This is the first article in a series that will use the Japanese RubyKaigi trip as the background – and a kind of excuse – for something else entirely that I’ll attempt to achieve, though I am not sure if I will be able to succeed.
If you don’t know me, my name is Fabio Makoto Akita. Fabio is my Brazilian first name. Makoto is my Japanese first name (considered a middle name in the Western world) and Akita is my family name. I am a 3rd generation Brazilian-Japanese born and raised in Brazil. Many people in Japan asked me about this, hence the explanation here.
Brazil is an Emerging and Developing Country, former Third World. Some assume that the Brazilian culture is very much similar to the US culture, being from the same Western world and having some of the same European roots. And that Japan has a very different culture from both, being from the Far East, the Orient.
Ruby is one of the few open source projects that I am aware of that has a strong US derived community and at the same time another strong Japanese one.
I was raised with a very strong Japanese foundation, but at the same time strongly influenced by the Brazilian culture that surrounds my Japanese family stronghold. I was shaped in a country that consumes and incorporates many aspects of the US culture although little to nothing of its inner philosophies.
Thus I’m in the fortunate position of having being raised in both Western and Eastern cultures at the same time. It’s usually not a big deal for most, even for other Japaneses raised outside of Japan. But at least for me, it means that I don’t take anything for granted. Explaining will be a difficult challenge, so just assume that decision-making is more difficult for people like me.
I’m not a professional in the field of Social Anthropology. Sometimes I’ll have to victimize myself relying on exaggerated Reductionism. Do take everything you read with a grain of salt. I won’t state “absolute” truths, just conclusions and explanations based on different points of view that are neither good or bad, just different. Try to refrain yourself to think in terms of “right” and “wrong” and instead try to understand the subject at hand.
What I’m asking is not trivial. Do not take anything for granted, assume that you’re always influenced from your own culture’s point of view. It necessarily carries lots of prejudices that will lead to biased conclusions, some of them known as common sense. Also do assume that I do understand the side-effects of tools such as reductionism, empiricism and plain old speculation. I’ll assume smart readers.
The challenge for this series and the goal I’ll pursue is to write in order for Brazilians, North Americans and Japaneses to understand, already with the assumption that each has its own outstanding culture.
(TL;DR) The Decision to Depart
As a Japanese myself, you can imagine that visiting my family’s country of origin for the first time carries a strong personal importance. At the same time I’m of the kind that enjoys travelling only when there’s an outstanding purpose for me to accomplish.
I would restrain my desire to visit Japan until I had some purpose. Back in 2007, I still didn’t have it. I could go and tell people there that “I intend to make contributions in the future to help the Brazilian Ruby community.”
Who cares anyway? The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Results will always overshadow any good intention. I knew it would take a few years but everything worthwhile takes time to accomplish.
Four years have passed since I decided to become a Ruby evangelist, and I finally had something to share, so I decided that it was time. But 2011 has been a very heavy year for me in terms of volume of work, in a positive way. Thus I only started preparing for RubyKaigi around the end of June. I casually sent an email on June, 22nd to Japan’s top Rails Evangelist, Akira Matsuda saying that I might go.
That kickstarted another thread with him and Japan’s Top Ruby Evangelist Shintaro Kakutani saying that one of the international speakers wouldn’t be able to go, so there would be an available 30min slot in one of the parallel tracks. That’s how I ended up as a speaker! This is a good example of Serendipity.
At that time I was buried in work so the visa process had to wait (yep, Brazilians need visas in several countries). My flight was booked to depart on July 12th, Tuesday, and I was only able to go to the Japanese Consulate on July 4th. If anything went wrong, I wouldn’t have any more time to retry. It only served visa requests on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and only from 9AM to 11AM. To make things even more exciting, I was anxiously waiting at the consulate’s office on the 4th and the last required document was hand-delivered to me at 10:55AM, at the 11th hour ! But I digress.
Attending RubyKaigi for the first time, being able to visit Japan for the first time and still be able to talk to the Japanese community felt just like a perfect wrap up for my personal journey. It was a long and very difficult one, but very worthwhile.
Four years since I’ve decided to evangelize Ruby, I knew what I wanted to talk about. It was named Personal Dilemma: How to work with Ruby in Brazil?. That would be on July 18th. The video recording of my session was already made available (thanks to the efficient RubyKaigi staff). Please take a look and give feedback, it always helps.
There was one mistake in the introduction of my talk, where I speak in Japanese. I meant to say “I’d like to thank Yukihiro Matsumoto and the Ruby Core, although they may not be here” but I actually said “… although maybe not necessary.” How come!? By making the mistake of saying “iranai” instead of “irarenai” or simply “inai” so I apologize for that, I hope people that understand Japanese can tell that it was a mistake from the context.
A Brazilian-Japanese Meets Japan
Before the heavier philosophy and cultural discussion that I want to attempt, let me start light with a simple report of my first visit to Japan.
I travelled to Japan on July 12th. Because Japan is 12 hours ahead of Brazil and because the total time of the travel would take more than 28 hours (11:30 hours from São Paulo, Brazil to Frankfurt, German; 6 hours waiting at Frankfurt; and finally another 11 hours to Narita, Japan), I would only arrive on July 14th.
The coincidence is that my birthday was on July 13th, which I basically spent at the airport of Frankfurt. I think that by now you all understand that I was receiving a very big birthday gift. Absolutely no complains, but as a bonus the flight from Frankfurt to Narita was pretty empty and I was actually the only passenger on my seat row! So I was able to have all 3 seats just for me. Very lucky, really appreciated that.
I landed at Narita International Airport at 3PM on July 14th. It is Winter here in Brazil but Summer in Japan, and it was a very nice, hot, sunny day at Narita. I am of the kind that never counts the chickens before they hatched. I was holding my breath since my company agreed to sponsor my trip and until I cleared the Immigration process and put my feet in Japanese soil, only then I was able to finally relax. So you can imagine how stressful were the days prior to my travel. Anything could go wrong: the visa could not have been approved – as I explained before -, I could have had trouble in the German Immigration, I could have had trouble in the Japanese Immigration. When too many uncontrollable variables can go wrong, you have to plan very carefully and never put your guard down until every risky step has been securely completed. Assuming nothing will go wrong, being overconfident, is what will lead you to fail. Murphy is one busy fellow that never ever rests, so can’t you.
Now, a big tip if you intend to visit Japan for the first time: do not get a taxi cab to Tokyo. Narita and Tokyo are around 1 hour apart. In Brazil, we have a very sad public transportation system, the Guarulhos International Airport in São Paulo is located in the city of Guarulhos, less than an hour from São Paulo City, so we usually get a taxi cab. But taxis are very expensive in Japan. My mistake of getting a cab from Narita to the neighborhood of Ikebukuro cost me more than 20,000 yen, more than USD 260! That is twice what I would pay in Brazil for a similar distance.
There is a much nicer solution: the Skyliner, a very fast, comfortable and reliable train line that can take you straight from the Airport Lobby directly to many main train stations in Tokyo, from where you can reach virtually anyplace in the city. And it will cost you 10 times less than the taxi. But, I was tired, I was thinking like a Brazilian, and totally ignored the possibility of the Airport having such an efficient train line a few meters away from the arrival gate.
(TL;DR) Adapting to Japan
I stayed at an inexpensive hotal called Oh-Edo at Toshima-ku in Ikebukuro. I was a bit surprised that my room was very small compared to Brazilian standards – a normal size by Japanese standards I think. Remember, real estate in Tokyo is expensive. More than that, the population density is overwhelming. As a comparison Tokyo has more than 32 million people in an area of 8,000 km2 and my home city of São Paulo has 18,8 million people in a similar area of 8,400 km2. So, twice the density in average!
July 14th was Thursday and I arrived at evening. After I dropped all my luggage and rested a bit, I decided to explore the Ikebukuro neighborhood. As an explanation for my background, I have spent several years of my childhood learning Japanese, absorbing the culture and even the pop culture. It was very common for the São Paulo Japanese community to import VHS tapes with several Japanese TV shows, dramas, movies, music show all recorded. So every week we would go to a rental store (there were a few well known in São Paulo in the 80’s and 90’s) and watch a few tapes through out the week. We had a gap of around a month, I think, which was the average time spent for ship delivery.
More than that, specially through the 90’s I was an avid manga and anime fan. So I also consumed several hundreds of volumes of manga written in Japanese and another hundreds of hours of animes. The sheer volume of content that I was able to consume in more than 10 years meant that I almost knew every aspect of Tokyo city and its surroundings without never been there. I knew all in theory, it was time to experience in practice. But it means that I had almost no impacts or shocks whatsoever. It was a process of validation of knowledge more than anything which I believe is different from what a non-Japanese person would feel being there.
While many people would think that this is a lot and I was probably very dedicated, this would not be true. Many Japanese from the 2nd or 3rd generation, raised around the 80’s and early 90’s would show the same behavior. I would even guess that I am under the average of Japanese knowledge if you compare many from my generation. There are several Brazilian-Japanese that can read, write and speak flawless college-level Japanese, which is not my case.
Another thing is that I have not been practicing my Japanese for several years now. My Kanji skills are bad, possibly remembering less than 300, which is less than what a 3rd grade student has to learn. To be able to read a newspaper, for example, one has to know at least 2,000 Kanjis. This means that I was able to behave, listen and speak properly – although with a flaky vocabulary at times – but I wasn’t able to read every sign in the streets and stores. Some key signs have English subtitles, making it a bit easier.
If I remember correctly, Tokyo was not a planned city, so there is no logical organization as the city grew organically. But some common features of the major neighborhoods is that there are some main large avenues surrounded by grids of very narrow streets (no sidewalks, barely large enough for one car). Buildings are very near to one another, giving a very compact feeling to city blocks. The buildings that are not in the main avenues are usually very narrow as well. This is the result of the sheer population density; it simply can’t waste any space at all. If you have the chance go visit the Odaiba neighborhood – unfortunately I didn’t have time to go there myself – but it is built over the sea, showing how the city is looking for ways to find more space where there are none.
Another thing that confuses foreigners is that in Western countries the address system usually has streets and avenues with names and each house or building with a number in a linear ascending order.
For example, the Oh-Edo Hotel is located at Tokyo-gun, Toshima-ku, Ikebukuro, 2-68-2. Sounds weird? Addresses in most parts of the Japan, on the other hand, are described from the name of the municipality (Tokyo-gun), the ward (Toshima-ku) than 3 numeric identifiers divided by district (2-choume), the city block (68-ban), the house number (2-go) which, by the way, is not in any particular recognizable order, most probably numbered by order of construction within the block.
So, without a map one can’t navigate through the city. So another tip is that I was fortunate enough to have printed the Google Map’s map of my hotel, which the taxi driver was able to use to come close to the hotel area and, even with this, we had to stop to ask for directions. So, do buy a City Guide with maps of the main regions so you won’t be completely lost! And every time you want to go to a new location, print a Google Maps’ map or ask someone to write a map in a piece of paper. You won’t be able to go blindly to new locations within the city trusting only in the Western logic of street names, linear numbers, crossings, etc.
The Ikebukuro area seems to be a very famous one, with several commercial blocks and a mix of convenience stores, restaurants, game centers, small night clubs, karaokes, a very busy area at night as well. Everything was at a comfortable walking distance from my hotel.
Transportation and Entertainment Efficiency
The primary way of transportation within Tokyo is definitely their super efficient railway system. According to Wikipedia there are an staggering amount of 882 interconnected rail stations in the Tokyo Metropolis, 282 of which are Subway stations. It is estimated some 20 million people use rail as their primary means of transport (not trips) in the metropolitan area daily. In comparison, the entire country of Germany, with the highest per-capita railway use in Europe, has 10 million daily train riders.
At São Paulo we only have 62 stations, where 3.6 million people ride daily. I am personally ashamed to present this aspect of my city to foreigner friends. The public transportation problem is nothing short of awful. For Brazilians, a railway system the size of the Japanese one is something only imaginable in science fiction. It was really overwhelming to enter the huge Ikebukuro station for the first time and feel lost, as a small lab rat in a maze looking for the exit.
The only thing that I knew was that from the Ikebukuro station I would be able to find the Yamanote Line, which goes to several landmark neighborhoods such as Akihabara and Shibuya, which I intended to visit on Friday, 15th. I didn’t locate them in the map at first glance, but talking to the station clerk (and this is where speaking Japanese is really helpful). Most Japanese understand a bit of English but they can’t speak in a very fluent or understandable way (more on that later). If I walked near the walls I would see the many many line maps and I would eventually find it but it was easier when he explained me that I should look for the JR Line. Instead of “Yamanote” which is the Line name, the signs pointed to the private company maintainer name, the “JR”, which is short for East Japan Railway Company. So whenever you see JR in the station signs, they refer to the Yamanote, which is a circular line that goes through several well known locations within the most busy area of Tokyo.
First, I went to Shibuya, which has several clothing stores, malls, restaurants. A good place for shopping. By the way, several of the main train stations have malls built over them, they definitely want you to consume. And another thing you will notice is the sheer volume of visual noise all over the buildings, several colorful and giant advertising outdoors spread out over the city making for a very colorful and busy landscape. This is similar to some busy places of New York City for example.
Contrast that to my home city of Sao Paulo, the 4th largest metropolis in the world. In 2007 our mayor banned all outdoor advertising. It was quite a successful programs, the publicity market complained but other than that people accepted it. Most will say that the city looks much cleaner now and I agree, though it’s a bit sad that it’s now quite greyish and boring at the same time. It doesn’t help that contrary to Tokyo we have few trees and green areas, limited to small patches of vegetation and a few parks in the city.
Speaking of which, it reminds me of the problem of urban pollution. We suffer a lot in Sao Paulo where we even have a common saying that “in Sao Paulo people can ‘see’ the air they breath”, quite literally true as you can see a yellowish heavier pollution layer in the horizon covering the city. I personally felt like the air in Tokyo was much cleaner than I’m used to. Probably not as good as in rural areas, but for a metropolis as big as Tokyo I think they are holding up pretty well.
Next step was Akihabara, or just “Akiba”. If you want electronics and geeky entertainment, that’s the place to go. It is a huge area filled with electronic stores, manga stores, several “maid cafes”. Remember to bring your passport for the duty free discounts.
As a curiosity, Japan has a large music industry. But the Japanese take the word “industry” quite literally in which they actually mass-produce idol singers. Head-hunting self-made talents is still done but it’s usually more difficult and takes longer. Instead, they will make market research, design a long term plan, make huge auditions to find potential young candidates that can be inserted into the process, raised, given special education, singing classes, dancing classes and turned into professional idols. Robots could almost replace them and no one would notice.
Wait a minute; they are actually going that path!
From Akiba you will find AKB48, one of the most radical “entertainment products” that I’ve seen this industry deliver. It’s a huge group with 48 idols divided into Teams A, K and B. They even have Trainee idols! The idea is to enable fans to have a closer contact with their idols in their own theater at Akiba, therefore having many idols help them to better distribute the schedule. The idea seems to have fans more engaged in the future of the group, almost like a next generation reality show, one that has been going for more than 6 years already.
AKB48 is in the Guinness World Records as the largest pop group ever – obviously. That’s an idea that I can understand, from an Asian context, but I can’t see it delivered overseas outside of Asia (Korea, China have similar “tastes” for pop idols). It’s so radical that they even created a computer generated idol mixing features of the body and face of some of the real idols from the group. The fans were shocked when she was identified as not being a real person! Go figure!
Watch the TV commercial featuring the new idol:
Were you able to identify which one was the CG model? Now take a look at the making of:
Back to the Tour
I have digressed a bit, so back to the report. Friday ended, not Saturday marks the beginning of RubyKaigi, which would take place at Nerima Culture Center. Looking the maps I figured out that I could take the Seibu-line from Ikebukuro station directly to Nerima, so there I went. A less than 15 min ride in the train left me right across the street from the conference center, piece of cake.
I will leave the RubyKaigi specific report for the next article, so I will keep talking about my city tour for now.
So, while I was attending the conference I didn’t visit any other places. One curiosity was that on Monday 18th, the day I would deliver my talk, I went to the Ikebukuro station to get the Seibu line train. I was kind of tired because I was working on the final tweaks for my slides at morning, so I didn’t realize that the train was taking a long time to get to the destination. It was supposed to be a 15 min ride.
Then, I was looking out the window and realized that the city was getting less and less crowded, fewer buildings, less people. I was heading to the suburbs! I jumped off at the next station, at Musashi-sakai I guess. Quiet place, felt almost like countryside. I looked more carefully at the line map and realized that there were at least 6 different train routes served by the same Seibu line! So I got another one to go back to Nerima. That whole trip took me more than an hour, but it was worth the learning. So be very careful: every line can have trains go around different routes, they are all named properly, it’s just a matter of paying attention.
By the way, for foreigners it helps a lot that inside the train, there’s always recordings saying what’s the name of the next station, what other lines cross the same station in case you need to change lines, which side of the train will open for exit, and they say it in both Japanese and English. Also, most maps have Japanese and English written versions.
Even the ticket selling machines have options for English menus and options. You just have to look at the map and find your station. There will be number codes next to each station name. That’s the price of the ticket. Then in the ticket machine you touch the button with that price and insert the coins or bills. It’s usually around the 130-190 yen range for most stations.
If you decide to change lines in the middle of the route to go to another station, there will be machines to adjust fares. Save the ticket after you enter the train, you will need it to exit in the other station or to adjust the price or you can talk to the clear next to the exit passages to adjust fares. Japanese citizens usually have rechargeable smart cards called Suica and others such as Pasmo and Toica. Japan has dozens of different smart card systems that you will see written in many places inside the stations, trains, buses.
Last Few Days
The next day after the conference I visited Ueno an area that is neighbor to Akihabara. Shintaro Kakutani-san was very kind to let me visit his workplace at Eiwa System Management. After that Akira-san guided me to the Tokyo branch of NaCl, the consulting company where Matz himself work. Finally, I went to Hatsudai, near the Shinjuku area, to meet Alencar Koga, a Brazilian-Japanese living and working in Japan for almost 20 years. He guided me through MTI the company he works for and that created famous mobile products such as Music.jp, Japan’s second largest music distributor. I’ll talk a bit more about them in my next article.
The Hatsudai station is particularly interesting. I think it’s not within the major stations such as Shinjuku, Ueno or Ikebukuro, but it has a great architecture, very large, and it is next to the Tokyo Opera City Tower that you can access straight up from the station and which serves several business companies such as MTI and even the Japanese Apple branch.
Next day, Wednesday 20th, would be my last day in Tokyo. I wanted to visit a few key places so I headed straight to Asakusa. Careful not to mistake it for “Akasuka”. I wanted to see the famous Kiryuu-zan Sensou-ji, the oldest temple in Tokyo. You know me for not being a religious person, but it was not the reason I wanted to go there. I respect history, specially my ancestor’s history. It was a very powerful and emotional moment for me to see the temple with my own eyes and just stay there, standing still.
There was also this large red box where people go to throw in some coins and worship or make requests. I did throw a few coins but then the only thing that came to my mind was not a request, but a few words of appreciation and acknowledgment, that’s all.
It was a cloudy and rainy day but it didn’t annoy me at all because it actually added up to my feeling of relaxation and calm, especially in the temple. After that I headed to Ginza, which is said to be one of the most luxurious places in Tokyo, specially if you have lots of money to spend. It is akin to New York’s 5th Avenue. As any other district in Tokyo, there were a few large avenues surrounding the same compact blocks behind with the same very narrow streets.
Unfortunally I didn’t have enough time to visit it thoroughly. So I just walked through one of the main avenues taking pictures. It’s very overwhelming. Each big brand has its own big façade in a big building – I don’t know if they own the entire building or only the facade – but you will be able to recognize several of them, such as Tiffany, Prada, Salvatore Ferragamo, Abercrombie and more. If you intend to visit Tokyo, reserve an entire day just for Ginza, it’s well worth it. Actually, the ideal trip would be to reserve at least half a day for each major district in Tokyo. That can easily fill up an entire month of vacation there.
I couldn’t stay more at Ginza because it was almost dusk, and with a cloudy weather it would get dark fast. I wanted to visit the Tokyo Tower before that so I could take at least a few visible pictures.
I had a Tokyo City Guide book with me at all times which was very helpful. But the guide did have one mistake: it said that in order to visit Tokyo Tower I should go to Roppongi. But asking the station clerks they said that I actually had to go to Kamiyacho station! Thinking about it, I think the rationale of the book authors was that Kamiyacho seems to be an small area not worth having a whole chapter in the book. So the next important area is Roppongi, then they just added Tokyo Tower there. Again, that’s why you should not rely on just one foreigner source of information. Asking the local people is always the best and Japanese are always very helpful and kind.
When I arrived at Kamiyacho through the subway, it was raining, it was also getting dark fast, but I was able to arrive to Tokyo Tower very fast, walking just half a kilometer. Now, the tower is beautiful. You pay a small fare to be able to get in and ride the elevator to the observatory station, 135m up. The Tower itself has 333m, making it 10m higher than the Eiffel Tower. I visited the 1st and 2nd observatory floors but unfortunally I didn’t have much time to visit the top Special Observatory. But it was good enough; it was much more interesting than I thought it would be. The observatory is pretty large; they have gift stores and a very cozy cafeteria in the 1st floor from where you can take a cup of coffee while admiring Tokyo’s aerial view through the large windows.
In the 1st floor there’s this Club 333 where all Wednesdays and Thursdays they will have small shows. I was able to see a live music show by indie singers where they made several cover performances such as Nate James’ Impossible song.
At the base of the tower there is this three store building with another cafeteria, even a McDonald’s, and several souvenir shops (Japanese love souvenirs, which we call “omiyage” and “meibutsu”).
There were even a small gallery with an ancient Tokyo theme, having paintings by Tomonori Kogawa. If you think those paintings remind you of anime, you’re right as he worked as an animator for famous studio Sunrise in the 80’s. There were several items and explanation texts as well. Many foreigners will probably recognize a Geisha but not many will realize that even Geishas obeyed a very rigid hierarchy system! Respect for hierarchy is very serious up to this day and it’s ingrained within the Japanese culture.
As I’ve said, I am an avid Manga fan. So the Tokyo Tower was the background for several of my favorite titles, such as Clamp’s Rayearth, so more than a tourist landmark that provides good pictures, I like to think of it as having a more personal meaning, as it showed up many times in my youth.
Small Consideration about Sushi
Finally, I left Kamiyacho and headed to Roppongi. There I took a few pictures of the famous Roppongi Hills, a very ambitious piece of engineering. A huge complex for offices, shops, theaters, and more. I only saw its façade, and again didn’t have time for a full tour inside. But it is surely a huge complex, where the subway station has corridors going straight inside the complex.
At Roppongi I met Koga-san again for dinner. We casually found a sushi restaurant and as I didn’t have sushi yet, I thought it would be a good opportunity to try. Koga-san recommends going to Tsukigi where you can find the “Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market”. This is the place to find the most fresh fish in Tokyo, thus it is also the place you will probably find the finest sushi and sashimi available. That said, it was already late at night so I decided to stay at Roppongi where I was certain that the “average” sushi would be much better than the finest sushi in Brazil. And I was right!
Sushi and sashimi in most places of the Western world (North and South America), are just crap. Western people underestimate sushi altogether. It is a simple delicacy that takes years to master, exactly because it is so simple. Simplicity means that you can’t fake it: it’s either well done or a disaster. And I can only find bad sushi in America, no matter where I go. There are very few good ones, for sure, but rare. So it was an absolute pleasure for me to taste such a good sushi. It was the very first time I tasted “real” sushi. You must order “Oh-Toro” the fatty cut of the tuna fish and the most delicious ingredient in sushi. A good Oh-Toro literally “dissolves” in your mouth. Absolutely delicious. Can’t find enough words to describe it, you have to go taste it to understand.
Pro tips: Never ever fill up a dish with lots of shoyu (soy-sauce). It’s an absolute sin to dunk the rice part entirely into it. You’re supposed to taste the fish and the rice, not the soy. You only need a small touch of shoyu in the fish part. So you have to turn the sushi upside down when touching the soy dish. That’s very difficult to do with ohashi (chopsticks), but nigiri-sushi was meant to be hold with your fingers, this is the correct way of eating sushi. And good sushi is made to be eaten in just one bite. Put it all in your mouth! You also don’t need extra wasabi in the shoyu dish as the sushi chef is supposed to put the correct amount between the fish and rice roll. And this rice roll is supposed to be small, solid and not break apart easily. And no, cream cheese and all those “fancy” ingredients are not real sushi.
Now you know that you’ve been eating crap sushi and in the wrong manner. I always get very frustrated every time I hang out with friends to a sushi restaurant, so I am just expressing my many years of frustration in those last few paragraphs. It had to be said.
(TL;DR) Some Personal Aspects I Like
Anyway, Tuesday and Wednesday were cloudy and rainy days, but that was good because the weather was so hot. Friday night, 15th, I experienced my very first earthquake shake. I was reading a magazine in my bed and I felt a slow movement, at first I thought that maybe I was fainting but a few seconds later I saw that the walls and ceiling were actually moving. It was a very weak earthquake that lasted for only a few seconds. Only enough time for to me sit down in the bed and wonder if I should go underneath the table. While I was trying to figure out what to do, it stopped. It was quite fun, I never thought I would be able to feel a real earthquake. Brazil has no natural offenses such as earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis or anything like this.
Then, on the early morning of Wednesday 20th, they said there was a Typhoon striking Japan as well, but I overslept and by the time I woke up it has gone already. You have to reflect on this: Japan is a very small country, with less than 380,000 km2. Mato Grosso, the 6th largest state of the 27 in Brazil, has roughly 360,000 km2. My state of Sao Paulo has 248,000 km2.
Worse than that, 10% of the active volcanoes in the world are located in Japan. According to Wikipedia there are at least 1,500 earthquakes registered every year. There are minor tremors happening everyday somewhere in the country.
A reflection that always comes to my mind is that natural hazards such as that make a population much stronger and disaster tolerant. Because of so many natural disasters in Japan such as earthquakes, typhoons, tsunamis and even the so discussed Fukushima disaster recently, it really makes for a very strong population. For example, because of the so frequent earthquakes, Japan is the leading researcher in prediction of earthquakes and on advanced civil engineering that allows hem to build skyscrapers that can literally shake several meters without crashing down.
Human beings will always attribute a higher value to things they don’t have. So for a Japanese, living in a natural hazard free place, with large open areas with vegetation and forests, places to plant fruits and vegetables, where the weather is warm and cozy, is nothing more than a far dream.
For Brazilians, on the other hand, this is the reality. And we take it for granted exactly because we have no idea what natural hazards of those magnitudes are. The same thing can be said for war. I am being over simplistic, I know, but peace is usually highly valued for those that experienced times of violent warfare. People that were born and raised in peaceful times will not give it enough value.
“Value” is given to stuff that are rare. If you have too much of anything, you don’t feel like it’s worth much because you take it for granted. Something to reflect about, but again, I digress.
From the photos you can see that Japanese streets are very clean and organized. Even the inside and hidden streets are very clean. The main avenues rarely have bubble-gum marks in the asphalt, indicating that people don’t spit them in public. You shouldn’t even smoke in public places, so you won’t see cigarettes butts in the streets. There are usually reserved areas near the stations called “smoking areas”. You can only smoke at those areas or within shops or special closed smoking rooms with proper ventilation and air filters, and this allows for a very clean landscape.
There was this one thing that I knew Japanese had and that I know you will laugh when I tell you, but keep reading. It’s the Washlets ! It is a special toilet seat. In the Western world we clean ourselves using our hands with toilet paper and throw it in the toiler trashcan. Think about this: we bring our hands very close to very dirty material. We dispose that dirty paper in the trashcan where it can accumulate for a few days in the bathroom. It’s not exactly a heath hazard, but it just feels dirty. So this special seat will spill a jet of warm water directly at your anus, cleaning it up before you get toilet paper to dry it. I don’t know about you, but it feels much cleaner that way. Virtually every modern Japanese building and house will have this Washlet available.
If you’re a foreigner be aware of those. It is not unheard of foreigners pressing the water spray button without knowing about it and getting surprised by this warm strong jet of water all over him. I don’t know if it’s a common feature of all of them, but they also constantly flush it automatically. As I mentioned, real estate in Japan is ridiculously expensive exactly because there is so little land to share. So normal Japanese houses are also ridiculously small, narrow. Just so you have an idea, larger districts such as Ikebukuro, Shibuya have capsule hotels. Instead of you renting a room in a hotel to spend the night, you can rent a sleeping capsule, which you can rent to spend the night in case you missed the last train back. It is very small, you can only stay laid down inside.
It is also not rare for a small residence to not have a bathroom at all, so the building will have a shared bathroom. And you can only have a shower at public bath houses (sentou) nearby. But as you may think, this is not considered something “low” or only for the “poor”. It is a quite normal thing. As I will repeat many times, do not judge someone elses culture by your own standards.
And this is not to say that every Japanese has perfect cleaning habits, they don’t. Public areas can even be cleaner than their own houses. The reasoning that I speculate is that if you have a small house, you’re single, and you usually don’t take any guests inside, you will probably not clean it up well enough. On the other hand, the façade of your house is visible to anyone and you don’t want to be perceived as someone with poor cleaning habits, so you will keep that part cleaner.
(Cultural note: this article is huge, I know, but I can bet money that the only thing some of my fellow Brazilians will comment is this toilet section, such is the nonsense of the Latino-way).
Japanese people are very aware of their public image and they will keep it always clean, both physically clean, but also in terms of politeness and formality. Japanese people are much more formal than Western people, even in small circles of close friends. They won’t assume a higher level of liberty between each other unless explicitly said so.
When I visited MTI with Koga-san, we went to a nearby Pub. There we found some of his co-workers. So, Koga-san bought 2 bottles of beer for everybody. Even though they know each other and are considered colleagues or friends, because Koga-san has a respectable position in the company, they made a lot of ceremony and thanked him a lot, more than we usually see within western people groups. Another curiosity, in bars with friends, you usually don’t fill up your own glass. It’s the duty of the person next to you to keep your glass full. And this is not to suck up, it’s just very normal daily formality. Japanese have several social protocols that they follow automatically, this being one of them.
Finally, two last things I have to report. I never felt safer in my entire life. I walked through many places all around, and I never had the feeling that I could be robbed. I could open my wallet, count money while walking, use my video camera, my phone and I never thought of anything bad happening, such is the security level in one of the largest metropolis in the world. I would never do half of what I did here in Sao Paulo, nor in New York City. I would always be looking over my shoulders, I would be careful while looking into my phone or taking pictures. This is a huge difference. I think only Canadians and some North European citizens can assert the same.
Then, there is the transportation system that I said so much about. There is one more thing: they are punctual. And I don’t mean, “more or less”, or “sometimes”, they are “perfectly punctual”. If the train is scheduled to arrive in the station at 7:37AM it will arrive at precisely 7:37AM – otherwise what would be the point of not rounding up the numbers? The margin of error is around 1 minute. I didn’t see any train getting late. Japanese people have a high pride for punctuality, and it shows. This is one of the very few places in the world where you will witness a system that actually works as promised.
If you add the relaxing feeling of security and the systems and processes that work perfectly all over the city, it physically makes you less stressed than in my city of Sao Paulo. Here I have to be constantly worried about security and I become very stressed because of traffic, late appointments and systems and services that don’t work. It’s difficult for people that don’t live in big metropolis to understand how big a difference it makes. I was very relaxed all the time in Japan, no worries whatsoever. When I came back to Sao Paulo, it all came back to me, all the worries, all the frustrations, all the stress. Painful, really.
I wanted to stay a few more days but it was not possible. Unfortunately I didn’t have enough time to visit a few other areas that I had previously in mind, such as Harajuku. But at least I was able to visit many of the places I wanted, specially Akiba and Asakusa, which were in the top of my list.
In the last day, I got a taxi cab to Nippori station, but just because my luggage was very heavy, otherwise I would walk to Ikebukuro station then to to Nippori. From Nippori you can buy the Airport Express Skyliner ticket, it’s less than USD 20 if I’m not mistaken. It has marked seats, it’s very very comfortable and goes straight underneath the Narita Airport. It can’t be more convenient than that, I wish we had something similar in Sao Paulo.
There are several aspects of the Japanese culture that I will explain in more detail in the next articles, this was just a warp up article for what’s to come.
This wraps up my impressions of my short city tour around Tokyo. I didn’t even scratched the surface but it was a fantastic experience that I will definitely repeat in the future. I can’t recommend it much as a great tourism destination for your next vacation.