Tokyo: The Land without Cords

During my brief, pleasant stay in Tokyo, I became enamored with the country’s attention to aesthetics and efficiency – cords tucked away, bureaus with flat, handle-free drawers, a mix of dark woods and light, modern textiles, and a sweeping cleanliness that extends from the cuisine to the restrooms and everywhere in between.

Since my last trip was to India, I was just grateful to be somewhere I didn’t have to worry about opening my mouth in the shower…and everything about Japan was a pleasant surprise. Instead of India’s traffic of decorated trucks, cattle, and entire families on a single motorbike, I was met with a calm and orderly atmosphere that India could definitely learn from.

My oversized hotel room epitomized the Tokyo look and feel, at least in my opinion. Dark wood bureaus met with grey walls and a neutral Cherry Blossom rug. No cords were visible – even the blinds and curtains opened with the touch of a button. My soaking tub wasn’t just clean – it was sanitary and looked brand new, and my toilet was easily a few thousand dollars.

Even the public bathrooms I used came with the famous Japanese toilets – complete with a bidet function, a spray option, heated seats, a button to adjust the water pressure, a fake flushing noise, and deodorizing spray. I mean, really? I expected my hotel and restaurants to have these upgraded toilets, but I didn’t expect them in public places. In the US, I’m lucky if a bathroom has paper towels nevermind a bidet, and in India, I was lucky if there was a toilet at all.

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When we arrived in Japan, I anticipated Hello Kitty, but I was met with a bustling city of grays and greens, peppered with curved-roof buildings that remind you that you’re in Japan and not Chicago or some other massively sleek, modern downtown.

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Based on my limited knowledge of Japanese culture, I had two distinct images: the loud, bright, silly Japan I saw in TV commercials and the quiet, reverent, wise Japan I’ve read about and seen in popular culture. Both were present, but neither captured Tokyo’s – and Japan’s – essence.

When I travel, both in the US and abroad, I sometimes look around and feel that I could be in any big city. They all have that heartbeat you can feel pulsing around you – pedestrians weaving past taxis avoiding cyclists above subways beneath buildings. But even the most modern city has little “tells” – in Tokyo, the blocks of grey were balanced by bursts of color.
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I honestly had no idea what sensory overload was until we exited our cabs in Shibuya Crossing. People, cigarettes, smart phones, illuminated signs, store-lined streets with store-lined allies connecting them, fashion, more smart phones, and, for the first time, in-my-face Tokyo culture.

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Most of Tokyo was a far cry from this Times-Square-on-steroids district – busy (but remarkably quiet) streets with trees here and there, clean and orderly with pedestrians making room for cyclists and everyone waiting for the “Walk” symbol before entering the crosswalk.

The people match the cityscape – mostly quiet, straightforward, friendly, tidy, with occasional bold patterns and colors mixed in the sea of simplicity.

When in the busy shopping district, I noticed that I was never touched, bumped into, or gently pushed. Everyone stayed in order, nobody going too fast nor too slow. When I did bump into someone (it was my fault), they didn’t look the slightest bit annoyed when I muttered an awkward “excuse me.”

Tokyo isn’t a city that I found particularly enticing. When it comes to business travel, I couldn’t ask for a better host city. When it comes to traveling as a tourist, I’m not sure Tokyo is at the top of my list.

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But Tokyo did something else – it whetted my appetite for the rest of Japan. While the skyscrapers didn’t impress, those little pockets of culture throughout the city transported me to (potentially inaccurate) scenes in my head of elegant, silent temples and Cherry blossoms and restaurants with pillows for seats and paper doors. I want to go back to Japan – soon, hopefully – and trade the skyscrapers for Kyoto and Nara’s ryokans, teahouses, gardens and geisha.

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