Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Comfortable Destination: Tokyo

I am always happy to spend more time in Tokyo, Japan and was very fortunate to get to visit again last week. Tokyo is alive and well and when you walk the streets of Tokyo, you can almost feel its heart beating. It is beautiful and awash in both history and technological advancement. You can find almost anything you want in Tokyo and can experience a broad range of experiences within it confines. As an American, I find it very easy to navigate Tokyo and I also find the locals, in general, to be polite, pleasant and civil. When I want to be immersed in Japan - in its traditional foods, sounds and surroundings, I can be and when I need something familiar from home, like Banana Pancakes and Applewood Smoked Bacon, I can have those too, exactly like I would back home - and it's almost effortless.

There's some serious order to the chaos that goes on in Tokyo. People stand on the left side of escalators and walk on the right side - everywhere. No cell phone conversations take place on the subway trains. People actually follow queues and walk/do not walk signs at crosswalks (for the most part). As clearing your nose with tissue (or anything else) in public is considered impolite, the people with colds all wear face masks as they mingle with the masses. Posted prices in stores are generally followed - there's no wasted effort in haggling over every little thing. The residents have a definite understanding of “personal space.” There are a lot of formalities surrounding things like introductions, business card exchanges and drinking customs. It's all very civil.

With that being said, its people aren't boring either. Its citizenry is diverse and expressive both in person and appearance. The general sense of style is very good. Get onto a subway car at Roppongi or Shinjuku or Ginza and look around and you're bound to notice that even though people have diverse tastes in their personal appearance and clothing styles, they all look very put together. You could practically pick almost any one of them out of the crowd and take a photo for a magazine spread. No matter the age demographic, they generally make an effort to look “good” in Tokyo. There's a sense of having to always save face in Japan which probably fuels this to some extent. There's something about being surrounded by people who care about their outward appearance and understand personal space that is comforting. Even in a huge crowd, you don't feel like you're going to get crushed.

The city is highly navigable by train, car or foot. Signs are often posted in both Japanese and English. On the trains in particular, not only are station names written in Western characters, but the audio announcements are made in both Japanese and English. I never feel lost in Tokyo.

For me, Tokyo is a comfortable destination and it's just a lot of fun. I don't know much Japanese, but have learned enough of it to comfortably go shopping and to apologize and explain to the locals that I really don't know much of their language. I've found that if you're polite, the locals will really try to understand your English even though they have absolutely no obligation at all to do so. Most of them understand enough English to make communications very easy. They're generally pleasant folks. In Tokyo, I am humbled by how good the general grasp of English is and by how willing the people are to try to converse with me in English.

I was very sad to have to leave Tokyo again and am already looking forward to our next trip back.

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