May 4, 2014

I had forgotten about the toilets.

When I started planning this first leg of my trip, I knew I wanted to see baseball games, revisit Akihabara, and tour some historical sites I missed in 2002. Even before I set foot on Japanese land, I visited the lavatory aboard the ANA Dreamliner and was greeted by an improbably high-tech fixture. Heated seats, dual bidets, and touchless sensors that both flush and close the lid are all standard equipment. Yet just as often, particularly at public places like parks and railway stations, there’s the other extreme: the pit toilet, a hole in the ground without even a seat over it. The clash between future and past manifests itself all over Japan, and in my second trip to Tokyo I witnessed several examples.

Everyone, I noticed, is in a suit. Even compared to famously fashionable New York and Milan, this is the most smartly-dressed city I’ve ever visited. It’s not just businessmen who are wearing 2- and 3-piece suits in warm, muggy weather – many high school students still sport a blazer with matching pants or skirt, all spotless and perfectly sized. Even laborers have amazingly clean, smart uniforms that suggest a level of pride in their work that I’m not used to in the U.S. I thought I was going to dress up by wearing a golf shirt and khakis to a dinner with a long-lost friend who now lives here, but that still put me well below the average.

Along with that traditional (by Western standards) style of school and work dress, some other Japanese standards seem charmingly retro. Those TV variety shows I watched endlessly in 2002, featuring a panel of “talents” who react to video clips, follow a format that fell out of fashion in the U.S. two generations ago. Although all the Tokyo neighborhoods I visited prohibited smoking on public streets, a rule that not even Seattle has enacted, some restaurants, arcades, and stadium areas still permit indoor cigarette use. There are also cigarette vending machines, although they now require a contactless tobacco passport (Taspo) to verify age. (In 2002, to prevent underage customers from buying tobacco, vending machine makers had put the coin slot higher than they thought a sub-20-year-old person could reach.) Web design is also far behind the times: the high concentration of mobile phones means that PC web sites feel 20 years out of date, with tiny text, cumbersome workflows, and limited functionality. Just the fact that I could book my hotels online set them apart from the crowd.

That’s not to say that I feel Tokyo is behind the times. This is the land of kaizen, where companies seek continuous improvements in efficiency. I dined at a couple of fast-food noodle restaurants that use a ticket system: customers buy a small paper or plastic coupon from a vending machine, then present the coupon to get served. It’s a brilliantly simple concept that I wish American places would implement. In addition, my hotel room, though tiny, still offered wireless Internet, a bathtub and shower (controlled by the same temperature knobs that the sink uses), the obligatory fancy toilet, satellite TV, storage for my suitcase, a remote-controlled air conditioner, a combination tea kettle and humidifier, and a trouser press, all in about 100 square feet. These efficiencies can contribute to prices that are amazingly low compared to expectations: my coupon meals cost between $3.50 and $6 and my hotel cost less than $70 a night including tax and daily breakfast.

The “Electric Town” of Akihabara, which I visited thrice in 2002, remains a mainstay of any nerd’s itinerary in Tokyo. Gadgets of all shapes are still on offer, but video games and anime fandom are still big moneymakers. The three-story Super Potato game store in Akihabara kept the memories of games past strong, though I had the constitution to leave without having spent my vacation budget on retro memorabilia. Arcades are still going strong with music games, skill claw games, and online card-based RPGs taking most of the real estate that I had seen dedicated to fighting games in 2002. This male-dominated culture has given rise to the “maid’s café,” a concept that was only getting started on my last visit. I didn’t visit any of them; the thought of paying big bucks for a young woman dressed as a French maid to wait on my every non-sexual need just seemed too creepy.

On this leg I also got to attend my first two Japanese baseball games. My friend Deanna is a huge Japanese pro baseball (NPB) fan against the stereotypes: she’s American, white, and female. Because Deanna is in the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters’ and Tokyo Yakult Swallows’ fan clubs, she could get outfield tickets for only about $10 a game. Outfield sections are home to the ouendan, a core group of fans who play horns and drums, wave huge flags, and lead the group in cheers and songs. At the Tokyo Dome, where the Fighters were the home team, Deanna helped me get into the front row. I sat about 3 feet from where an ouendan leader stands on a stool, blowing a whistle and screaming out orders to an entire section. There are handouts about songs to sing, but they don’t specify the tune and I couldn’t sight-read the kanji characters fast enough to keep time. Fortunately I could still keep the beat with my plastic noisemakers and chant the “Katto base!” and “Let’s go!” cheers for every player. I also followed along with the grounds crew’s bizarre “YMCA” ritual as best I could, earning me one of my three appearances on the Dome’s Jumbotron.

The outfield cheering sections are filled with supporters and are a greatly fun place to be. Seats are general admission so friends can find each other and sit together. Fans bring and share snacks, signs, and friends with the group. To my surprise, the cheering is extremely positive: the only jeers came when an umpire’s call went the wrong way. The home supporters are quiet while the visitors are batting and vice versa, only piping up when their pitcher is in trouble or is replaced. At the close of every inning, even when their team is losing, the ouendan leader thanks the fans for their support and wishes the team well, to the applause of the crowd. Being used to “X sucks” chants and sarcastic applause at American games, I’m really impressed by how gracious and supportive Japanese baseball fans are even as they’re screaming and singing their hearts out.

By contrast, most of the seats at the two NPB stadiums I visited were empty. The outfield sections and the infield GA seats, which I’m told are given to sponsors, were both full at the two midweek games I attended, but the full-price seats (about $40 each, more or less) were noticeably unpopular. At the cavernous Tokyo Dome, we could hear our cheers echo off thousands of empty seats some 400 feet away.

This is my first solo trip to Japan; most of my adventures have involved train trips by myself. People have been very friendly and supportive even as my Japanese language skills have deteriorated following 12 years of very light usage. Hotel and train station agents have patiently helped me navigate the processes and problems that have come up. On a side trip to Kamakura, a popular domestic tourism spot, one of the hundreds of kids at the Great Buddha statue offered me some of his snacks and a Japanese couple seated near me at a restaurant struck up a conversation in English about my trip. Tokyo is a very international city, but I’m already looking forward to seeing fewer American tourists during my brief stay in Hiroshima. Sometimes I found myself drawn to other white people in Tokyo, but I had to stop myself because (a) they probably aren’t much better informed than I am, (b) they’re trying to have a real Japanese cultural experience as well, and (c) just because they’re white doesn’t mean they speak fluent English. I’ve already met tourists from France, Mexico, Denmark, and Russia in the few days I’ve been here.

Onward to Hiroshima!

See all my photos from Tokyo on Flickr.