Part 2

Getting under the skin

Destination: Tokyo, Japan

Name: Philip Philipsen, LanguageWire Project Manager

When in Rome... err Tokyo...

Japanese Taxi Damon Jah

Photo: Damon Jah

So, you’ve just arrived in Tokyo and already you’ve prepared a lot; the jet lag is buzzing your sense of reality and you wonder how you’re going to make it through your week. It was bad enough getting slammed in the face by the automatic taxi door and you barely made it out of the toilet after falling asleep on the heated seat. In fact, you only woke up because the lid started closing on your back after getting the full bidet treatment by the built-in spooling system...

Some people think of Japan as one of those last holdouts of arcane mysteries, but it’s really just a mass of people who happen to have arranged their country in a unique way. And you’re standing right in the middle of it all in Tokyo; a place that’s more sophisticated, mindboggling and exhilarating than any other city in Japan. In many ways, arriving in Tokyo really is bit like co-starring in Lost in Translation.

Thankfully, Japanese hospitality is renowned the world over for making you feel better than you really are. The way the Japanese pamper your sense of self-importance is just incredible. If you want to smooth the way a bit more, just look at what the Japanese do.

Dress – A.K.A. "dress up"

Japanese Taxi Damon Jah

Photo: Nisa Yeh

Tokyoites are great dressers and you'll feel so much better if you don your Sunday best too, like everybody else. Forget about spots and specks, you want your shoes (or pumps) shining, your shirt (or dress) neatly ironed and that tie (or bag) needs to be hanging at just the right angle. Sure, you can be casual if you want, just make sure you leave your uniform of rags at home. Here, casual is no excuse for ripped clothes and holey socks. In fact, you might want to stock up on socks before you go: in many restaurants (and in all private homes, if you’re lucky enough to set foot in one), you have to lose your shoes upon entering the premises. The Japanese will appreciate your respect for their swish capital and you won’t risk feeling too out of place if you look your best. Sorry, that does mean the end of flip-flops, tank tops and other beachy paraphernalia, even in summer (except at the beach).

Waiting – Right on time

So, let’s assume you’re looking the part and you’re ready to hit the town. You’ve found your establishment of choice but wait, what’s that? A queue! Yes, that’s right, this comes with the territory. Good places invariably have queues outside, with people quietly waiting their turn. It might be a good idea to announce yourself inside to one of the waiters first and they’ll then tell you roughly how long the wait is. Don’t turn your back on a half-hour wait – it’s almost always worth it. If you’re with a friend, chances are he or she came to meet you right on time or was there 10 minutes early (rule of thumb).

Like your friend, or any other Japanese, you’ll want to take time seriously. GMT means different things to different people. We all know what it means to the Brits. In parts of Africa, it might really be ‘Gambian Maybe Time’, but in Japan it’s more like ‘Guard My Time’. Time is a serious business, and if you want to be taken seriously in business matters in this bustling city of punctual perfection, be on time at the very latest.

Food & drink – Heaven's mirror

Food Tokyo Evan Blaser

Photo: Evan Blaser

Eating and drinking in Tokyo must be ranked as one of the visitor’s prime experiences. The Japanese penchant for perfection manifests itself in every single aspect of the experience. From the way you’re greeted (that loud ‘Irasshai!’ or the more polite ‘Irasshaimase!’) to the meticulous attention to detail bestowed upon your meal and drinks, you are left in absolutely no doubt that the Japanese have but one god: el cliente, you, the hallowed customer. The baseline is extremely high and stable; prices are reasonable (even after the recent sales tax hike from 5 to 8 percent), service is impeccable and the quality is up there among the clouds. Whatever type of establishment you’ve chosen to dine in; each honours the call to serve you their best. If you don’t believe this, try visiting a fast-food restaurant that you’re familiar with from your home country. Odds are that the Japanese iteration will blow your socks off. To say nothing of the impossibly large array of mid-level fare and high-end cuisine spots that Tokyo is rightly famous for. After just a few days, you’ll be walking around in a daze wondering just how they do it. Easy: discipline, training, technique, attention to detail and paramount focus on the quality and freshness of ingredients – and the customer too. As long as you don’t offend the proprietor by pointing your chopsticks at other people (it’s not a weapon), stick them upright in your rice bowl (as you would in a Buddhist offering to the departed) or blow your nose in front of other diners (who likes that anyway), you should be safe on your path to culinary enlightenment.

This applies to the wide assortment of beverages on offer too. Since you’re in Tokyo, skip the fancy n wine bars and head straight for the izakaya, the Japanese version of the tapas bar. This is sake and shochu land, or on other words, home of the rice-based brew and the light distillate. The way these two tipples harmonize with Japanese fare never cease to amaze, so order up and…let your companion pour your drink; that’s the done thing in Tokyo and indeed throughout the archipelago. And when your companion is running low, be sure to reciprocate the gesture to show your appreciation of the fellowship that exists between people who are mutually respectful of each other.

If you have room for a nightcap, there’s no way around the many brilliant cocktail bars. In general, Tokyo’s cocktail bars focus on the classics (no tiki-tiki drinks here), and the way the bartenders shake, stir and infuse magic into your drink is nothing short of stunning. Here, again, years of practice is the rule. An acolyte may be limited to washing glasses and running simple errands for a long period of time before finally being given access to behind-the-scenes training. Sometimes, you might see a budding mixologist at the bar, enthusiastically giving a concoction his best go. Only to be taken down a proverbial peg when the master adjusts it with his secret twist of the shaker, a specially picked ball of ice or an exact dash of that ingredient that makes all the difference. This is like looking into the engine room of Japanese traditional culture, alive and kicking in the best establishments all across Tokyo.

Bills – Thou shalt not tip

When the bill presents itself... well, it might not actually. Even if brought to your table, you almost always settle the bill at the cashier by the reception. That is, if you even notice it, since in many cases your companion may already have stealthily slipped away (“Just going to the lavatory” is a favourite) and paid in advance for you and whoever’s in the party. That’s just how it’s done. Going Dutch is not uncommon, of course, but the stench of cheap hangs over the term in Japanese as the cultural bias against splitting the bill runs deeper in Japan that in the Western sphere. You can’t even get around it by offering to pay a handsome tip, because there isn’t one to be given. Tipping, in short, is taboo and close to a personal affront if attempted. So, just don’t. Go with the flow and “go to the lavatory” yourself on your next evening out.

Opinions – Not everybody wants them

In Western culture, having an opinion and voicing it weighs heavily on the average soul. The Japanese, whose hearts and minds are trained to preserve at least a superficial harmony, find this proclivity to gladly spill one’s thoughts on any subject to be somewhat unsettling. You should be aware of this and definitely do some serious reflecting before steaming ahead with anything that might come across as criticism. Better to ask than to state, better to listen than opinionate. You might even learn something. And if nothing else, you’d be in accord with the ancient philosopher (and the father of Taoism) Lao Zi’s famous dictum: “The wise man speaketh not, and the man who speaketh is not wise.” All right, so Lao Zi might be Chinese, but the Japanese, like the Chinese, admire and frequently use quotes from famous sayings and age-old idioms. Makes you seem wise – and somebody before you said so.

Really – Not that truth, the other truth

Even so, chances are that many Japanese will ask your opinion about Japan: the people, the food, or even things they truly might think are obnoxious about their own country. It’s not a trap, but do think twice before you offer your true opinion (if it’s less than favourable).

Tokyo Dress Up istolethetv

Photo: istolethetv

Telling the truth is something you do to a closed circle, not to strangers. This is where the Japanese like to distinguish to a fine degree between outsiders and insiders within their own circle of social standing. Some people, by virtue of the acquaintance, will get the real story. Others, due to their lack of close association, will be treated to a somewhat selective version of the truth. Not so different from your own country, you might say, but it’s a matter of degree. So, do you like Tokyo? There’s only one answer to that one, really: Yes! (It’ll even be true).

Catfé – Cuddle that cat

Tokyo Catfe dat

Photo: dat'

Few cities can pride themselves of cramming so many people into one space as Tokyo. Everybody wants to be there: businesses, government, even citizens. In Tokyo, nobody’s longing for the suburbs, everybody wants to be smack in the centre of things. After just a few days in that city of dreams, who can blame them? What this means, apart from an amazing energy and a bustle that never lets up, is that Tokyoites are spaced out – even tiny plots come at a premium. So, keeping pets is far from always possible (if allowed in the first place). What to do, then, with that inborn need to take care of someone, something? Easy! Just visit one of the many cuddly cat cafés dotted about the city. For a small fee, you can enter the catfé and pet your favourite feline for an hour or so while enjoying a quiet cup of coffee (or tea, this being Japan) or cracking open a bottle of pop. It’s relaxing for the humans, though what the cats think of the endless stream of visitors is anybody’s guess.

Tattoos – Don’t ink up

Unlike the recent fad in many Western countries, the Japanese aren't big on tattoos. There’s a reason for that, of course. Traditionally, ink is for signalling tribal membership of one of the many organized crime units roaming the land. These run the gamut from simple shake-down operations to big-scale drug runs, and common for them all is that they’re tight-knit groups of people who basically like to keep to themselves. Their brand is the tattoo (and, occasionally, a missing joint on the little finger), so it’s no wonder that, to name one example, most proprietors of onsen or 'hotspring' (lots of them around, even in Tokyo) won’t let you in to soak in the scalding water if you’re a marked man or woman. Sorry, but it’s just not big in Japan for ordinary folks, and even being a foreigner might not help you. By law, transacting with organized crime members is actually a felony, so think twice about flashing your inked biceps or revealing your Sanskrit promises. On the other hand, Japan is one of those places where you can actually have people verify if those characters you selected in the ink shop really do mean "Endless love".

Karaoke – Do It My Way, anyway

Tokyo Karaoke Mark Larson

Photo: Mark Larson

Like sushi, karaoke is part of the quintessential Japanese experience. Unlike most Western sing-along establishments, though, karaoke in Japan is mostly set in private booths where the crooner in you is allowed a free reign. The Japanese like to visit in groups and if you’re lucky you might get to join. You could also go with just a friend in tow, as long as you make a point of going. You might not feel confident about your singing skills, but forget about all that. Pick up the intercom phone on the wall (all booths have them), bark an order for your choice of beverage and snacks, hit the English version of the song book and break out the mike to set the disco ball spinning. The best way to enjoy this, of course, is to join a few locals in the antics, and they’ll invariably want to know which songs you like to perform. They won’t take no for an answer, so you might as well decide early which tracks you’ll be the master of and “Do It Your Way”.

Missed out on Tokyo Part 1? No worries – read it here

Free Hugs Danny Choo

Photo: Danny Choo

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