Welcome to Japan! (28/Jan/2006)
Here I am, after quite a lot of work to make this trip happen, and
coming sooner than expected, I am visiting the Tokyo office for
a week. Well, it's a lot like people say it is, and we often forget
how much we know about Japan, how much we've been exposed to its
most original and fun sides, and many of its stereotypes.
Arrival at the airport (28/Jan/2006)
I didn't expect things to start so soon, but they most certainly have.
I've had the experience of Japanese people in the plane, but now I'm
in the country, and constantly When I join the queue to pass the immigration,
I'm amused by the old man who is almost singing when he calls out
the free aisle: "twinty-four pleeaaaaze".
On board to Tokyo (28/Jan/2006)
Eventually, I make it through immigration, where the guy is humming
and whispering to himself. Another stereotype: the people wearing
hygiene masks, which is quite a frequent sight. When I walk up to
the information counters, the women look a bit stressed to have to
speak English to me. Oh, and then there's one who asks me if the 1000Y
note is mine (~9US$), which some previous client must have left there
as change. I say it's probably a tip for them.
Narita Express (28/Jan/2006)
Anyway, I make it to the Narita Express, which connects the airport
to Tokyo station, 66km away, in one hour (hum, that's a speed of 66km/h
then ;-)). Comfortable and fast, and with announcements made in English
too. I wouldn't mind enjoying the view, but it's pitch black already,
and there's not much to see. I try to read a bit, but dose off while
a middle-aged man reads his manga in the seat in front of me (a tough
photo to snap, and many sights I miss by being shy about taking pictures
of people in their face).
Noodle network (28/Jan/2006)
It almost look like colourful noodles spilled on top of a map of
Tokyo: the network of train and subway lines. There are Japan Rail
trains and all sorts of other private lines, then there's Tokyo
metro and the Toei metro lines, forming the subway. There are all
sorts of possible combinations and tickets and conditions, and,
although the lines are colour-coded and the stations numbered, it's
not easy at all to figure out what ticket to get or where to go
in the beginning.
Somehow though, I pretty much got the hang of it, and got myself
off in the correct direction, looking at the few stations as I passed
by, and getting off correctly. The massive Tokyo station did not
seem too impressive, but it's the one with the biggest commuting
in the world. Got me to where I needed to go, and then outside,
everything was also so quiet. Dark and a bit drizzly for a Saturday
night, "avenue" looking like a small street, but my printed
Japanese map got me to the small business hotel where I'm staying
for a week.
Dormy Inn (28/Jan/2006)
So here are my basic 10 square meters. Japan's known to be pretty
expensive for accommodation, but 70US$ equivalent is reasonable,
even if it doesn't get me much space. Everything's designed pretty
well to make use of space, but when you want to put something somewhere,
you think a bit and usually have to move something else, so I started
by removing all the unnecessary items. Then came the discovery of
the toilet and showers!
Click on the photo on the left and check the next one: the toilets
are a pretty sophisticated piece of equipment. There's all sorts
of heating, automated water, bidet, etc... I'm told that in Japanese
embassies, they actually train local staff on how to use them! Well,
amusing enough. The rest feels like being on a boat: compact but
Supposedly one of the liveliest and most colourful parts of nocturnal
Tokyo, Shinjuku had to be a place for me to see with just a bit
of time ahead of me before the metro closes around midnight. The
station is quite a massive one, so it took me a while to find the
right direction to the main Yasukuni-dori Avenue.
Ah, there they are: the big flashing neon lights, the hordes of
people, the extravagant outfits (short skirts with high black boots,
all sorts of hair styles, colourful fur coats, etc...). Sound coming
at you, traffic, crowds. That's where they were all hiding. I walk
around in search of a recommended seafood restaurant, and discover
all sorts of shops, the variety of food places, and, always, the
First meal: tempula
OK, I'm exaggerating... They don't exactly say "tempula"
instead of "tempura", and anyway it's their word, but
the Japanese are known for pronouncing "r" as "l".
Anyway, nice meal, and it's always nice to order local food in a
foreign country without understanding any word except their loud
welcoming and greetings.
It's getting increasingly famous, which doesn't mean it doesn't
taste as good or fails to get to your nostrils at times. I realised
they don't serve it wish sushi to add in the soy sauce like for
sashimi, since there's actually already wasabi under the fish of
course, but I guess I got used to having a sauce loaded with wasabi,
since i) I like it and ii) it's cool to be able to do things like
it's the real thing and you have a clue about it, like a few years'
back when you had to repeat the word wa-sa-bi to people and explain
and watch them try it.
So having found the even more genuine thing, i.e. not putting wasabi
in soy sauce for sushi and rolls (basically anything where it's
already in there), what do I do? Let my habits stay like this, or
move to the real thing, even if I can't avoid being self-conscious
about the irony of me trying to be more real than the real thing.
Guess I try to do in Rome as the Romans do, so I've ended up not
ever asking for wasabi, and just trying to adjust my palate!
Dinner encounters (30/Jan/2006)
So I went looking around for a restaurant, but so many places have
menus only in Japanese, and when they have pictures it's because
it's pretty basic food, such as soups with tons of things inside.
After passing by quite a few places on the main road, I turned
into a road leading close to my hotel, only to find Western or Chinese
places. Off into a small road going through the neighbourhood, I
found more small places, but wasn't too tempted by the sorts of
fairly simple food either, until eventually finding a somewhat hidden
and cosy sushi place.
Inside, you can sit at the bar in front of the chef's counter,
or on pillows on the floor with a very low table, where there's
just two tables, so space for two groups of 4-5 people. Three men
were there already, smoking and sharing pretty good looking sushi.
Not far from me at the bar, there's a fat Japanese talking to the
chef, as I start browsing through the pictures on the menu, and
eventually point to the items I'm looking for. Funny how Japanese
insist on confirming a lot of things to me, although it's pretty
obvious I don't have a clue about their language. The chef gets
the order from the waiter and points something out to me - I understand
roughly that one item is no longer available, but he gets the point
that I just trust him.
So I just sit there, the fat guy watching some American reality
crime show, where there's an inset coverage by a panel of Japanese
TV hosts and guests, who look like they're really interested in
what's going on. I don't really understand what the show's all about,
and it's probably better that way. Meanwhile, the chef is busy getting
the fresh fish pieces out, carving out slin thices and putting them
on rice vinegar balls with wasabi (green mustard).
Then the guy next to me starts breathing heavily after drinking
his tea, so I gave him some odd looks, until I eventually get my
readily made sushi on a wooden platter. Pretty nice, so, as I've
done with each meal, I get my camera out for a shot, and then wait
a bit to get the funny chef in the picture.
Then comes the eating... Pretty nice, sea urchin and salmon egg
(both are some of my favourite ingredients) sitting on some rice
binded by dried seaweed (yum!), tuna and fatty tuna (twice as precious),
mackerel, omelette, and a few other fish sushi. I also have my green
tea, which happens to me far better here than in other countries,
to the point I sometimes swallow down my whole cup, except when
it's really too hot.
The food goes with the soy sauce, and I eat some marinated ginger
between the pieces so as to clear my taste buds. Pretty nice, I'm
full quite quickly, and start looking at what a new customer is
eating. I watch the chef prepare a nice roll for him, until I realise
that's for me... and so I force myself to finish it.
When comes the time to pay up, the chef asks me where I'm from,
well, I more or less hear "country", so I answer "France"
and it seems to be the answer to his question. So the other guy
starts asking me tons of questions, pulls a chair next to me to
get me to sit down, and off we go in exchanging life stories of
what we're up to in Tokyo. He's a middle-aged Tokyoite with salt
and pepper hair, speaks pretty good English, and is certainly keen
to talk. I'd noticed the bottle of sake and the beer, but he's sober
enough I guess, and bombards me with questions. He also gives me
his name card and says I can call him in case I ever need help.
After trying to leave a few times, I manage to say goodbye, and
speak out a "funny, but sticky guy", as I walk out, happy
to have made these encounters, but also that I didn't need to stick
around forever talking about cameras and all sorts of things. I
eat my mandarine, kindly given to me by the chef as I was leaving,
and get back to my hotel in the quiet streets of some anonymous
part of the megalopolis.
Earthquakes and rain (31/Jan/2006)
So it seems that outside the June rain season, it hardly ever rains
2 days in a row. Tough luck for me, it's pouring today. Well, raining,
not a quite tropical downpour. They have tons of things for rain
here, starting with the umbrella of course, I mean. There's a place
to put the umbrella before many buildings, and even a safelock key
beneath the handle, in places like the museum. There are also vending
machines, not a surprise, where a long plastic umbrella costs some
4US$ equivalent. There are even some special places to shake the
umbrella from the water before entering the building, as in my office.
And of course, in offices and restaurants, everyone leaves their
umbrella at the entrance.
Earthquakes now... That's a whole different story. Notice in the
lift today a sign saying "Do not use in case of fire or earthquake".
Hum... I wonder.
I was told in the office yesterday that we had just felt an earthquake.
I hardly noticed, probably thinking it was the subway or something.
There are thousands a year in Japan, though very few actually cause
damage. Well, it's still my first earthquake I guess!
7 eleven (01/Feb/2006)
I admit, it sucks! I've given in to the capitalists, to the Westerners,
to the imported... Well, not quite, actually, as most of the food
is Japanese, and there's not a lot of English words to help. So
I chose this wrap just by the label colour (purple), and then some
other take-away boxes: one in nice wood, with salmon, rice and salmon
eggs, then some sushi. The guy at the till kept on speaking, and
I wasn't sure if he was asking questions or naming the items, but
I just said yes yes with gestures, and made a scissor movement to
ask for chopsticks as I'd seen that was one of the questions to
the couple before. Just to pretend I know what he's saying!
So the food's actually quite nice! The purple labelled wrap is
seaweed-wrapped rice, with shrimp eggs in the middle. Somehow, I
knew purple would land me seafood, so that's just great. I have
a Tropicana carrot juice of some sort, as it tastes like essentially
carrot juice but has tons of other fruits on the cover, and, of
course, it's loaded in Japanese characters.
Actually, I just realised the box was not wooden, but plastic with
a wooden-style design. Foolish me. Worked well, but anyway, most
importantly the food was nice. Only things is pastry desserts in
Asia are quite bland to Western palates, so I had this chocolate-coated
cake of sorts, which is actually some sort of puffy bread with chocolate
on top. Not great, but edible enough I guess. Overall, I give this
a note of seven out of... eleven ;-)
The ubiquitous tools for Asian food, of course. They're everywhere,
and Japan uses 2.4 billion pairs a year or something. Just checked,
it's actually 24 billion... (I never want to exagerate, so this
was a gross understatement of mine!). So yeah, lots. Another stat:
70kg of rice per person per year. How many Japanese? 127 million.
I let you work it out. And that's before cooking it.
Anyway, on this picture, I'm doing something pretty bad, as sticking
the chopsticks in rice like this is a bad omen: this is how they're
presented to dead people for offerings. Hum, funny all those things
you know but just need a guide book to remind you. This set of chopsticks
even came with a toothpick.
Back in my hotel room, it's a flaming 28 degrees! I don't know what
they have in mind here with all of this, and it's quite typical of
so many countries, like freezing at the movies and in offices of tropical
South East Asian cities. I turned it down to 22, but nothing changed
and all the buttons are in Japanese, so I just switched the whole
thing off. So much for the Kyoto agreements...
My first earthquake! (01/Feb/2006)
OK, this is for real... As I was posting my amused comments above
on earthquakes, I really felt one in my room, while sitting at my
desk. My heart jumped, and it got stronger for a few seconds, before
subsiding. Then came noises of doors banging and walls shaking, cracking
noises. The shaking could be felt for minutes afterwards, and it was
quite something actually. So no more making fun, it's really an experience,
which the Japanese are probably used to yet nature is really, well,
I've said it already, quite something!
Sliding doors (02/Feb/2006)
Ah, those sliding doors... You need to come within 20 centimeters of them for them to open, which is a pretty good way of saving energy and heating, since there are so many passer-bys. Still, it could be pretty tricky if you're in a rush, and they almost got me a few times. The other thing is for shops and restaurants to have a single sliding door for which you need to press a "push" button, another good way of saving energy and space. Well, it is certainly the land of automation.
Rush hour (02/Feb/2006)
Managed to avoid rush hour this morning, after getting up later than usual (even sleeping through the noise of two hammerjacks), tired from a late conf call with the US. It's amazing how much transport after 9am is comparatively quiet. Well, many people were still rushing in to the central part of town where my hotel is: traffic, hordes of people getting off the train, but I managed to get a seat and all seemed comparatively quiet. You should see people running to cross the street when the pedestrian green light starts flashing, the still faces looking at the pavement when nearly bumping into you while trying to keep rushing to work, and the general crowd. In the train, there are obviously a lot of people trying to doze off, sometimes opening an eye or two, while others read, or listen to music. Nothing too surprising there. The schoolchildren were amusing too, as they just stood, almost in a line, along the lane going into their school. They hardly seemed to talk to each other, just staring down emptily at the driveway. I guess Japan's not the most fun place to be a kid.
Bakery woman (02/Feb/2006)
At the bakery right before the office, a middle-aged woman is smilingly arranging all her little pastries, most of them savoury, some of them sweet. I went there the first morning for breakfast, and she was very nice and courteous, as most Japanese people are anyway. Yesterday, I felt like trying something else and went to a chain with some English name, where they got pretty confused about my order, obviously not used to dealing with a "gaijin" (foreigner). SO I didn't hesitate this morning, and despite walking up the other side of the road, I crossed over to go to her place before reaching the office. There she was, slightly leaned over looking after her pastries like a mother hen over fresh eggs. Kind greetings, she let me make my choice, then was nicely patient about me trying to work out my coins to pay her. Ah, nothing like local businesses!
Ready for onsen (02/Feb/2006)
Last night in the hotel, and I certainly wanted to give the onsen a try. Who knows when I'll next get the chance, as I may not have time during the week-end. Also, this hotel promotes its facilities, and I had the "pyjama" ready on my bed each day, but just no time to go explore the basement floor just yet. So I finally put on the light, comfortable and somewhat elegant clothes - just look at my mirror picture, right? It really makes me feel more Japanese, with the small string attached inside on the left and outside on the right. As usual, it's minimalist but elegant. I grab my white towel, and off I go!
Onsen (for men) (02/Feb/2006)
Downstairs, I look around and find one place with red cloth on top of the wooding sliding door, but an access code is required. Further down the corridor is one with blue, which I enter. Slippers in the boxes, and then I discover what looks like a hair salon: lockers for personal belongings, a large mirror with lights, and stools in front of sinks, with all sorts of hair and car products. Beyond is the door leading to a very warm and humid room: the main spa.
In the opposite corner is a charming hot pool surrounded by wooden planks, there is a small waterfall and plenty of bamboo and plant decorations. The air is heavy and moist, but quite enjoyable. To the side are separated shower areas where one can sit down in front of the mirror to shave and wash under a shower jet. There's also a sauna. I get into the bath where a still Japanese guy is down to his neck in the water, crossing his arms with a folded towel on his head. He doesn't budge - everyone's careful to respect the other's privacy, especially as we're all tired from a long working day, and, well, of course, naked. I'm not sure to which extent that bothers them, but some are obviously more discrete than others. Anyway, it's very relaxing, and not too hot after a while. I next try the sauna, with its typical effect of stinging the nose and breathing apparatus. Looks like it's 80 degrees Celsius. I hardly move, but don't seem to sweat too much either. I wrap up with a shower, sitting on a wooden stool 30 centimeters from the ground. Pretty well thought of, and certainly far better than the cramped up shower in my room!
Manga (02/Feb/2006) The unique manga style is now famous all over the world, and I had already had a glimpse at how popular it is on board my first train from the airport with the middle-aged man in front of me having a read. On my way back from the onsen, I notice next to the lift a machine for foot and ankle massage, pretty good, and then also several collections of manga. Inside, are the typically expressive young girls, the tough heroes, the mean guys, the ape monsters and all the mad expressions drowned amongst Japanese characters. Amusing distraction.