Goodbye Dallas-Fort Worth, hello Tokyo! We’ve been waiting far too long to say that and it feels terrific. Even though it’s winter (and we have no winter clothing to speak of) this stopover is a much-needed diversion from flying directly to our final destination in Thailand. Stopping in Tokyo breaks up the 24.5 hour flight into two manageable halves.
Right after arrival, we set out on a food run. Prepared for restaurant menus only in Japanese, we had our finger pointers ready to explain our selections: Basically you walk around the restaurant with the waiter in tow and point to what other customers are eating if it looks good. It’s an effective technique that yields good results and few surprises. But in Tokyo, we holstered our pointers as soon as we saw the most elaborate displays of plastic food imaginable outside each restaurant.
The plastic versions of restaurants’ best offerings look so realistic you want to eat the displays. Seriously, this is all plastic.
Food artists meticulously recreate any type of food in plastic to look exactly as it should and diners have come to expect perfection in the actual plates delivered to their table.
With the little time we had in the Tokyo area, we decided to ride the intricate network of subways, buses and high-speed trains into popular areas to explore. We set out to Shinjuku station, the busiest train station in the world where more than seven million people pass through each day. Imagine a larger version of the Galleria Mall with about eight train tracks running underneath, each handling a full train arrival every 2-4 minutes! Despite millions of people, it’s remarkably clean…
Once you arrive at Shinjuku station, there’s enough to keep you busy for hours- restaurants, shopping, groceries, people watching…(but wait, there’s more). Inside the Keito department store is an entire floor that looks like the cosmetics section of Neiman Marcus. The showroom cases aren’t filled with jewelry or cosmetics, but instead display beautiful boxed food ready to purchase as take-away. Equate the floor to the Japanese version of Central Market or Whole Foods, but with higher presentation standards. “Barkers” mingle around the customers announcing the day’s specials in a pleasant, non-intrusive manner. Here you’ll find incredibly fresh sushi, Italian, French, American, Continental and other delicacies as well as hundreds of specialty choices ranging from fresh ice creams and hand made chocolates to Danishes, breads, gourmet items and more. We opted for sushi boxes and were hardly surprised at the freshness. The different fish in our box were probably swimming earlier that morning before landing at the 4am fish auction on the pier. With no tables available we actually stood around the train station area eating piece by piece and people watching.
Speaking of people watching, we did spend enough time in Tokyo to make a few cultural observations:
- The soft-spoken, incessantly smiling Japanese have an ingrained sense of order. Even the simplest of maneuvers like boarding an airport shuttle bus has a protocol. The doors open and passengers quickly file straight to the back of the bus filling up rows from rear to front in an expeditious and neatly organized fashion so as to use every available space. Nobody is guiding them, it’s just understood. Jet lagged and none the wiser, we planted ourselves in the first row behind the driver each time because those two seats offered more legroom. We completely overlooked the confused glances from others passing by us wondering why we didn’t “get it” and move to the back. You know that confident, almost cocky feeling you get when you board the airplane, settle into 2B in first class and survey the parade of economy passengers filing past you on their way to coach hell? Well park that attitude at the ticket counter pal because that doesn’t apply in Japan. It took us a couple of bus rides around town to catch on to our behavioral error.
- Unlike SE Asia where crowds simply rush forward, Japanese queue for everything. At the train platform are neatly organized rows of people in single file line waiting to step up to the exact spots where the train doors will eventually stop and open. There are no ropes or painted lines on the ground. It’s just understood that you stand behind the last person in line. When those doors open, the Japanese actually create “two-way” traffic through the same train doors. New passengers step on through the left side (because they also drive on the left) and exiting passengers step off on the right as though they were entering and exiting the kitchen doors at a restaurant. You can imagine the glances we got when we assumed our best New York City subway attitude, rushed the opening doors and grabbed the few remaining seats available. As the train pulled away we caught the expressions on faces left behind (because of the traffic jam we caused) and realized our mistake. It’s enough to make you feel ashamed. Well, almost ashamed.
- It’s all about tall boots with short skirts for girls even though it’s only 40 degrees outside. In fact, the last car on some trains is for women only during rush hour. After a little research, we found out that during peak times in the morning and evenings, some men love to put their hands up the girls skirts while people on the train are packed like sardines. A girl would never know who did it.
Bundled up from head to toe, we made it back to our hotel, laughing the rest of the evening about how obnoxious we must have appeared that day on the buses and trains. We’re learning.