First Random Impressions of Japan

by Chris Kenton on March 10, 2008

I arrrived in Tokyo on Friday, and am only now having a moment to catch up. The flight was uneventful, but I had a scary experience in the first 5 minutes outside of customs. I stopped at an ATM to pick up cash, and the machine swallowed my card. I got a helpful little receipt saying my card was "damaged", and had a sudden sinking revelation of how blithely we place our fate in the hands of a small magnetic strip on a piece of plastic. I pounded a bunch of buttons labelled in Kanji, and after a few minutes, the machine miraculously spit out my card. A flood of despair followed by a flood of relief. I forgot how quickly those switches can be flipped when travelling in a foreign country.

I rode the train into Tokyo at dusk, and met up with SocialRep’s CFO at Ginza Station. We took the subway to his house, picked up his wife and son, and headed out by car for a weekend at their cabin in Gunma, two hours outside Tokyo–the equivalent of a cabin in Tahoe. They’ve had about the same amount of snow this year, a few meters of fresh powder in the last week alone.

My first day in Japan was spent snowboarding. A little odd, perhaps, but how can you turn down an invitation to hit the slopes in fresh powder? Skiing looks remarkably the same anywhere you go, with one notable acception…Img_0140

Japan is the only place I’ve ever seen a skiing bear. And man, that bear could shred the moguls.

Sunday afternoon we headed back to Tokyo, and I got first real sense for the scope of Tokyo as a city. In a word, it’s endless. Collossal. At least half of the two hour drive was spent driving through the city–not on surface streets stopping at lights, but on elevated freeways speeding endlessly through a maze of concrete and glass. For the first 10 or 15 minutes entering the city, it just seems big. But then you just keep going, mile after mile, and it becomes mind-numbing. And every street you look down on, masses of people on the sidewalks, in the intersections. 53 Million people in the greater Tokyo megalopolis.

Jon dropped me off at Meguro station, where I spent the afternoon with my SocialRep co-founder planning for meetings this week over Sushi and beer. I was a little disappointed that the only Fugu on the menu was Tempura style, but the Tuna was incredible. That evening I rode the trains out to my sister’s house in Fuchu, a quiet little suburb west of Shinjuku, where I’m staying for the week.

I won’t belabor more of the typical Western reflections on Tokyo. I’m sure you’ve heard them all before. What stood out to me on this trip was not the differences, but the similarities with the world we’ve all become used to. Tokyo today feels remarkably similar to New York and London, something I’m sure many will lament. The cars we drive, the clothes we wear, the food we eat, are largely all the same, even if the language isn’t the same. Yet. Tokyo is just much, much bigger. 

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

shawn smith March 10, 2008 at 4:31 am

I’m heading to Japan this fall. Too bad there probably won’t be snow when I get there! Looks pretty fun though. Scary about your card too. I know that’s happened to me in the states even and even then I get a little panic-ed.

Can’t wait to see Tokyo! How’s the sushi?

Chris March 10, 2008 at 7:43 am

Hi Shawn. I think the mountains would be worth a trip in the fall. Apparently the fall colors among the cedar trees are amazing.

Lesson with my card? I’ve gotten too much into the habit of not bringing a stash of cash, and relying instead on my ATM card, which typically gives a better exchange rate. It worked out for me this time, but next time I’ll pad my wallet a little bit more just in case.

Re: Sushi. It’s good. But I have to say, the quality of Sushi in the U.S. is pretty amazing too. If you’ve ever been Sushi Ran in Sausalito, that’s pretty world class. But then, you’ll never find horse meat, whale, and abalone on the menu in the US. Yum.

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