A Gaijin takes in the Big Sushi

30 Apr

In 1946, my maternal grandfather, who was a PR man with the Royal Indian Air Force at the time, was posted to Japan for 3 years as a part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Forces deployment. His experiences there were rich and everlasting, and a few decades later, I would grow up hearing all about them. In his time there, he learned the language, made friends for life and was overawed by their hospitality, kindness and etiquette, a lot of which he came to adopt as his own.

Papaji, as us grand kids used to call him, passed away in ’89 but he left in me a fascination for a country that had greatly impacted him, and a desire to visit it some day. My love for trains helped reinforce this ever so often, what with the endearing image of the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) against the backdrop of Mt.Fujiyama, always whetting my appetite for the land of the rising sun.

61 years after his return from there, it was with some trepidation and a lot of excitement that I embarked on my first visit to Japan – the Big Sushi (local parlance for Tokyo) in particular – and set out to experience first hand all that I had heard, read and seen (from afar) about the country and its people.

First thing I did was get my timing right – be there in time for Sakura or the Cherry Blossom season!

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Timing is of utmost importance in Japan and the first thing you notice is the presence of clocks just about everywhere! Truth is, the Japanese have an obsession for punctuality – be it a 20 minute early push back from Narita (contrast that with a 30 minute delay leaving Newark thanks to the first officer not showing up in time!) to the fact that punctuality on the Shinkansen network is measured in seconds, with the national average for arrivals being within 6 seconds of the scheduled time!! The Japanese have, over the years, managed to make time keeping into an art form.

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In Tokyo, for instance, you can safely set your watch to the punctuality of the city’s transit system. And if you don’t happen to own a watch, use your phone! And if it happens to be a non 3G handset, like mine was, then rest assured, that’s the only use it will have in Japan! Almost a decade ago, the country’s leading cellular provider, NTT DoCoMo gave the world its first 3G network. 3 years ago they began testing 4G! As one would expect, the country is up there with the very best as far as technology and tech innovations go and it is not uncommon to find über technology aiding the most mundane tasks in everyday life!

Yet, surprisingly, credit card acceptance is limited, and even today Japan remains a strongly cash based economy. Nothing epitomises this more than the presence of vending machines, which can be found everywhere! Seriously, everywhere! In fact, it would be quite safe to say that there are more vending machines than cash machines in the country! And they will dispense just about everything from a hot cup of coffee to tampons! Or in the case of the tea house I went to, coupons to avail a traditional tea ceremony, complete with wood finish! The machine i.e.!

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There is vending for food as well – not just coffee and tea! But in the case of food, there is usually a display on the side of the machine which has replicas of the real stuff available in the restaurant. You put in the money, select the dish you want and out pops a token, which you then hand over to someone inside and your food is served.

No matter where I ate in Tokyo – be it a neighbourhood eatery, a hole in the wall, a local fast food chain, you name it – everything tasted good and was of the highest quality possible! And there is good reason for that to. Never mind the food replica displays (big industry in Japan!), the vending machines, and what the place looks like from the outside – in Japan, the food is always made fresh and in front of you, and eating it, more often than not, is a communal affair, with a U-shaped table arrangement centred around the chef.

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As diverse as the cuisine is, it is very rare – outside of the fast food joints – to find an eatery doing more than one type of Japanese food. A Soba place will only do Soba Noodles; a Sushi place will do just that and your certainly not going to find any Ramen in a Yakitoriya!

Every meal I had was noteworthy, and it was my regret not being able to sample everything on offer – 4 days is probably never enough! However, my most memorable culinary experiences were, in fact, my last two!

Dinner, on the eve of my departure, was in Yūrakuchō, just north of the Ginza, where salaried men and women tuck into plates of Yakitori, in cosy little eateries nestled beneath a rail viaduct! I mean what could possibly be better than succulent pieces of grilled poultry, chilled Asahi and the sound (and vibrations!) of a Shinkansen thundering over you?!

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And then there was Tsukiji – the largest wholesale seafood market in the world, where my early morning visit (read crack of dawn!) to watch the frenzy of activity that is quintessential to the market, was rewarded with a breakfast of Sushi and Sashimi, made from the freshest catch of the day!

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Considering it is a fish market in the real sense of the word, Tsukiji might well be the only chaotic and relatively filthy place in Tokyo! Cause everywhere else you go – be it a major thoroughfare or a tiny alleyway, everything, and I mean everything, is spotlessly clean, very neat and tidy, and amazingly efficient. Given the population density of the city, that is no mean feat!

Clean, neat and efficient pretty much sums up the Japanese way of life. The first two one can believe, the third – one has grown up hearing the term ‘Japanese efficiency’ but you only know it when you experience it! And nowhere better can this be experienced than in the Tokyo transit system.

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Tokyo was built around its train system, with each and every one of its dense neighbourhoods centred around a station, the rail line splitting the area into Nishi (west) and Higashi (east), much like it is in Bombay. But unlike Bombay, or any other city in the world for that matter, Tokyo today boasts THE most extensive urban rail network in the world! The Tokyo subway alone carries about 9 million people. Then there are the commuter lines, which together carry another 11 million people. To put things into perspective, Tokyo accounts for the top 2 busiest train stations in the world (no its not VT or Churchgate!), and the Yamanote commuter line – all of 35 km long – carries more people than the London Underground system put together!

If you think that’s impressive, here comes the real icing on the cake – despite the staggering numbers, there isn’t an iota of vandalism on any of the transit cars, nor a speck of dust or dirt to speak of. There is a train every 2-3 minutes on each line, and every one of them is always, always punctual!

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Oh, and did I mention, every station comes with lockers, free toilets, drinking water fountains and multilingual signage – just a few bonuses thrown in for the visitor!

Despite the crowds and the everyday stress associated with commuting, the etiquette on board is truly amazing. You won’t find anyone talking loudly or yapping away on their cell phones (cellular coverage is a given even in their subway!), no one hogging seats with their bags, or worse still, their legs, and absolutely no aggression of any sort! You’ve got to hand it to the Japanese – they’re special, truly a breed apart! As for the rest of the world, we haven’t quite got it, yet!

I must also clarify here that the Japanese aren’t in any way a boring or robotic lot – far from it in fact! They make up for their good public manners in several other ways – for starters, with a lot of external aural and visual stimulus – be it the digital chimes at stations announcing the arrival of a train, the neon overkill that is characteristic of their commercial areas, or the cacophony from a Pachinko parlour! The Japanese revel in all of that and more..

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Tokyo’s transit system shuts down for about 4 hours each night, but that doesn’t deter its citizens from being up and awake, out and about! Nowhere is the cliché ‘city never sleeps’ epitomized better than in Tokyo. Fact is, despite their exceedingly long work hours, the Japanese sleep very little! At the end of a long work day, they go out and get a drink, get a bite to eat (just about everyone eats out and all-night eateries are a dime a dozen!), hit a karaoke or better still a “hostess bar“, or then get a massage (there is no shortage of 24 hr places!); step into a Pachinko parlour maybe, or then a video arcade! The options are innumerable and there is a whole nocturnal industry catering to their needs, bizarre as they might seem to the Gaijin (foreigner)!

Your likely to find all of this, and then some, in Kabukichō, the city’s red light district and a good showcase for the racier side of the seemingly subdued Japanese people!

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If the raunchiness of Kabukichō isn’t your cup of Green Tea, then take a short walk south towards the ‘Golden Gai‘, a compact 160 m2 area made up of 4 little alleyways, full of tiny watering holes – 200 of them no less – such that each door in an alleyway is the entrance to one! The average size of a bar has been described by many as ‘no longer than a broom cupboard’! Not far from the truth, I have to say, but nevertheless, every one of them oozes character!

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Sandwiched between Kabukichō and the Golden Gai is Hanazono-jinja, a Shinto shrine predating the Edo period. Although rebuilt since, its elegant vermilion building sits defiantly today amidst its contrasting neighbours!

And that’s essentially what Tokyo is – a city full of contrasts! Turn off a main artery and your suddenly walking through a quiet residential area, completely devoid of traffic; little wooden houses and tiny shrines jostle for space with modern office blocks and condo towers; lofty skylines disappear, row houses appear! The neighbourhood of Harajuku is no different and probably typifies this contrast best! Designer boutiques, cool cafes, fashionistas and hipsters make up the ultra-chic shopping district on the station’s east side..

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..and over on its west side, across the tracks, lies the Meiji Jingu Shinto shrine, set in the tranquil environs of a 175 acre evergreen forest!

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At the beginning of this post, I used the word ‘trepidation’. One of the things that held me back from making this trip all these years was the language barrier! But I’m happy to report that my concerns were unfounded! Language can pose a bit of a problem for the non-Japanese speaking visitor but it certainly doesn’t hinder a visit there and never does it come in the way of you getting around. The transit system is incredibly easy to use, detailed bilingual maps exist everywhere, and each neighbourhood has its own little police kiosk or Koban, with a constable at hand, ever willing to help.

The locals know a Gaijin when they see one but are non-interfering by nature, and will stay out of your way unless asked for help. And when you do ask them for help, they will go all out! In my time there, I probably had to stop only twice to ask someone for help with directions. Those that couldn’t speak Eigo (English) were deeply apologetic about it and would try and find someone who could. In both instances, a map was brought out (every store and eatery seems to stock a neighbourhood map!) and I was shown where I wanted to go in relation to where I was!

The other reason was cost. As I discovered over my stay there, the ‘most expensive city in the world’ tag that Tokyo often gets is a bit of a misnomer! Sure, real estate prices, rentals and such are through the roof but that’s kind of understandable given how dense the city is. As a visitor, the only thing I found very expensive were the cost of taxis (at least thrice as expensive as NYC!) and the price of a ticket on the Shinkansen. The tickets were procured somewhat last minute, nevertheless, my journey to Kyoto and back (~600 miles) set me back 250 USD, a mini fortune!

The rest of my stay was perfectly affordable, with most prices – be it food, accommodation or transit – being at par with other cities in the world. In fact, I found food, especially on the low to mid end, to be somewhat cheaper than even the Big Apple! As for accommodation, I stayed a total of 4 nights for less than 200 USD – not too shabby 😉

My first 3 nights were spent in 2 different Ryokans – traditional Japanese inns, invariably run by a family, and something I would strongly recommend to anyone visiting. My last night, at 28 USD, was my cheapest, and was spent in a Capsule Hotel, another Tokyo oddity 😉

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Also at the beginning of this post, I mentioned the words ‘first visit’, cause I have every intention of returning there. And I will be back there, I know! If only to see, from the Shinkansen, what I missed on that cloudy day – Mt.Fujiyama! Till then Japan, I salute thee! May the sun always rise on you..

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A full set of pictures from Tokyo, Kyoto and Trains in Japan can be found on my Flickr.

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2 Responses to “A Gaijin takes in the Big Sushi”

  1. Satinder April 30, 2010 at 5:23 am #

    Had to comment on this Bharat ………I was in Tokyo in June’05 ( for very very short 36 hours ) and before leaving George Paul told me that Japanese are a different breed …those 36 hours were enough to validate George’s observation….you post just re-validated the same thing once again …..I will also return to Tokyo one day ……BTW , when do hear about Kyoto experiences ( and Pics ) ……….Cheers

  2. Maiko Shiratori April 30, 2010 at 2:20 pm #

    Being a native Japanese, I’m truly impressed how you articulate ‘crazy’ Japan so well. Glad you had the experience I was hoping you to, especially catching the sakura season. Having lived there for most of my life, Tokyo appeals to me as a much better city in your blog than I ever thought. Great post!!

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