Saturday, March 16, 2024

Places I'm visiting: Japan 2024 Day One

In Tokyo now for the first time in I don't know how many years – 10 maybe? The cat at home is being taken care of by one of my son's friends who is staying at the house while we're away (Thanks, Jason). 

Needless to say, international jet travel is nothing new, but it always feel a bit surreal to board an airplane in one country and then to deplane a quarter of the way around the world only a few hours later. At the same time, having lived in Tokyo nearly 20 years, stepping into the city feels oddly 'normal'. It almost feels like I never left. Quickly the old instincts kick in. In particular, the skill of navigating through crowds, honed over many years, comes back unbidden. Keep to the left, but stay between the edge of the flow going one way and the oncoming flow of people. Don't make eye contact with the oncoming traffic when you need to slip through a tight space. Be polite, but don't hesitate. Almost as if I never left...

Much is the same, but it's easy to note differences. Some are obvious. Even in places that once were quite familiar, landmarks are gone. At the East exit of Shinjuku station the large panels that once were used for advertising the newest movies are no longer there (I can remember when these were actually painted by hand). Everywhere are new tall buildings that I can't identify. There are many, many more foreigners than there used to be. Everyone, Japanese and non-Japanese alike has a mobile phone. 

Other differences are more subtle. Taxis were once almost exclusively sedans (usually Toyotas painted yellow) but everywhere now I see stocky black taxis reminiscent of London taxis. I asked a driver who told me they were introduced ahead of the Tokyo Olympics and that they were, in fact, modeled on the London cab. The 'hatsu nori' (initial fare) price was ¥720 when I left last, but now it is ¥500. At first, I thought the fare had been reduced, but I've learned that that ¥500 today buys you only the first kilometer. ¥720 used to buy you the first two. Every taxi has a GPS now – a very welcome development considering the confusing address system used in Japan; taxi drivers can actually get you where you're going now, although they seem no better at driving smoothly. There are video screens in the back of the cabs. Gone are the rows of advertising pamphlets selling things like spirulina health drinks or promoting temporary staffing agencies that I used to perfunctorily peruse on a short ride. 

The trains are subtley different. There are now announcements in English. Every station appears to have been given a letter-and-number code that I'm guessing was another innovation for the Olympics. The codes make it easy to navigate without remembering station names. The train colors are slightly different in some cases. The dangling grab-irons in some of the JR trains appear to be coordinated with the color of the train line. As in the taxis, paper advertising has in many places been replaced by LCD screens, which seem colder than the posters tucked into the curved spaces above the baggage racks that used to be there. I can remember occasionally seeing young men whose job it was to go through the cars of stopped trains at the start of the day, removing outdated posters and replacing them with new ones. Now it's all digital. I even noticed young women outside the train stations with LCD screens hung around their necks advertising clubs and restaurants. Everything is digital. Everyone on their phones...

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