Arriving in Tokyo | Japan | Living in Mexico

Arriving in Tokyo

I'm experiencing one of the most jarring cultural shocks ever.

In our home country, Mexico, we're lucky if the airport van has seat belts and brakes. In Japan, the bus driver bows us onto the neat and clean bus, where we read a sign that says,  " It is not permitted to play the radio on the bus because it annoys the neighbors."

In Mexico, the highway from the airport is littered with plastic bottles and bloated animal carcasses. In Japan, the highway sound walls are festooned with blooming wisteria and lined with azaleas. Jean and I made a bet as to who would see the first piece of litter. We were unable to resolve it.

In Mexico, a watermelon costs $1. In a better grocery store in Japan, you can pay $80. Admittedly, the latter is a perfect, sublime watermelon intended to be given as a gift.

In Mexico, $5 will get us four tacos de cabeza, dripping with with grease, the meat for which was pried out of a roasted cow's head with a screwdriver. In Japan, $10 will get us ten pieces of sushi to go. In Japan, my arteries say "Thankyouthankyouthankyou."

In Mexico, I can buy a two-liter bottle of water for fifty cents. Jean bought a
half-liter bottle in the hotel here for four bucks. 16:1. But... I went to a local supermarket in the Ginza last night where I found a two-liter bottle for a buck. Yes, Japan can be expensive, but regular citizens pay far less than tourists at neighborhood restaurants and stores.

I am writing from Tokyo, where it is 4:30 PM on a bright, sunny day, but it is 2:30 AM John Wood Internal Time. We're here for a Smithsonian art tour of Tokyo and Kyoto. We flew here from Atlanta 'cause the fare was good. Took 13 hours. Narita Airport is pretty ugly, architectually, but we whisked through immigration and customs in no time at all, and within minutes we were on the bus to our hotel.

The only delay was a ten-minute wait for our luggage. A plasma sign over the carousel alternated messages in Japanese and English. The English version read, "Wait a little while." I like that: "Calm down. Your luggage will be here soon enough. Just wait a little while." In the US, when the baggage carousel starts up, you are warned by a klaxon that cleans your teeth. In Japan, the carousel tinkles at you. Ding-ding. Ding-ding.

Nobody jammed me for redcap service or a cab ride. No customs official angled for a bribe. Nobody pawed through my bags. 

The ride into Tokyo takes an hour and a half if there's no traffic. I walked toward a ground transportation counter with my bus chits in my hand. A young woman who spoke some English intercepted me, looked at my chits and sent me to the proper desk. A man gave me tickets in exchange for my chits and I walked out to station #17 where my bus was due to arrive in five minutes. I gave our luggage to a nice man at the curb, He gave me claim checks and instructed me to stand between two yellow lines painted on the pavement. The bus came, as promised, in
exactly five minutes. (The last time I took the van home from Querétaro, the driver had us wait in the van for an hour while he tried to sort out the latest extortionate fees newly imposed by the airport authorities.)

The dispatcher bowed to the bus driver who bowed back. Then we were on our way into the city. I had forgotten how much bowing there is in Japan. The helpful lady at the transportation desk bowed me coming and going. The dispatcher bowed me. The bus driver bowed me. So did a young woman in the lobby of the high rise where our hotel is located. She escorted us to hotel lobby on the 24th floor and, bowing, handed us off to another young lady who made sure we knew how to stand in line at the check-in counter. When she was sure we were OK, she bowed and excused herself to help someone else.  It's infectious. Already, I'm bowing all over the place, which only triggers even more bows in return. Plus, everyone
smiles at us, as if our very presence in their lives brings them great joy. They do it so convincingly that we buy it, unlike the insincere, "have a nice day" that we get from the checker at Target.

Our hotel room is tiny--the smallest we've stayed in during the last ten years of traveling. It contains two twin beds, a desk and desk chair, a mini-bar, a stupid lounging chair, and a couple of night stands. No dresser. No dining table. No couch. No easy chair for reading. No table lamps. All this, and the rack rate is $240.

But... It has a combo flat-screen TV-game player-computer with broadband internet. It has the best-ever temperature-controlled shower. It has a short, neck-deep tub that fills in about two minutes. It has a heated toilet seat with little nozzles that, at the push of a button, snake out underneath and squirt our bottoms right where it's needed (there's a front and a back button). It has a sumptuous breakfast buffet that retails for $20 per person, included in the room rate. It has a floor-to-ceiling window that looks out onto the Sumida River. 


View from our hotel room.

We open our door with one of those radio-operated key cards that we just sort of wave at our lock. Then, as we go in, we put the card in a holder mounted on the door jamb. This activates the lights in our room. When you leave, we take your card with us, and after a few seconds, the lights turn off, automatically saving energy, Doesn't turn off the toilet seat heater, though.

There's always room for improvement.

Speaking of saving energy, there's imprinted plastic cards that we leave on our bed if we
don't want our sheets changed. When we get back to our room, the beds have been made and the original cards have been replaced with ones that read, "You are so stylish. Thanks for helping save the earth." Stylish? This is an example of Engrish: Japanese English characterized by spelling and grammar errors, but which also contains weirdly worded "Hello Kitty"-type sentiments. I saw a woman with a shopping bag from a store called Flower with the legend: "May warm and sweet feelings linger / ower you densely on these / poety-like and pictures days."

Did I mention that the hotel has scores of bowers. They don't do anything for you. They just stand there and bow and say arigatou gozaimasu (thank you). OK. They do one thing. If they see you headed for the elevator, they run ahead of you and press the call button. When the door opens, they put their hand on it to hold it open, so the door won't accidentally close on you. Then, after you're inside, they bow, and maintain the bow until the doors close. Kind of unnerving, actually.

When I spent a week here 20 years ago, it was hard to find someone who spoke English. I learned that if I needed to ask directions, I was usually successful if I found a kid in a school uniform; they were all studying English. Today they're all grown up. Many are employed as waiters or hotel clerks or sales clerks or bowers. So it's much easier to get along here. Many road signs and other directional aids are written both in Chinese characters and in romanji, where Japanese syllables are spelled out in Roman letters. This is a huge help, to be able to pronounce the name of the street I am on.

English is the language of commerce, and just as in Mexico, people who want to get ahead learn it. There's some kind of test they can take which on passing, yields a certificate that gets them a better job. In a bookstore, I saw ten feet of shelves full of books with sample test questions. They take this English business seriously.