Issue #117 – “Tokyo Thrift” – October 15th, 2007

-One evening this August, I was riding the subway with my buddy Rob.  We were both drinking beer from open containers, and every word we spoke was met with a stare from the train’s other passengers.  Strange, yes.  But not when you consider we were in Tokyo at the time.  On my vacation to Japan this summer with Rob, we made a number of startling discoveries – such as that drinking in public places is legal, but seeing two white dudes speaking English is a sight so rare it drew celebrity-worthy gawks wherever we went.  By the end of our ten-day jaunt – covering Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and Nara – I could confidently say it was the best trip I have ever taken – outpacing even my previous mancations to Sydney and Rio de Janeiro.  Perhaps most surprising was that the trip didn’t even cost me the arm and a leg I thought it would.  Maybe I’m desensitized to outrageous prices from living in Manhattan and Los Angeles, or maybe Rob is just a cheap bastard who moderated my spending.  Either way, the trip was fast, furious, and surprisingly affordable.  This is my tale of Tokyo thrift.

-Every employee in Japan smiles.  They seem genuinely thrilled and honored to serve you – from waiters to shopkeepers to the female janitor cleaning the urinal next to mine while I pissed in Kyoto Station (they don’t even bother closing the bathroom).  Everyone is just so happy to see you.  One day, however, Rob and I went to a giant investment bank in Tokyo where a fan of mine had left us baseball tickets to pick up.  In the elevator, we noticed something very odd – no one was smiling.  Which just goes to show you that no matter where you are in the world, investment bankers are still fucking miserable.

-90% of chicks in Tokyo are thin, have perfect skin, dress well, and are hot.  The downside?  They don’t speak a lick of English.  In fact, I found that, in general, most Japanese people know only three English phrases: “Go left,” “Go right,” and “No, we don’t sell beer here.”  Since I wanted to get immersed in the culture (and hit on chicks), I learned a few Japanese phrases: “Hello,” “Excuse me,” “Thank you,” “Hideki Matsui,” “You are very pretty,” and of course, “I am an extremely famous comedian from Los Angeles.”  Sure, I exaggerated a bit on that last one, but I figured if anyone called me out on it, I could just pretend I was Rob – since no one could tell us apart, even though we look nothing alike.

-Japan is the cleanest, safest, most punctual country I have ever been to.  You know those black, gum-looking, filth spots covering the sidewalks and streets of every American city?  Didn’t see one of them in Japan.  In fact, I walked through Tokyo for ten hours in flip-flops and, at the end of the day, my feet were perfectly clean.  Even stranger, public garbage cans are almost impossible to find – so I have no idea where any of the garbage even goes.  No one locks their bikes up in Japan, and cops are even rarer than garbage cans – probably because there’s really nothing for them to do.  Maybe the best part of Japanese society is that all subways, trains, and buses come exactly to the SECOND that they’re scheduled to arrive – which makes getting wasted onboard all the more efficient.

-In the end, I think one reason the trip was so amazing was that I honestly believe I accomplished everything a human could possibly do in ten days in Japan.  From almost accidentally bidding on a giant tuna at the famous Tsukiji fish market auction, to violently booting in the Park Hyatt hotel (of “Lost in Translation” fame), to being attacked in the street by the free-roaming deer of Nara, to taking a shit at a Tokyo Giants game (no seat; just a hole), I had the experience of a lifetime – and filled an entire gig of memory on my camera in the process.  In fact, the only time I was disappointed by Japanese culture was at the very end of the trip.  I really didn’t want to leave but, of course, the train that would take me to the airport arrived exactly on time.

-As always, here are some random things I’ve been ruminating about lately…

-Common misconception: people in Japan have tiny, futuristic cell phones.  This is false.  Their cell phones are clunky and huge – like what we had in the ‘90s.  Of course, their phones do have live TV on them, so they’ve got us beat there.

-I always like to have the most up-to-date information when I travel, so I splurged for the new 2007 Fodor’s Japan guide, while the ever penny-pinching Rob toted around an old, well-worn Lonely Planet.  I’ll have to admit, though, occasionally he put me in my place.  At one point, as he was trying to navigate, I said, “Dude, you have no idea what you’re talking about; that guidebook is four years old!”  “Karo,” he replied calmly, “I’m not too worried.  This temple was built in 738 A.D.”

-Japan is famous for its comically over-literal Japanese-to-English translations that always seem to include a few too many words.  My three favorites were: “bus system line figure” (i.e. bus map), “postal savings cash service” (i.e. ATM), and “transaction advice” (i.e. receipt).  I also did my part to teach the Japanese people we befriended as many English slang phrases as possible – with varying results.  There are now a bunch of kids running around Tokyo telling their friends that a drunk American named “Kay-lo” taught them that throwing money in the air is called “makin’ it lain.”

-Another one of the amazing parts of the trip was just having conversations (or attempting to have conversations) with local twentysomethings.  Two guys that Rob and I met were named Yu and Yohei, pronounced “you” and “yo-hey,” respectively.  Just imagine trying to have a conversation with two people named “You” and “Yo-Hey.”  It was like the Japanese version of “Who’s on First?”

-And, finally, a superficial look at Japan reveals a country that is far superior to ours.  Their employees are friendly; ours give you a look of death if you even try to ask a question at the cell phone store.  Japan’s cities are clean; ours smell like hot garbage.  Japan is safe; our citizens buy guns at Wal-Mart.  Japan is efficient; our transportation schedules are more like loose guidelines than actual departure times.  But if you look closer, you’ll see that, in a way, Japanese society is royally fucked.  Everyone is totally repressed.  Men are subservient to their bosses.  Women are subservient to men.  Appearing honorable is paramount to expressing oneself.  The suicide rate is sky-high.  Is having a safe, clean, efficient country worth all that?  I think not.  Still, as they say, “When in Rome…”  Thus, while in Japan, I did my best to adhere to their traditions – though sometimes that merely served to expose me for the proud, narrow-minded American I am.  After asking a passing family to take a picture of Rob and me, the mother snapped the photo and, as is custom, I smiled, bowed slightly, and said, “Domo” (thank you).  As we walked away, the woman’s daughter, who must have been about six, ran up to me, tugged my shorts, scowled, and said in perfect English, “Um, excuse me – we’re Chinese, not Japanese.”  Fuck me.