Observations from Tokyo

I can’t remember how I came up with the idea to go to Tokyo. I hadn’t been out of the US in a while and Japan must have popped up somewhere in what I was reading. About a month later, my sister and I were on a plane bound for Asia.

One of the overall themes I got from Japan is that it’s stuck somewhere between leading innovation, and lagging way behind. 20 years ahead, and 20 years behind.

The streets were immaculately clean, but they put their bags of garbage right on the curb where everyone could see them blocking the way.

We saw a demonstration of Asimo, the human-acting robot, who is advanced enough to hop on one leg. But then pretty much every place only accepted cash. No credit cards and definitely none of this newfangled pay by phone we’re finally getting in the US.

There were “smoking only” areas on the streets in many neighborhoods, like Shibuya, as a way to corral and even shame smokers. And yet most places accommodated indoor smoking.

Smoking area at the Gingko  Festival
Smoking area at the Gingko Festival

We could go to restaurants and pre-order from a vending machine and give the ticket to the chefs, but in those same shops, along with most coffee shops (even the western ones), they didn’t have easy access wifi.

We were only there a week, and spent all but one day in a single city. Those thoughts and what follows are pretty much guaranteed to be generalizations. So, if anyone wants to refute some of my comments, or give some extra explanation, I’m more than glad to hear about.

Nighttime in Akasaka
Nighttime in Akasaka

On to more specific observations.


King Cash — When you go to Japan, you need stacks of cash. The only time we used a credit card was to buy train tickets to Kyoto, and to pay for our last meal on our way to the airport and the restaurant was distinctly western styled. Every other place was cash only.

This wasn’t an issue for us since we planned it perfectly and had all the money we needed before, but considering how much swiping we do in the US, it took a little getting used to.
Also fun when you’re carrying around bills with 10,000 printed on them.

Pay by vending machine — A common process at fast food type places was this giant vending machine type thing where we hit the buttons of what we wanted to eat, and the machine would spit out a ticket to give the waiter / cook. Love the efficiency.

More than a few times, we sat down in the restaurant only to be redirected back to the front where these machines are. Those machines were also really impressive in that it could give change in bills, something you don’t see very often over here. And who would have guessed, these machines took cash and not credit cards.

No tipping! — Turns out I’m a big fan of the “just do your job” idea, especially when it comes to tipping. And it’s super nice.
On a semi-unrelated note, I heard that Lyft still has tipping. That’s enough to stop me from ever trying Lyft instead of Uber. In case they’re reading this.

All About Food

With all this talk of restaurants, I figured it might be good to have a bigger section here where I list the notable food we ate. For the most part, we tried to stay away from US style food, except for the one breakfast of pancakes and french toast we had at Tully’s coffee shop.

Auto Sushi — Use a touchscreen, pick out the sushi you want, press the order button, wait a few minutes and the food comes shooting out of the kitchen riding on mini rail tracks and ends up right in front of you ready to eat. Gonna go ahead and guess it’s not the best quality, but who cares since it comes out on a conveyor belt! Overall, it seemed like sushi wasn’t too big of a thing in everyday Tokyo, but this place was absolutely packed, even for a Sunday night.

Fried Chicken Parts — Fried chicken in the US is either chicken breast, or, well, other stuff? Thinking about it now, I’m not sure what happens to the rest of the chickens in the US, other than becoming part of whatever a McNugget is. In Japan, there’s no stigma in eating the less-popular parts of animals. And this hip little fried chicken place we went to in Akasaka, Gaburi Chicken, fried all parts of the chicken. Nothing like fresh fried food, and I was a big fan of the chicken neck.

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Pig on Sticks — From what I could tell, meat on sticks (kababs really, but not sure the Japanese name) are a popular item. I got that multiple times, and saw it on menus all over. Oh, and remember when I mentioned how you can eat all parts of a chicken? Same goes for pigs apparently. I passed on eating the rectum, and I only went as far as eating pig diaphragm. Also pretty sure the skin never got taken off some of them.

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Octopus Balls — While in the food area of the Ginkgo Festival (yup, celebrating the tree), I was excited to see a cartoonish octopus on top of one of the tents. I’m much more inclined to try the more random food, so hell yeah I wanted to get some octopus. That idea was shot down right quick by my sister.

Uneaten Octopus Balls
Uneaten Octopus Balls

In the end, we agreed on these little fried ball things that some guy was turning over with chopsticks. They were still super hot, but when I finally was able to bite into one, the inside wasn’t rice as we expected, but rather some creamy flour based goo, along with… octopus tentacles! So in the end, I guess I won that food battle, and also was allowed to eat the majority of the Octopus Balls.

Rice + Egg + Soy Sauce — First time we ventured out for breakfast, not too many of the places near us were open. But after 10 minutes of wandering, we finally found a place with lights on and people inside. This was a vending machine place, so lining up in front and knowing that you could block people coming after you added to the pressure of ordering, which made me just click a random item from the section of the touchscreen labeled “breakfast”.

What came after we sat down was a bowl of rice, some seaweed for munching, and a raw egg. By sneaking looks at what the other diners were doing, I made the move to kind of scramble the egg with a chopstick and dump it on the hot rice, and added a little soy sauce on a whim. And damn was it good.

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I looked online when we got back and that’s a standard breakfast in Japan, where you’re able to consume raw eggs. If we had that option here, it’d be an everyday thing for me.

Suddenly Steak! — If I had money, and was ever going to open a restaurant, I’d model it after Suddenly Steak. Ikinari Steak, which is the Japanese translation of Suddenly Steak, is a mini chain of fast food steak places in Tokyo, on of which was on our walk from exit 2 at the Akasaka station to our apartment. We passed it every day of our trip before finally stopping in for one of our last dinners.

Outside a Suddenly Steak
Outside a Suddenly Steak

There were no seats, just long tables where diners stood (which earned the restaurant the nickname of “Standing Steak Place”). We ordered the steak by the gram with a few different cuts offered, put on this giant paper bib, and 10-15 minutes later, the steaks were brought out on sizzling platters on top of corn and onions. In and out quickly with fantastic steak, all for the price of around 20 bucks.
I did a little research and looks like they opened one of these in New York, but I still have to wait for it here in Chicago. But if anyone wants to go ahead an build one here, you’ve already got a loyal customer.

Shabu Shabu — Two things we realized from eating shabu shabu, which is the name for a type of meal we ate. 1) There are restaurants on the upper floors of buildings that we were missing out on because we couldn’t read the Japanese names, and 2) shabu shabu is named shabu shabu because that’s the sound made when you boil thin slices of meat / veggies at your table. Seeing the boiled and cooked meat tasted great along with veggies, and at the end they also brought out ramen noodles to boil with the now somewhat salty water.

Ramen in Kyoto — Turns out the distance from Tokyo to Kyoto was about Chicago to Louisville. Crazy to think that we could get there as simply as we did. Just a 2.5 hour train ride. Anyway, we ended up eating dinner at a ramen bar. We used the vending machine to order, and then the cooks behind the counter made the meal. I can’t say I have too much experience with ramen in the US (instant or otherwise), but it was pretty good.

No bars — Pretty much every restaurant in the US will have some sort of bar near the front, perfect if you’re waiting for your table to be ready, or you’re just trying to kill time. But except for one specifically western style restaurant we went to, I don’t remember seeing a single place with that type of layout. I’m wondering if going to a restaurant and not ordering food isn’t a thing, or if there was something I missed, some norm that I didn’t know about to explain this. But from what I saw, restaurants with bar areas weren’t a thing.

Eating Side by Side — Along with the lack of bar areas, these small restaurants all had a similar layout where people eating together would eat not at a table, but side by side. The sushi on conveyor belt place, the fried chicken place, the breakfast places, suddenly steak, and ramen all only had long tables where you’re next to the people you came with, rather than at a table.

Eating side by side at Suddenly Steak
Eating side by side, standing up, at Suddenly Steak

Beer, just beer — Go to pretty much any bar in the US and you’ll see a wide range of beer styles to choose from (except for this one bar a block north from where I live that only offers Bud Light, Bud Heavy, and 312). In Japan, there’s just “beer”.

Hoppy! — I got excited at one point when I saw “Hoppy” listed under the drink section. Finally, something that wasn’t just “Beer”! But when the waiter first came out with a glass filled with ice and half filled with this clear liquid.

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The waiters English was pretty bad, but he was able to communicate that Hoppy was making a comeback in popularity. Happy to know I was sipping on a hipster drink. I kind of wish I had tried a little of the non diluted Hoppy in the bottle alone so I could taste just that flavor, but I guess that’s for the next time I’m in Tokyo.


The time zones — Going there wasn’t too tough of a time zone change. 15 hours is decently long, and it took me until my last night to finally wake up past 6 (a little alcohol that night didn’t hurt either), but waking up around 6 is perfectly reasonable. Coming back on the other hand, oof. Days where I couldn’t sleep past 2 in the morning are not fun, and it took me two weeks to fully adjust back. I’m sure more expert travelers might be better at handling the change, but I was left in the lurch.

The App — Tokyo came with a really handy phone app to direct you through the metro system. Enter a starting and ending location, and it told us how to get there perfectly. Over the entire week we were there, we didn’t have any issues taking the wrong train.

The Double Tap — Different from the systems in the US I’ve travelled (specifically Chicago) where you tap and pay once at the beginning of a subway trip, in Tokyo, you pay for the distance you travel by tapping a card when you enter the subway and again when you exit. Also impressed with how quickly the system read your card.

The Walking — The subway stations where you can make connections are labeled really well with arrows noting where to go next and how far away they are. However those connections can be really long distances. I think the longest was 700ish meters, a little under a half a mile. Seeing 400m on a sign seemed normal.

The Transferring — Despite the distances between the connections, I don’t think we had to transfer more than once ever. The lines were very well related.

The Exits — The stations themselves covered a giant area under the ground and had a ton of numbered exits. Take the wrong exit and you could be a long way from where you were trying to go. But we also used the numbers to specify where we were coming from if we were meeting people, and guides used them in directions.

Quietness — The trains themselves were impressively quiet. Granted Japan is in general, but these were notably quiet. Kind of a shock to come back to Chicago and hear the secondhand music or people yelling on the phone.

Stand left, walk right — You’re leaving a train trying to get back to ground level? Stand left, walk right up the escalators. No exceptions. Then again, I’m not sure if anyone would say anything if you messed up the rule.

No Jaywalking — Traffic lights in Japan are synced to either be all green, or all red. Because of this, you’ll see seas of people crossing at once in every direction. But you’ll never see jaywalking, even at the smallest intersections. Amazing that a little light has that much power over a single person. I understand the issue with a car since it has mass, but if you’re alone and see nothing coming, just cross.

The Rest

How do you say “hello”? — As rude, stereotypical Americans who don’t learn anything about the culture and expect everything to be in English, I wanted to learn a few Japanese phrases to use. Perfect scenario would be to walk into a restaurant, you say hello to the host / hostess, and then they seat you at a table with the required two chairs. So how do you say “hello” to restaurant workers in Japan? Turns out you don’t.
Along the same lines..

Cleanliness — It’s tough to see the absence of something – usually you only notice the presence of something new. But in this case, it’s pretty obvious. There’s just no trash on the ground. We even saw workers sweeping leaves on the ground into trash. Coming back to the US was a little bit of a shock where there’s crap on the ground everywhere.

Bags of trash near the street — Despite the lack of garbage on the ground, the first thing I noticed when walking the streets the Sunday night we arrived was the bags of garbage just sitting on the sidewalk next to the street. For a city that needed every single piece of trash accounted for, residents were certainly nonchalant about the trash bags being out in the open. The city itself didn’t really have alleyways that garbage trucks could get through, so this was probably more out of necessity. But still a little odd seeing the bags everywhere in the open.

No public trash cans — Another oddity on the garbage front was the absolute lack of public garbage cans. We got Starbs one day on the way to the driving range, and while walking the couple miles to the park, we were stuck holding the empty cups for the entire walk. I kept assuming that we’d see a garbage can on the way, but no such luck. Finally we found a public bathroom … where there also weren’t garbage cans. (Turns out that every bathroom only hand dryers presumably to keep down on that dreaded garbage.)

Suits on suits — Let’s just say that my jeans / button down / New Balance combo didn’t exactly fit in with the other people on the subway trains in Tokyo.

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