Three big bounces on the right wheels and my 747 thuds down in Tokyo. By the time my heart rate returns to normal I’ve already seen some curious sights. Next to the runway, a man on a tractor, plowing a lake (must be a rice paddy). In the distance a sign suggesting “Let’s Kiosk!”, the first use of that verb I’d ever seen. And billowing bamboo forests with patches of cedars, telling me I’m somewhere far away from the leafy green of New Jersey or the dry eucalypts of Australia. I feel thrilled at the prospect of novelty, amusement, and maybe even satori (enlightenment).
My Asia trip is the second leg of a round-the-pond business trip: Sydney-San Francisco-Seattle-Tokyo-Singapore-Sydney, all in 10 days. Seeing all these places in such a compressed timeframe matches the experiences together in a way that makes them stand out from each other in high contrast. San Francisco, so familiar as to seem like a time warp: I’d never left. Seattle, leafy and likeable and probably a nice place to live someday (but saying goodbye to the sun would be hard). And now Tokyo, 20 years after my only previous visit.
I emerge into the Narita Airport terminal and the theatre of the absurd begins in earnest. On the left, a nurse’s station with a row of porcelain-faced girls all dressed in white, one of them with a microphone yelling “Do you have fever or diarrhea? If so, prease drop on by!” On the right, a wall-sized advertisement with the dubious claim “Korean Seafood Makes an Excellent Gift – Conger Eel, Squid, Laver, & Squilla”. Two Japanese lady executives glide by, encased in a bubble of intimacy and deference, and they’re a caricature: giggling, miniature people, toothy smiles creasing their eyes into slits.
The train into the city, of course, is immaculate. This train has been recently scrubbed by teams of people with toothbrushes & disinfectant. A precise, beautifully-drawn engineering diagram tells me how to recline the seat, with 12 arrows to indicate the advanced features (I find the seat quite ordinary but I appreciate the pride with which the engineers document their work). There’s a billboard for “Captain Santa Island”, apparently a theme park in Okinawa that combines pirate myths with Christmas. The protagonist wears the red and white cap, has a huge flowing white beard, but also has an eye patch and carries a cutlass. I wonder what the rides are like…the kids in the picture all have those huge round eyes (Japanese wish they had) but they look petrified. Something tells me Captain Santa is not a very nice guy…
The train pulls into the station and across the street is my hotel, The Marunouchi (next door is the Hotel Rich Time which sounds like more fun…) The Marunouchi is quite nice though. Like all of Tokyo, the “fit & finish” at the Marunouchi is exquisite. Automakers use that expression to describe when they install the last tight stitch in the leather upholstery, or when the molding meets the walnut dashboard perfectly flush. Speaking of perfectly flush…that reminds me to mention the toilets at the Marunouchi. Well these toilets are not regular “fixtures”, they’re high-tech “appliances”. The one in my room offered 8 different below-the-waist sensations, each with its own icon. I lift the lid and see a huge Warning Label with several paragraphs describing what could go wrong and what to do about it. I select what looks to be the mildest experience, a simple bum with a spray going upward, and set myself down, finger on the STOP button just in case. OhMyGod BULLSEYE! A warm stream finds its way in a direct hit, and I can only describe the sensation as pornographic. I hit STOP, start chuckling, but I also definitely feel violated. Not sure what to do next….hmm, the button with a fan looks promising. Yes, just a warm breeze to dry me off and calm my nerves a little before bed.
In the morning I emerge onto the street and walk past the train station on the way to my first appointment. It’s 8:21 AM and a massive herd of homo urbanis asiaticus exits the station and thunders toward me, a uniform sea of black heads and black suits, shoes clicking in unison, literally running to their offices. How are you going to beat these people? They’re running. After a two-hour commute, after leaving the office at 8PM last night, and getting 6 hours sleep, they’re running to get back to their posts. My only hope is to split the herd, or stand behind a light pole, which I do until the main body passes by.
My meeting is on the 40th floor and as I stroll there I get another chance to admire how Tokyo has been made. Or should I say “remade”, since it was a smoking heap of burnt timber after 1945, when aerial bombing killed 120,000 people over three nights and burned the city to the ground. It’s been rebuilt, not always beautifully, but always well. I walk past twenty or so men in grey coveralls, each tapping away with tiny chisels, honing the new granite sidewalks to perfection. Everywhere you look is brass or granite or stainless steel (the fire hydrants are cast, engraved, polished stainless steel), it’s amazing how great a rich country can look when they stop spending all their money making war on the other side of the world.
I spend the day in good meetings with our likeable hosts, and at lunchtime they take me to the shopping area on the ground floor. We enter what looks like a jewelry store, beautifully-lit cabinets with exquisite displays, immaculate floors, but actually it’s a supermarket. Instead of heaps and piles of vegetables, just a few specimens of each variety are carefully choreographed. Melons are popular this time of year as gifts, each one comes with its own bamboo box, and each one has been rotated daily so it’s a perfect sphere. Price: 15,000 yen (about $120 USD). But there’s everyday food, too, and my lunch costs just $10 USD.
Back upstairs we look down on the Imperial Palace, past the moat, and happen to see horses and then several horse drawn carriages emerge. Dozens of policemen stop traffic for the ten minutes or so it takes to get the procession through the broad intersection. It’s the Prince & Princess (almost deities!), they often go out just for a few minutes (sometimes to McDonalds!) That evening we go out for some more traditional Japan with a kaiseki dinner, the ancient style of dining that evolved out of tea ceremony. Poker-faced geishas with pursed lips serving course after course, steadfastly refusing any eye contact. Hummingbird eggs, delicate seafood bits, I counted 21 courses, starting cold and bland and ending hot and bitter, each offered with robotic and highly stylized movements. Yes a few were too challenging to pass even my lips (fish liver coated in ash and buried for 1 year). When the bill for 360,000 yen came ($3000 USD for four people) I was glad they were paying.
That evening we went to Roponggi to look at the nighttime side of Tokyo culture. Let’s just say the Puritans never landed here. Every (and I do mean every) form of evening entertainment was on display, even though this is considered a safe, wholesome, family area (I’ll tell you what was in the vending machines if you send me an email).The following day my brief Japan trip drew to a close, from there I continued to noisy tropical rambunctious commercial wonderful Singapore, but that’s another story altogether.