I have always looked at maps of the world and wondered if they skew perspective. America appears massive while Australia and India are diminished and Japan… well, miniscule. Even when I was young, I knew somehow that reality didn’t concord with this portrayal. I know now, for example, that India is mind bogglingly huge and that the Australian coast is a challenge to travel from bottom to top as the real distance is much more than any map suggests. As the sage’s say, “the map is not the territory” and nowhere is this more true than the depicted size of Japan and its capital Tokyo.
Even calling Tokyo a city is a misnomer, doing serious damage to the definition of that word. Tokyo is rated, by those who make it their business to judge such things, as number 3 or 4 on the world city index. Behind New York, my home of London and often behind Paris. This is almost comical and can only be due to the fact Japan is on the “other side” of the world, which is surely also the fault of the map industry as nowhere on the globe can be on one “side” or another. Any reasonable person’s judgement cannot put Tokyo as just an A+ (rather than London’s A++) as it has more land and more people than anywhere else. It is a new definition of enormous, excelling in every way and especially in those ways that matter to the traveller. For example is has double (double!) the Michelin Stars than the next rival, Paris. It has culture so strong and independent that it is one of the few places on my travels capable of resisting (by envelopment) current corporate “westernisation”. Indeed Tokyo’s goal, and one it has achieved since the Second World War, is not to simply swallow western values and culture, but to actually feedback and make us take some of it. Tokyo’s youth culture for example is everywhere in the west. Its arts of all types are prized. Its technology ahead and inspiring things such as the iPhone (such a copy of the Sony Clie).
Yes, Tokyo is not really a city at all, it is more like a ravening monster rising from the sea and stomping around the world, culturally leaving wet claw-shaped footprints all over.
In many ways this size is all that saves us from domination. It is so big and encompassing to not only be resistant to outside ideas, but also be an island of ideas that only look inward. What I mean is there is much in Tokyo that you would only find in this city as it can support an independent localisation of ideas not seen elsewhere. There is enough people here to make “success” of a product or service without ever leaving its borders. It has no need for globalisation. I found this out immediately upon arriving.
The airport ATM sat in the corner of the little booth. It had taken us an age to find it as there seemed to be a complete dearth of them, which contrasts to the UK where they are literally everywhere. I stared at it and had been doing so for 5 minutes. You see, I was trying to work out how to make it actually dispense cash. This is not a naturally tenable position for me to be in. In my western world I am a master of technology and at the top of the game. For example I was once in a hospital having a ENT specialist put an endoscope up my nose to check for Apnea. He took the viewing scope away from his eye and asked if I would like to see what he could through the device?
“Yeshhh” I snorted, the device up my nose and dangling into my throat was making speaking difficult.
He pulled towards him a large computer system mounted on a wheeled podium. It looked very new like the plastic wrapping had just been taken off. Into this he plugged his end of the scope via an adapter and then boggled at the machine trying to make it show the picture on the computer screen. Clearly he was unsure how to use it and which button sequence started the screen. After 10 seconds I gently reached across and said,
“It’s thishh one,” press, “then thishhh one,” click, “and thhen presshhh here,” I said indicating a final button.
The doctor pressed it and suddenly I could see on the screen my own tonsils from a very unique angle.
“How the?…” The doctor said looking at me in amazement.
Cesca leaned in and said, “He’s in IT and good at that sort of thing”.
All for naught here. This cash machine, and I checked again that it was as such and not some sort of exotic device for turning wood, had nothing in common with any cash machine I had ever seen. Some parts clipped open revealing a cavernous mechanical interior that looked like you wouldn’t want to catch your hand in it, but I couldn’t figure out how to get it to accept a card, how to input how much cash I wanted, or even how to turn off the quietly instructive Japanese voice emanating from its interior. This is how everyone must feel back at home all the time I thought. Eventually, very eventually, I figured it out and the machine folded open like a flower to dispense some Yen. I remember thinking that this would surely be enough for a week.
It lasted a day. Japan is really expensive.
We caught the train into the city and my excitement started to build.
I had always wanted to visit Japan, ever since I was a child. So much of Japanese culture, that which made it to the west, was part of my youth. I had studied Karate for many years, I had read Manga and DT Suzuki, I watched Anime, I loved the movies of Beat Takeshi Kitano, I relished Sushi and I knew all the works of Japanese history made popular in the west.
And, of course, my taken-name, Basho, is from the great Basho of Japan. Bit of an obvious clue, really.
I knew that all this was about to be, embarrassingly, proved to be a delusion; a cargo cult compared to the real thing. Japan was, I always realised, far enough away that the western version of it would only be a hyped approximation due to, if nothing else, the fact that no one who knew better would be around to correct it. Strangely this made me all the more excited as surely we were to be “let in”, to gain the “inside track”. Surely, I thought, the inscrutability of the Japanese would be laid open to us and my knowledge of the place, such as how to bow properly, would open doors?
Tokyo, like all A+ cities, is made up of suburbs with their own flavour connected by a transit system that enhances this feeling.
This is the same as in London where you can walk down a few streets and be in a uniquely different area, but with a sense of transition. Get the tube everywhere however, and you feel like you’ve stepped between worlds. Tokyo has this in spades.
The first place we went to stay was on the edge of the central city and was a very clean suburb under the glow of the high rises in the short distance and beneath raised train lines.
Nestled is how I would describe it. It was quite peaceful and the main thing I noticed was the huge amount of vending machines lining the streets, which all lacked for pavements.
It seemed like they were simply everywhere, all along and offering different produce of all types. Unlike the large ones found in the UK, these were smaller and designed to be compact. They were also not given their own “space” like in the UK. Here they almost blended into the buildings and doors they stood silent guard at. More amazement was given over to the car parks. They were like a combination of a giant vending machine and a lift. You park your car in it, get out, press the button and the car is lifted up and away out of sight to be slotted in amongst others. Incredible the first time you see it. We arrive at “K’s House” and checked in. The local man working behind the counter was polite but unimpressed by our arrival. Not that we expected hotel-like hospitality, but he was clearly bored of Westerners. The other thing that struck me was how mind meltingly expensive it was for a room. The cost was around £35 each per day. This literally made my head swim for a few seconds as I calculated the costs of being Japan for the time we had planned. With food, travel and a little light entertainment we were looking at something like £800 per week. That would have lasted us a month in India.
Japan was going to cost us, so it had better be worth it!
Let’s find out…