a new series where my stupid assumptions are inevitably smashed by the real world

Tokyo, japan

View from Roppongi Hills in Tokyo, Japan | Photo by Sadaro Seto

It’s fairly common to hear that the great cities of the world have “a little bit of something for everyone.” This would be true of Tokyo, if it were a city. No, technically it’s not1, but it acts like one, and I guarantee there’s a part of Tokyo for you where you’ll find yourself saying, “Ah, this is for me.”

Just like that, verbatim. Point is, whether you like big beautiful gardens, high-fashion shopping, flashing neon lights, or countless old, classic dive-bar-diner-pub-places2, Tokyo has it. As long as you’re a relatively savvy traveler (i.e. you can get from one place to another and sort-of read a map), you can expect to find it.

But first, a tangent

In case you’re new or unaware of the not-at-all subtle theme of this website, let me remind you of something about myself: I’m a pirate.

Aye, a pirate. Read this little snippet for a short explanation. Is this relevant? Maybe. Either way, allow me tell you something about pirates you possibly hadn’t fully realized: pirates make bad assumptions.

Big, terrible, horrible, bad assumptions. Usually, Captain Jack Sparrow is more-than enough of an example, but here’s a fun story from real life to prove my point. Shift your perspective approximately 2,000 years back, near 75 BC, where an up-and-coming Julius Caesar is a talented lawyer, living in Suburra, Rome3. Young Caesar, so ambitious, takes a ship from Rome to Rhodes where he intends to continue his academic studies. One bright, sunshine-y day4 along his journey, Young Caesar’s ship is boarded by a gang of Cilician pirates. They see that Young Caesar is a man of importance, and request 20 talents for the price of ransom. Young Caesar, rather than being worried or afraid or terrified or all three at once, simply laughs at their request, as though 20 talents is far under his worth. This was the not-too-terrible first of the pirates’ assumptions. He offers to pay 50 talents instead.

Maybe-unnecessary-but-really-fascinating side note: A talent is a unit of measurement, referring to the weight of a precious metal rather than indicating a specific amount of money. How heavy was a talent? That depends on where you were, and since we’re talking about Caesar, we’ll look at Roman talents—which on average weighed 32.3 kilograms, or 71 pounds. Wait, what? Yes, 71 pounds. Of gold, usually. That’s about the average weight of a Chesapeake Bay Retriever, and, by today’s gold value, equals a little over $1.3 million. So, in today’s terms, the pirates asked for $26 million in exchange for young Caesar, who rebutted by offering to pay $65 million. Finding this out gave me the same icky feeling as when I discovered that it is literally not worth Bill Gates’ time to bend over and pick up a $100 bill lying on the ground. ¥oung Cae$ar (as I’m now calling him) was no cheapskate.

Portrait of ¥oung Cae$ar.

Portrait of ¥oung Cae$ar

All but 3 of ¥oung Cae$ar’s men left the ship to retrieve the ransom money, leaving him nearly alone to tolerate the bloodthirsty pirates who were holding him hostage. However, ¥oung Cae$ar didn’t appear to hold a grudge—instead, he fraternized with the crew: telling stories, reciting poetry (scolding them if they did not understand the complexities of his “enlightened” writing), and all-around acting like one of their own. This led to the second, and far more terrible, of the pirates’ assumptions. They regarded ¥oung Cae$ar as a comrade by the time the ransom was paid, 38 days later.

Immediately after his release, ¥oung Cae$ar sailed to the nearest port, gathered a small fleet, and returned to the same spot he had been captured. Sure enough the pirates remained, under the awfully incorrect assumption that all was well in their pirate-y world. After all, ¥oung Cae$ar was their friend, a comrade, right?

Wrong. ¥oung Cae$ar captured almost all of his 38-day shipmates, and, after some bureaucratic disagreement, bypassed his superiors and made the executive decision to execute (by crucifixion) the whole lot.

Not-so-bad Assumptions

Ok, back on track. All of the nonsense above was to clarify that assumptions exist at varying levels of bad (which are, at the worst of times, fatal) and, since I’m a human being, I make them. You’re [probably5] a human being too, so hopefully the following will be semi-informative if you ever plan to visit Japan.

Let’s start light. These assumptions largely stem from the information and advice I received before I left, and are therefore based in some other person’s experience in Tokyo or the entirety of Japan:

1. Japan is so ridiculously clean you can see your reflection in the sidewalk.

Clean street view in Asakusa, Tokyo

Birds-eye view of a squeaky-clean street in Asakusa, Tokyo

At no point was I able to see my reflection in the sidewalk—I’m pretty certain there would need to be a substantial alteration to the physical makeup of concrete for this to be possible—however, nearly any surface with the ability to shine, well, shines. It’s a narcissist’s dreamland.

And, while I’m on shiny things, I need to recognize the immaculate cleanliness of vehicles in Tokyo. Almost every car looks new: new cars look new, somewhat-new-but-maybe-preowned cars look new, been-around-in-the-family-a-while cars look new, and the taxis are absolutely spotless (which is possibly why they’re so expensive). Watching an endless convoy of clean cars was initially awe-inspiring, until I was reminded that the last time I could say I washed my car6 was the last time it rained (also true if anyone asked me when the next wash would be). This is especially guilt-prompting since my car is in San Diego, where it almost never rains.

2. Like the exact opposite of Disneyland, trash receptacles are hidden treasures.

I was initially skeptical when I heard this, given the consistent reiteration of Not-so-bad Assumption 1. How can a city remain clean if there’s not convenient places to throw out your trash?

Answer: I have no idea. Trash cans, garbage bins, dumpsters, and other waste containers are like dirty diamonds in an otherwise very, very clean mine. You either A. need to expect to hold your trash for long periods of time or B. be a terrible human being and litter. And since I’ll take the time and money to deliver my trash to your home on a weekly basis if you decide to go with option B., I’d recommend the former.

*Pro tip: Most of the trash receptacles I have found are near vending machines and convenient stores, so if you just absolutely cannot hold your trash any longer, look near those first.

3. The Japanese are extremely polite.

This was another assumption I developed due to information from my local sources. So far, it’s held up, everyone I’ve encountered has been extremely polite. It would be unnerving, if it wasn’t somewhat flattering. I find it especially true whenever you’re a customer, where every shop/restaurant treats every patron like royalty: you’re greeted when you walk in, left alone if you don’t want or need help (but help is readily available if you do), bowed to (at?) frequently, and thanked as you leave.

And that’s just a small part. From a foreign perspective, Japanese culture is welcoming and non-confrontational. I have heard cases where individuals were a little sour towards foreigners, but even in these circumstances a scene is avoided and politesse prevails. Keep in mind, when politeness is given, it is also expected in return!

Pretty-bad Assumptions

Now from Not-so-bad to a little bit worse:

1. Tokyo is technologically savvy, so I’ll be able to use my card everywhere instead of cash.

Two things on this Pretty-bad Assumption. First, Tokyo is HUGE. The “Greater Tokyo Area” is approximately 5,200 square miles (13,500 square kilometers), which is 3.5% of Japan, larger than the entire state of Connecticut. So no, I should not have expected everywhere within this massive space is going to accept card.

Second, while Tokyo is famous for it’s position in the technological world, it is still a part of a country deeply routed in tradition. Many restaurants exist the same way they did many, many years ago—which means cash only.

My recommendation: don’t get caught without cash. ATM’s are the best way to withdraw money, and are English friendly in Tokyo. Also, anything less-than 1,000 yen exists in coin form, which makes it possible (and kind-of fun) to pay for a cheap meal with a coin worth $5 US.

2. I took Japanese 101, so I’ll definitely be better off than most English speakers.

Learning this was a Pretty-bad Assumption was a little bit of a shock. It’s not that I wasn’t unable to get around—I simply wasn’t in much better of a position than anyone else, including your kind-of ignorant friend who doesn’t know that Japanese and Korean are different languages.

To be clear, this is not the fault of my Japanese 101 instructor7. Japanese is a very difficult language (there’s 3 alphabets with about 2,000 characters), so knowing a few words and phrases, while nice, is not extremely useful. Knowing how to order coffee is fun, but not knowing what to do when prompted with “What size?” in Japanese and having to resort to English (or pointing) is less-fun.

In saying this, I don’t want to discourage anyone who plans on visiting Japan form learning a few words and phrases in Japanese. Just mentally prepare yourself to feel a bit lost every now and then (or always).

3. Starbucks in Japan will be just like Starbucks in America—a perfect place to get some work done!

In most cases, I dislike Starbucks and try to stay away from it. It has nothing to do with their coffee or service—I simply prefer a smaller local shop with it’s own individual flair to Starbucks’ cookie-cutter copies. But, when you’re alone in a foreign country still feeling a bit homesick and need Wi-Fi, suddenly it doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

My discovery: in Japan, Starbucks is more of a hangout place than a study hall. Most people were lounging in the store in twos or threes, talking, maybe working on something as a group with pen and paper, but I was the only person with my laptop out, which soon went back in my bag when I realized there was no public Wi-Fi.

Bad Assumptions

No more soft stuff—these are the worst of my worst:

1. Tokyo is a modern metropolis, so there won’t be that many signs of traditional Japanese culture.

The harmony of modernity and tradition in Tokyo

The harmony of modernity and tradition in Tokyo

Ha! Somehow I got this notion in my head that my visit to Tokyo would be like a trip to the future, whereas my soon-to-come visit to Kyoto would be a blast-to-the-past. Instead, Tokyo welcomed me with far more shrines and temples than I expected (1,479 shrines and 2,872 temples, to be exact).

What’s more, in the areas surrounding the larger temples, there are remnants of old Japanese streets, much like what you’ll see in traditional style paintings of old busy walkways. Expect all kinds of sweet/savory Tokyo treats.

2. Sushi, sushi everywhere! I’ll have sushi for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and it’s going to be so affordable.

Japanese cuisine consists of so much more than sushi. Of course, sushi is not difficult to find in Tokyo, but it’s hardly spilling into the streets like I expected. Walking past a series of restaurants, you’re far more likely to see several ramen, udon, gyudon, and curry spots before you find a sushi restaurant.

That said, the non-abundance of sushi was in no way disappointing. I expected sushi to be cheap and easy, but that’s simply not the reality, so I was forced try other foods, other very excellent, very delicious foods.

The takeaway

So, to leave you with a moral-of-the-story: drop your expectations. Do some research and be ready to encounter a unique culture, but don’t get any this-thing-better-be-this-way ideas stuck in your brain. If possible, find a local. My now-good friend, Sadi, revealed to me a great deal of fantastic places I wouldn’t have found on my own (his photography will be featured in the next post).

If you visit Tokyo, or anywhere in Japan, don’t get caught up in expectations. Embrace the ambiguity8.

Yours,

The Dread Pirate Trey


Footnotes

1. Tokyo is not a city. It’s a prefecture, which operates like a state, with several “special areas” (特別区) that are comparable to cities. However, from any perspective, Tokyo is a massive metropolitan area that, for general purposes, can be referred to as a city.

2. The dive bar-diner-pub-places I’m referring to are called Izakaya (居酒屋), where salty Japanese snack foods and alcohol are appropriately combined. And there’s like 5,789,342 of them in Tokyo alone.

3. Fun fact: Suburra was a crowded lower-class area in Rome, the kind-of-spot with a red-light district.

4. I don’t actually know if it was a sunny day. It could have been raining, I guess.

5. You could be a dog. 

6.  The family car, really. Don’t worry Trenton, it’s all yours (for now).

7. Kitagawa-Sensei was an excellent teacher, and her class was one of the most enjoyable courses I took during my collegiate career.

8. Consistent advice from my high school AP English teacher, Linda Breeden (a wonderful human and vibrant instructor).