Sashimi, Shoes and Suzuki (Part One)

Memories of Japan

The Royal Palace Gardens, Tokyo


It is 10.30am in Ginza, Tokyo’s fashionable shopping precinct. The Hanyu depato – department store – has just opened. A dozen assistants assemble on the ground floor to greet the first customers of the day. They form a line. Bow politely. The last syllable of their welcome elongates and fades to the sound of Mozart coming through the loudspeakers. The volume is subdued. Tasteful.

The Imperial Palace is nearby and you are forgiven for thinking the depato is being honoured by a royal patron. But no. This quaint ritual is observed every day of the week in every major store throughout Japan. Disconcerting for the European.

Tokyo is vast. Several cities rolled into one. They cater for every taste, from teen fashion to Kabuki theatre and love hotels. Ginza is elegant, Shibuya trendy, Shinjuku brash and crowded. Ueno and Marunouchi offer culture and tranquillity.

Identifying Tokyo’s boundary is more a matter of definition than geography. As the nation’s new capital, it comprises seven prefectures and is home to more than 40 million people. The UN defines its population as about 28 million. 8 million or so live in the inner city alone. The main international airport, Narita, is 60 kilometers to the north-east and 60 minutes from Shinjuku-eki – the railway station – in downtown Tokyo.

Shinjuku is a nightmare. Imagine Euston, King’s Cross and St Pancras all rolled into one, with Piccadilly metro station and Harrods superimposed thereon, and you have some idea of this uniquely Japanese experience. Grand Central in New York is an adolescent by comparison. The guidebooks advise visitors not to panic, but how can you avoid it. Shinjuku is panic with a capital P. It handles something like three million (according to some sources, about twice as many as the official figure for 1986) passengers each day, and they move through its maze of tiled corridors, lifts and escalators like a video film on fast-forward. Maybe that’s the problem for, slow it down and it becomes a haven of logic and master planning. Moreover, it’s a gateway to the world. Fast or slow, trains from this station will take you just about anywhere.

An easier way to get around Tokyo???

Ambling nonchalantly through the depato among the stands of designer clothes and fashion accessories, you try to be inconspicuous. To blend in. Blending is impossible of course. Westerners are taller and fatter on average than the locals. They have pink skins, blue eyes and unruly hair. They wear jackets bought in London, skirts made in Paris or jeans from Times Square, New York, all conspicuous among a population that craves the latest, the best, and maybe the most expensive the world has to offer – yet prides itself on being so different.

Eating out is strange and confusing. Traditional Japan rubs shoulders with brash coffee bars, western-style restaurants and bistros, and conveyor-belt sushi parlours. To forget your manners in the former is almost akin to capital crime. Squatting is compulsory; shoes are left at the entrance. They even have special slippers for visits to the toilets. Ignore them at your peril, though the Japanese are nothing if not polite, even when pointing out the finer points of dining etiquette.

In the more familiar surroundings of bar or bistro, there is less formality and manners are diluted in the unique Tokyo way, as befits a cosmopolitan city of the Orient. The clientele will stare. Gaikoku-jin desu. Foreigners, you can imagine them saying. Sararimen – business executives – stopping off for a drink after a day at the office, don’t stop at one glass. A bottle of Scotch for two or three is far from unusual, with hyper-predictable effect. They refill one another’s glasses with regular flourish. It seems biology has decreed Japanese men to be less able to hold their liquor than their British or American counterparts. Urban myth or not, many are eager to demonstrate their sobriety with feats of dexterity. And to invite you to participate. Try picking up a single grain of rice with chopsticks when you’ve downed half a bottle of whisky.

Tokyo at Night
Tokyo at Night

Apart from alcohol, the Japanese are more relaxed than westerners about certain other matters. Smoking is widespread in – or out-of-doors – though things are beginning to change. Recent years have witnessed an increase in anti-smoking measures in restaurants and in the streets of some wards. Prostitution is illegal in Japan but sex clubs and ‘soaplands’ – a Japanese version of the massage parlour – are widespread. Invitations to participate are accompanied by a shy smile which for a moment gives the lie to what the invite is all about. With sex, it’s all a matter of definition, much as with Tokyo’s population.

Then it’s back to the hotel. No futons there, but a respectable double bed, downy pillows and complimentary dressing-gowns. And unlike the downtown establishments, where the toilets play music and the seat is heated, the bathroom facilities are much the same as in any other capital city.

Of course, Tokyo never sleeps. At least, not until around 5am. The neon signs flash. Once the day-time traffic eases, the taxis fly up and down the quietening streets, their white-gloved drivers scanning the sidewalk for new custom. Unlike New York and elsewhere, no tipping is the rule here. Prices are quite high enough.

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