Sunday, August 23, 2015

12 random first impressions of Japan: From Tokyo to Kyoto

1. Tokyo is exactly what I'd always imagined it to be: colorful and glowing, refined yet a bit tacky, expensive (in its presentation, not its prices, which are a lot more reasonable than I expected), with an undercurrent of grit and seediness (especially in the part of Shinjuki where I went out last night). It's organized chaos, a bundle of contradictions, which is a quality I can certainly relate to. Oh, and Lost in Translation didn't lie: There's a distinct aura of alone-with-everybody melancholy. That's something else Tokyo and I have in common. No wonder we get along so well.

2. I don't think I've ever experienced such a high-tech society. The toilets are a highlight, which is not a comment one writes every day...if ever. They're toilets and bidets rolled into one -- and with a dryer function! The ones in hotel rooms even have a control for warming the seat. If I ever build a house from scratch, I'm definitely designing the bathroom Japanese style -- with one major change: higher sinks. They're so low, I'm worried I'll leave Japan with a permanent stoop.

3. Tanzania and Cambodia may now have competition for the cutest babies on the planet. And the thing about Japanese babies is that they grow up into such well-behaved children. Two days ago I was watching a group of boys in their early teens who were playing a video game on the train, If we had been in New York, they probably would have been shouting over each other and annoying the hell out of me. In Sydney, they definitely would have been jabbing each other and going "mate" this and "mate' that. But these kids were so calm and respectful of each other and of their fellow passengers, engaged in their game and interacting with each other but doing so at a volume that disturbed no one and drew no attention from anyone besides the middle-aged guy sitting across from them.

4. Equally impressive: the food. I've always enjoyed Japanese cuisine, but there's so much more to it than sushi and teriyaki. Someone said I'll never have a bad meal in Japan, and so far he's right. Even those packaged 7-11 sandwiches are yummy. And who ever thought up of baking avocado, cheese and shrimp in one pot deserves a Nobel Prize.

5. I've never seen such phone obsession as in Tokyo. Taking the long escalator down as I exited the Shinjuku-sanchome train station last night around 9pm, I noticed that practically everyone going up had their eyes glued to their phone. But most of them didn't seem to be texting, so what were they doing? Two nights ago I sat next to a girl on the train who spent a good five minutes looking at herself in a mirror app. Could that be what they're all doing?!

6. Japanese women have me rethinking my sexuality. OK, not really, but watching them cross the street with such dainty precision and perfectly applied make-up, I'm convinced that if I was straight, I'd probably go crazy here. Whenever they're in groups of three or more, they create the same effect as a group of female flight attendants and pharmaceutical reps...but without the optical illusion that Barney once pointed out on How I Met Your Mother. He said if you get a bunch of slightly above average-looking flight attendants or pharmaceutical reps together, individual 7s become a collective 10. Even solo, though, these flawlessly coiffed and manicured Japanese women are stunning.

7. Japanese people have gotten so many things down to a cultural science -- from how you should take off your shoes when you enter a home to how not to blow your nose in public -- that you'd think they'd come up with a system for walking on the sidewalk. They drive to the left, so why don't they walk that way, too?

8. I'm not leaving Japan without a kimono. Last night the hottest guy at Dragon was wearing one. Sadly, when I threw myself at him and offered to take it off his, um, hands, he declined.

9. I've seen more Western tourists in one afternoon and early evening in Kyoto than I saw in three nights and two days in Tokyo, which strikes me as a bit odd. Perhaps I wasn't paying enough attention, or it was a good call to stay away from the Roppongi area, which I heard is full of embassies and expats. Or maybe it's this: In considerably more densely populated Tokyo, the Western faces blend into the crowd more. Whatever the reason, Kyoto doesn't appear to be underrated at all. I don't know why everyone else is here, but I came because of a song by The Cure that I've loved since the '80s.

10. Speaking of expats, I was quite surprised by how many Brazilians I encountered in Tokyo. What brought them there? I have no idea. Note to self: Remember to ask Yohan, the singer from the Brazilian town you've never heard of who made you dance to Destiny's Child at Dragon, if you see him again when you get back to Tokyo.

11. Speaking of the music at Dragon, is no place in the world safe from Taylor Swift on the soundtrack? Oy vey. Thankfully, the Sapporo beer, the tequila shots, and, well, Yohan were enough to distract me from that spectacularly bad remix of "Shake It Off."

12. My friend Dov described Kyoto as the Detroit of Japan, but it's much too clean and upscale for that. I'd put it this way: If Japan were Italy, Kyoto would be Bologna. What it lacks in energy, it makes up for with calmness and elegance. And after last night at Dragon, which pretty much depleted my energy, I appreciate calmness and elegance more than usual. I'm looking forward to bonding with Kyoto over the next two days.
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