The Japanese term gaijin, despite some pejorative overtones, generally refers to a person of non-Japanese ethnicity – particularly Caucasians. I’ll be the first to admit that such a term would apply to me. In fact, I feel no shame whatsoever. Considering all the trouble white males have inflicted upon the world throughout history, putting up with a little name-calling seems a paltry price to pay.
Regardless of ethnicity, a visit to Japan is a visit to a culture that even in this modern world – or specifically in the case of Tokyo, very modern world – still echoes a time where honor and dignity were held in great esteem. You see it in the traditional bows upon greeting; the care of a small but immaculately manicured garden; the cleanliness and pride of those handling even the most menial of tasks. Such things can easily escape unnoticed in the hectic bustle of the capital city, but all it takes is a few moments of poignant reflection to appreciate the Japanese essence of what outwardly appears to be at the apex of consumer-based society.
All that commercialism has brought Tokyo from a pile of bombed-out rubble (courtesy of more of those gaijins) to the very definition of a concrete jungle. With a population of over 34 million in its urban area, it isn’t hard to imagine why there are so many buildings spreading in all directions. It also isn’t hard to find some decent sushi. Even a gaijin can appreciate that.
If your visit to Tokyo is for leisure rather than business, there are some sights worth taking in. Occupying some of the most valuable real estate in the world is the Ginza section – a tornado of neon lights and hordes of pedestrians. This is Japan’s answer to Times Square, with all the energy and wattage associated with it. It is also considered a shopping Mecca and you can easily lose yourself in one of the palatial department stores or high-end boutiques. Or if you’re a man like me, you can just stare at the pretty lights instead.
If it’s energy and nightlife you’re after, the Roppongi district has its fair share of restaurants and clubs to cater to the hip crowd that gathers there. Being not only a gaijin but a married gaijin (the most boring kind), this wasn’t really my scene; but there was no mistaking that this was the place to be young and single. Either that or hungry – which better explained my own visit there.
Yes modernity is the order of the day in Tokyo, but it might seem a bit unfulfilling for someone hoping to see a little more tradition. This is not to say that the small restaurants with the self-serve conveyor belts aren’t a fun way to have lunch, or that the automatic toilets in your hotel room aren’t the pinnacle of convenience. In fact, after using one such commode – hands free – I was instantly reminded of my favorite episode of The Simpsons where upon arriving in their Tokyo hotel room, an electronic toilet tells Homer that it would be honored to accept his waste, prompting him to yell out “They’re years ahead of us!!!”
For a taste of the aforementioned tradition, you can visit the National Museum located in Ueno Park, which also houses a zoo, aquarium and many other attractions – easily enough for a full day’s exploration. And on certain days that aren’t named Monday or Friday, you can stroll through the Imperial Palace East Garden – an oasis of green in the Marunouchi district. If you come in April you may get to see the famous cherry blossoms. You will also get to see enormous crowds and higher prices on lodging, so…it’s your call.
For those hoping to see some of the famous Japanese landscapes, the most impressive natural attraction in Japan is easily accessible on a day trip from Tokyo. Rising over 12,000 feet is the perfect cone of Fuji-san, long considered sacred by the Japanese and perhaps its most recognizable icon. Over a million people each year climb the dormant volcano (which requires an overnight stay and is only possible in the summer months of July and August) while millions of others are content to visit the resort towns nestled along its base. As a gaijin with limited time and stamina, I opted for the latter, taking a bus from Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station out to Kawaguchi-ko, or Lake Kawaguchi.
This small town had more charm than the urban jungles to the east, with quiet lanes and even quieter eateries. There’s a cable car that takes guests to the summit of a lesser peak, offering great views of the lake and mountain. It’s almost as if an experience like this is necessary to even begin to understand the national psyche, and even a gaijin can start to grasp the appreciation for nature that permeates all levels of Japanese society regardless of the staggering industrialization that characterizes the country.
Most international flights arrive at Tokyo’s Narita Airport, sited some 40 miles outside of the city. There are multiple train and bus options to get you back and forth, all with varying degrees of cost and time; yet on average it will take at least an hour, and for the better options somewhere between 1000-3000 Yen. Or $8.50-$25 USD/6.75-20 Euro for you gaijins.
Getting around town, the subway system is extensive, albeit a bit confusing – not to mention crowded. But it will take you just about anywhere you would want to go, as well as link you with bus and train terminals that serve as gateways to the rest of the country.
Something that struck me as odd was how few people in Japan actually spoke English. Perhaps this was just some lingering American narcissism, but I had always imagined the Japanese as being obsessed with American culture. In my defense, the movies of the 1980’s always presented things that way, so it was a bit surprising not to see much in the way of signage in my mother tongue. Apparently, expecting other nations to speak my language is soooo gaijin.
Tokyo may not be the prettiest of cities, and is nowhere near the cheapest, but you don’t have to be smitten by this megalopolis to appreciate it. This is a testament to the industriousness and resourcefulness of a nation. This is a showcase of all that is good and bad with a consumer-based society. And it is launching point for exploring one of the most influential cultures of the Far East. Love it or hate it, it has a place in the pantheon of world cities, where you’ll encounter a blend of modern and traditional, a rigid work ethic tempered by an ability to party, and more Japanese than you’ve ever imagined. You might even encounter a gaijin or two. Just be sure to bow.