, but gave such a forced performance it was like I had trapped her in some social obligation she was desperate to get out of. I started off in the land of smiles and ended up in the land of surgical masks.

Please note, I am not playing the gaijin card here. Nobody is smiling, or looking at, or making small talk with, anybody, regardless of race or ethnicity. Well, obviously, they are with their friends, but I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about simply acknowledging the existence of your fellow man. A friend said that there are a lot of lonely people in Tokyo. Like any big city, people come from elsewhere to work, even if they have no support group. This has given rise to places like maid cafes for otaku (the geeks), which are actually quite chaste, but you pay a cover charge for girls to chat with you, and more money to play board games with you. For the adults, there are hostess bars, and even host bars. These are basically bars where you buy attractive people drinks so they will talk with you, and walk out with a bill for hundreds or even thousands. In fact, one of the sources for hostesses are women who have become addicted to host bars and need to work as a hostess part time to support their habit. When you combine this with insane work schedules by western standards, you start to see why depression – and the very taboo subject, suicide – is a serious problem in Japan.

I certainly do not regret visiting Tokyo, but in hindsight, it’s the first place where I would have been better off as a tourist than as a resident. Planning an activity packed week or two would not have given me time to notice the dark side. It would have also saved me a bundle.

  1. It was clear in Cebu that nobody even bothered checking. They just looked up at the sky and made an educated guess about the next few days. []
  2. Note that the museum is very kid friendly, but not English friendly. Guides speak it a little, but all signage is in Japanese only. []
  3. This was Daiwa Sushi. Bit of a wait, but nothing compared to the 3 hours for Sushi Dai next door, and by all accounts Sushi Dai is only marginally better, if that. []
  4. I was in Hatagaya, a residential neighborhood. It was extremely walkable, though. []