Letter from Tokyo
BC Business Magazine
Standing naked in a white-tiled room while three old men eye me suspiciously from a steam-shrouded pool is not my idea of fun but on a visit to Tokyo it seems par for the course. While gijan foreigners like me are routinely stared at on the streets as if we have two heads, I’ve increased my weirdness quotient by entering an onsen public bath without knowing what to do.
There are important customs attached to this traditional Japanese activity but I can’t even make the faucet on the wall work. Finally, one of the poker-faced old codgers takes pity and pads over, turning the tap easily with a deft wrist flick. Afterwards, we all sit together parboiling in the bath, nodding and smiling at eachother. Another great leap for international relations.
Tokyo – with 12.4 million citizens, its population is nearly half of Canada’s – is a fascinating hybrid of old and new, with bizarre postmodern architecture and teen-driven culture resting on an ever-present foundation of timeworn ritual. It’s a strange dynamic that puzzles visitors trying to figure out what makes the city tick: one minute you’re marvelling at a shiny Philippe Starck skyscraper and the next you’re stumbling across an ancient backstreet shrine enveloped in incense.
Whatever you catch sight of first, there’s no doubt that appearances are almost always deceptive in Tokyo. Heading to a pachinko parlour illustrates the point. These noisy arcade games look like vertical pinball machines where players use and win metal balls. Since gambling is illegal in the parlours, no-one appears to be playing for money. But at hole-in-the-wall exchanges along nearby darkened alleyways, winnings are swapped for cash. What seems like an innocent game is actually hard-core gambling.
Alongside this duplicitous approach to everyday life, Tokyo can be a brain-sapping multi-sensory tempest. My few, wide-eyed hours in the clamorous Shinjuku district add new meaning to the phrase “Packed like sardines.” I spend as much time trying to push through the crowds as I do gawking at winking neon signs and retro fashion boutiques. Tokyo’s under-25s have vast disposable income and this is where they come to release it, picking-up $250 Puma runners and $100 Comme des Garçons T-shirts like the rest of us buy coffee.
But while many young Japanese ironically don Western fashions from past generations – hence the girls I spot in Flashdance-style purple leggings – my favourite outfit today seems considerably less innocent. A young woman sashays past me in a short dress covered with the words “f*** off” printed on it hundreds of times. The English language is often used here for its aesthetic appeal – the look of the words is more important than what they mean – but this outfit has me spluttering on my can of Pocari Sweat pop.
While shopping might seem the raison d’etre for many Tokyoites, there’s plenty for visitors to do away from the malls, including a trip to the Ryogoku Kokugikan Sumo Stadium. Arriving around midday, I pay a few dollars and find the facility almost empty: the early bouts, with lesser wrestlers, attract fewer spectators. Finding a tatami mat within sneezing distance of the raised sand stage, I sit cross-legged and watch several scraps between scrawny fighters not much bigger than me. But size clearly counts in sumo, and the participants grow in girth as the day progresses. While I dismiss the final wrestlers as lumbering walruses before they even start, they prove me wrong in their fights when they move like greased lightening. Appearances, as ever, are only part of the equation in this illusive metropolis.
Can’t miss: Sony Building
This free-entry, gadget-lovers paradise is a great rainy day shelter. Fight kids for time on the virtual reality games, catch a high-definition movie in one of the sparkling theatres or wander through the hands-on gallery of yet-to-be-released products trying to figure out what they are. Sadly, there was no sign of the long-awaited MP3-toaster-cellphone combo on my visit. sonybuilding.jp.
Cool eats: Fukuzushi
Upscale but not intimidating, this colourful Roppongi-area eatery is among the best restaurants in town to dip into some uber-fresh sushi and sashimi – and the English menu certainly helps. Dinner from $50. roppongifukuzushi.com.
Best bed: Park Hyatt Tokyo
Emulate your favourite Lost in Translation movie scenes or just wander around looking for Scarlett Johansson. Suites are designed with a sophisticated, modern élan and the New York Bar is the best place in town to pretend you’re an international big shot. Rooms from $450. tokyo.park.hyatt.com.
One thing we need:
Canned drink vending machines on every street corner, selling cold pop like Calpis Water (yum) in summer and sweetened hot coffee in winter.
One thing we don’t need:
Violent, porn-themed manga comics read openly in public by drooling salarymen.
Tokyo in March averages 12 degrees Celsius and there’s usually enough rain to justify buying a cool, compact umbrella the size of your thumb.