Gaythri Raman shares with us her experience in eclectic and vibrant Tokyo.
Japan is a country of contradictions. Tokyo particularly is hard to pigeonhole. How do you adequately describe a city that is weird, awkward, futuristic, old, modern, bizarre, traditional – all perfectly combined to become what it is today? You don’t have to spend a lot of time in Tokyo. It hits you right on your nose as soon as you land and you can barely resist the waves that will come at you, bringing with it the most amazing ride you can ask for. It is an experience I highly recommend.
My visits to Tokyo were combined with work, and I’ll break it down to a few categories so you can get a sense of what to expect in this awesome city.
Work in Tokyo
The Narita International Airport is easy to navigate once you land. Walk to one of the many information counters at the airport and ask them how and where you can buy a bus ticket. It costs ¥3,000 and is much cheaper than a taxi. Taking the subway in Tokyo is also very easy. Just approach fellow commuters with a smile and ask them how to get to your destination. Almost all signs are in Japanese. However, you will always find someone willing to help.
I had to conduct an internal training session for my team in LexisNexis Japan and then had a series of meetings scheduled with our customers. Many Japanese speak decent English. However, if it is important for you to get your message across to a large group of people, consider getting translators to help you do that. This is a thriving business in Japan and you can easily engage the services of professional translators.
I always have two professional translators with me during my internal workshops. One person would work for 20 minutes; the timer would go off and the other would just pick up where the first left off. This is important – if you only engage one translator, he/she would get tired within the first hour and would miss words, get sloppy and slow. You want a translator, not an interpreter. Don’t compromise.
The Japanese are friendly people. Learn a few basic Japanese words, like thank you (arigato gozaimasu) or excuse me (sumimasen). They really appreciate the effort and will go the extra mile to help you. When you are at a business meeting, remember to bow. The lower you bow, the more respect you accord, so take your cue from your colleagues and bow. Embrace the culture, the practices which form the life of the Japanese.
Food in Tokyo
This city combines technology and tradition to give you the most interesting, exciting and fulfilling dining experience you can ask for. Take a walk down any street and just enjoy the sight of rows of little cafes and family-run eateries, then enter one of them and delight your taste buds. I will tell you about two memorable meals:
On my first morning in Tokyo, I walked out of the subway station and ventured into one of the many tiny eateries along the street on my way to the office. What I saw as I entered put a smile on my face. There was a vending machine and this machine would take my order. It had multiple buttons on it and it was mind boggling just trying to figure out what I was ordering. My advice: just don’t sweat it; pick a picture you like and push a button. Then insert your yen into the slot, take your coupon and hand it to the person behind the counter, who will prepare your breakfast. It is an enjoyable experience, picking your meal and then devouring it because it tastes so good.
On my second trip to Tokyo, my colleague Chris took me to a little restaurant near the office for dinner. It was one of the most memorable meals in my life.
I was first served boiled snails – yup! – and I wasn’t too eager to put them in my mouth either, but I am glad I did. The snails are first boiled, then marinated in a special sauce for hours and refrigerated. They are then served cold. You use a toothpick to pull out the meat from the shell, and then put it in your mouth whole. As you chew, the crunch of the cold meat combined with the intense flavor of the special marinade made an unbelievable combination. It was a shock to the senses and it woke me up, preparing me for the rest of the meal.
My favourite dish that night was a serving of a type of raw fish (I have no idea what type of fish – I was told it was a deep sea fish, found only in Japan). The thin slice of fish was topped with a few slices of cucumbers, a slice of mango, sea weed and some type of roe. You squeeze fresh lemon juice on top right before you use your chopsticks to roll the slice of fish, wrapping all the crunchy goodness inside before popping it in your mouth. It is an explosion of freshness, zest, texture and flavour. It is unforgettable. I never liked raw fish or raw food of any kind prior to this meal and I went there with the most skeptical mindset, tentative about everything that was on my table. I was so happy to be wrong.
I enjoyed the most deliciously fresh sashimi I had ever tasted, indulged in all types of raw fish – tuna, salmon, another deep sea fish – savoured grilled squid and fish of all kinds, delighted in dipping cold melon in anchovy sauce (it sounds weird but it is delicious!) and felt a little taste of magic. I was blown away.
Fun in Tokyo
Tokyo is home to all sorts of crazy, weird and quirky. On my first trip to Tokyo, Isabelle, our intern asked me if I would like to visit one of the many themed restaurants in the city. “Would you prefer cute or weird?” she asked. I chose cute that first time and she took me to “Alice in Wonderland’.
The restaurant is made to resemble Wonderland. You dine in teacups and they have a maze right in the middle of the dining area. Waitresses are dressed as “Alice” and your meals are called “The Mad Hatter” and “The Cheshire Cat”. It is a feast for the eyes and you feel as if you’ve entered a different world the whole night. You can’t help the huge grin on your face the entire time and everything is really super cute. You end up exclaiming out loud when you see the menu, when you are served your flaming drink, when you walk around asking the waiters to take your picture next to those giant teacups. It puts a smile on my face right now even as I write about it. It makes you happy. What a way to present a meal!
During my second trip to Tokyo, Isabelle asked me the question again and this time, I chose “weird”. We went to a prison-themed restaurant called “The Lockup’ in Shibuya.
As soon as you enter, you are handcuffed and then dragged to your cell (or table). The place is dark and eerie, and appears to be exactly how you imagine prison would look like. The menu gives you a selection of dishes named “eyeballs” or “brains” and you don’t really know what you are ordering; you give a nervous laugh to the stern-looking prison guard (or waiter) and just point.
Halfway through your meal, the room goes dark, sirens wail, and you’ll hear screams, shouts, chains hitting metal and the sound of people being chased. A prisoner has escaped! Suddenly, someone runs into your cell and lunges under your table, making you and your dining partners jump up in fear and scream. The guards chase him to your cell, bark orders at you while they flash their torches at your face, and then drag the prisoner outside.
All this drama, happens while Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” plays in the background. The lights come back on; you look around and stop clutching the hands of the person next to you, relax and start laughing. You are glad they caught the guy. Now, you can eat!
There is so much more I could share and the stories would all be strangely contradictory because this city offers you Japanese culture with a twist. If you visit with an open mind, ready to embrace what it offers, you will be rewarded with an amazing journey. Try it!