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Ode to Tokyo – Part 2

Back for round two!

If you didn’t read Ode to Tokyo – part 1, please check out the previous post.

Quite the weekend I just had; me and a few friends headed down to Zushi on Sunday and hit the beach.  A nice one too!  Relatively speaking anyway – no palm trees or tiny huts offering massages like in Thailand, but nice cool water, plenty of people to meet, drinks and food easily accessible and perfect weather, which brings me to number 11…

The Weather:

Tokyo’s weather is generally pretty nice.  Some people will undoubtedly debate this point, but as I count cycling as one of my hobbies, I notice when and how often I can go out.  Discounting June, which is rainy season (but very nice when it’s not raining), and maybe January which is actually pretty cold, I can get out on the bike nearly year-round.  And if it’s nice enough for cycling, I figure it qualifies as pretty good weather.

August can get pretty hot and very humid, but it’s not the Sahara and there’s air-conditioning almost everywhere, despite the “save electricity” campaign going on since the Fukushima reactors were taken out.
Get a hat, t-shirt, shorts and sandals, or a Japanese “Jimbe” or “Yukata”, and you’re set.  Besides which, I just can’t bring myself to hate summer.

As I write this it’s 30 degrees outside with 66% humidity, so it “feels” like 34.  I don’t mind.  One sticky point is that this year does seem abnormally hot for so early, it’s only July 5th, and with Tokyo being on more than a few “places that will disappear because of global warming” lists, I’d come visit sooner rather than later if you’re so inclined (hint, hint).

Even imagining the worst possible weather for the whole year, Tokyo has over 8 months of useable outside time, as opposed to my home country, Canada, where I hear it’s still minus 20, if the Americans are to be believed.

The Bars:

The bars here vary incredibly.  It seems like a hobby of sorts for middle-aged men here to start up a bar, so there are thousands of tiny little 8-to-20-people bars around.  Most of them serve some variety of Japanese food and cater to local regulars, but you’re more than welcome to drop in and check out the ambiance while sipping your favourite beverage.  Hopping from station to station, you can explore the tiny streets around almost any station and when your feet get tired, have a seat, grab some yaki-tori (grilled chicken) and a pint.

If the little street bars aren’t your style, there’s a Japanese phenomenon known as the izakaya.  This translates roughly to “relaxed-atmosphere-Japanese-booze-and-food-fun-place”.  Nobody goes to an izakaya by themselves, so I don’t really advise that if you’re traveling alone.  Once you’ve made some friends though, don’t miss going.  Izakaya are often mostly wooden structures, the insides having few or no chairs, where customers sit on the tatami-floor with a sunken foot/leg area under the table.  They are plentiful around town, and usually serve a good variety of cheap Japanese foods, but they can get expensive, so best to check the prices – if you can understand them – before barging in.  If not, the quality of the wood usually gives the price away.

For those of you more party-oriented, Tokyo has everything you’re looking for, don’t worry.  DJ’s, live bands, clubs, super-clubs, and if that’s all too much, TGI Fridays and Irish pubs too.

The Convenience Stores:

There are more convenience stores here than anywhere else, I think.  And that’s a good thing!  When I lived in Canada, I hated convenience stores, almost never went to them, and thought everything inside was either junk or bad for me.  Japanese convenience stores on the other hand, are an entirely different species.  For starters, they’re actually convenient.  You can pay almost any bill there (I can even pay my taxes there!), they have toilets, CLEAN toilets, and often one for each sex.  They have a good variety of foods and beverages with a surprisingly healthy slant, unhealthy foods, booze and tobacco for balance, and then essentials, a few party goods and stationary.  Outside, they usually have a garbage and separated recycling, something that wouldn’t merit mention in the West, except that there are very few garbage cans around Tokyo, so people hold on to it until they either get home or find a convenience store.  They are super clean, well lit, the food is fresh, and the service is usually fast and excellent.

Vending machines:

According to the Japan Vending Machine Manufacturers Association, there is 1 vending machine for every 23 people in Japan.  That’s somewhere around 5 and a half million vending machines.  They are everywhere.  I don’t know if they really deserve to be on this list as something that makes Tokyo great, but they’re certainly a visible part of the city’s definition.  I probably buy a drink from a vending machine once every two or three days.  The nearest one from my house is 20 seconds away.  There are two more before I get to the convenience store a full two minutes away, and when I get there, there are 3 vending machines outside the convenience store!  If I venture past the convenience store into the park a few minutes down the path, there are vending machines there too.

Having been here for a while I’ve seen an astonishing variety of vending machines – they mostly sell drinks of course, but a few of the more imaginative ones I’ve seen have sold batteries, condoms, fresh vegetables, porn, comics, used girl’s underwear (you read that correctly), Nintendo DS games, iPods, handkerchiefs, tissues and toilet-paper, face-masks, soup, fries, chicken, ice-cream, ramen, cotton candy, and umbrellas.  Besides these wonderful products, I wonder if the Manufacturers Association estimate includes the uber-user-friendly train-ticket machines, which speak English and Japanese, charge your “Suica”(watermelon) or “Pasmo” cash-card, which you can use to buy products from vending machines, convenience stores, or to ride the train, bus or subway.  With the advent of the “Osaihu-keitai” or “wallet-cellphone”, you can pay for your drink with your phone.  Fabulous.

The Facilities:

Like I mentioned the earlier, I went to the beach on the weekend.  I got there by biking to my nearest train station 8-minutes away, and then taking an 80-minute, 10-dollar train ride.  It was so easy!!! – which is a big part of making Tokyo liveable and addictive.  Here, you can live and work in a thriving, exciting metropolis, and escape to nature in a few easy hours.  Within weekend-trip reach, under 3 hours let’s say, are mountains, lakes, beaches, hot-springs, skiing, rafting, and camping facilities.  I’m sure there are many more things to do and see that I’m unaware of.  If you’re not up for the outdoors, you could go explore a nearby city just as easily – Yokohama, for example, is under an hour away.

The Sights:

Tokyo has it’s share of tourist destinations, though perhaps fewer than expected, or not what you might expect.  Akihabara or “electric town”, is the home of otaku/geek culture and all the electronics and anime stores you can imagine, fetishes included.  Mount Fuji is close enough to see on a clear day and a 3 hour bus or 2-hour train trip away.  Sensoji in Asakusa is one of the biggest Temples in Tokyo, right near the center, and there’s also the Emperor’s palace gardens, Ueno park and zoo, and beside Harajuku, Meiji Jingu shrine.  Kabuki-cho in Shinjuku is fun for a few hours during the day, or a bit of trouble at night.  I recommend going up to the top of either Tokyo Tower, Roppongi Hills, or the Metropolitan buildings in Shinjuku for a 360-degree view of Tokyo.  A number of other spots you might want to check out are the Gibli Museum in Kichijoji, Shibuya for Shibuya’s sake, maybe the business district in Marunouchi, and Ginza.

However, my personal opinion is that the best things to see are the various little streets and quaint shops surrounding stations, and the parks.

The Culture:

It’s not just signs in another language, like place names, though that’s cool too, but the minute rules of every day life that have either been passed down from generation to generation or just adopted by everyone because it works.  For example, everyone in Tokyo knows that if you don’t want to walk up an escalator, you stand on the left.  This leaves a clear walking lane on the right which makes things a lot easier in this busy city.

Every morning, millions of Japanese housewives go outside and sweep the streets around their houses and business owners sweep in front of their shops.  The streets are very clean, which is really nice.  It’s maybe one of those things you don’t even notice until you go somewhere messy, and then you realize you haven’t seen even a cigarette butt around your house for months.

About two months ago, while I still had a splint on my hand after breaking my knuckle, I was juggling some change between my two hands and dropped about 10 coins on a busy walking street.  A group of black-clad heavy-metal types were approaching from one way, and a small group of girls from the other.  Every one of them literally jumped to help me pick up my coins, which ended with eight or so people giving me back one coin each.  I couldn’t help but appreciate the kindness.

Before almost every meal at a restaurant, you’re given a hot, wet towel to wipe your hands (or face), or a cold towel in summer.  This is simply a wonderful thing to have just after sitting down, and can’t fathom why western restaurants or culture haven’t adopted it.

These are just a few examples of the hundreds of small things that differentiate our cultures.  I wish that I’d written them down as I encountered them, as there are way more than I seem able remember right now.

It’s Safe:

I can walk anywhere, by myself, at any time of the day or night, and feel safe.  I could probably fall asleep drunk on the sidewalk with my wallet beside me and wake up the next day at noon with it still there.  Okay, there are a few exceptions, but I’m serious.  Most Japanese girls say they feel safe almost anywhere in Tokyo, with the possible exception of Shinjuku’s Kabuki-cho at night.

It’s Clean:

I know I’ve already mentioned this, but it extends past just the small streets and convenience stores.  Japanese people in general love cleanliness, and this preference has extended to government policy and city budgets.  The parks are clean, outside in general is clean; bridges, walkways, escalator handles, stairs, bathrooms (with some notable exceptions), city squares, shopping areas and train stations.  “Dingy” isn’t a word that describes Tokyo at all.  It’s clean, man!  You probably don’t even know what I’m talking about unless you’ve been here, or perhaps to Monaco.


I don’t know why I left this to the end of the list, but next to train stations, the central organizing feature of city planning is the shoutengai.  A shoutengai is an outdoor, often covered but also uncovered walking street with shops, cafes, restaurants, bars and even apartments or recessed houses on both sides.  The buildings are generally 1 to 3 floors and the upper levels also have shops or apartments.  A shoutengai has no doors at either end and the bigger ones start near a station exit to help funnel pedestrian traffic to parks, bike-parking areas, other stations, or to another shoutengai.  Shoutengai are fun to explore in their own right, and often harbour pleasant surprises like takoyaki (Google it), taiyaki shops, cafes or a place to eat dinner because you’ve been having too much fun walking around and no longer have time to go shopping for ingredients.  No two shoutengai are identical, and each one acts as a focus to, and helps to define the feel of the community it serves.  They’re little gems, and they’re very popular.

Aaaaaaaand that’s it!  Come to Tokyo!  It’s huge!  It’s fun!  It has… all of the stuff I just described!!!

All of these things together form a great place to visit and a very livable city, which is probably why so many people have come to live here and have stayed for so long.  Some of my friends have been here for 5 years, some for 25, and many of them have decided this is where they want to call home.

I don’t blame them at all.


Water: A picture is worth a thousand words

The recent detection of minuscule levels of radiation in Tokyo water has caused all sorts of insanity here.

A run on bottled water, which, by the way, is usually not subject to even half the tests for chemicals and pollutants that normal tap water is subjected to, has transformed the population into a selfish group of water fiends.  If this is how the Japanese behave with safe levels of radiation in the water, I don’t want to see what could happen in other parts of the world.

I must admit the paranoia is contagious; even though I’m fully aware the levels are safe, I still have a mild urge to buy bottled water.  I haven’t had the chance yet to see what I’ll do if confronted with that situation, as I haven’t seen any bottled water anywhere for at least 3 days now… which causes the paranoia.  The vicious circle begins!

All the talk of water reminded me of a picture I found on Michael Tomasky’s blog at the Guardian a while ago.  He’d come across a picture comparing the relative sizes of the Earth, all the water on Earth, and all the fresh water on Earth.  Frustratingly, I couldn’t find the picture on his blog, but I did find it here.  Brace yourself, you WILL be surprised.

As the author (Marianne) notes below the photo: “Of that small dot of fresh water—which constitutes about 2% of the world’s surface water—75% of it is frozen in ice sheets and glaciers (many of which are melting into salt water).”

So cut that tiny sphere into 4 and what we actually have access to is just one of those parts.  Sorry – you’re math is probably better than mine, I just had to say it.  In fact, I was tempted to Photoshop and shrink that last dot down to 25% just to see what it would look like, but I think the point is clear enough.

Besides the stunning tininess of that speck of fresh water, what amazes me most of all is the fact that we’ve managed to harness it and distribute it widely within so many countries.  A very close number two is the fact that we’ve allowed so many people to dump garbage, toxic sludge, oil and pretty much everything and anything really, into it.

Perhaps the most current example of this is the horrifying case between Chevron and the people of Equador.  While it’s heartening to know that on February 14th, 2011 the courts found Chevron guilty, I cannot believe the degree of moral corruption that could have allowed so many people working at Chevron in Equador to let it happen.  If you didn’t read it already somewhere else, I want to make sure you understand that Chevron knew they were doing this.  It was no accident.  They ORDERED it done to save millions, perhaps billions of dollars.

And they’re appealing it!

Seriously, where do these people come from?  What do they drink when they’re thirsty?  I just imagine some workers dumping sludge into the Amazon on a hot day, they reach for a bottle of water to quench their thirst and… Can’t they connect the dots?  Are they even human?  Do they have a brain?

Thinking back to Zeitgeist: Moving Forward, the documentary I watched on the weekend, it seems that the problem is not lack of a brain, but rather a lack of empathy.  Just like the Wall Steet traders.  Just like the Corporate CEO’s.  If you don’t want to watch the movie, just Google “psychopath ceo” to see what I’m talking about.

The pattern that emerges is familiar to all of us even if we haven’t read the headlines.  The greed for money compromises people’s ability to make rational decisions beyond their individual self-interest; and in a society where the individual is king and money his power, we had best watch the wealthy much more closely.

So yes, it’s another terrible thing happening in our world, no big surprise.  And yet there’s cause for some hope:  The courts fined Chevron $9 billion which should make others of their ilk take notice.  And on the other hand, showing that all business people aren’t evil, a Canadian company has been making waves by inventing a cheaper, and more importantly a less energy-intensive way to desalinate water.  They’re called Saltworks.

Check’em out!

March 18th in Osaka!

I love Osaka.  For the simple fact that it’s not Tokyo, I love Osaka.

I wasn’t fully aware of the stress I was under until I got here and started to unwind.  At least 7 of my Tokyo friends are here, with more coming, and five of us met up last night for drinks.  Apparently it was standing room only, and packed, on the Shinkansen – the Japanese bullet-trains.  Our bus was full, but nobody was standing.  I suspect it’s illegal.

As soon as we met there were big hugs.  I felt real comfort and happiness being able to celebrate my escape, if temporary, from constant worry.  I can only imagine how my mother, far away in Canada feels.  She has nowhere to escape to.

Our night took us to a small basement bar on a quiet corner in Dotombori, the southern “party area” of Osaka.  When we finally got our drinks we shared stories and couldn’t stop talking.  Stresses, complaints, and arguments tumbled out of our mouths on top of each other in a constant stream, until finally we were distracted by Michael Jackson’s “This Is It” playing on the large flat screen beside us.  We slowly returned to relatively normal, playing darts, making plans for tomorrow, and talking about other things.

We did some serious sleeping in this morning.  I’m pretty sure I felt a tiny earthquake this morning, but it was maybe a magnitude 3 or less.  We’re all getting very good at estimating their strength.

As it turns out, my manager at work has resigned and is flying back to England with his family.  This make my work situation a bigger question than before, but I really can’t blame him.  Things will hopefully carry on Monday as before, but without the coordination that he provided.  It might get messy.  Trains going to some of the farther stations outside Tokyo where I sometimes teach are still running only at certain times, as far as I know.  I can’t be bothered to do the research right now.  I don’t even know if they’re having rolling black-outs out there.

For now, I’m safe and happy to be away – glad I made this choice.  It looks like things are maybe getting better at the reactors, and hopefully they do.

Time to head out again and do some normal stuff.