As part of my job, and frankly as part of what I like to do, I travel. A lot. About once per quarter I do what is effectively a round-the-world trip. This is because I’m responsible for a dispersed team that exist in offices in Dublin, Singapore, Sydney & Tokyo. Moreover, my boss has sat in Cambridge, Mass.
Last year I visited Tokyo twice. Once in April (we missed Hanami, though!) for a little over a week to interview candidates for our proposed new office. And then again in October for a month when our offices was in situ, staff were through training & the machine was kicking in.
I wanted to write about the city. So here we are.
On my first visit, flying into Haneda was a bit daunting. I was travelling with someone who had been there before, and he had it all figured out. I’m such a frequent flyer that my initial upload of flights to “App in the Air” broke their system, so being cautious about going to a country was odd. But Japan is different. It’s a new language that I have no ability to comprehend, and nearly everyone from the place has no concept of English.
It was an early morning landing and the weather was absolutely abysmal. There goes my chance to take a longingly romantic video of the city as we came in! We hopped in a taxi and my travelling companion told me that the low hanging grey sky, while reminiscent of basically every day in Dublin, reminded him of the low hanging pollution in China.
The reason, I think, that I was so cautious of going to Tokyo was that I’ve romanticised it in my head too much. As a teenager I loved anime, especially Ghost in the Shell — including the TV series. I listened to a bunch of crazy Japanese music in the past, especially jazz to fill the background during college study sessions.
Our hotel, the ANA Intercontinental, was smack bang in the middle of touristy Rappongi. The hotel was fine, but for me the best introduction to the city was grabbing a drink (an Old Fashioned, of course!) in the hotel bar, way up near the top floor. It features a near-panoramic view of the buildings stretching as far as my eyesight could compute. Switching to the other side of the bar on the westerly side of the building we got a stunning view into the blackness of Chiyoda-ku, where the Imperial palace was protected by an imposing park. Completely devoid of unnatural light, contrasted with the tall buildings around it.
The romantic idea of Tokyo’s bustling urban sprawl, the music, the lights and everything about it came together right there in that hotel on our first night. Slightly jet lagged, solving the world’s problems with my travel buddy/work colleague, seeing the expanse of blinking red lights atop buildings nestled in my brain. I’ll never forget that sight. It sealed my enduring fondness for Tokyo.
That week was primarily an exercise is survival. We had a lot of meetings and I had to contend with timezones (as is usual) to keep up a schedule of meetings with people in other places. Although the Sydney & Singapore folks hated me at the end of the week with me being in a local timezone, Slack messaging with everything on my mind every few minutes!
We experienced some good stuff. We did some wandering around the area, took taxis to other places to get a sense of those areas (Ginza being a big destination we stayed in for a few hours) and drank as much liquid with the word “Suntori” on it as we could. We did experience some good food, but my travel companion loves the dingy areas of cities; so we spent some time in back alley sushi joints laughing at the completely ossified salarymen! They laughed at our primitive palette, though, so all was well.
One evening our recruitment team (myself, my travel companion, our MD and one of the local folks who’d been previously hired) went for some sushi. Our MD kept getting stuck in meetings so the Japanese guy had to consistently postpone the meal for 4. The staff were none too pleased, and we had to vow to go at a particular time, which had been pushed to about 9pm at this stage. By the time we went, the place was empty. We were the last ones to eat here. And we had a 10 course tasting, which was probably why they stayed open for us. We devoured each course, asking the Japanese member of our team to constantly translate what our elderly lady serving us was saying about the food. It was astonishingly good, but I felt like I was on the receiving end of a very delicious murder by mercury poisoning.
It turns out, that was a Michelin star restaurant. There’s nothing more Tokyo than stumbling into such a place.
In the end it was a successful mission. I got a taste of Tokyo, met some local folks and managed to hire my new Japanese team member. A man who shares many of my loves, and who’s name roughly translates to the word “Grand,” in the Irish sense. Not grandiose, but grand. As in fine. Everything was fine!
My October trip was a much bigger ado. It was a little more than a month. And I would have to do away with some of the niceties of a week or two long trip. Like a hotel. Instead, it’s more economical to get an apartment. I’d need to figure out how to wash clothes, commute on the Underground, etc. etc. It was an adventure. An adventure powered by Google Translate, obviously.
Upon arrival, once again, the weather was poor. There was basically no visibility from the plane into the city. Once again, my Instagram followers would have to make do without the romantic “landing into Tokyo” video! This time I was far more calm. I knew the airport. I’ve filled in the visa card before. I had a few basic words to say to the staff to be polite and not to appear as a total gaijin. It took a while for my bag to come onto the carousel. I wondered if something was wrong. Turns out Haneda was training it’s staff in how to be more diligent in the event of a threat warning. When I approached the concourse security with my newly collected bag, I nodded & mumbled “konnichiwa”. The man took my documents, looked at me, and declared “you’ve been before? Do you like it here?” while he fumbled with my bag (all bags were to be inspected that day). I said “hai,” and trailed on with my paired-down English for him. Despite me saying only a few words, he asked if I spoke Japanese because I have a “very good accent.” No, sadly.
When I exited the airport the first taxi there was fortuitous. It was a regular cab. He’d charge me ¥6,500 (about €60) to get to my apartment, which I had on Google Maps & a print out. He spoke English, and that was his whole shtick. He advertised it on cards, his website, his Facebook page. He was the English speaking taxi man of Tokyo! And he was lovely. Told me about this restaurant, that club, etc. He also joked that his favourite business card was a business credit card. I used him again on my return leg, and even had him pick up my wife from Tokyo station when she came later in the month. “Arigatou gozaimasu,” I decreed as I gently bow’d to him outside my apartment building. He nodded, but chose to shake my hand. He’s a taxi for gaijin, no need for Japanese cultural tricks here!
Chiyoda. I was here before, right? No, of course not. I had merely gazed into it’s black heart from Rappongi before!
Chiyoda is a government district. Quiet, and filled with embassy buildings. I was nestled in a block equidistant from the Irish & UK embassies. My building contained 90% white people from Europe or America. Here for business, no doubt. Government business. You can tell Americans from a mile off. They’re either grossly overweight & proud of it as they shovel a sandwich into their mouths on the street, or they’re running a 10k every evening. Both forms of American are a curiosity for Japanese folks.
My office for the month was on the other side of the Imperial Palace in Otemachi. On the first day I decided to walk, but the distance was deceptive. This was my first true sense that the city is massive. On a map it looked easy, but in real life it was awful. I sweated like a man who had just been locked in a sauna in the humid air. The next few days, until I orientated myself, I used cheap taxis to-and-fro.
Once acclimatised to the apartment & office, I had my colleague help me out with getting a PASSMO, which was like a Leap card in Dublin, Oyster in London or Charlie in Boston. My one-tap-and-you’re-in access pass to the boundless locations of the Tokyo metro. Now I was a real Tokyo local, with my morning & evening commutes sorted. If we had a late night session, I only needed the taxi to bring me to my local Metro station, because my apartment was a 3 minute walk from it & it was too complex to explain the road system nearby to taxis who were unfamiliar with Chiyoda’s 2-chome area.
I think it took a week in April to make me fall in love with Tokyo. But it took a week in October for me to truly, deeply, fall in love with what Tokyo is. Chiyoda was a perfect living quarters because it was quiet & had a few things nearby that became creature comforts. Cheap ramen places, about 100 7–11 outlets and 100 more Family Mart’s. Otemachi was very similar to the IFSC in Dublin, which houses our EMEA HQ. During the week Otemachi is bustling with people who commute in during the morning rush, eat there, get haircuts there and wind down in the evening bars there. But no one truly lives there, so at weekends or late at night the entire area crawls into a slumber. Our local Otemachi haunt, a bar confused about whether it was Belgian or German style, closed early on Fridays!
Seeing those areas was great because they were so different to each other. Chiyoda is effectively residential, but only the posh government folks live there. Otemachi is the salaryman area. If you work there, you’re really likely to be working for KPMG or Mitsubishi.
But my PASSMO took me everywhere.
The London Underground network is a convoluted mess when you first approach it. For about two years with work, I commuted to London about once per month, normally more. You learn to hate the Underground tourists a lot when you rely on it to get to a meeting. If it’s during rush hour time, you really need to know where you’re going, what line & what direction before you even step foot into the station. If you stop to look at a map in the doorway you’re probably blocking 1000 people from getting to work or home.
When you first approach the Tokyo Metro, you’re greeted with the same ideals. The rules are the same: each line has a colour that will save you the effort of learning crazy Japanese names like Hanzomon or Maranouchi, each station has a name & often you’ll need to change tracks. But each line has two directions, know north/south & east/west. From there you’re fine.
The Metro & Underground maps are very similar, so being utterly familiar with how the Underground works, the Metro was easy.
However, the Underground stations are usually pretty simple affairs. One or two exists, maybe a lift to take, but it’s not that complex. The Metro is not like this at all. Each station is a sprawling metropolis in & of themselves. The longer I spent in Tokyo, the more cheap tricks I learned to walk around the city without being outside. Did you know you could get from Otemachi to Ginza totally underground?
On the newer trains with LCD displays above doors, they will tell you which stairwell to exit the platform from which to set you up to get to the best exit for where you need to go. It honestly took me two weeks to figure out the best exit for my office. And even then, I screwed it up a few times!
The Metro is a sublime network that is unforgiving if you make a mistake, like most networks. I’m familiar with London, Boston, New York, San Francisco & Berlin. All of which I’ve made mistakes on. But here’s the thing, making a mistake in Boston or London might end up in a 20 minute re-routing trying to figure out how to get back to square one. Tokyo will be straight-forward, but often times rewarding.
One such time was when my wife had arrived, we decided to get to Tokyo Station because there was an apparently great food place inside. We took a Metro but we went too far. We ended up in Ueno. No one told me about Ueno. It’s just a place for locals to visit a market to buy cheap trainers or visit the park by the temple to catch Pokemon (I’m not even joking). But wow, we loved it so much we went back three times. In Tokyo, mistakes can pay off!
The one big thing about the Metro is that, above all else, it makes the sprawl manageable. It’s easy to get around. It’s actually comfortable, air conditioned, safe and cheap. It lets you traverse huge distances easily, and lets you experience Tokyo properly. It also really informs you. As you exit each station there’s a uniqueness to the station, the area, the people & the purpose behind that region of the city. Tokyo’s not one big city, it’s a collection of big cities joined together by trains. Tokyo’s Metro, far more than most other cities with metro systems, is an important part of what makes the city so special.
Visiting each area, especially when my wife was on the trip with me, was incredible. We would spend hours, if not days, routing around sections of the city with Google Maps and Google Translate as our guides. Often times, thankfully, I was able to ask for advice or tips from my new Japanese colleagues.
After week three there, I had more local opinion in my brain than I could ever dispense about Dublin. I knew a lot more about this place than I did about New York, a city I’ve visited once a year for the last few years. I knew to avoid Ginza’s tourist traps, Golden Gai’s expensive bars, Rappongi’s dingy arenas of smut, and so on. I also knew each area was unique. Like I said, each district of Tokyo is itself a city. Shibuya & Shinjuku alone have a population of about 500,000 — and those areas are super expensive retail-orientated spots!
Despite each district having their own sensibilities, purposes, local characters, etc., one thing stood out all the time; the food was remarkable.
And I mean truly, utterly remarkable. Even our back alley sushi joints in April were unbelievable compared to the high end stuff you would get at the top of a hotel’s building in Boston or New York.
I’ve been lucky enough to have eaten at some Michelin starred restaurants in my life. And consistently I’ve been able to eat top notch food in top notch places. I don’t let that get to me, I know I’m lucky. But one of my favourite meals was having an incredible Kobe Beef experience in a small restaurant down a small alley on the periphery of Ginza.
The staff spoke English with American accents, which concerned me because I didn’t want to be a tourist when eating one of Japans hidden treasures. But that was all laid to rest the moment an older lady told us to take our shoes off and brought us to our very odd, low down table. Two rapidly ageing men sat down on our pillows with the poise & grace of a baby trying to walk. A baby wouldn’t have groaned about back pain the way we did, though.
Comedic setting aside, the food was unbelievable. It cost about ¥16,000 (€150) each, and came in a few different courses. The first should have been last. A slow cooked shot glass portion of Kobe introduced us to the beef for the first time. It was cooked in some sort of soy sauce. It was absolutely, by far, the most incredible flavour I’ve had in my life. I would eat that for the rest of my days and die a happy, but young cardiac arrest suffering man.
Kobe is everything it says it is. It’s delicious, juicy and somehow melts in your mouth. It feels wrong to call it ‘beef’ because it doesn’t have the consistency of any beef you’ve ever eaten in your life. I thought Wagyu was good when I was in Sydney. But screw that, Kobe forever. I’m glad I only got to eat it that one time, because I’ll savour it for a long time before I get to revisit that experience (sometime this year I hope).
Other than our fancy excursions, my favourite thing was sushi. Sushi has various forms, and in the West we bastardise it into Maki rolls all the time. Which is fine, but when my Japanese colleague visited me in Dublin, he was shocked to see rolls with three or four ingredients within. And this was a nice spot we were eating in!
Sushi is always small enough that you can take a risk and bet on something. If you don’t like it, it’s fine. Swallow, try not to show your discomfort to the chef, and move on to tuna. But wow, sushi in Japan is worth every penny of a visit. By the time my wife had come, I had my favourite spots so she could enjoy with me. And I had my few words of Japanese so I didn’t make too many mistakes with the orders!
To this day, my work colleague who spent some time in Tokyo with me & I always have our lunch catch-ups in a nearby Dublin sushi place. And while it’s no Tokyo, it’s not too bad!
Go to Tokyo for the Tonkasu but stay for the sushi. And if you love sushi, it’s almost mandatory to take a visit to Tsukiji fish market, which is stunning.
I spent weeks absorbing Tokyo’s culture, both the street culture derived from the various big hubs people work, shop & play in (namely Shibuya, Shinjuku, Rappongi & even Harajuku) and the business culture they’ve built for themselves. But I never quite articulated what it’s like to be there. Most people I know will want to visit Tokyo, but wont quite make the trip.
Once my wife arrived, within a few days she articulated Tokyo perfectly. Walking around the area near Tokyo Station, a bursting at the seams kind of place, we walked towards a main road towards Chiyoda, at the Imperial Palace park. The traffic lights reflected the red to green change on the tarmac and the few taxis waiting drove off politely. And then she said, “this city is like living inside a movie set.”
And that’s it. That’s what it is. Everything just works. Everything is clean. Even the air — how do they even have clean air with 34 million inhabitants?! There’s no litter on the ground despite no visible signs of bins, the car population is scarce at best so there’s no traffic beeping at each other. The list goes on. It really is like living in an artificial space. It’s mesmerising.
A friend from Dublin has lived in Tokyo for about two years now with his girlfriend. And he pointed out that drinking in public is totally fine. The only other major place I know that to be fine in is Berlin. And so we had 9% vile lemon rocket fuel to begin an evening of wandering around, chatting and being drunk. So did half the city it seems, because we walked to areas above ground or behind buildings where the municipality have setup small parks where people can go get fit by playing football or baseball. If you weren’t playing, you were drinking on a bench watching. I wondered how living in a movie set allowed this, and he pointed out eloquently that Japanese people don’t care what you do as long as you’re not loud about it. In some worrying cases, that means anything. Buy your beer, drink it on a street, use the toilets in Family Mart, but do not be loud about it!
And so begins my love affair with Tokyo. The kind people, the blinking red lights atop every building, the food — oh god, the food — and the culture around everything. It’s amazing. It’s worth the visit. And I’m ever so lucky to have the chance to revisit again, and again, and again hopefully.
Tokyo, I’ll see you soon!