I have never been to Japan before. I have heard all about it. I watched Kurosawa movies. I did Karate. I listened to weird tales about life in this ancient culture. So I guess the truth is: I don’t know a thing about Japan.
First contact. After a long two-part flight interrupted by a rather hectic and slightly chaotic transfer in Abu Dhabi I arrive at Narita Airport, Tokyo. I pass through long peaceful corridors until I finally arrive at the entry point of a queue. It is guarded by an elderly lady in her fifties or sixties. She smiles at me and very politely asks for my entry form. I hand it to her, and she very politely explains to me the mistakes I have made. She suggests that I might go to one of the nearby desks and fill in the missing information. This cycle repeats itself three times. No, I don’t have an address in Japan. I dig for my reservation to get the address of the hotel. No, I don’t have a phone number in Japan. No problem, my home number will do nicely. Oh, I put it into the wrong field. There are many fields with lots of signs and letters in different languages. Through the whole process her politeness and determination does not change a bit. This all happens in a very quiet and relaxed way. Finally she lets me enter and I smoothly pass through the remaining checkpoints.
When I think about it, she was running the show. It seems in Japan you make absolutely sure everything is prepared properly before you’re actually allowed to do something. My first impression after fifteen minutes exposure to Japan.
According to Wikipedia in 2011 more than 35 million people lived in Greater Tokyo, most of whom speak and write in ways I do not understand. My concern was that this two facts could result in me getting lost, not in translation, but in a maze of undecipherable information and never-ending streets.
Getting into the station at Narita, and then on the train to Asakusa did nothing to ease my mind. About ninety-nine percent of the writing looked beautifully alien, possibly hiding some crucial information I am missing. The infrastructure itself on the other hand was pretty much the same as you would expect in Europe or North America. Some parts of it, I have to say, appear more advanced than anything I have seen so far. Talk about public toilets for example. A real travellers nightmare in some countries, but absolutely not in Tokyo. They are clean, free, all over the place and come with a control panel.
My first impression of Japan, or rather Tokyo, is a mixture of comforting familiarity and irritating strangeness. I guess, it is easy to live in Japan, but to become part of it would require serious effort on my side. Serious, as in lifetime.
Now I am in Tokyo for more than two weeks, and I think I am doing fine. No dangerous situations that I was aware of. No problems. It seems that in Tokyo the important information is highly redundant. It’s there in Japanese, as cryptic Kanji, as more accessible Hiragana and Katakana, or as latin letters. It’s there in English. It’s there as a drawing or pictogram and just in case, there are police boxes on many street corners, where you can ask. The ever-present advertisements are usually in Japanese only. So I miss out on them. Shame.
It seems Tokyo is a very accessible city. It’s missing the western Street Name & Number system, but as it turns out, I don’t need it. Orientation by train stations and landmarks seems to work fine for me. It’s one hell of a training for my pattern recognition skills.
Hungry? Thirsty? Food is everywhere. In central Tokyo I seem never to be further than hundred meters away from one of the ubiquitous vending machines, that get you a variety of drinks for about 100 Yen, or a convenience store.
A host of small restaurants offers a wide variety of dishes. I have Ramen, Sushi, Sashimi, Okonomiyaki, different kinds of Teriyaki. It seems, that to starve in Tokyo, I have to go on a determined hunger strike. Food. Check.
The prices range from decent to ridiculously expensive – from my western point of reference. There is a wide range of inexpensive sushi and quality pre-prepared meals available at the supermarkets. Fresh fruit and vegetables are painfully expensive. Mind to pay a euro for an apple, or fifteen dollars for a melon?
My fallback snack are the “triangular rice balls”, Onigiri, available everywhere. The quality of food in Japan, as I can tell, is high.
My impression is, that you can eat well for a reasonable price. There is Döner too. I ran head on into a Döner booth at my first night in Asakusa. Home. Sweet Home.
After only two weeks most of the little differences that struck me during my first days in Tokyo have faded into memories. I have to actively recall them, as they are now “normality”. There was this moment at Narita when I went to the toilet and was faced with the hight tech version of what probably was once a hole in the ground. Traditional and western toilets live happily side by side in modern Tokyo. Or my futile attempt to find a trash can at the airport. There are virtually none in Tokyo. Still the city is tidy and clean. Apparently people take their trash home. Trash seems to be a rather private than public matter.
When I look at my two weeks of experience, Japan seems to make sense. Sometimes more, sometimes less, sometimes none at all, and somehow it all results in an apparently safe and comfortable country. Nature has been nice to me so far. No Earthquakes. No Typhoons.