Tuesday, September 29, 2009

[Travelogue] I ♥ Tokyo

The Japanese sure know how to roll out the welcome mat. We arrive in Tokyo to another retinue of water-spouting boats (no colors this time, but much bigger water spouts!) and a band of traditional Japanese drummers on the dock. Skipping ahead to the end (because life is short) we got a grand send-off as well, with a brass band playing "Proud Mary" and other rock classics. It was quite the spectacle.

Which is as good a way as any to describe Tokyo: spectacular. For starters, it's huge. We live in L.A., and we've spent a lot of time in New York. We've been to London and Paris and even Mumbai. But nothing compares to Tokyo. It's vast: 30 million people, more than twice the population of Los Angeles. But despite being so big it is nonetheless, like everything else we've seen in Japan, spotlessly clean. It is absolutely amazing. The entire time we were there we saw not one bit of litter. Not a cigarette butt. Not even so much as a stray leaf. We actually saw a guy sweeping the leaves off the gravel walk that leads to the main Shinto shrine. And this walkway is not just any urban gravel footpath. It is -- no exaggeration -- 100 feet *wide* and hundreds of meters long. The surrounding grounds are planted thick with deciduous trees, but there's not a leaf on the path anywhere.

The cleanliness of the city is rendered all the more amazing by the fact that trash cans are all but nonexistent. This is an enduring mystery to us, along with the ingredients of the beverage that was in the container that led us to discover the paucity of trash cans. You see, Japanese vending machines have a much wider selection of wares that anywhere else we've ever been. There are soft drinks, fruit juices, various different kinds of tea and coffee drinks, and an assortment of things that I still have no idea what they are. And that's just the drink machines. I decided no trip to Japan would be complete without trying one of the many concoctions on offer, so I selected one whose cover art suggested that it would be kind of chocolate-milky thing with a cream accent. The "cream" turned out to be this gooey slime that was rather like a thin gelatin. It was not altogether unpleasant, but a bit off-putting to my western palate. I drank (actually "slurped" would be more accurate) it anyway, but when it came time to find a place to dispose of the can there was not a trash receptacle to be found. I had to carry that damned empty can for about ten blocks before I finally found something that kind of sort of looked like a trash can sitting in front of a restaurant. What the devil do Tokyoites do with their rubbish? Maybe none of them ever actually patronize these vending machines. Maybe they're just there for show. (Hm, that might explain the slimy substance in my drink.)

That one questionable experience aside, we had an absolute blast in Tokyo. It's my new favorite city in the world. It's clean, it's walkable, and it is, to our inestimable surprise, affordable, at least if you don't try to buy produce. Tokyo has a reputation for having ridiculously expensive sushi, and maybe it does, but we couldn't find any. Every sushi place we went to (and we ate pretty much nothing else the entire time we were there) was much cheaper, and yet much better, than anything we've ever found in the States. And one place was even in the notoriously expensive Ginza district. Maybe expensive sushi in Tokyo is just a myth they promulgate to keep out the gai-jins, kind of like rain in Seattle. (Every time we've been to Seattle the weather has been beautiful.)

There is so much to tell about Tokyo I'm probably going to have to write about it in installments (and some of them may have to wait because we're in Osaka tomorrow). But I have to get the Tsukiji fish market out of my system. Tsukiji is famous for being the world's largest fish market. You may have seen video of it on the Discovery channel or some such thing, where you see people wrangling these enormous multi-hundred-pound tunas. What they don't show you is that this is just a tiny part of the whole operation. Tsukiji is, like Tokyo itself, mind-bogglingly vast. I actually got lost inside it, and I never get lost. It is hard to find the words to convey the scale (no pun intended) of this place. It is probably the size of several football fields, it's hard to tell from inside because it is impossible to see even a tiny fraction of it at any one time. It is a warren of little alleyways in between vender stands that are crammed full of every imaginable kind of sea critter. If it lives in the water, you'll find it here somewhere, and in enormous quantities. Most of Tsukiji is a wholesale market. They do allow visitors, but it is very unfriendly to the casual gawker. It's a working man's market and there are electric and diesel-fired carts (along with hand-drawn carts, bicycles and motor scooters) continually zipping this way and that, and you have to be constantly on guard to keep from being run over. I had three close calls, including one that got me soaked when I got to close to someone trying to wrangle some live fish out of a tank.

We're back on line, and I have to go to dinner so I'm going to go ahead and post this and write more later.

1 comment:

Curt Sampson said...

Beside every drinks vending machine (and as you've seen they're all over the place—you need not find the one from which you bought the drink) you should find a plastic bin for depositing your empty drink containers. Take care to use the proper slot; they are clearly labeled ビン (bottle) and 缶 (can).

Tokyo proper is just 12 million people or so, only half again as many as Mexico City or NYC. The metropolitan area's population is, however, actually 35 million. Part of the reason for this, I'm guessing, is just that it's very exensively developed.

One of the many things I will never get used to about Tokyo is going up to the top of a tall building and looking around. When you do this in NYC you see a lot of city, but you also see the forests of New Jersey to the west. In Tokyo, no matter which way you look, you see nothing but city in any direction. If you've ever wondered what a view on Trantor might feel like, this would be it.