From Indagare Travel's John Cantrell:
I almost always love the place that I've just visited more than any other place I've been. Such are the rewards of travel, and of being, I admit, a travel pushover. Not to mention the benefit of working at Indagare, surrounded by the travel zealots who make up our staff. But Tokyo, where I spent an all-too-brief few days in August, has made me not want to go anywhere else. On my first trip to Japan, I loved its capital so much and so instantly that I want to keep it as my favorite city for a while longer. London, Rome, Cairo--forgive me!
Here is a city that can stand against any other, and often win. Shopping: incredible. Food: sublime. Hotels: impeccable. Street life: astonishing. Nightlife: infinite. Culture: remarkable.
Add to this the transportation I took -- flying business class on Singapore Air's new Airbus 380 service out of LA, and a high-speed train with virtually a direct link to my hotel, the Shangri-La -- and Japan, even for a long weekend, was well worth the jet lag.
And the sore feet. So engrossing are Tokyo's labyrinthine neighborhoods at street-level that without meaning to I walked eight hours straight one day, in steamy summer heat. The experience of losing myself in the city but eventually starting to find my way through it -- with street signs beginning to make sense and my map becoming a believable guide -- was purely thrilling in a way that I hadn't experienced in years.
Is It Safe?
Three little words hung over the trip before I left: Is it safe? Five months after the March 11 triple disaster in the north of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown, even normally adventurous travelers asked me the question. But except for a wall at the Imperial Palace, from which a small section of stucco had fallen off, I saw no visible sign of damage in the city and detected no sense that anything was wrong.
After the disaster, 150 miles from the nearest devastation, Tokyo saw a run on bottled water and gasoline and groceries. The train and subway system had shut down. For two days stranded citizens had slept where they could, some outside in the cold. That was the extent of it. Still, the resulting psychological damage was deep, and lasting.
Everyone had a story to tell of where they were on "3/11," as the day is hauntingly known. You could tell that they were still processing what had happened, and yet couldn't believe that it had happened, the situation made all the stranger by the fact that here you couldn't tell that anything had happened, anywhere at all. During my visit, public spaces were room temperature -- that meant very hot -- owing to the need to reduce electric consumption due to a compromised system. Otherwise, life seemed to be as usual.
Of course, I had researched my destination before going. Yet I was unprepared for almost everything about it. The extraordinary civility of the people. The presentation of merchandise, with $10,000 handbags displayed as beautifully as sculptures, and ditto the $10 peaches in the store next door. The Oz-like cleanliness of the streets and backstreets, the park benches and subway platforms -- not one cigarette butt, and practically no scribbles or signs of dereliction in sight.
Coming from the States, and New York in particular, it was a wonderful jolt far stronger than a good sake to encounter a city that has many of the same components as NYC -- skyscrapers, neon overload, millions of people, exceptional affluence -- and yet here they add up to a phenomenally different place. Outside one Takashimaya department store, at least 50 bicycles were lined up in racks, and none were locked. Neither policemen on their beats nor guards on armored trucks had guns. When the Shangri-La became busier with the check-in of Japanese families for the weekend -- who used the hotel as a resort and never went outside -- their children made no sounds at breakfast louder than their parents.
What Kind of Strange Place Is This?
Even in the heat of August, on streets in Harajuku crowded with teenagers and twenty-somethings on a Saturday afternoon, I didn't see the waistband of one guy's boxers or the straps of one girl's bra. Compared to this, the weekday crowd passing through LAX on the way over could have staged a show for Victoria's Secret, minus the beautiful bodies. Trips to Muslim countries have often made me think that even at home Westerners display far more than is prudent, or even pretty. I hadn't expected to have the same thought in Japan.
I hadn't expected the size of the place either. Put New York and LA and Chicago and Houston together, and you begin to approach Tokyo, the center of the world's most populous metropolitan area, where 35 million inhabitants reside in a space covering 5,200 square miles. (That's the size of Maui, times seven.) Then consider that the majority of central Tokyo's structures have been built since 1945, when firebombing destroyed half the city (in one night, in the single deadliest air raid of WWII, killing 100,000 people). For sheer built-environment spectacle in the modern age, I thought Dubai and Shanghai were unmatchable. Not anymore. Most of the five-star hotels reside in the tops of new towers, so while I can't say you'll get your fill of skyline views, practically anytime you're at your hotel you can have them, whether you're in the gym, the lobby or your room.
Ironically, here, where there is so much to see, there are not so many "must-see" sites that turn out to be true must-sees -- at least not to my eye. The Meiji Shrine was serene but somewhat basic, I thought. The elaborately dressed "cosplay" (costumed) girls of Harajuku were over-hyped; the Tokyo Tower like Eiffel's, only bigger. The Imperial Palace -- it's practically invisible behind moats and trees. No mistake, it's good to see them all with your own eyes, but mostly so you can know for yourself that their sum is far greater than their parts.
One exception: the famous Tsukiji fish market, truly like nothing I've ever witnessed. Every day hundreds of workers with knives the size of samurai swords carve up thousands of headless tuna as big as coffee tables -- you'll either want to rush to the nearest sushi restaurant (about 10 steps from the complex in every direction) or you'll vow to do your part to protect the oceans and never order fish (or urchin or squid or lobster or eel) again.
A Most Respectful Culture
Even then, for sheer wonder, nothing in Tokyo matched the manners of its people and their respect for others, for property and for propriety. I have a fine sense of direction, yet I was often lost; no map annotated by my concierge, no well-researched and translated list of addresses got me exactly where I was going without a few (okay, several) false steps along the way. Repeatedly I asked in English for help from passers-by and was instantly directed to the correct door or street or platform. A few times I was led to it.
When more than once a stranger shows you how to buy your train ticket from a bank of vending machines beneath a wall of incomprehensible maps, and then escorts you for five long, hot minutes through the world's busiest station to your platform, where your train arrives on time and graffiti-free -- that's a lesson in manners, and much more, that we can all learn from.
A local Indagare contact and longtime Japan expert explained it to me this way. "I believe Japanese people -- both regular citizens and those in the travel industry -- will be be even more welcoming of those who choose to visit the country in the next year. Despite their stoic appearance, many Japanese people are feeling a little depressed by the scenes of their fellow citizens suffering and, until recently, about the uncertainty of Fukushima [now heading toward a cold shutdown in late 2011/early 2012]. In their quiet way they will be very appreciative of foreign travelers taking time to visit Japan."
Add one more category to those above in which Tokyo can outdo most any other destination. Hospitality: one-of-a-kind, and from the heart.