Discovering Japan

Posted By on November 28, 2010

A week ago tomorrow, I returned from four full days in Tokyo thanks to Hilton, American Airlines and Japan Airlines. Hilton invited me, American Airlines flew me there and partway back, and Japan Airlines got me from Tokyo to San Francisco, where I met a very old friend and lost my cell phone (that incident might prompt another blog very soon; the phone, which my friend retrieved in his car, is in the mail and better get here tomorrow).

Tokyo is Blade Runner scale, but much friendlier. The streets are broad, the scale unexpected. Tokyo itself is said to have a population of 29 million, Metro Tokyo 35 million. Unlike New York, while it’s similarly tall and skyscraper-heavy, Tokyo is layered. So the subway stations lead up to multi-leveled commercial complexes byzantine to the point of bewilderment. Even after four days, I had a hard time ascending from Shimbashi Station to Shiodome, the gigantic structure cluster housing the Conrad Tokyo, the four-star hotel where I commanded a gorgeous suite overlooking Tokyo Bay.

It’s not just the scale that overwhelms, it’s the civility. Tokyo is quiet and clean. While it’s packed with cars, one rarely hears a car horn. And while it’s overrun with people, the crowds, even in Shibuya, the city’s retail heart, are polite. Crossing an intersection with a good 5,000 people in it involves a kind of social ballet, a grace unimaginable in western cities, most of which are much smaller.

Seating sections with orange straps and signage are reserved for the elderly on Tokyo’s efficient subway. People are friendly, if reserved. Thanks to Daniel Fath, a fabulous public relations person who squired our group around Tokyo, we learned how to stand in the train, how to give way in a crowd, how to say thank you. Civility is critical in a region in which space is the primary, most priceless value.

The first day began before 5 a.m. with a visit to the Tsukiji Fish Market for the tuna auction. Cold, wet, enthralling, it took two hours and was an appropriate introductory immersion in Tokyo. Some fish were enormous; the auction decides the volume and quality of tuna distribution in the area. Word is local titans of industry want to move the market from its present spot on the Sumida River to make way for casinos and condos. There is resistance. The market is very much worth visiting.

A riverboat ride brought us to Asakusa, a tourist town where I encountered the Buddha I’ve always visualized and ate a fabulous rice cracker. Fatigued and jet-lagged, I nevertheless enjoyed the first day.

The day I remember most vividly was the third, when Daniel and I walked all over Shibuya, the most vibrant area I saw. Highlights were visits to Tower Records and Tokyu Hands. Americans would recognize Tower—Tokyo’s is the only extant one—but would find Tokyu Hands a very different kind of department store. It sells all kinds of cell phone accessories, wacky games, tchotchkes, clothing, kitchen ware. It’s a smorgasbord pulsing with animation and the exotic. Tokyo teen boys took pictures of us. We took pictures of them. That night, I took pix of the Ginza, a shopping district crossing Times Square and Madison Avenue. Lotsa fun. More soon.


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I'm a veteran critic and business writer who reads and listens and writes about music, books, hotels and travel. I've been in the business for many years and still enjoy it. My pride and joy is my book, Cleveland Rock & Roll Memories. Follow me on Twitter: