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  • Writer's pictureCarl McCoy

A Trip to Tokyo

Updated: Jan 13

In January 2015, I traveled to Tokyo for my work. We were planning to stay for just 7 days, but our trip was extended by 3 days due to an enormous snowstorm brewing on the east coast of the United States, which caused airline delays and cancellations across the world. This would be just one of several massive snowstorms contributing to Boston’s record 107.6 inch snowfall that year.

The Flight

Japan Airlines operates a Boeing 787 direct from Boston to Tokyo, leaving at 12:40 pm, Boston time, and arriving the next day at 4:30 pm, Tokyo time. You cross the International Date Line, covering over 6,800 miles during your nearly 14-hour flight over northern Canada, Alaska, and the northern Pacific Ocean. The food and service on Japan Airlines is excellent, with hot towels and Häagen-Dazs ice cream in Economy class.

The cabin of the 787 has a higher humidity level than most other airliners, which made the long trip a bit less taxing on the body. The airplane itself is something very akin to a space ship; seven miles up in the sky, where the temperature is -60 degrees Celsius, the jetliner gracefully arches through the lower level of the stratosphere at close to the speed of sound, while inside the cabin you’re watching movies and enjoying a hot meal with cold, stainless steel cutlery.

You cross time zones and weather patterns and then daylight becomes night and then night becomes day, and you’re aware that these flying machines are bigger than the localized rules of seasons and hours. The Boeing 787 possesses new window shades; they are not manual plastic shades – the old school kind that you see on the 747-400 that ruled the skies in the 1990s and early 2000s – these new shades are electronically-controlled, and this only adds to the surreal nature of the lighting up there in the bluish thin air, close to the north pole. Is it daylight or night? The time on the clock suggests daylight, but your body tells you it’s night, and outside the auto-shade it looks like twilight.

My seatmate was a friendly, retired woman on her way to Bangkok, by way of Tokyo. It struck me on this random afternoon / night / morning in January that there were probably many retired people often flying to Bangkok with travel groups, somewhere above Alaska. They’re up there right now, as you read this. The movement around the skies of our planet is perpetual – the desire to see Bangkok pushes us all into these sleek, glowing spaceships for 14-hour stretches across impossible distances that encompass both day and night.

Arriving in Tokyo

By the time we reached our hotel in Shibuya, Tokyo, it was around 7 pm Japan time, which was 5 am in Boston, and I had been up all night eating Häagen-Dazs in the stratosphere, watching 7 back-to-back episodes of “West Wing” and several movies, and so I was ready to retire for the evening, but my travel companion had other ideas; he wanted to show me around Shibuya, and so we ventured out on a small expedition across the Shibuya scramble (that famous intersection often pictured in movies – the Japanese version of Times Square), where I nearly had an out of body experience, being so jet-lagged, disoriented, and tired. There I was in a sea of people, thousands of miles from home, on a late January evening, with the glowing lights and the rushing of cars and a thousand new smells and images. The vividness of that memory will stay with me, always. And then thankfully, we returned to our hotel, and I slept for a very long time.

Tokyo vs. New York

This was my first time in Tokyo, and since it is the largest city in the world, my basis for comparison is our largest city – New York, which I once called home.

Tokyo is a great city, of course, but my experience there made me appreciate even more how special New York really is. New York has a reputation for being the cultural capital of the entire world, and I saw that it really deserves that reputation, by virtue of its unparalleled diversity and global perspective. Tokyo is very much a Japanese city, whereas New York is an international city; New York doesn’t really belong to anyone, whereas Tokyo belongs to the Japanese, and you can sense that as you walk the streets.

I also noticed that people were much more private on the streets of Tokyo, compared to the streets of New York, where people will act in a direct, familiar way with complete strangers. I saw a man fall off his bike in the middle of an intersection near Shibuya, and I didn’t see anybody rush to help him, or even express interest in his fall. When I took a spill on the streets of New York once, there were 3 or 4 people immediately offering to help, asking me if I was okay. One businessman even stopped a conversation on his cell phone to offer me assistance.

But when this man fell off his bike in Tokyo, nobody really acknowledged his accident, and I was surprised by that. Since that time, I’ve asked my Japanese students about this, and they’ve told me that there is a high degree of respect for privacy in Japanese culture, and that perhaps the strangers did not offer this man help because they didn’t want to embarrass him, or intrude upon his business; it was his private experience, and he clearly was able to manage on his own.

The Hotel

My hotel room was quite small. I sent pictures to my family back in the states, and they expressed concern about whether I would be able to fit into the bed in the conventional way, being a rather tall person. On the plus side, if you needed the bathroom, you simply rolled out of bed, and there you were. I had just gotten used to the rather cozy dimensions when I learned that we would be transferring to a “much smaller hotel,” when our stay was to be extended for two nights due to the weather back home.

This was actually the larger of my two hotel rooms

As I look back on this trip from the comfort of my home where I have the luxury of extending my arms freely without knocking over the shower curtain and the bedside table in the same destructive motion, I fondly remember this hotel as “the big hotel,” in comparison to what followed. The next “hotel room” challenged many of my assumptions related to hotels – and square footage in general – and in fact whether it’s even necessary to be able to turn around in a given room, so long as you’re happy with the direction you’re facing. We don’t back up enough, in the United States, it seems. Nobody talks much about reversing directions; we’re always moving forward, taking wide and aggressive turns around corners and occupying large spaces.

Another thing that was notable in this smaller hotel room was the complexity of the bathtub. I don’t speak or read Japanese, but it seems obvious that the person who wrote these directions wants you to know a whole lot more than just how to turn this bathtub on or off. Perhaps they have in mind that you might want to repair the tub, or maybe disassemble it, and re-install it in a different room altogether.

American Cultural Reach

This was late January 2015, just weeks before the New England Patriots would meet the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl 49, in Glendale, Arizona. The big talk among the NFL that winter was “Deflate-Gate” and whether the New England Patriots had knowingly attempted to deflate footballs in order to gain an unfair advantage (I don’t believe they did – please see my blog post about how great the Patriots are for elaboration). I knew this was a big story in Boston, but I was surprised when I was asked about this scandal in Tokyo, on the second day of my trip. American sports and culture really do have an impressively global reach.

In graduate school, where I studied international relations, we called cultural influence “soft power,” while military strength was referred to as “hard power.” In my years teaching English to international students and recent immigrants, I’ve seen firsthand how strong this “soft power” really is; when someone watches an episode of “Friends” or “Seinfeld,” and they laugh along at the characters making fun of themselves, and everybody recognizes those shared human emotions and experiences – this drops people’s defenses and brings people together in a way that “hard power” never can. Jerry Seinfeld, Joey Tribbiani and Rachel Green have done more for America than we'll ever know.

Cultural Impressions

Tokyo is very safe, and very civil. The customer service is perhaps the best in the world. There is a gentle spirit in the culture that exists alongside a fierce work ethic and a strong competitive drive. At the same time, Japan has a disturbing history of chauvinism that appears to be deeply entrenched; many of my students tell me that their fathers never cook, and women are not well represented in managerial or leadership positions. In this culture of machismo, I was surprised to see a softer face of Japanese masculinity on the streets of Shibuya: while crossing the Shibuya scramble, I was alarmed to see two young men dressed in business suits running directly towards each other at full speed – basically sprinting. With my American sensibilities, I thought a fight was about to break out, or some crime was about to be committed. Instead, these two men greeted each other with a fiercely warm embrace, right there in the middle of the intersection. It would be difficult to imagine two American businessmen running towards each other and hugging in the middle of Times Square. American men are still influenced by the stoic legacy of John Wayne. Even if that’s gradually changing, his swagger still looms large in our collective male consciousness. I didn’t see John Wayne in the embrace between these two men in Shibuya.

On being a traveller

When you’re cycling through the patterns of your weekly routine in your home city, the world can become very deadened and conceptualized - you don’t always see the deep green of the leaves or the quiet, stoned facades of the buildings that you pass because you’re so lost in your thoughts: “…I have that meeting at 2 pm, and then I have to stop at the dry cleaners, and call about the taxes, and then make lunches for tomorrow…” All this exhausting mental motion crowds out the textured walls and the rustling trees. So, it’s very difficult to appreciate the rich architectural contrasts on the street that you just passed, or the unique afternoon lighting at this particular latitude, or the styles and fashions of the pedestrians walking on a city block, when you’re rushing off to your job on the well-worn path of your daily commute. But traveling breaks all that down, and forces you to see things for the first time, with a sensate gaze and a less occupied mind.

When I lived in New York, I always enjoyed walking home along 5th Avenue, because that’s where the tourists would be, and it was refreshing to be around them. I know that many New Yorkers get frustrated with the slow pace of the tourists, or their lack of awareness of sidewalk protocol, but I liked being among them as I could feel their wonder and awe at the vibrancy and grandeur of the city; for theirs was not yet a daily grind mindset, filled with obligations and meetings and places to run off to before some deadline, but instead it was a fresh and reverent perspective, walking down a truly impressive city avenue with a thousand tastes and smells and worlds offering themselves to you at once: the shouts and slides of ice skating in Rockefeller Center; the warm smells of roasted peanuts; and the colored lights of elaborately styled window displays all coexisting alongside the gray, deadening world of staff meetings and PowerPoint presentations and people getting pissed off about earnings reports.

But in Tokyo, it wasn’t necessary to be in the company of tourists to get that heightened vibe, since I was the tourist. Every coffee shop and every restaurant had something new to offer: a fresh insight, or a curious flavor, or a different smell. I was aware of being alive in a way that I’m usually not in my home city, simply because I was experiencing the world through my senses, and not through my mind alone.

The Shrine

Within walking distance of the center of Shibuya lies a treasure of history and stillness in the Meiji Shrine, which is dedicated to the spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken. There is a soothing energy and a quiet tranquility among the forest and the running waters that is palpable, and well worth a visit. There is a reverent spirit at this shrine that needs very little commentary, so I’ll just describe it with one or two pictures.

Navigating by true north

We have a convention in the United States where maps are oriented with an arrow pointing to the north. We should never take this convention for granted, as this practice was not respected on the maps around Yoyogi Park. You never realize how much you miss the north until it’s facing south.

I understood this to mean that north was northeast

North could also be west, of course

Unless it's pointing east, but you're still going north, we suspect

As for the sign, I think it's aimed at West Highland Terriers

The Food

I enjoyed the Soba and Udon noodles in the Japanese restaurants, but the thing that I remember most about the Japanese way of eating was how they served salads with the breakfast, at the hotel. It had never occurred to me to eat a salad before having scrambled eggs, and it struck me as a wonderful and healthy idea.

I love when people break the conventions about breakfast, and bust out the Chicken Parmesan or Beef Curry with rice at 6 am. Why not? These are healthy foods. Must we always be confined to bacon and eggs or cereal for breakfast – just because that’s our tradition? These are the kinds of questions you ask when you travel to distant lands, and good things come from asking questions like this. You come home from a trip like this and you’re eating clam chowder and spinach at 3 am and teaching yourself the Japanese expression for, “Excuse me, where is the restroom?” just for the hell of it, and nobody can stop you, since everybody else is asleep while you’re jet lagged, and you’re wondering about whether you should eat salad for breakfast everyday and whether you actually need a car when a bike would do just fine, and everything is fresh and alive in a way that it wasn’t before. Isn’t that a big part of why we travel?

The Jet Lag

When it was 10:30 am on Tuesday for me in Tokyo, it was 8:30 pm on Monday for my family and friends. There’s something unusual about being in a different day from your loved ones. It makes for very confusing phone calls. You woke up 4 hours ago on Tuesday, and their evening is just getting started on Monday:

“How are things over there on Tuesday?”

“Just fine – how’s your Monday going?”

“Probably about the same as yours was, yesterday.”

“Yeah – Monday night was good. I think you’ll like it.”

“How did you sleep?”

“Actually, I slept very well. My morning was pretty good too. How did you sleep?”

“I don’t remember – that was so long ago, now.”

“Oh right. So, when are you going to bed?”

“Not for a few hours. I have a meeting tomorrow morning.”

“On Wednesday?”

“No, it’s on Tuesday…”

“Oh right, your meeting is today…”



And so on…

A lounge at Narita airport

You know you’re far away when you’re only occasionally in the same day as your family and friends. And besides the distance, there’s the jet lag when you arrive, and when you return to the states. And I mean jet lag on a whole different level of jet lag. I thought I knew what jet lag was before, but this was something else entirely: brain fog and spatial disorientation and time travel all rolled into one confusing state of mind; I was so disoriented upon returning to the states, I woke up in the middle of the night in our home in Boston, and asked my wife, “Is there a restroom here?” “Yes, there is,” she gently replied. “You’re home now, in Boston.” And I realized I was in fact home when it was necessary to get up and actually walk at least several yards to the bathroom, rather than simply roll out of bed and just be there, in one graceful motion, as I would often do in that very small space that functioned as my hotel room in Tokyo.

My smaller hotel room

But now that I’m home, as I have been for 3 years, and now that I'm finally adjusted to the jet lag, I can say that the great adventure of my trip to Tokyo was not in the departure, but in the return. The newness of my eyes and senses as I walked around the streets of Tokyo in a wide-eyed, sensate state of aliveness, rather than in a deadened, conceptual fog of daily to-do lists and mental deadlines – that freshness of perspective I’ve endeavored to maintain, as I go about the daily grind in my hometown.

And I wonder if T.S. Eliot ever travelled to a city that awoke on Tuesday, while the rest of the world was falling asleep on Monday, when he penned these famous words:

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding

Carl McCoy, copyright 2018

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