Near the end of my last day at work before my trip, I had a lighthearted conversation with my boss while I was mildly scrambling to cross off everything on my to-do list. Everyone was asking if I was excited, and I would reply, “I dunno, it doesn’t feel real yet. It’ll probably feel real once I’m actually on the plane.”
“When you’re in Japan,” my boss said, “Toronto will seem like a dream.”
Of course, now that I’m no longer in Tokyo, the opposite is true once again. And just like one of those dreams where you wake up not really remembering the narrative (if there was even a coherent one), you’re left with strong impressions about the whole experience – random bits and pieces of things that stay with you long after everything else is gone.
So, in no particular order, here are a few things I will remember about Tokyo.
1. The cawing of crows.
Every day, early in the morning, we would hear the cawing: a croaky, creaky sound that echoes into the distance. The first time I heard it, while I was snuggled up in my futon, I was all, “What is that? Is it a goose?” (Being Canadian, I guess this was the first thing that came to mind as a large bird.) Joanna thought it was some old guy pretending to be a bird because it was so deep voiced. When we went to Ueno Park, we saw these crows in person, and were quite impressed at how large they are. They really are quite gigantic length-of-your-arm-and-then-some crows. On another day, I went for a walk on a side street in Gaienmae while Joanna was getting a haircut at a fancy salon, and two of these giant birds flew right overhead, and close enough for me to feel some wind from their wingbeats. It was pretty cool.
2. Toilets of the future.
(There is no picture for this :P)
I cannot express how spoiled I was by the ultra clean, well-stocked and awesome high-tech bathrooms that were prevalent throughout Tokyo, and I greatly miss them. I didn’t take any photos of them (BECAUSE. Also I’m sure you can easily find them on Google), and this is probably veering on the side of TMI anyways, but store and restaurant and place after place was full of amazing and amusing options – automatic toilet seat covers, bidets (in multiple directions!!), sound effects (flushing etc.) for covering up other … sounds … warm seats, and on and on. You hear “horror” stories about travellers dealing awkwardly with squat toilets all the time (amateurs! I grew up on manga, I know how it’s done), but in our experience there was only one restaurant we went where squat was the only option. And the only time I saw a “subpar” bathroom was when we were in Harajuku and had to use a public bathroom in Takeshita dori and even then it was like … an okay bathroom in Toronto’s Chinatown.
3. Tiny vehicles.
As Joanna can attest, particularly my first two days, I was fascinated by the trucks in Tokyo. When we wandered around Asakusa, I snapped photos of them just as I took photos of the ancient temple architecture. Trucks in Toronto (and I would assume in most North American/Western cities) are such big honking vehicles that seeing the tiny little trucks cruising the streets was so amusing to me. They remind me of baby farm animals, like calves and foals, with their oversized heads waiting for their little tiny bodies to grow up. I also noticed that any time a two-wheeled vehicle roared past at high speeds, it was never a motorcycle and always a delivery moped. (“OMG JOANNA I FEEL LIKE I’M IN AN ANIME”)
4. Face masks.
To be perfectly frank, my main memory of face masks is from back during the SARS outbreaks in 2002, when a lot of people (particularly Asians) started to wear it in Toronto. It was interesting to see so many in Tokyo wearing it as a standard item you’d just put on if you had a cold or a cough. It was especially interesting to see people who otherwise looked like juvenile delinquents or tough guys wearing them as well.
5. One Piece everywhere.
And I mean EVERYWHERE. If you were a One Piece fan you would truly be in heaven. Ads appeared on public transportation systems, clothing in fashion stores, necklaces in jewelry stores, gifts at onsen, even some restaurants … whether it was a high end luxury store or a 100 yen shop, ONE PIECE SOMETHING WAS THERE. Nothing else compared to the sheer infiltration of this series. And this was really the only series that enjoyed such prominence. (Other anime/manga series that are so prevalent at conventions in North America – Naruto comes to mind – were nowhere to be found outside of the places you would actually expect to see them, like bookstores and toystores.
6. Wonderland of Bakaries and Family Marts.
These are the lifesavers of my tummy and our wallets. On so many days food was either Family Mart (the ubiquitous 24/7 convenience/corner store chain alongside 7-11, Sunkis etc.) or “bakary”. Bakary was our name for Takayama Bakery and ??? Bakery (not actually called ???, but the toco map didn’t note its name and I never actually looked at the sign, and our receipts are long gone …), both no more than a brisk walk from our hostel and full of delicious, inventive Asian buns/breads, sandwiches, and fried yumminess (like giant takoyaki!). Combined with access to huge assortment of yoghurt flavours mixed with fruit, this resulted in breakfasts that were fast, cheap, and better than some sit-down restaurant meals I’ve had in Toronto. I LOVE YOU BAKARY AND FAMILY MART.
Side story: While in Ikebukuro, I spotted a Tiger and Bunny movie poster (next to a poster for the live-action Kenshin movie … yeah!), realized that Kotetsu/Wild Tiger is sponsored by Family Mart, and was all “PROUD SPONSOR OF MY MANY BREAKFASTS”. Joanna later pointed out that since I gave Family Mart money, I was actually sponsoring Family Mart. Therefore, Maiji should appear on Wild Tiger’s outfit. I am indeed a proud sponsor.
7. Visual delights and inspiration.
At the end of one day which included a visit to Ueno station, OIOI (Marui department store) and the surrounding area, I scribbled in my travel journal, and I quote: “SO SHINY DAMN YOU JAPAN WHY IS EVERYTHING SO CUTE WHY YOU SO GENIUS”*
*At least that is what I think I wrote. I can’t read my writing sometimes.
Much later on in the trip, particularly after visiting Shimokitazawa, Odaiba and Jiyugaoka, the feelings not only remained but were just as strong as ever.
To put it in slightly more eloquent terms … One of the strongest things I have a lingering impression of in Tokyo, and one that is probably no surprise to anyone even remotely interested in Japan, is just that overall appreciation for design, organization, presentation and theming that I don’t recall seeing so strongly and consistently anywhere else. And, as you’ll hopefully see in my photos and more photos to come, some of the cleverest and most accessible implementations of these things, new or old/modern or ancient: whether the plating of a dish, or the design of an object, or the way people dress and style themselves, to the arrangement of articles in a street, in a doorframe, in a restaurant or a small shop. And a sense of intention even in chaos, everywhere I looked. That’s Tokyo!