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Tokyo thoughts

Downtown Tokyo, close to Imperial Palace

Note: The original post partly disappeared after a WordPress update, so I restored it to an earlier version. The pictures and some revisions have not survived the restore, but at least most of the text is still here.

I am in the Narita Express from Tokyo to Narita airport after a 24 hour trip to Tokyo for some meetings. Just a couple of random observations, first a couple related to the huge earthquake:

– I had not been here since the 9.0 earthquake and nuclear disaster (except for a unscheduled landing in southern Japan less than 2 days after the earthquake) and daily life seems to have changed a bit. It had the feeling that it was much less busy on the streets of Shinjuku than before, and my Japanese colleague confirmed this. Some restaurants and shops in this busy shopping district seemed to be closed and also in the shopping arcade below the Hilton a lot of places either closed early or did not open at all.
– There are a lot less tourists, up to 65% less than a year ago someone told me. Outside Tokyo at some places up to 90% less. Normally I don’t stay in 5-star hotels in Japan because I find the ridiculously expensive, but this time I was able to get a room in the Hilton for less than I normally pay for a room where I can’t even open my suitcase. Despite these low rates the Hilton did not seem full, I was supposed to get a low floor room (I was asked if I wanted to pay more for a higher floor room and said no) but upon check-in I got a room on the 23rd floor. Later I noticed that the elevator didn’t stop once at any floor below the 20th despite me traveling up and down at least 6 times during my stay. Could be a coincidence of course.
– The Narita Express has an adjusted schedule (it does not ride between 12 and 2 pm for example) because there are less tourists and business people. Yesterday I took the express bus into town and that was 3/4 empty as well.
– My colleague told me that all households and businesses have to reduce their electricity expenses by 15-20% and this is actively checked – different from China where this kind of measures are often announced (‘Offices can’t set the airconditioner to temperature below 26C’), but nobody ever bothers to check.
– Generally I felt that the Tokyo vibe was not there anymore. Maybe because I was here on a Monday and it was a rainy, foggy and humid day, but still. People seemed more serious. Maybe it’s just me?

Some other things, unrelated to the natural disaster:
– I am always surprised by the high level of service in Japan. From the guys who put the suitcases on the express bus all bowing to the passengers when the bus leaves to the extremely friendly staff at the hotel. This morning when I got back to the hotel after a run in Shinjuku’s Central Park the door lady handed me a bottle of mineral water. I have been running at many hotels all over this planet but I don’t think this ever happened to me before.
– During running runners greet each other. Runners probably know this, but this does not happen in many countries and certainly not in the big cities. Even in Holland runners only seem to greet each other when you’re in the countryside. Interesting observation for me.
– Lots of homeless people in Shinjuku’s Central Park, part of the park looks like a slum where they built their own houses out of blue plastic and wood. Surprised to see this in the middle of this expensive city. Someone explained me that they used to stay in the train stations but they were kicked out by the police.
– I complain a lot about air pollution in Shanghai, but the air in Tokyo this morning was not clean either. I felt it in my lungs during my run. Maybe I should have run earlier instead of during rush hour (I ran around 8 AM)?
– While running in the morning I noticed once again that most salary workers in Japan dress the same: white shirt with tie and black pants (and with a jacket if it’s a bit colder). No room for creativity or individualism there, just a standard plain work uniform ordered by the company. I could not do it (anymore). Japan dresses more conservatively anyway, even in game companies you see a lot of suits and ties – try that at Spil Games! 🙂

And 2 more tech related things:
– You still see a high number of feature phones in Japan. I had expected that by now the iPhone and Android would have taken over, but when taking the train most people are still using their (by now outdated) feature phones. I understand why of course, most sites and apps are still optimized for them and people have been using them for years already (plus several other reasons such as that you can pay with them etc.), but I thought I would see more smart phones by now. I took a look in some phone shops around Shinjuku and even there most of the phones that were sold still seemed to be feature phones instead of smart phones. The smart phones that I saw were mainly iPhone 4 models, not Android. I wonder how this will be in 6 months.
– My Nike+ GPS watch perfectly fine in the Tokyo urban jungle. After my bad experience in Shanghai a few weeks ago I was looking forward to trying it out in Japan to see if it would work here. My watch hooked onto a satellite within 30 seconds, had a small error during the first 300 meters but then was exactly right. And this despite running between skyscrapers! I therefore don’t think that the error I got in Shanghai had anything to do with running between houses, but was really related to something else (see also the comments below that post).

I am almost at Narita airport, so I am going to end this post. I had a nice day in Japan, I always like to spend time here. I sometimes say it’s a more civilized version of China (please no hate mail!), but wonder if China will ever be like Japan. China is more rough, which is not necessary a bad thing. Maybe Japan was like this as well 50 or 100 years ago? I don’t know. The rules and regulations sometimes get on my nerves in Japan (even in the bus they ‘kindly’ remind you to wear your seat belt), but I have a similar aversion to some of the rules in the US. There is no perfect place on this planet, thats why I like to travel every now and then – and sometimes put down my observations in a blog post so I can read them again in a year or 2.

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  1. M, this was very helpful and I found it to be very uplifting! ::: I’m trying to get over to Tokyo myself, so the blog comes at no better time! ::: Of course, I’ve crossposted…

  2. Always loved Japan, amazing country. China would’ve probably been in a similar stage of development had Mao got the economics right. The thing about the Japanese is their absolute obedience to order and collective social consciousness – something the Chinese used to have when the Communists just took over in 1949 or maybe before the 17th century when the Ming imploded. Then again it’s about income equality and social consciousness education in public schools, something the Chinese won’t have in a few decades.