Sushi and Fuji-san
to the land of the rising sun, expensive food and jam-packed commuter
trains! Fasten your seatbelts (notice the captain has turned off the
"no smoking sign") and prepare to live in what has to be a
city with too many people in too little space. To make your stay just
a smidgen more tolerable, we have for you a little introduction to Japan,
the Japanese people and the Japanese way of life. After you read this
you can either decide to catch the next flight out of this country or
you can brace yourself and hope for the best.
a Can of Sardines
When you first think of Japan, what do you think of? Samurai? Sushi? Geisha? Kabuki? How about a can of sardines? No, you didn't read that wrong. Everyone knows that Japan is, or at least was an economic superpower sometime back. Who powers the economy? The big corporations and the businessmen that's who. Well, obviously they have to live somewhere and from there they have to go to work. Most of these poor souls live around an hour away from where they work and as cars are not a viable option for getting to work, the train is the method of choice.
Let's try a little experiment shall we? Get on any train heading to one of the major stations (Shinjuku, Shibuya, Tokyo, etc.) between around 7 and 8 or thereabouts. A warning beforehand though, don't try and push back, you'll only get pushed and mashed more, the phrase to keep in mind here is, "resistance is futile". Can of sardines? Stuck in a trash compactor might be a better phrase. Regardless, now you know what I mean. Now imagine going through that nightmare everyday of your working life! Ready to board that plane back yet? You have now experienced the start of a very typical Japanese workday. Just a suggestion, if you decide to shift the time you go to work about an hour or two later, the train "packed" factor reduces to about the equivalent of "trying to eat a meal in economy class".
that you know how people get to work, why not look at some of the layout
of the city itself? Why? Why not? You're bound to get lost. Sooner rather
than later as well. Ever notice that most of the roads don't have names?
And the wacky house numbering system? And why are the streets so narrow?
That's because the Japanese aren't creative enough to come up with a
name for every road and who needs a car when you can walk? No, just
kidding. Seriously though, the completely chaotic urban nightmare that
is now Tokyo, emerged mainly after World War II. The numbering system
is usually comprised of 3 numbers, firstly an area code, then a kind
of street code, and then the house number. Some also have a 4th number
which is the apartment number. As for how this system came to be
question! Next question please! As for the narrowness of the streets,
well, my guess is that it's because either there isn't enough land or
they reduce the number of drivers by scaring them off with narrow roads.
But a more educated person like yourself would be quick to learn that
this chaotic and nightmare of a road system derive from feudal times
where the narrowness and the complexity were designed to deter and confuse
would-be enemies. As you can see, its still doing a fine job today,
except the enemy is the average person trying to get to the train station.
Ever also notice that there are rarely ever sidewalks? Well, they're
there, you probably just haven't noticed them. Next time you go outside,
look for the white lines on the sides of the road, walk outside of that
white line and congratulations! You are now walking on the supposed
sidewalk. Of course most urban areas have real sidewalks, but just in
As for the city itself, we'll let you explore it yourself. Why take
a guided tour? Just go out for a stroll and see what you find, you might
end up finding something unusual. Oh, and if you get lost, just head
for one of those police boxes. You can usually find one at a major intersection.
You can even take a late night stroll too if you want. If NY can be
rated as the safest big city in the US by the FBI (that's the Federal
Bureau of Intimidation, oops sorry, Investigation) for 4 years straight
(imagine that!), then I guess Tokyo has to be relatively safe, perhaps.
Although crime exists just like everywhere else, you can be reasonably
assured that your little stroll will be uneventful.
you miss those big, fat, juicy hamburgers? The big hot dogs? The pizza
dripping with oil? Well, I guess you're going to have to miss them some
more. Closest thing to a big, fat, juicy hamburger? MacDonalds. Big
hot dogs? You can forget about those. Oil dripping pizza? Not here my
friend. So, now that I've crushed your hopes of finding a good old fashioned
American meal (for you English folks, no real fish and chips here either),
why not try some of the native cuisine. Okay, okay, I admit, I lied
just a bit. You can get the meal you've been craving for, but only if
you're prepared to pay at least twice the price of what you paid
back home. I mean 30 dollars for a large pizza? Get real!
Like I said, why not the local cuisine? You're stuck here anyway, might
as well get used to it right? First off, most people think Japanese
food = sushi. So, why not some sushi? Yes, it's raw fish but you might
find it pretty good once you give it a try. If you try it out and find
out that it's the most disgusting thing you've ever eaten in your life,
there's probably a Mickey D's near the station somewhere! Getting back
to sushi. There are a countless number of "kaiten-zushi" stores
around town. Some are good, some are just plain bad so be prepared to
take a chance when you walk into these establishments. Pretty fun, you
have sushi on plates circling a counter on a conveyor belt (Go tuna
go! Lap that squid!). Just pick the one you want, take it off the belt
and eat away. If you can't find the one you want, or if you want one
freshly made (some of the dishes are doing constant laps, think of it
as the 24 hour endurance race at Le Mans), there's usually a guy in
the middle so just ask him for what you want.
If you want some of the good stuff, you're going to have to go to a
real sushi restaurant. Be warned however, that most places do not have
a set list of prices, because of the fact that this depends on the day's
catch and the quality of the fish. So, either take "a fistful of
yen", or just tell the person behind the counter how much you want
to spend and he'll keep it within that amount. Oh, and money of the
plastic kind isn't accepted in some places so be warned! You can also
order 1 "kan" at a time if you're really adventurous and want
to devour a variety of different fishies.
You want cooked food you say? Well, hmm, what time is it now? Is it
almost time for that after-work beer yet? If so, why not try some yakitori?
Literally translated "fried bird". No, it's not a fried pigeon
or crow or something like that, it's chicken (although they do say everything
tastes like chicken!). Ideal with beer, sake and even red wine as well.
You can try fried chicken thigh meat, heart, liver, skin, you can even
eat it's tail as well. Plus, it's a lot more economical than sushi
most of the time anyway.
Give Me a Home, Where the Buffalo Roam...
the dear and the antelope play
not in Japan buddy. Consider yourself
stuck in Alcatraz. Well, perhaps maybe the back of a Chevy Astro. Either
way your typical Japanese apartment is bound to be as small and as expensive.
The average Japanese apartment is about 6 "jyo". One "jyo"
is the equivalent of one tatami mat. If that doesn't conjure up an image,
just imagine the size of a typical American kitchen and there you go,
well perhaps the kitchen is a tad bigger. Most have hardwood floors,
although some older apartments have tatami mats. The bathroom and toilet
are usually in one room, known as a "unit bath". Pretty small,
pretty cramped and after you take a shower, your toilet paper's kind
of damp! As for the kitchen (kitchen? What kitchen?), more like a sink
and a grill. If you're lucky (or unlucky) enough to find yourself
with a "mini-kitchen" (which is VERY mini), you get a fridge
as well! That box on the bottom that's about the size of an average
TV set is your fridge. Oh, and if you've got one of those, you can forget
about freezing anything at all. Trust the Japanese to come up with an
economical way to use up any available space. Hey, you always knew they
could make everything smaller
don't know if that's supposed to
be better in this case though. Yes folks, life in Japan can be rough.
Can't live like that you say? Well, either you already are or you're
laughing out loud right now. Most of you will be (should be, could be,
would have been, might have been, take your pick!) living in condominiums
set aside especially for foreign expatriates, large, clean and most
of all, since the company pays for it, free! Who said you can't get
something for nothing?
it In the Fridge Around the Corner
guess one of the better things in Japan are the 24 hour convenience
stores that are almost everywhere which almost everyone, from the young
to the old, can't live without. If you're lucky enough to have one near
where you live, then you can use that little mini fridge of yours solely
for the purpose of cooling beer and storing left over pizza. Who needs
a big fridge when there's a huge one in the 7-11 around the corner?
Plus, no need for storage space either. Go down to your local 7-11 or
whatever convenience store that's nearby (they all have wacky names
anyway) to buy everything from bread to batteries to magazines to light
bulbs to underwear to concert tickets, heck, just about anything! Apart
from buying stuff, you can use your Lawson or Family Mart or Sunkus
or whatever to pay utility bills and even send your skis off to the
lodge so that you don't have to carry them all they way there. Talk
about service! Well, one of the good things about Japan? The customer
Just as a side note, ever notice the number of vending machines scattered
around town? Well, these things will sell you everything from the normal
cans of soda to magazines to pantyhose to ice cream and even videos
and CD's. So, what was that about the really small fridge?
Now a Moment of Silence
people are not very religious
in fact you might have a hard time
finding a religious person at all. So, as far as religion goes, end
of story. There are numerous churches around town where you can go for
Sunday Mass. The shrines and temples scattered about town are big tourist
attractions as well. So if you will all raise your heads, that concludes
our moment of silence.
Voyage! And Godspeed
now that you know the bare essentials for living in this city, we'll
set you on your way (no hugs or kisses, please). If you ever feel like
this city's too much for you, just head on down to Shinjuku (do you
remember how to get there?) and hop on the Narita Express which heads
for, yup, you guessed it, Narita Airport.
Honestly folks, once you get used to living here it's not that bad
so maybe I'm lying just a bit. Let me rephrase that, besides the fact
that people are ill mannered, rude, the houses are cramped, there are
too many people, and everything is expensive, despite those facts, living
here is quite manageable. God forbid, you might even like it here.
Take two aspirin and see how you feel tomorrow morning.
Tokyo - the Political Center
center of government is just to the southeast of the Palace, in Kasumigaseki
and Nagatacho where the Diet Building, Prime Minister's residence and
various ministries are located. Gray and formal, just like the political
announcements originating here. Look down from the terrace of the Kasumigaseki
Building to see it the palace as just a symbol in the background, and
the big business center over to the east.
Business Center - Marunouchi
the southeast side of the Palace lies Tokyo's business and financial
sector, with over 100 modern office buildings. This area now extends
beyond Tokyo station to the city's Wall Street and Stock Exchange, and
the main offices of prominent companies in Kyobashi and Nihonbashi.
Shopping and Commercial Centers - Ginza and Akasaka
used to be the place where money was minted and is now the place where
money is spent by Tokyo's jet set. Like London's Knightsbridge and New
York's 5th Avenue, the daytime is for visiting its exclusive stores.
On Sundays, the main street is turned into a "pedestrians paradise".
the daytime, Akasaka is a lively commercial area with a character all
its own. It has a state guesthouse that resembles Buckingham Palace.
It is also Japan's entertainment center for the political and business
worlds. Akasaka is still the place for relaxing at a ryotei (traditional
restaurant) to dine on raw fish and be entertained by geisha -- for
the privileged few, anyway. In particular, since the collapse of the
so called Bubble Economy (around 1992), even expensive Japanese restaurants
in Akasaka have begun to serve lunch at reasonable prices. Well worth
Ginza and Akasaka do have restaurants and clubs for ordinary folk though,
and an evening visit is recommended.
Shitamachi, or downtown, is the old commercial center, once the commoners'
quarter of old Edo, it also included seats of learning around Ochanomizu.
Today, Ochanomizu has its universities, hospitals and publishing companies,
and Kanda is famous for its quaint, specialty bookstores. Nearby Akihabara
is Japan's electronic discount mecca. To the north lies
Ueno, a busy amusement and shopping area. Ueno station is the gateway
to Northern Japan, and Ueno Park is a cultural and recreation center.
To the east, Asakusa offers another taste of old Tokyo, with its theaters,
traditional architecture, giant paper lanterns and shopping arcades
leading up to the huge Kannon Temple, little changed since feudal times.
cities have been moving westward since the samurai moved west from old
Edo and were followed by merchants and artisans. Commerce followed the
population movement, resulting in a decline of the Shitamachi area and
the rise of new commercial centers uptown. Shibuya and Shinjuku are
two such centers. Both lie on the west side of the Yamanote line.
Shinjuku has many sides: to the east of the station is the older part,
with it's department stores, cinemas and entertainment quarter. The
west side is the site of Tokyo's skyscrapers that sway with the earthquakes
including the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building, known for it's
architecture, and luxury international hotels, all of which can be accessed
by a "moving sidewalk" from the west exit. The south side,
with stores like Takashimaya Times Square and Sega's Joypolis, is the
main attraction for most of the crowd that visit Shinjuku.
Seemingly always crowded, Shibuya is a shopping and entertainment area
for the young, couples and families. Nearby Harajuku is also colorful
and young-at-heart with everything from boutiques with designer fashion
and shops selling outlandish attire, to products of the 1980's cottage
industries displayed on the roadside. At weekends it teems with young
people from all over the country.
To the west of Shibuya, in the Daikanyama / Ebisu area, the "Ebisu
Garden Place" has been newly constructed on former Sapporo Beer
Grounds. You can visit the Sapporo Beer Museum and look around the factory
and enjoy freshly made beer for 200 yen. With places such as Daikanyama
which is under going further development. The center of business is
gradually shifting to the west, in particular foreign corporations,
computer-related corporations and production companies.
Aoyama is more sophisticated, at times more reminiscent of Paris or
London than of Tokyo. East meets West again in Roppongi, a center for
embassies and diplomats as well as being a longtime favorite residential
area and nightspot for the foreign community with various types of bars
and clubs packed together.
From Roppongi westward, up to as far as one hour out by train or subway,
is the uptown residential area.
"New water front city", that is The Water Front Marine sub-center
area, Ome, Ariake, Odaiba Kaihin-koen and Big-Sight. Only 6km from Tokyo,
it is a popular place for dates for couples and on holidays, many young
people can be seen enjoying wind surfing and roller-skating. Due to
the collapse of the so called "the bubble economy" in 1992,
development plans have been greatly modified. However, with exhibitions
being held at Big-Sight and a television station (Fuji TV) moving to
a new site of very modern architecture, this area is developing into
a 21 century-type futuristic city which is well worth a visit.
are numerous neighborhoods where shops that specialize in the same areas
can be found bunched together. One of the most popular of these and
probably the most famous among foreigners is Akihabara (http://www.akiba.or.jp/).
At Akihabara station, head for the exit labeled "Akihabara Electric
Town" and you wind up on a street jam packed up and down with consumer
electronics shops, shops selling transistors and whatnot, games and
anything and everything electrical or electronic. You can also head
down to Shinjuku (http://www.shinjuku.or.jp/)
where there are also a lot of camera and home electronics stores.
you like fresh seafood, then head on down to Tsukiji (http://www.tsukiji.or.jp/title.html)
where you'll find an extremely large fish market selling everything
from the sea. Around the market you can find restaurants that serve
these fresh fish sometimes at very reasonable prices. Tasty stuff.
If real food or eating out is not for you, then head on down to Kappabashi
where there are numerous stores that sell food of the plastic kind (for
restaurant showcases). And although you can't cook the plastic food,
you can also find a lot of stores that sell restaurant supplies including
supplies that you can use for cooking real food.
Kanda and Jimboucho are the places to go if you happen to be the literary
type. Stores and stores of book and used book stores can be found just
waiting for you to visit.
Last but not least, if you like paper goods or need some decorations,
then go to Asakusabashi for a day of wondering which paper good or decoration