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Samurai, Sushi and Fuji-san
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Samurai, Sushi and Fuji-san

Welcome 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.

Like 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".

Urban Discipline
Now 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…good 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 case.
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.

Tongue Tied

Do 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…well, most of the time anyway.

Oh, Give Me a Home, Where the Buffalo Roam...
And 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?

Stick it In the Fridge Around the Corner
I 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 is god.
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?

And Now a Moment of Silence
Japanese 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.

Bon Voyage! And Godspeed
Well, 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…okay 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.

Where to go...

Central Tokyo - the Political Center
Japan's 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.

The Business Center - Marunouchi
On 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.

The Shopping and Commercial Centers - Ginza and Akasaka
Ginza 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".

In 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 a check.

Ginza and Akasaka do have restaurants and clubs for ordinary folk though, and an evening visit is recommended.

The Old Tokyo

The 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.

The New Tokyo
Tokyo 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.

Tokyo's specialized neighborhoods

There 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 ( 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 ( where there are also a lot of camera and home electronics stores.
If you like fresh seafood, then head on down to Tsukiji ( 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 to buy.

Copyright by IMA Co., 1999