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Tokyo: land of pickled radish, hyper-electricity and “girls over there, guys over here”

2012 February 2
by Zoe Strimpel

Not quite my idea of heaven.

I am recently back from Tokyo which a good handful of my friends (well, three) describe as their favourite city on earth.

“Oh wow, Tokyo! Jealous!” they say, as if I had announced a trip to Miami or New York. Or Paris. Or St Petersburg. Or…you get it. As if, in short, Tokyo is some kind of tourist paradise, its cultural (as opposed to female) treasures spilling out of it on every street, ripe for the taking.

I don’t get it. Tokyo is not a paradise of any description whatsoever. It is a city of endless (and I mean ENDLESS) concrete and flashing lights; time spent underground in poorly sign-posted train-cum subway stations the size of cities themselves and strawberries that cost up to $100.

Never before have I felt “creeped out” – I loathe the expression – in a country (apart from Switzerland). I think it was the sense that in Tokyo, people are islands, moving in atomised clusters or alone through a vast man-made, deeply unsympathetic matrix. You can’t imagine soft furnishings in Tokyo: it’s all planes of metal and glass. In the more “characterful” and “interesting” parts, it’s floor upon floor of arcades in closely-huddled buildings, with endless flashing signs. Disgusting-looking plastic food (models of tuna and salad cream crepes are popular; how about some massive lumps or raw meat or a fondue?) adorns the fronts of countless eateries. Plastic is king in the arcade palaces. Where, I found myself wondering, can people recline in upholstered booths in welcoming, obvious and twinkling pubs? Come to think of it, where does anything twinkle instead of flash and pulsate and emit loud slot-machine, theme-park noises? Where can you sprawl in relaxation on a sofa – are there luxuriant sofas with lots of cushions anywhere in the city, in either its private or public spaces? Where can you escape the rigid uniform of knee-high boots and short-skirts for women (women/girls who don’t go for the famous French maid/cartoon look, that is) and the black suits or studied skater-boi garb for men? I saw nobody in jeans and a cosy sweater. Women were mostly making a point: “I am a hot, feminine woman” or “I am a mad-crazy grungy hipster” or “I am like an animated quasi-Caucasian child, who probably loves hot sex”. From trumped-up to conservative, the boot-wearers did not look comfortable. They seemed to stagger, not walk, and some of them dispensed with tights, which seemed a touch harsh, given it was around zero degrees and half an hour away (albeit by bullet train), a blizzard was raging.

An odd sense of sex: bikini doll dancing on Buzz Lightyears, with ice cream

Plastic food: yum, yum.

So yes, it was freezing. Like here. A couple of times, standing with our maps out and utterly confused (streets are not clearly marked) we asked passer-by for help. Half of them completely ignored us, one shooed us angrily away. Apparently, they don’t really like our sort (I was warned). Indeed, trying to get into the tiny bars of Golden Gai (literally hundreds of microscopic watering holes side by side) we were repelled by the proprietor warning us gleefully of cover charges five times the amount of any drink on tap. Fair enough – we probably did look annoying. Maybe we’d do the same if a gaggle of Japanese tourists bustled into our tiny bar.

It must be noted that if they didn’t ignore our requests for help, strangers were immensely friendly. One man we met while eating katsu curry in a diner in Akihabara, “electric town” (we were the only women – but no hassling, here or anywhere), surreptitiously drew us a map on a napkin while we kept talking among ourselves. On it he included a shrine that “you might love”. Another young couple we stopped figured they’d take us themselves back to the station they’d come from and direct us from there. The station was the equivalent of Bank in its labyrinthine quality but still they came with us. You wouldn’t catch me retracing my steps into Bank for anyone.

No, I can’t complain about “the people”. Like anywhere on earth – some are nice, some less friendly, some weird, some dull, some great, some hilarious.

Bowl of pre-dinner pickled things. It's not Itsu, folks.

But the food. My biggest heartbreak. Who doesn’t love Japanese food (or rather, “Japanese” food)? Oh I was looking forward to silky sashimi, wild wasabi, rocking rolls, sick (as in awesome) steak.

There was some of that, particularly on the beef front (two occasions of mind-blowing beef action, actually). There were some good fish moments, too. After the tuna market in the morning, our hands frozen to frostbite while we watched a man bounce up and down auctioning off the beasts, and swordsmen carve the fish open, and various mongers stewarding crates of unspeakably slimy seafood, we had breakfast. Of fish. Even at 7AM the fatty and less fatty tuna and the salmon slipped down a treat. But it was a big succession of sashimi, and much of it did not give the taste for more. Have you heard of beak fish? Well it doesn’t go too well on a boat of rice (or anywhere); raw squid’s a bit tricky too, so is a local orange clam, and spiny, stiff fish with fins of flesh that refuse to be compressed.

Tempura sounded and looked awesome – the chef was clearly a bit of a master. But briefly flamed Japanese yam was when I began to get uneasy about the food. Uncooked starch is gluey. Like spit strands stretching between the mouths of a snogging couple. Or: imagine biting into a raw potato. I spat out something else, too – a greatly rare action for me. It was a piece of bright white mystery seafood in an otherwise pretty good pub-style restaurant, and its consistency was like something out my worst nightmare: snot that won’t break up in the mouth, perhaps. Bright white, stiff snot. Into the napkin it went. This planted a deep fear in my taste buds. From then on, the scales (as it were) fell from my eyes, and I realised my culinary dream was not to come true. There was the pickled radish ball that looked like a matzoh ball (or rice) but tasted putrid (I blame Western preferences for easy flavours, obviously). The pickled vegetables in general were not to my taste. Mystery vegetables. Little bowls of strange brocollis, yam-like things, mini mushroomy bits, ginger. Vegetables – bar cucumbers- require olive oil, garlic and butter. Not radishy pickle or fish sauce or…no. I began to feel weird. Difficult savoury food is usually neutralised by lovely pudding. Not in Japan. Everything is bean-oriented. Previously I had loved bean paste treats. I guess I like the style you get in Chinatowns in the US. The bean sweets in Japan were so far from delicious that even I – courageous sweets marauder – couldn’t be inlined to finish them. There was something wrong with the sugar, I think – everything from green tea muffins (terrific idea) to nougat tasted off. Like it had been made with Splenda. The minibar at the hotel yielded surprisingly non-tempting treasures – if that’s not an alarm bell, what is?

Something else was notable. Obviously gender is a hot topic in Japan. You just have to look at the kimonos and the mini-prom dresses; Manga imagery and the growing number men who refuse to embrace any gender at all. For all this, conservative notions seem to dominate – women should be pretty and alluring, men should… well, do everything else, I guess. There were several times when it was suggested that the “girls” go in “that taxi” and “the men” in “that one”. At dinner, ladies on one side (with the view), men on the other. Not one woman at the fish market, nor in the business lounge at Narita. A women’s only carriage on the subway “from 7:32 AM to 9:30AM” on weekdays. There was something about the prevalence of women I saw staggering on heels sat uncomfortably with these impressions.

It feels good to be critical of a far-away destination. There’s a cult of “wow, it was amazing” in relation to places that are over 2,000 miles away. The traveler in search of authenticity and/or glamour must adulate everywhere far they go and flaunt their cultural journey – all very “been there, get the t-shirt, it’s an AMAAAAAZING t-shirt”. I’ll be focusing on the upsides of Tokyo for an article in City AM (and there certainly were upsides – the ridiculously amazing view from my hotel room, for one; the bidet-morphing, heated toilets for another). But for now, it feels good to just moan. “My name is Zoe and I found Tokyo strange, unappealing, difficult and the food kinda gross!”. Amen.


One Response leave one →
  1. Kieron permalink
    February 5, 2012

    Balderdash, you miserable, ungrateful contrarian. You clearly needed a better guide. All I’m hearing is a combination of “It’s not what I expected” with “It’s not like the West; here we have comfy sofas in pubs and cream cakes in minibars”. That’s not the same as, “It’s not any good in and of itself.”

    The whole delight of Japan is in relishing a place that challenges your own notions of “What humans want, and will intuitively create if not provided for them.” Apparently, soft furnishings aren’t an intrinsic, primal human need. Go to Japan and 170 million people do without them without bothering. Likewise bread. Or wine. Or comfy shoes. Or central heating. My mum still hasn’t got over watching a 3-year-old gobble down raw egg on rice for his breakfast, like it was the most desired comestible of every toddler on the planet.

    And perhaps you can point me in the direction of the cosmopolitan city where the women and men DON’T dress to make a particular statement? Don’t mistake 2 districts of Tokyo (Shibuya and Harajuku) for “All Japanese women’s clothing can be reduced to 3 stereotypes. get out of those parts of Tokyo and you won’t see that. Likewise, you will see sweaters, trainers, jeans, etc.

    An outsider visiting Shoreditch and Camden in London, or Williamsburg in New York, could say exactly the same. But it seems ridiculous to condemn the nation as being unadventurous or lacking in style breadth because of it. You’re talking about one of the most stylish nations on earth.

    BTW: Somebody shooing you away when you ask for directions is not being rude; they’re absolutely terrified. You’re speaking English. I once had a hilarious, minute-long, rabbit-in-the-headlights moment with a struck-dumb cashier in MosBurger. I was asking her for ketchup, in Japanese. (ke-cha-pu). But she knew I was English. Therefore she predetermined that she wouldn’t understand me. So she just gawped at me with utter panic on her face while I said, “Kechapu?… Kechapu?… Kechapu?… Kechapu!” The words had no capture because she couldn’t hear them. All she was hearing was shame, in her certainty that she would not be able to comprehend whatever it was I was saying.

    Eventually, the manager had to be summoned. “Kechapu,” I said. He turned to the waitress. “Kechapu.”

    “Aaa- kechapu!” she said, the panic finally clearing from her face. English is an awful experience for many Japanese people. Being unable to speak in English, or understand it, is so shameful, they would rather run away or shut out the world than deal with the horror of getting it wrong.

    By the way: Call me – my phone sparked out in the snow last night and now I don’t have your number, so can’t contact you about meeting up today. :)

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