I hear people complain, but make no mistake, flying with long layovers is cool. I mean, as long as it’s long enough to get yourself out of the airport.
Before touching down in at Tokyo on our way to Jakarta, I confess I only knew a few basic, indispensable facts about the place—namely that it’s enormous, produces metric tons of animation for members of one-off clubs on college campuses, and is frequently plagued by attacks from a certain giantic radiation-lizard. Well, having trod through the city for a handful of hours, here are a few of the lesser-known facts about the place.
1. Tokyo’s toilet technology is years of us the US.
Why, oh why, did I not take a picture of the instruction manual for the hotel’s john? Adjustable temp heated seat, butt-shower of adjustable intensity and temperature, tradition bidet (likewise adjustable to taste), and all in package that appears to have been designed by NASA—just a few of the features that have led me to write to the US Council on Restroom Amenities, Plumbing Products, and Ergonomic Responsiveness (CRAPPER) about investing more funding in the infrastructure of our nation’s facilities.
2. Hello Kitty is huge here.
Oh wait, you already knew that. Never Mind. Oh, but she’s called Kitty-Chan around here.
3. Tokyo has a uniform.
Slacks and a button-up shirt open at the collar—that’s all I saw on the trains as the work day ended. For the ladies, it wasn’t so different—skirts may replace the slacks, or the blouse perhaps accented with a scarf or vest. But variety apparently isn’t an option, unless you’re under the age of twenty. In that case, the rules go something like this: no hair of natural color, shoes should be outlandish in nature, and if you don’t make people look twice at some part of your attire, you better go home and change. Oh, and costumes of TV and comic-book characters are encouraged.
4. No ad space is wasted—ever.
I’m not just talking about billboards and posters, I’m talking commercials splayed across handrails, bullhorns screeching across crowded intersections, flatscreens in trains scrolling through products and prices, and yes, billboards of all shapes, colors and sizes crammed into every space imaginable.
But I don’t think it’s only that: Tokyo ads have an in-your-face edge. Basically, if it doesn’t feature someone screaming in joy or smiling her happy head off, it doesn’t make it to public viewing. Energy oozes from every spot, splashes across the faces of commuters tiredly watching their feet and demurely shuffling by on the crowded subways. For a people worn out by their work, maybe they need some ads pumping stimulation to the senses.
5. The sushi ain’t tame.
Now I realize that Missouri isn’t exactly the sushi capital of the US, but all I’d tasted before were polite little rolls with cream cheese and tuna, cucumbers and avocado, tempura and bit of imitation crab. Smoked salmon is about the closest anyone gets to really raw. A Tokyo sushi house just doesn’t play by those rules. Here you find a couple chucks of sticky rice topped with raw slabs of fish and eel and urchin and seaweed—it’s a hundred different hues of cool, slick, raw flavor dripping into your tongue. I loved every mouthful.
I’ve never felt so much like a grizzly from the Discovery Channel, tearing into a salmon still flipping its crazy tail in my jaws. Well, if a grizzly would ever sit quietly on a stool with a glass of green tea and pick at its salmon with chopsticks, the metaphor would make a lot more sense. But as it is, I don’t know if I’ll ever taste the same full flavor in a fish that’s been put to the fire. I may have started an addiction.
6. A train for every person.
So here’s a look at just one of many train lines criss-crossing what Wikipedia names the largest metropolitan area of the world. Let’s just say that I’m glad my wife and I were meeting up with an old friend, a local Tokyo-ian, for this layover. But actually, as intimidating as the map may appear to a Midwesterner like me, the two of us successfully navigated solo from the airport to downtown to meet our guide, thanks to plenty of friendly passengers and ticketers willing to point at signs and babble across a language divide until we understood.
I was in New York for the first time a couple weeks ago, but I have to say that Tokyo beats the Big Apple, hands down, for public transportation. There must be a train line from every block to every block in the sprawling masses of urbania. Yes, if you love trains, and trains running precise as a metronome, come to Tokyo and take yourself on a rail tour.
An additional note on the trains: maybe it’s all perception, but plenty of people might quiver at the thought of cruising the railways of an unfamiliar city at midnight. Well, we did it in Tokyo without the slightest qualm—lots of classy people here.
7. My new favorite airline—ANA.
Don’t get me wrong, flying United across the Pacific was as pleasant a flight as I’d had in quite awhile—professional all the way. But All Nippon Airways definitely raised the stakes, as far as I’m concerned—the plane was clean, new, and roomy, the attendants smiled so constantly my own cheeks started to hurt, the in-flight meal was paella of surprising quality (immediately stealing my heart, I guess), and the issue of a lost bag and confusion over extra fees for too much luggage between two airlines on two different calendar dates—a major to-do on just about any other carrier—was handled with such sweetness and patience and attention to detail, that it was nothing more than a hiccup. Next time I fly, I’m not booking anything until I see if ANA is going anywhere close.
Oh Tokyo, Tokyo, city of anime and industry, raw fish and brainy trains, nonstop ads and world-class toilets, I can’t wait to come back. I know there’s more you’re waiting to show me.