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Learning Tokyo

Let me preface by saying I have been on this island for less than ten days.

That being said, I think I am beginning to get a feel for Tokyo. The best way I know how to evaluate that is to go right ahead and make wild, uneducated generalizations about this huge city, having only seen perhaps as much as one hundredth of it.

It is clean. Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ve all heard this. No, but really, Japan is clean. Upon entry in my apartment I was handed a friendly, non-threatening ten pages on garbage disposal here in the city. They tell me you have your bottles, plastic and otherwise, cardboard and larger, non-biodegradable items, and then you have food waste and burnables, paper and the like that can be safely burned for energy. There are two pick-ups weekly for each of the three categories.

I find myself taking pictures when I see graffiti and taking notice when I see trash on the street or gum in a urinal.

There are bicycles everywhere. Here in Tokyo they apparently hate sidewalks. Now, if you have been in Tokyo you may say I am being silly because there are certainly sidewalks in Tokyo. I would respond that you must have mistaken sidewalks for what I would consider bike paths. Let the frequent bell-ringing remind you, bicyclists own the sidewalk, as there are few street riders, as in Philly or New York, the cities I have grown up around and so with which I compare Tokyo (If you know tricks for avoiding getting run over by bicycles, please let me know).

And the only thing the city of Tokyo hates more than sidewalks are water fountains. Remember these words; I am on a mission to find a public water fountain or to at least get a reasonable answer as to why no public building has a single water fountain in this city. (If anyone reading has any information regarding all the apparently stolen water fountains in Tokyo, please let me know).

They say it’s safe, too. That, seemingly, is true. I tend to think it is shady math to compare crime statistics from Japan with the United States (which has more than double Japan’s population). But, even when you account for the population difference, Japan totals for every violent crime category put U.S. totals to shame, from robbery to rape to murder.

Just moments ago I found myself genuinely (and probably sadly) excited to hear an emergency siren for the first time here in Tokyo. It ended up being a fire engine. I don’t know how I feel about that, nor do I know how I feel about my initial excitement.

What I need to be more worried about, I suppose, are earthquakes. Yeah, whoa. I’m from freakin New Jersey. I was walking to class last week when the lights started to shake. I heard one mention of the word “earthquake” in English, and then the day resumed without any hesitation.

Apparently, this is entirely normal for “earthquake people.” Later I got a worried email from my father, a man from the east coast of the continental United States just like me. He read there had been a 4.8 magnitude earthquake in Tokyo and was wondering if I was alright. Please understand; the ground doesn’t shake in New Jersey.

I let him know I was fine and was secretly glad I wasn’t the only one worried about rocks slipping and cracking and other geologic factors I don’t quite understand.

Aside from the ‘big one’ happening during my studies here in Tokyo, my only other worry, I suppose, is getting lost like the confused jerk I am.

That is because, as I have mentioned previously, Tokyo is massive and senseless geographically, at least to me at this moment in time. (Anyone with secrets about understanding Tokyo geography let me know).

See, anyone who has ever been worried about getting lost in any of the historic east coast cities of the United States is just being silly. American cities on the east coast are basically big squares and numbered streets and avenues make it simpler still (Philadelphians know it, anyone who knows a thing about Manhattan knows it, even Boston, Washington D.C. and Baltimore flirt with sensible and simple city planning). If there is any such sense in Tokyo I don’t know about it yet.

And I am still trying to wrap my mind around this mass transit system of Tokyo. Previously, I have intoned that it is big, but… seriously, it’s big.

I have mentioned that Tokyo has a handful of train stations that have more than a million passengers daily. I have mentioned the 20 metro lines and 212 subway stations, the positively endless bus system and regional rail system, etc.

But, I haven’t even spoken to the system’s apparent efficiency. That may be because I really didn’t know about its efficiency until just last night. Again, I had heard the foreign praise of the system, but until you have your face plastered against subway Plexiglas because there is no room to move on a train at nearly midnight, you don’t know efficiency.

On Friday I went to a sake-tasting in Roppongi. Highlighted by a discussion of the cultural impact of the rice-based alcoholic drink by John Gauntner, apparently one of the world’s premiere specialists on sake, I got the chance to try seven types of ginjo (super premium) sake and hear some local musical talent.

A lovely little night, exploring a bit of Japanese culture, but from my first week of classes I was exhausted and eager to get home. When I walked into the train station I was surprised enough to find it bustling like a busy Tokyo street in midday. My surprise was only extended when I had to fight and push to fit into my train home. Note the imprint on my right foot from a woman’s high heel which could apparently only find comfort on my big toe because of the crowds. … Now that’s efficiency.

Jaa mata,
Christopher Wink

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