The true Tokyo

“I am afraid you might be disappointed by this visit to Japan – you expect so many traditional things that are no longer there.” Our Japanese colleague was sadly striking his Samurai goatee after listening to my excited babble about the upcoming Tokyo trip. My preparation included reading books about Myamoto Musashi, watching the Miyamoto Musashi DVD trilogy and even getting through the first five pages of the “Book of Five Rings’, written by Musashi himself at the end of his illustrious career in 1640. I also had a list of things I wanted to see, buy or do in Japan, most of them for some reason starting with K – Kyoto, Kaiseki, Kabuki, Kimono, Katana – and of course the tea ceremony.
The only thing my partner did was watch “Lost in Translation”, after which the trip was promptly postponed to the time when we had a signed contract– as he “had not intention of doing a Bill Murray in Tokyo”. But  the deal was signed with Japanese efficiency, and off we flew into the sauna of mid-summer Japan. 
The first  afternoon in the hotel, I watched through jet-lagged eyes a crowd of people self-pack themselves like sardines into an elevator on their way to visit some suite where the Beatles stayed in 1965.  Striving for Japanese culture and caffeine, I took the stairs down to look for some kind of tea ceremony – somehow ending up with a Frappucino at Starbucks. Another short walk brought me to a café that looked exotic enough, until I saw  the name above the door – Toraya –a Japanese establishment I have been to already in London and Paris. So many western signs around  – in fact, every awning, every shop sign was written in Latin alphabet .
Foreign logos are perhaps the first thing one notices in Tokyo – and it makes it just so easy to jump to conclusions, to decide that this is a culture subservient to Western marketing. It took my friend three days to find a baseball hat with a Japanese writing on it – a Knicks or Yankees hat would have been easily available.
Another immediate first impression is that of a perfect, seamless organization. No one crosses on red in Japan, no one eats while walking down the street and you won’t find a trash-can outside no matter how hard you look. In college I had a distinguished professor who referred to all Asian countries as “the chop-stick area”. I guess he would have seen in this order a clear lack of individualism — that driving force and pride of Western culture. The backdrop of English logos around would have only confirmed his unceasing belief that the West will always have the last word.
On the third day of our trip, looking out of the lace-lined interior of our cab as it stops at a streetlight, I notice two girlfriends crossing the street – one in a Gothic Lolita getup, another in a traditional kimono and hairdo – both gracefully glued to their cell phones, while carrying on a conversation.
And then everything suddenly comes into focus: the Bladerunner world of Shibuya, the sophistication of Ginza, the flowing banners  of Shinto temples, the incredible advancement of digital gadgets, the glimpse of an old man in a Rashomon-like house kneading the dough for Soba noodles, the gesture of a shop-girl who ties a bow on my dress as if it was some instant work of art. If you open yourself to Tokyo, you become imbued with a certain perfectionism, which makes you fold your hot towel neatly, instead of crumpling it on the table –and then to straighten your spine and question every gesture you make for its very reason, accuracy and grace.
Someone once told me that Japan is the Scandianvia of Asia – but to the compare the cleanliness of dull Northern-European towns to that of Tokyo is like comparing the neat and rounded handwriting of an unimaginative girl with the clean strokes of a calligraphy master.
Which one is the true Tokyo – the refined city I saw for one moment, or the patchwork of English logos and Westernd brands?  Could it be that through assimilating the Western world in such an obvious fashion the Japanese are enriching the subtlety of their own culture? And are we not failing to do the same, to learn from the wealth of that “other” civilizaiton – instead of writing it off as “Lost in Translation”?
During a coffee-break at the end of our business meetings, I told our Japanese hosts how not disappointed we were during the trip. One of them happily rushed out of the room and came back offering me a set of figurines showing the making of The Seven Samurai. How proud these people are of their culture, I thought, while twirling a paper coffee-cup with an English slogan imprinted on it: “Have a Break Time – Support Your Thirsty”.

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