And Finally: 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Japan
Presupposing you’ve not been there, of course. As a first-timer, these are some of the things that particularly surprised me.
A quarter of Japan lives in Tokyo. Of what we used to call the Big Four (London, New York, Paris and Tokyo, although we should probably revise that list to include at least two SE Asian cities) Tokyo is the only megacity – it dwarfs the others, going in every direction as far as the eye can see, without end
1. A quarter of Japan lives in Tokyo. Of what we used to call the Big Four (London, New York, Paris and Tokyo, although we should probably revise that list to include at least two SE Asian cities) Tokyo is the only megacity – it dwarfs the others, going in every direction as far as the eye can see, without end
2. It is a gigantic paradox; futuristic but old-fashioned, polite and ordered but manic, graceful and spare but insanely cluttered, largely crime-free but vaguely threatening, neon-lit but religious and ancient, a model of working capitalism that makes you sick from the sheer volume of selling, yet spiritual
3. It smokes. A lot. Smoking is not permitted (or at least heavily discouraged) outside in the street, but is allowed inside. Bars and restaurants are heavily ventilated but still smoky. Restaurants are tiny and all but invisible outside, but open like flowers inside.
4. There are many parks, quiet, manicured, stunningly cultured, designed around specific viewing points so that each angle yields an appealing view, with the trees cut to reveal lakes and sometimes even the moon – but most you have to pay to enter.
5. Presentation is everything, the holding of cards, the folding of paper, the positioning of food, the arrangement of the season’s flowers, the way things look.
6. There is no litter. People clean up after themselves. In cinemas when films end the foyer is full of people clearing away their debris to leave a spotless auditorium. There are no litter bins in the entire city.
7. It is very, very hard to find a bad meal anywhere (London Angus Steak Houses, take note). Pride in the plate is important. The cuisine is complex and demanding. There are rules. And sometimes, the country’s former isolationism reveals itself; there are restaurants where a ‘gaijin’ (foreigner) cannot go. We are quite simply invisible. We don’t exist.
8. It’s not about robots. For technical innovation now, you’d go to Korea. Rather, Japan has cherry-picked the best of Western ideas and the best of Eastern ones to meld something new. The hardest thing to grasp is the technique of vertical living; remembering to look up and read down in order to find things piled on top of each other.
9. It’s a place where the conservative work ethic works well. There’s zero tolerance on drugs, a high (but seemingly fairly benign) police presence, a group attitude of obedience. This means there’s a low level of attitude or pretention (ie it’s not Shoreditch). It has areas of creativity that knock London and NYC flat, but (big caveat) it’s really all about selling and pleasing the public.
10. It’s not hard as hard to figure out as you’d expect, although it is very alien to western thinking. This is because it’s gradually adding English translations to many signs. It’s addictive. If you’re as excited by big cities as I am, there’s an energy here that’s uniquely thrilling and weirdly, very romantic.