Change is the only constant.


Admittedly it has been 23 years since I was last in Tokyo and my memory is a little foggy, but I have noticed some changes since I was there last. I’m sure there are noticeable changes in ANY society is 23 years, but the ones I remember are things that were always curious or different or noteworthy to me, even back in the day.

Smoking: Tokyo used to be one big smoke pit. Not only was it legal to smoke everywhere (as I’m sure it was in many places in 1991), but it seemed like more people smoked. It is still legal to smoke outdoors but only in designated and gated-off smoking areas. There doesn’t seem to be any public indoor smoking areas that I saw, but I’m not completely ruling it out. There is still smoking allowed in many restaurants and it seems that many people will still smoke…even right under the non-smoking sign.

Booze in vending machines: Sadly this is no longer the case. Apparently the law was changed to help reduce underage drinking. I have fond memories of the various booze dispensing vending machines in my old neighbourhoods. Of particular note was the vodka machine. It sold only vodka (can’t remember if it was Russian or Japanese but I’m thinking Russian) in a veritable plethora of sizes ranging from airplane miniatures to a large plastic jug with a handle. It was quite affordable and eminently drinkable. There were also many machines that sold beer–brand specific or just any type of beer–and sake in jars, bottles, cans (heated or cold) and casks. Magnificently convenient though I do understand why they had to stop this practice. You can now buy alcohol at any convenience store or grocery store. The only form of ID is that you must tap a button on a touch screen acknowledging that you are at least 20 years old. I can’t help but wonder if the Japanese are too polite to question you…especially if you’re a foreigner.

Height: The overall average height of the Japanese people has risen significantly in my experience. Or else I’ve gotten shorter which is also a distinct possibility. Regardless, people are taller. When I was here last, I went to galleries and museums at least once a week. The crowds never bothered me as even if they were five people deep, I could always see over everyone’s head. No, I didn’t wear heels. I am still taller than the majority of women but not all the men anymore. I also saw some distinctly tall children. Very few overweight people though. I suspect this is because most people have to walk or bicycle every day. I’m finding my car and driving to be painful. I miss walking, even if it was 40 degrees.

English: There is MUCH more English spoken and written now. In the subway and on the trains, most signs are in English and on the major subway and JR lines, all the station announcements are also made in English. This makes life MUCH easier. There seem to be more English speakers around as well. Japanese students all study English beginning in high school but they are taught only to pass an exam and often by non-native speakers. They have impressive grammar skills but lack the ability to converse. This seems to still be the case as most of the people I had conversations with learned their English abroad.

Costs: I was in Japan just before the economy really and truly dumped. It was still the land of milk and honey. I made ridiculous amounts of money as a hostess ($500/night for about 4 hours and 45 minutes work) and as an English teacher ($75/hour up to 8 hours per day). No, I didn’t do anything morally suspect as a hostess unless you count bad karaoke–we weren’t allowed to drink, smoke, eat or cross our legs. If you were up for doing anything morally suspect you could make huge amounts of cash. I brought home enough money to pay for university AND to fund school in the south of France and travel around Europe the following summer. Things were expensive though and I saved money my last six months by working 6 days a week so I didn’t have time to spend anything. Food and lodging were more expensive in 1991 than I paid in summer 2014. Clothing was actually cheaper in many cases this time around as we were there during the sales. Some of the best stationery products in the world are significantly cheaper and heaps better than what we can get in Canada. It goes without saying that green tea–matcha powder which I pay $10 for a small package–is much cheaper. Even Haagen-Dazs ice cream is cheaper. I looked at a few real estate papers and it seems that house prices are down…still really expensive, but that old urban myth about crumpling up a US$100 bill as small as you can and dropping it on the floor in Ginza and having it represent the actual value of the tiny bit of space it covered seems to not be the case anymore. Despite all the news to the contrary, the economy on the surface is still functioning as the sheer number and variety of consumer goods available is mind-boggling.

Back in the land of Messy, Grumpy People.

Subway people

I know it’s a bit presumptuous to have reverse culture shock after being away for only 5 and a half weeks but I think you experience things differently when you are living somewhere as opposed to holidaying–i.e. you are staying in an apartment, cleaning it, taking out the garbage, grocery shopping and not just staying in a hotel. Though I would have really liked a pool….

Anyway, it’s been a bit weird being home. I’m sure most of it can be attributed to jet lag but there are some cultural differences that spring to mind. People here seem undisciplined and self-concerned compared to the inherent order of Japanese society. Also messy and grumpy. This isn’t really much of a surprise as culturally we are conditioned to value the individual before considering our impact on society as a whole; the Japanese are conditioned differently, pretty much the exact opposite. They are taught to maintain order, avoid chaos and keep the social order intact. Children are taught from an early age that “the nail that sticks up is hammered down” so the urge to conform is pretty basic. Wherever it comes from, it makes for a more orderly and streamlined society, though I have no idea what people are thinking, they are outwardly polite. People don’t push or shove, they don’t jump the queue, they rarely honk their horns, they wait patiently to board the escalator, they make way on the sidewalk…though I guess this behaviour is partially a survival tactic in a city as large as Tokyo, otherwise chaos and anarchy would reign.

People dress more formally. I saw women in Lululemon-like outfits three times. Two of them were jogging and the other looked like she was on the way home from yoga class–based on the fact that she was carrying a yoga mat. The majority of men wear suits and women wear skirts or dresses or dressy shorts. Many kids wear uniforms and if not, they have the cutest clothes ever. Even the dogs are groomed. I know some of the formality comes from living in a larger urban centre but there is a noticeable difference to North American sartorial habits. It’s almost as if you have a responsibility to not disturb the flow by dressing like a bum. Being odd or alternative is fine (Harajuku girls come to mind) as long as you’re tidy. I noticed a similar scenario in Paris and subsequently read a book by an American living in Paris, married to a Frenchman, who was told by her husband that running to the bakery to get croissants in her sweats with her hair in a ponytail was insulting to society in general. Perhaps they have a similar expectation in Japan? I’ll have to look into it…. Also keep in mind that most households wash their clothes in cold water and dry them on a rack–even our neighbour, whose house was worth approximately $4 million, had laundry hanging daily on the deck.

In shops and restaurants they greet every single person that walks through the door. Always. Irasshaimase (welcome). When you pay for things they bow. In any place except the convenience stores and the grocery store, they walk your purchase around the counter and hand it to you, bowing. In smaller shops they walk you to the door and bow as you leave. If it’s an expensive purchase they bow until you are out of sight. Yes, I actually saw this in the Issey Mikayke boutique in Omotesando (high-end shopping area). Four shop assistants bowed until the woman disappeared around the corner two blocks away. I’m not even kidding. In department stores, they bow before they leave the floor. Bus attendants at airports and hotels bow as the bus appears and again as it drives away. I know this sounds excessive, but it is quite charming and you don’t actually realize how peaceful it is to be away from angst and strife until you are back in it. This is the country that experienced no looting or violence in the aftermath of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear incident.

I went to the 7-11 on Friday night. I said ‘Konnichiwa‘ to the clerk, mostly because I was so tired and momentarily forgot that I was not in the neighbourhood 7-11 in Tokyo where I visited every day. He looked at me like I was a complete nutter. He didn’t bow when I left….

A good time was had by all.

Shinjuku Eisa Matsuri Festival_2 Shinjuku Eisa Matsuri Festival

I went to my first official festival in Tokyo today, the Shinjuku Eisa Matsuri Festival: “The Eisa Matsuri Festival originates in Okinawa as a ritual of kyu bon (old bon), to honour the spirits of ancestors and pray for the well-being of families and the prosperity of businesses. Teodori hand dancers, sanshin three-stringed instrument players, jutei singers, clown-like characters… form a procession and dance through town to the beat of taiko drums large and small. This nationally renowned traditional event from Okinawa came to Shinjuku, Tokyo and grew into a symbol of summer. This year marks the 12th holding of the festival.”

Japanese festivals are a great way to spend an afternoon…the dancing, the music (especially the drumming) and the crowds…oh the crowds. I totally don’t recommend festivals if you are in the least bit agoraphobic, actually, I’d avoid Tokyo in general as it’s pretty much always crowded. That being said, the crowds are pretty orderly. They have tons of staff (and police) to control the flow of people, to keep passageways free and to ensure everyone can see. If you want to get closer, you just ask and you will politely be invited to step on the other side of the rope which is there to keep an open throughway. When you consider the heat (‘feels like 41 degrees’), it’s actually amazing that there are no fights, no pushing, no bad behaviour of any sort. The homeless dudes (yes, there are homeless people here) drink their sake in the shade and the families just walk on by. There was even one little blond boy who lost his mum. He was just chatting away to a policeman and some festival organizers until his frantic mum found him. No panic, just follow the “lost-child plan” though I’m sure the fact that it was a non-Japanese speaking blond kid threw them for a bit of a loop.

Apparently this festival originates in Okinawa and I was lucky enough to happen to go to Isetan department store (LOVE Isetan) where their special event space on the 7th floor was a one-day market for Okinawan specialties–food, sake, clothing, pottery and all sorts of handicrafts. Now THAT was crowded, but again, everyone patiently waits their turn to be served. No pushing. Line-ups don’t seem to be any sort of deterrent here. I guess people get used to them. I’m still not though, can’t wait in a lineup of twelve people for snacks no matter how delicious they look. There’s always a 7-11 or two on the way home…

Eating: More complicated than I thought

I forgot how small everything is here. No storage. They sell eggs in packs of four. No oven. Sharing with six other people. One shelf, one storage basket and one shelf in the fridge. Two burners, one microwave, one toaster/grill/potentially explosive device. No rice cooker and the blender is broken. It seems that a lot of people (Japanese people not just the idiot foreigners) eat at 7-11 (the ‘conbini’= convenience store) and there’s no shame in that here. I’ve found Greek yogurt, green tea and English muffins as well as chopped pineapple and affordable grapefruit. Though last night we did got to 7-11…ramen noodles, seaweed chips and carrot ice cream. Going to get more organized today seeing as they do keep track of the girls’ measurements–the clothes are a lot smaller here. Most of the girls eat pretty well especially the older more experienced models; the young ones tend to choose pasta and toast in a pinch. Can’t say that I blame them…easy, cheap and recognizable comfort food. You can get awesome sushi at the supermarket though for about $4… Just takes a little organization. And the toaster/grill thing scares me. It is gas and doesn’t always light quickly… Anyone who knows me knows that I can’t even light the barbecue because I harbour a deep distrust of propane. So you can imagine me making toast…

Most excellent flavours

After last night’s culinary adventure with tomato ice cream, tonight I really walked on the wild side with carrot. Not bad… To be honest, they taste mostly like fruit with vegetable high notes. Karis got ripple chips flavoured with what I suspect was seaweed. Not surprising really since we are in Japan. Also got some great fast foods suggestions from friends…most were yucky and just BIG but I must say the Wendy’s Surf and Turf did sound mildly appealing. Sadly it was a promo item only 😦Carrot ice cream

Snapshot of My Day

A day in the life…first of all, toilets. I think I could possibly write a book about toilets here in Japan. At least a post on toilets, but I’ll get some more photos first. For now, the toilet seat cleaner. It’s a movement detecting device so no touching anything icky and all you do is insert your little wad of TP underneath, wait for the spray and wipe the seat. Though it is entirely possible that the Japanese do it after they finish as well. I may never know the truth about this. Secondly, vending machines. Everywhere. The one in the photo is literally outside my door. I could go in my pyjamas. There’s a recycling bin right beside it because you are sort of expected to drink on the spot and not wander about offending people by drinking in public. Sadly I have learned it is no longer possible to buy vodka or any other spirits from vending machines due to a crackdown on underage drinking…but I can get it at the 7-11 across the street 😉 (more…)