Arriving at Tokyo Station on a Sunday morning, the crowds were manageable, but still crowds. The shops underground sell mochis and bento boxes. There are bakeries and candy stores, for all the commuters to snack at, before they get on their trains. Tokyo is an amazing story in efficiency. How can it be possible that the trains work so flawlessly, and that everything is so clean? On top of it, people give me polite smiles and try to answer questions when I get lost in the underground mazes. Personnel at the little shops are so incredibly polite, it is almost unnerving, mainly because you know that in real life nobody can be that obsequious and helpful. Does playing that role eventually wear a person out, and make them resentful? It doesn’t seem like it, in the most livable city on the planet.
I love Tokyo. I am here on a short one-week trip, to give some lectures at Nihon University. Based in a little hotel room near the Shōnandai Station, I can get to anywhere in the city (or maybe the planet) seamlessly. When I was here some 5 years ago, people had flip phones with little ornaments hanging off them. Now the phone gazers in the trains have iPhones and similar models that don’t accommodate the charms. At the shops, women wear their work costumes, and talk in high pitched voices to outcompete the polyphonic synthesized music jingles that come from the trains, and supermarket speakers. This whole city has the atmosphere of a giant pachinko machine. The metal balls are like moving people with an electricity that dominates this massive metropolis. Here cute kitschy items are commonplace. At the university there is a little colorful magnetic animal that you place by your name, to let you know whether you are in the office, in a classroom, or out to lunch.
As with everyone else that I know, the people I’ve met in Japan are surprised and disappointed by the USA election results. This is a homogeneous society, with few immigrants, so it is not simple to compare the two countries. This Japanese culture is rich in traditions and societal norms. Today’s USA was built by immigrants, including many Japanese, and is incredibly diverse. But what is remarkable to me is that modern Japan renewed itself and came out of the second world war as a powerhouse. Based on my experiences here, people have respect for the environment, and nature. I haven’t seen overt rudeness, but the opposite; a sincere respect for other people. I can’t say the same for the USA where I am constantly shocked by the trash in the parks and on the streets of San Francisco. I haven’t seen homeless people here, but I read that there are approximately 1600 homeless in this city of 16 million. San Francisco has about 6 times that number in a population less than 1 million. I would like everyone in the USA to visit two megacities, Tokyo and Delhi (the most polluted city on the planet), and then vote again.
Vegetable sushi, tempura, soba noodles, mochi, tofu and pickled vegetables make a vegan happy. At Ninja restaurant, I had a vegan tasting menu, with all dishes creatively displayed, and Ninja accented waiters performing magic tricks. A boat ride down from Asakusa to the lovely Hama-rikyu gardens frames the tall skyscrapers and gives great views of both the Skytree and Tokyo Tower. Shibuya, with its renowned mega-crosswalk, also has the statue of Hachiko, the faithful dog who returned to the station every day to wait for his owner, years after the owner had died. The statue represents undying loyalty and faithfulness in one of the most hectic busy places in the world. Small surprises like this make it ok to be sentimental and small in the technical universe of Tokyo.