Tokyo was the first Asian city I visited, back in 2006, and it left a strong, positive impression. Last week, 10 years later, I was able to refresh that impression by visiting Tokyo (and other parts of Japan) during the famous Cherry Blossom season. Such a fascinating place.
At times, Tokyo makes New York City feel slow. The underground subway stations manage to whisk eye-popping numbers of passengers through its stalls, people everywhere, every crevice, utter chaos. The electric flashing lights on certain streets of Tokyo makes Times Square feel dull. From a sheer numbers perspective, Tokyo is the largest metropolitan area in the world and you feel this scale frequently as you meander the city.
At other times in Tokyo, off the main roads, the city feels eerily quiet, even peaceful. There is no honking — ever. There are beautiful, green gardens, either outside people’s homes, or in large public spaces. Few people yap on their phones; no one plays music loud enough in their car to hear it from the sidewalk. And of course, the overall zen aesthetic lends a certain peacefulness to the urban design.
Chaotic yet calm. It’s the first oxymoronic trait of Tokyo that comes to mind. There are others.
The most famous paradoxical trait of Japan — and it’s a cliche of travel guidebooks — is old and new. There are temples and roads and traditions that are thousands of years old. There are working restaurants and shops in Kyoto (I went to them) that have been operated by the same families for 300+ years. There are ancient customs about family, food, success, and more that still govern modern behavior. Yet, at the same time, Japan has for many years also been proudly on the technological frontier, its people embracing technology in ways that have been captured in many a viral Facebook video or BuzzFeed post. For example, a Japanese couple’s wedding is officiated by a robot. Toilets that do crazy things while you’re sitting on them. Etc etc. The techno-charged culture that is Japan, but probably soon — the techno-culture everywhere.
As a tourist, there aren’t many better places to visit. Exploring these oxymorons — or are they paradoxes? — makes for a fascinating experience. Japanese culture is riveting. And the process of exploring the culture couldn’t be more pleasurable. Everything is clean. The quality of customer service is probably the best in the world. All the infrastructure just works. There’s basically no crime in Japan. There’s no trash on the streets either, despite an odd lack of trash cans in public places, which speaks to the power of social norms for people to pick up after themselves. Taxi drivers are unfailingly polite and are the opposite of corrupt (the cabbie from the airport into town actually reduced the fare from what the meter said because the route qualified for a lower flat rate!).
I found myself feeling quite healthy by the end of a week or two in Japan. The cities are walkable (I walked 15-20k steps per day) but more importantly, the fish-heavy food diet makes you feel light. My favorite meal was a nondescript sushi place in Shinjuku, where the sushi chef made 10 pieces with his freshest fish, carefully giving instructions on when to use soy sauce and when not to.
The Tokyo Swallows baseball season had just started. Going to a baseball game in Japan, where the fans are considerably more intense than American fans, is a real treat. It was great to bear witness to the amazing, coordinated cheers — the fans chant cheers that last a couple minutes, in perfect unison, a different song for each player. The utterly coordinated and seemingly rehearsed fan activity is one expression, perhaps, of the broader cultural norms of homogeneity and community.
On this visit, I got outside Tokyo and Kyoto and the Hakone mountains and into some of the smaller onsen hot springs districts. When you stay at a hot springs ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, you take your shoes off in the lobby and walk barefoot or in sandals throughout the inn, wear a kimono even at meals, eat delicious local meals served in the hotel, and — when you’re not busy making sure you’re adhering properly to all the rules and customs! — you can bask in the relaxing glow of traditional Japanese culture. The hot springs water themselves are soothing and supposedly cure various skim ailments.
The final tourist note would be the cherry blossoms. They were in full bloom during the trip. Stunning! Perhaps even more stunning was the country’s collective obsession about the blossoms — or the sakura. Every store offered sakura-branded or sakura-colored trinkets. Starbucks rolled out Sakura colored treats in the way they do Pumpkin Spice themed items during Halloween in the States. Every Japanese person I talked to found a way to bring up the cherry blossoms. And at the cherry blossoms themselves, in the parks, it was the local Japanese taking the most photos. It reminded me of Chileans’ collective pride in the sur de chile, the tranquil towns of the south of that long, beautiful country. In Chile, it was only at a matter of time before a local would ask you, “¿Conoces el sur de chile?”
This is the best history of Japan overview I’ve seen. In fact, one of the best history videos in general I’ve ever watched:
A macro economy that’s been sluggish for 15-20 years, a deeply challenging demographic situation, and the persistence of certain norms that inhibit entrepreneurship, such as an aversion to risk and immigrants — these factors lead some to be pessimistic about Japan’s economic prospects. The Japanese people themselves are not the most optimistic bunch by disposition, it seems. That said, there are some obvious strengths in the educated workforce, legacy of innovation, sophisticated financial capital, and its geographic position relative to its dynamic SE Asian neighbors. Demographics is not destiny. And I met with some entrepreneurial investors in Tokyo who are working to reinvigorate Japan’s entrepreneurial energy, and it left me with hope. I’d love to see Japan thrive.
The book that Rakuten founder Mikitani-San and his father wrote is a good guide to the types of reforms Japan needs to implement to make it a more entrepreneur-friendly country.
Relatedly, here’s a piece from Politico yesterday on re-visiting the “Japanese Way.” By turning away from global culture and immigration, they’ve stagnated yes, but they’ve also not had to deal with a lot of the problems currently afflicting America and Europe. I’m not particularly bullish, long-term, on the insular approach. And I’m hopeful globalization can prevail. But the Japanese model is an interesting, decidedly different approach, and one that’s certainly worth understanding for all its pros and cons.