After a Day or So in Tokyo…

It’s hard getting used to the medical facemasks.

Particularly when they’re worn by a team of guys in goggles, gloves and scrubs — one cousin removed from HAZMAT — who board the plane when it arrives at Narita Airport.

They check for viruses, epidemics and inquire if anyone might have influenza. 

Immigration officials are masked, as are the quarantine officials encountered first.

Custodial staff at the airport, some flight attendants, renters of airport limousines, sellers of train tickets – the front line of possible infection. Many masks.

The masks are common sights on subways. All the masks are white with the exception of one black one – the Johnny Cash of viral protection.

Seems like there’s an untapped market here – designer facemasks. If compelled to wear them, wear them with style.

How about one with an open mouth shrieking? Or Mickey Mouse? Pokeman. Perhaps different shades to compliment different ensembles. There’s a huge opportunity for some bold entrepreneur.

There were even several masked passengers on the 11-hour flight from San Francisco.

Much of the sting was removed from the flight by a free upgrade to business class. Always hate hearing: “We’re sorry, economy is full so we’ve moved you to business class.” Also assisting was the artful Japanese food, Suntory whiskey, bottles of sake and a seat that converted into a bed.

While signs at the airport, train stations and subways are all in English, there’s still a feeling of alienness. In one of the world’s most homogeneous countries, it’s pretty clear who’s a local and who hails from elsewhere. 

Just like every other country, there are cute kids  — some laughing, some squirming, a few acting up. There are sassy wildly decked-out teenagers and world-weary workers. But there are differences.

The gentleman on the train from the airport reading his graphic novel from right to left, back to front to a foreign eye.

Driving is the English system, cause of two perilous encounters before realizing it. The norm is backing into a parking spot, often with some heat. Again, a couple object lessons were required. 

There’s cluster upon cluster of vending machines. In Shinjuku, the “Times Square” of Tokyo, one corner has a row of eight machines – four on one side and four more on the other. “Drink Corner” it says above them, appropriately enough.

Cigarettes, beer, tea, water, soft drinks, energy drinks, snacks. How underage kids are prevented from buying smokes is unclear.

On an island nation with 127 million citizens, it seems obvious that building up — not out —  is the strategy. In Ginza and Shinjuku — and elsewhere — are excruciatingly tall and narrow neon signs revealing whats on Floor 2, Floor 3, Floor 18 and so on. Depending on the part of town, it can be an intriguing mix of fine dining, drinking and debauchery — all in one convenient sky-rise.

While the skyscrapers are the obvious urban example of conserving space, it happens equally in rural areas – just differently.

A bare patch between buildings is a lush vegetable garden. The grass culvert beside train tracks is terraced.

It is glaring to see high-rises, balconies festooned with drying clothing, next to squat structures sporting the traditional ridged tile roofs of old Japan. Its equally startling to walk down broad avenues lined with sleek office buildings – often eight lanes, avenues worthy of Paris, Buenos Aires or D.C. — and then step off into serpentine lanes of tightly packed houses.

To restate the obvious: Tokyo is a big city.

It is made significantly bigger by lack of proficiency with the subway and rail systems. Questions of transit personnel put forward in English aren’t always translated well into Japanese.

As an ambassador for America, this is frustrating.

Perhaps Katie, after her 10 days here with a family, can atone for some of the linguistic sins committed by her father.

Heading to the airport to pick her up now.


Filed under: Trip to Tokyo


  1. Greg,

    My son, Chris, is a full time student at Temple University Tokyo and lives in the Shinjuku area. Had I known you were going there I’d have had him show you the “hot spots” in Tokyo and the Japanese nightlife that most foreign visitors miss.

    It’s a wonderful country and they really do appreciate America.

    Hope you have a great time!

    Comment by Jim Battin — 6.07.2009 @ 8:35 am

  2. Actually, they have a system now for buying cigarettes called Tasmo. Each vending machine requires an electronic card you store money on. No tasmo card? No cigarettes. Of course in order to get this card you need to prove your age. The days of having children buy smokes for dad are over. My foreign friend who is addicted to smoking had a heck of a time trying to get cigarettes after the tasmo system went into effect.

    Comment by elizabeth willett — 6.13.2009 @ 5:39 am

  3. During the influenza virus outbreak most of people prevents to travel from affected countries to avoid being contaminated.

    Comment by night binoculars — 11.23.2009 @ 7:57 pm

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