Exploring Tokyo

Posted on January 5, 2009

For once, “Tokyo” refers in fact to a physical place, not some code project. Shocking but true.

Just prior to Christmas, I took a week-long trip to Tokyo Japan on Joyent business. This was interesting for me because it was both my first time to Japan and in fact first time to leave the country. Given that I am a California native, I’ve had little reason to leave. We commonly say here “Your within a 4 hour drive of almost any environment on earth”. California is just a great place and I figured if I ever did leave the country, it should be some place particularly interesting, not just Mexico or Canada.

The first thing about traveling to Japan is that jet lag sucks and travel is painful. Sure, like everone has a tragic “I took a 36 hour flight” story, but a 12 hour flight in coach just sucks. The flight is 12 hours there and 9 hours back, thanks to trade winds… shocking that they take a full 3 hours off, but its true. When you take all travel concerns into account (including, in my case, a connection through LAX) I lost about 3 days to travel. I wanted to go to the Tokyo OpenSolaris Users Group OpenSolaris 2008.11 release event, and it was funny that I was scrambling Wed morning (PST) to make it in time for a Thursday evening (JST) event.

Once you get there, “jet lag” takes on a new meaning. Typically I think of “jet lag” as a minor diviation of your sleep schedule, like going coast-to-coast. But in Japan the time is so off, that you get hit hard about 5PM (JST) and then get a second wind around 7PM and then have trouble sleeping till 3-4AM. The first morning I was there I woke up at 5AM and by 6 gave up on trying to sleep.

While I can’t talk much about my work there, I was in a data center for 2 days straight, then did a hand off to our other staff at home while we were on standby for another 2 days. We used that time for customer meetings and taking in as much of Tokyo as possible. Lesson to my fellow administrators, when your in a strange place and up against a deadline… pre-stage, pre-stage, pre-stage. I actually took a 2.5″ USB powered drive with ZFS Datasets ready for mount and use. ZFS rules.

Anyway… I thought I’d share some miscellaneous thoughts in general about Tokyo for those who’ve never ventured to Japan:

  1. They say that going to Japan is like going to another planet. Not true. It was very much like any other large metropolis… people just don’t speak English.
  2. I was told, that in a city like Tokyo which does a lot of international business that most people know english pretty well. Bullshit. In the large hotels in Shinjuku, ya, but everywhere else they don’t know english. Due to the ammount that Japanese culture has integrated english words, they might know a couple of words, but it really comes down to hand jestures. If you walk into McDonalds and say “how are you today?” you get a blank smile. In my hotel (a really nice one actually, in Ariake, even the front desk barely knew any english.)
  3. “Large Coffee” in Japanese is “Oh-key ko-he”… life was difficult before this.
  4. You always see Japanese crowded into packed areas in the media, so you think Japanese like being crowded. Wrong. They like space too… but when you need to rely on public transportation to get anywhere and you can squeeze into a train, you bear it and cram.
  5. Japanese don’t look at anyone else. At least, young people don’t. In America we’re constantly sizing up everyone around us, looking, thinking, perhaps even commenting…. not in Japan. In America if you walk past someone that is alone, you commonly say something like “hey”, “yo”, “hows it going?”, nod, or otherwise acknowledge their existence. In Japan you can be around hundreds of people and feel absolutely isolated and alone. Consequently, its a really depressing and lonely place if your alone.
  6. …unless you wear a kilt. I wore a kilt one day when there and people couldn’t believe what they were seeing, women especially. After 3 days of feeling like I didn’t exist this was a welcome reaffirmation of my humanity. 🙂
  7. Elderly Japanese (70+?) are much more friendly… they’ll commonly give you a smile or say something back if you say hello (in Japanese obviously).
  8. The American understanding of “Hello” in Japanese is “Konichiwa”… but in fact, that means “Good Afternoon”. There are variations for morning, afternoon and evening. Commonly this is followed with the word “gozaimasu”, which adds some formality, like saying “Good morning sir” instead of “Morning” (“Ohayoo gozaimasu”).
  9. Japanese pronunciation is more important than even the words themselves. I asked the from desk where I could find a “Key-mo-noh” (Kimono)… this turned into a confusing number of jestures and ultimately a dash for a Casio pocket translator. The word was right but due to my bad pronunciation we could not connect.
  10. In America we give people a hard time about “butchering our language”… if felt somehow redeeming to have people giving me a look of dispare and amusement as I butchered theirs.
  11. Learning Japanese is really tough. Pronunciation is the key to spoken Japanese… but writing is a whole seperate problem, as they have 3 seperate major writing systems Kanji (iconic, drawn from Chinese), Katakana (syllabic, meaning characters that you can sound out), and Hiragana (the American equivalent is cursive). The kick in the teeth is that commonly in Japanese they will use all 3 in a single sentence.
  12. Tokyo is huge. Taxi’s are expensive, especially if your traveling more than a couple miles. Supposedly a taxi ride from the Narita airport on the edge of town (feels way out of town actually) to the heart of the city will run you US$500 and takes about an hour.
  13. Navigating trains in Tokyo is really complex. There are hundreds of stops and the kicker is that unlike most places there is not a single central train authority that runs all the trains…. there are several different train companies with their own lines, so you commonly cross over from one to another. As a result there were many people who have lived there for 5+ years and had considerable trouble navigating the train system unless they were familiar with that particular route.
  14. Tokyo is clean. Super clean. And, ironically, finding a trash can is hard to do. All the taxi’s and buses have clean white doily things on the head-rests, and people just don’t litter. You see the occasional cigarette butt, but thats about it.
  15. Bathrooms are fun in Japan. They use electric dryers exclusively, commonly a “toaster” like contraption in which you insert your hands, and a stream of high-pressure air blows across your hands as you slowly pull them up… bone dry hands, totally awesome. Even bathrooms in Japan don’t have trash-cans.
  16. Toto toilets are scary and wonderful things. You know, you’ve seen those images of Japanese toilets with an instrument panel right? I could write a whole series just on those things, but needless to say the first time you sit down on a toilet seat thats warm, it freaks you out.
  17. The ability to order Sushi like a pro in the US doesn’t mean jack sh*t in Japan.
  18. All Japanese are short. Totally wrong. I’m 6’4″, everyone wanted pictures of me towering over the little Japanese. Just plain wrong, I didn’t notice any difference between California and Japan in terms of variation in height. In fact, there were several Japanese construction workers that were massive and definitely not to me messed with.
  19. If the Toyota released all their japanese cars in the US, GM and Ford would be out of business. I saw several Toyota’s that put Mercedes to shame. You have to see it to believe it.
  20. Japanese quality is awesome. If I traveled there regularly I’d probly buy all my clothes in Japan.
  21. Adjusting to coinage is odd. The smallest Japanese bill is 1,000 yen (round it to US$10; less due to conversion, but ballpark). $5 and down is all coinage. In the US we tend to discard change (collected in jars, or whatever)… but there, you have to adjust to using coinage frequently or you walk around with a bulging pocket all the time.
  22. Mint… apparently mint isn’t big in Japan, you don’t hardly see it. If its green its almost certainly green tea flavored. Strawberry, however, is very popular.
  23. Japanese aren’t big on candybars or chocolate in general. At least, not like we are in the US. In a mini-mart in the US we have one or more isles dedicated just to chocolate, commonly in candy-bar form. Over there you find only a couple varieties. Kit Kat and Snickers are the only US bars I saw.
  24. Yes, Hentai is as common as they say. Also, Japanese Manga is telephone book sized, not little things like we read in the US.
  25. Strange observation… I was hard pressed to find a Japanese magazine about business or computers. I found one magazine about PC’s, but most were about TV or culture. I wanted to pick up some economic/news magazines but couldn’t find ’em.
  26. Vending Machines. You hear that they are everywhere. This is true, there is almost always one within eye shot… however the notion that you can “buy anything in a vending machine” is overblown. Most of the vending machines were just drinks and maybe a can of nuts or something. I didn’t see any vending machines for portable electronics, or books, or all the wierd stuff you hear about. I’m sure they exist, but some people make it sounds like you can buy a Sony Walkman in a vending machine in the middle of a park.
  27. Dress. Dress varies based on what area (“Ward”) of Tokyo you are in, but in general they dress much nicer than in the US. Men most commonly wear a 2 button suit. Young women wear short skirts with knee or thigh high tights and either leg-warmers or tall boots. Teenage boys tend toward jeans and a tshirt.
  28. Video Games. If you walk into an arcade, all the arcades are played sitting down! What we commonly consider an “up-right” game, has a little bench. The “crane-pickup” games are really popular and have kool prizes. One arcade had these games filled with food items like ice-cream bars and such.
  29. Couples. I was really amazed at how many couples I saw! In the US its generally difficult to tell who is a couple because we’ve lost the tradition of holding hands. A man and women in San Francisco exiting a restaurants may be a couple, or brother-sister, or friends, or co-workers… its hard to tell. In Tokyo there were tons of couples holding hands and cuddling on trains.
  30. Gambling. Gambling is big in Tokyo. Commonly in the form of slot machines and a game called “Pachinko”. They don’t have card games, and thus most people didn’t seem to think of it as gambling, but these things are eveywhere!
  31. Mini-marts. Mini-marts are big there, particularly 7-11 and Circle K. People buy lunch, breakfast, and dinner at these places, typically before or after getting on a train. They sell a lot of Ramen (yes, they do sell “Cup o’ Noodle” in Japan) and provide hot-water to fill it up before leaving. Other meal items include every variation of rice and seafood you can think of, including sushi.
  32. Sushi. I wondered how much better sushi was there than here. I wasn’t shocked, the sushi in Japan is unlike anything you’ve had in the US. I’ve eaten at some of the high-end places in San Francisco and they don’t come close to your average box-lunch sushi there.

    I could go on for a while but will leave it there. I commonly reflected on the movie “Lost in Transation” while in Tokyo. I even got to quickly venture into Shinjuku to the Tokyo Hyatt where it was largely filmed (the “bar” that he hangs out in has a 1,000 Yen cover charge JUST to sit there. A Guinness in a pub can cost me 1800 yen. But man oh man it was a beautiful lounge.) The theme of being disconnected and alone in Tokyo rings true from the film.

    I didn’t get to see as much of the city as I wanted to. I especially wish I’d had time to see the legendary Akihabara (Japanese Geek Central), but time didn’t permit. None-the-less I’m happy with what I was able to take in. We spent one day without a guide just taking the train some place and exploring around the station, the other day with a guide in between customer meetings.

    I’m absolutely indebted to Alain Hoang who helped guide us and answer our questions. He’s an amazing sysadmin and one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. If it weren’t for his help we would have probly never ventured further than we can walk. Besides that, he deserves a metal for helping me stumble through some basic Japanese and better understand the culture.

    I don’t know if I’ll ever have reason to return to Tokyo. I certainly would enjoy being able to, especially if it weren’t so close to Christmas (I returned the day before Christmas Eve), but given the cost I doubt I would ever return to vacation. Never the less, I’ve picked up an odd desire to continue learning Japanese and katakana… I’ve got an odd feeling I’ll be back again one day. Who knows.

    So, in short, if you ever have the opportunity to visit Tokyo I encourage you to take it, but make sure you pad the trip with at least 5 days to take in as much as possible.