We Californians expect Japan to be strange, but it was strangely
familiar. At first glance, Tokyo seemed like Los Angeles. On
a hazy afternoon, our bus from Narita airport entered the city
from a high freeway overpass, and in every direction there were
short, grey office buildings hiding the land and sandwiching
the trees. Like Los Angeles, the city streets disappeared into
vast mesh of modern concrete and steel.
Descent into the City
As the bus descended into the city, differences gradually appeared.
The familiar fought against the strange. Well-known gas stations,
convenience stores, and fast food restaurants seemed different
at street level with their strange signs and equipment. AM-PM
minimarts had stacks of incredibly thick books, which I later
found out where comic books. Gas stations had pumps suspended
from above to save space. Buddhist temples and automobile showrooms
shared the same blocks.
Arriving at the Tokyo Prince Hotel, it seemed like another other
quality hotel. The room was small and pleasant enough with a
spectacular view of Tokyo Tower. There was a feeling of being
closed in, even from the seventh floor.
The next day, we went up to the observation deck of Tokyo Tower
to get a sense of vastness. I was surprised by the large patches
of green that covered much of the city. The Imperial Palace alone
is a huge island of green in the middle of the urban sprawl.
But for the rest, it was still buildings, buildings and more
buildings as far the eye could see. The Sumida River and Tokyo
Bay were barely noticeable.
Culture Shock in the Streets
Back down on the street level, the culture shock struck. Uniformed
students would leave there backpacks on the sidewalks unattended
while they shopped in a crowded Family Mart in the Ginza. They
seldom locked their bikes. Street vendors would leave merchandise
unattended. It was like crime did not exist. Every two blocks
there seemed to be a mini police station, known as a koban, attended
by a couple unarmed officers. This impression of a crime free
environment increased at night, when I saw people walking alone
everyone. Young and old, male and female, everyone thought nothing
of a midnight stroll through a park or trip through the burlesque
night club area of Shinjuku.
On these safe streets, the first problem for the foreign tourist
is getting around. Only the major streets have names and streets
sign are not common. Buildings have no numbers. The Japanese
seem to favor modest signs and discreet entrances. I often walked
right by my destination several times without seeing it. Fortunately
I knew enough Japanese to ask directions and understand answers.
Everyone was very anxious to help, even to the extent of drawing
little maps. Going anywhere was an adventure. It was never a
question of whether I had to ask directions, but how many times
I would need to ask to find a place.