I'm here. I'm home. Tokyo is awesome. I don't really know where to start. The plane ride was uneventful and everything went pretty smoothly and on time. Several friends met me at Narita and we took the "Skyliner" into the city. Narita is quite far out of the city–in fact, it's not even part of Tokyo–so even on a super express train the trip took over an hour. At first the land was lots and lots of fields which were mostly invisible at night, what with rice not having streetlights and all. It took about fifteen minutes to enter anything remotely urban.
Once we were on the outskirts of the sprawl, though, I started to get excited. I started to see things that jogged my memory of what Japan is really like. It was more than just seeing the stores and signs that I had once known well, it's the whole jumbled vibe of Tokyo. I had forgotten the chaos and the closeness. Things really are just a different flavor here. It's like a meteor buried itself in the ground and unfurled into a city: stairs winding up the sides of buildings, roads unfolding and branching, capillaries pushing through the earth to become subways.
Tokyo doesn't go up as high as I expected. The tallest building in Toyko is the Midtown Tower in Akasaka and it's only 54 floors. The IDS is 57. This seems impossible to me but everything I've found on Google seems to support it. My best explanation for the comparatively short buildings is the necessity of designing them to withstand earthquakes.
But Tokyo makes up for its stature with density. Tokyo is absurdly dense. Each street is pretty much a canal through concrete buildings eight to ten stories tall or more. On each floor of each building on every street there is a bar, restaurant, salon, massage parlor, clothing store, English classroom, sex shop, karaoke parlor, electronics store, or cafe. Most of the signs are tiny, a little vertical rectangle advertising "Monsoon Cafe" or something, surrounded by dozens of similar signs. And this is the prime real estate: no matter how obscure the sign, at least it's on an actual street. If you turn off into an alley you'll find the same thing: more buildings. More tiny winding stairs. More bars/restaurants/etc on each floor. And then you turn down into an even smaller alley and suddenly you're wandering through tiny cramped corridors where you have to duck to avoid the ceiling and there are all these little sliding doorways with red curtains across them and the smell of noodles billowing out on a head of steam.
And that's just one block. I have been here just 24 hours at this point, so I still don't have this place figured out. In fact, I'll be lucky if I ever "figure out" Tokyo. But in a few months I should be able to comprehend it a little better. At the moment I just stare and giggle with glee.
My house is kind of a shithole. It's not the worst place in the world but I have some qualms. Security is lax; our front door is flimsy and seems to be mainly decorative. The same can be said for my own door and also the door to my veranda. Yes, I'm on the ground floor so I have a tiny little veranda surrounded by a flimsy wood fence higher than my head. There are seven people in the house and one shower for everyone. The toilet is in a separate room but there's only one of those as well, so we'll see how smoothly these things go in the morning. Among my friends in Tokyo the consensus is that I'm paying too much for what I'm getting, so the apartment search will begin promptly.
The neighborhood I'm living in, Shimokitazawa, is actually pretty cool. My immediate surroundings are a pretty sleepy residential neighborhood with a school across the road. In this kind of dense urban area, a residential neighborhood is an interesting thing. Everyone uses as much space as they can squeeze from their lot. Everything abuts everything else and usually there's not much more than a few inches between house and house. There are plants and fences everywhere for some semblance of privacy, and clutter is the rule. Since there was very little planning involved there is no kind of organized grid system. Things are crammed into any space that will fit them.
A few blocks from my house is where Shimo gets interesting. There are dozens of tiny streets that are mostly used by pedestrians, bikes and scooters. Lining these streets are more shops, restaurants and bars. The difference here is that everything is really small and quaint. The streets would barely accommodate a Hummer and the building styles are more old-fashioned than the downtown area. The entirety of many of these little restaurants would fit within the bar of, say, Temple in Minneapolis. Somehow they manage to cram like twenty seats and a kitchen into that space. It's a cozy neighborhood and I would be happy to live near it if I can find a new apartment somewhere in the area. It's also really convenient, just a few quick subway hops to my job.
Speaking of subways, Tokyo has a very cool new system for paying for subway use. When I was in Osaka it was all magnetic tickets: little orange rectangles with origin/destination information encoded on the black coated back. You fed the ticket through a slot and it would crunch through a bunch of conveyor belts and then pop out of a slot at the end of the gate. That system still exists in Tokyo as well, but they've also installed what seems to be RFID readers in every gate in the metro area: little glowing panels that read your "Suica" pass, or better yet–your cell phone. Suica passes are commuter cards that you them with yen. When you lay your wallet containint your Suica against the panel the gates open up and a little screen at the end of the gate tells you your balance as you walk out. Alternately you can use your cell phone as a Suica card, preloading it with cash and laying that against the panel. It's much quicker than mechanical ticket delivery systems and perfect for a rube like me. This way I don't have to sit at the ticket machine squinting at subway maps in Japanese and trying to find the price of a ticket to my destination. Instead I just enter with my Suica, somehow find my way to my destination, and exit with my Suica and the price is automatically calculated. A nice step to skip.
Of course, as soon as I get a cell phone–which will be as soon as humanly possible–I will be using that instead. Cell phones are not quite as insane as I had expected here, but there's no way they could have met my expectations unless they were actually implanted in skulls. There's nothing like the iPhone (yet)–but I'm not convinced the iPhone is the technical benchmark of cell phones. It may be the benchmark of cell phone user interfaces, but phones here could show it a few tricks, I think. In addition to using them as a subway pass by preloading cash, you can use them as credit cards at any store with a reader on it. So most convenient stores have a little glowing panel at the register that you lay your phone against to pay for your cans of coffee-flavored oxygen (yep). In addition to anything you can find in the US (internet, GPS, mp3 playback), here are some other common features of cellphones in Japan:
> Large, beautiful screens that swivel horizontally to become widescreens
> TV tuners
> Fingerprint-recognition locks so no one can use your phone
> Micro SD cards for storage
> Fairly advanced 3D graphics and games like Katamari
> Touch-pads for your thumb to move a mouse on the screen
> 5 megapixel cameras
> Video chat by a second camera facing the user
> Purty designs
In addition, lots of phones now have motion-sensing capabilities like the Wii remote. I'm not sure how this is useful except to play games, which of course they have in droves. I have seen a Katamari Damacy game on a phone that is controlled by tilting your remote. You can also use the motion-sensing capabilities–this is really really cool–to take panoramic pictures. Just turn on the panorama feature on your phone's camera, hold it up and turn in a circle. The camera will sense the turn and calculate the appropriate panoramic image based on that.
Gibson, eat your heart out.
Japanese, jet lag, and culture shock are all challenges that I am definitely dealing with at the moment. For instance, at the moment it's four a.m. and I'm continuing this email because I can't sleep any more. I conked out at nine last night, almost midsentence. My room is still a bit of a shambles because despite my best intentions to finally organize everything I didn't make it past 9 p.m. last night. Getting up early will no doubt become hard soon, but if that's as bad as jet lag gets I'm fine with it.
Japanese and culture shock are knottier issues, but I have faith that they will be overcome. I dealt with them when I was eighteen, so I can deal with them now, too. But my Japanese is rough, that's for sure. The knowledge is there somewhere, but it's hard to access. Even if I had less actual Japanese education when I was in Osaka, I had way more confidence. After a year there I would blithely sail into any situation and tackle it. Right now, though, I feel awkward and bumbling at times, which can be hard. Ordering food can be a challenge because even if I can order my shrimp burger and consomme-flavored fries all right, the server invariably has some question that I don't for the life of me understand. It sucks at times.
Of course, yesterday was pretty much my first day here. I'm writing all this with about twelve waking hours of experience under my belt, so I have a long way to go and I know that. Definitely an incentive to study hard. I can't pass judgment on the situation quite so soon. One hard month–that's what I've resigned myself to.