Christopher | July 8, 2009
I wrote a little bit about the trains when I first arrived in Japan. Now that I’ve returned to San Francisco and had some time to compare the two, I decided to elaborate on about my experiences.
Getting around Tokyo via train is an incredible, enlightening experience for Americans. Our public transportation systems are a hollow and lifeless copy of those overseas. It reminds me of the old movie, Mulitiplicity, with Michael Keaton where he clones himself. Our public transportation is much like Doug #4. (Watch the trailer to get a hint.)
Japanese trains run efficiently. They are on time with remarkable frequency. There is an information display at every train station that will accurately tell you which train will arrive when. There are limited trains, express trains, limited express trains, and bullet trains for the long hauls. There are systems of subways that cover the dense urban jungle of Tokyo. There are buses and even a monorail.
There are multiple companies that operate different lines. JR (Japan Rail) is the largest company providing rail service around Japan. There are also dozens of regional line such as the Odakyu, Keio, and Toei lines run by smaller operations. Switching from one line to another is a relatively simple affair, especially if you have a prepaid IC card.
There are two systems for obtaining a prepaided card: Suica and Pasmo. You can purchase a card for 500 yen from most ticket machines. The best part about these two systems is their interoperability. It’s kind of like Visa and Mastercard here in the US. It doesn’t much matter which one you have. They’re both going to work in the same places.
Once you have one of these cards, you can just wave the card over the reader and pass through the turnstile. Once you reach your destination, the system will debit the amount of the fare from your card.
Plus you can use the cards for more than just the trains. All bus systems also use the IC card systems. So do many vending machines for when you need a quick can of coffee before your voyage! And I’ve heard tales that some mobile phones have the IC chip so your purchases can be charged to your monthly bill! How convenient!
Christopher | July 7, 2009
I spent my first two nights in Tokyo at the Tokyo Prince Hotel. I picked it entirely based off a magical formula based upon factors such as price, location and opinions from random people who take the time to post things on the internet.
Turns out I picked well. While this isn’t the cheapest hotel in Tokyo, by a long shot, you can bank on the rooms being clean and reasonably sized. This means you have enough room to walk around your bed on all sides. Americans may find the hotel rooms to be small compared to your average Holiday Inn. You’ll know what to expect if you’ve stayed in the heart New York or San Francisco.
The service at the hotel is impeccable. The whole staff speaks English well enough that you don’t need to worry about stumbling through your special request for three tubes of extra toothpaste at two in the morning. You can borrow an umbrella from the hotel if you forgot to bring one during the rainy season. And there is a convenience store located in the basement for all your late night snacking and binge drinking needs.
What really makes the Tokyo Prince Hotel worth checking out is the location. It neighbors the Tokyo Tower, which is the tallest structure in the city. I was lucky enough to score a room with a full view of the tower. This undoubtably set my expectations of the entire trip unreasonably high. The picture you see here is view from my window. The view at dawn really soothes the rough edges of jet lag.
Christopher | June 25, 2009
There is nothing that subsitutes for first hand experience. You cannot learn how to fly a plane just from reading a book. This is why you need to log hours before they give you a pilots license. You’re going to have a tough time learning how to paint a picture just by watching Bob Ross and never picking up brush. And so will you have a hard time understanding how huge some of these office buildings are without standing at the very base of them and looking up.
Perhaps what is so remarkable about these skyscrapers in Tokyo is not so much the height but frequency with which they occur around the city. Most metropolitian areas have a cluster of sky scrapers in the central financial districts. The heights of buildings taper off outside this core. Tokyo has massive office buildings sprinkled throughout the metropolitian area in every ward.
The best way I can describe Tokyo is through a metaphor that will make sense to most Californians. Take Los Angeles and make the entire thing as dense as San Francisco. Triple the number of skyscrapers from both cities. Now increase the average size of the buildings to eight stories. That’s Tokyo.
Christopher | June 22, 2009
That word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
Update: This truck appeared to be a delivery truck. It was parked in front of a local beer distribution warehouse in Tokyo (near the Hamamatsucho Station).
Update: Neil points out that maybe it does mean what they think it means. I refuse to let facts ruin my post. Enlighten yourself: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reefer_(container)
Christopher | June 20, 2009
According to my highly scientific methods of calculation, there appears to be seven umbrellas for every person in Tokyo.
Let’s start with the rain itself. During the rainy season, also known as tsuyu (梅雨), it probably will rain every day. My limited experience with tsuyu tells me that it won’t rain all day, every day. The rain comes in the morning or the evening for a couple hours.
Chances are that you’ll forget your umbrella at home if it’s sunny in the morning and you’ll need to buy a new one. I did this a couple times during my two week stay. Fortunately you can get a cheap clear umbrella at any convenience store for 1-200 yen. You can get a decent umbrella for 5-700 yen. A deluxe umbrella with a nice pattern on quality fabric at a outdoor shop or department store shouldn’t cost you more than 2000 yen.
Chances are that you’ll forget your umbrella on the train. Every time we rode the train to the end of a line, conductors would sweep through and gather up an arm full of umbrellas left throughout the cars. Your chances to forget your umbrella increase five times when you hang it on a hand rail. They go up twenty times if your mind is occupied with thoughts of a pretty girl or negotiating multimillion dollar import/export deals.
Chances are that you’ll forget your umbrella at some place of business. Most shops, restaurants, and other places of business have racks outside for you to place your umbrella so you don’t track water all over their floor like some kind of heathen. Your chances to forget your umbrella increases about three hundred times when it stops raining while you spend a few hours relaxing at the onsen.
As you might imagine, all these factors lead to you losing your umbrella once or twice. And if you’re a social person who entertains guests from time to time, someone will probably leave a couple umbrellas at your place as well.
Christopher | June 19, 2009
Trash cans are exceptionally rare in Japan. Recycling is taken very seriously and you can find a recycle bin next to every vending machine. If you have a wrapper from the pastry you bought at the bread shop… well, just stick it in your pocket until you get home.
The reason behind this is very unclear. Some people say trash cans disappeared after the serin gas attacks years ago. Others say that Japan never really had that many trash cans in attempt to keep you from littering. Backwards logic, perhaps, but it seems too work. This place is amazingly clean.
The picture you see is the first trash can I’ve seen on my travels. It was found in a temple in Kita Kamakura.
Christopher | June 18, 2009
Interesting Buddhist Fact Number 31: You are allowed to take pictures in most shrines, so long as you do not take pictures of the statue of buddha.
The distinction can be difficult to communicate, so the more popular temples ban photography entirely once you are inside the shrine.
This rule does not apply to the giant buddhist statue, known in Japanese as a daibutsu (大仏), located in Kamakura. This is one of the three daibutsu in Japan and might be the only one you can get inside. On a personal note, climing inside a buddha statue is every bit as awe inspiring as you might imagine. Pictures do not quite capture the majesty of such a thing.
Christopher | June 15, 2009
After talking this over with a friend, we decided that the previous post regarding racism is a misnomer. It’s simply health paranoia combined with mild xenophobia/discrimination. Racism implies a kind of antagonism and hatred that doesn’t exist. Neither of us personally know of any hate crimes committed here.
Christopher | June 14, 2009
Forever 21 in Harajuku
Yesterday I wandered through Harajuku yesterday and stumbled upon a sight that seemed very foreign to me. The shock wasn’t people in costume hanging out at the entrance to the park. It wasn’t the sea of people going down tight side streets to browse through boutique shops. It was the people lined up to get into a store. Not just any store, Forever 21.
Yes, that’s right. Hordes of young japanese girls were lined up to shop at one of America’s most famous stores catering to bright bargain clothing that will guarantee to last you at least two washings before falling apart at the seems.
The level of excitement was astounding. It’s interesting to see people queue up for something besides something from Apple.
Update - My friend, Chiaki, is fascinated by this post. She says that queues like this really aren’t a big deal from a Japanese perspective. A mob like this doesn’t necessarily indicate that the entirity of Japan will now be swathed in bargin fashion. The novelty is what draws the crowd, and in Tokyo there always seems to be something new to grab people’s attention.
Christopher | June 12, 2009
I got properly lost in Shibuya yesterday. Dinner with the couchsurfing group was nothing short of fantastic. Taxis are a terrible way to travel around Tokyo.
And now I need to go eat some Shabu Shabu with an old friend.