Welcome to the future

Location: Tokyo, Japan

So now I’ve gone from a really big city to the biggest city in the world. Taken street by street, Tokyo is similar to Beijing in some ways, very different in others. In general it’s cleaner, and the air is better; traffic is more orderly (and on the opposite side of the road) and pedestrians seem to get right of way, though they too follow the signs more closely than Beijingers; more people speak English; the mass transit system is much more robust. There are two things that are a lot worse here: ATMs that will take a foreign card are extremely uncommon, and BlackBerries and most foreign mobile phones don’t work here at all.

I flew in on Thursday last week, and almost immediately ran into ATM difficulties. I tried to use one at the airport which was supposed to take foreign cards, but it told me funds were unavailable, which I knew was not true.

The shuttle bus from the airport (luckily they take American Express) took an hour or so, with not much opportunity to see countryside. The expressway has big fences up along much of its course, probably to block the noise for the people living nearby.
I did see a few bits of farmland, which eventually gave way to industrial and city scenes. I caught a brief view of some of the taller structures of Tokyo Disney Land (or maybe Tokyo Disney Sea).
The Park Hotel Tokyo at Shiodome is different kind of hotel than any I’ve been at before. The main lobby is on floor 25 of a large office tower, and the rooms are on floors 26-34. We’re on 31, looking out towards the Sumida River. From the reception desk there’s an amazing view of the Tokyo Tower.
The room was rather small (no surprise there), but very clean, modern, and nicely appointed.
The area around the hotel is mostly quite new, with interesting buildings gathered together and connected by walkways above ground (both one and two levels above the street) and below ground (two more levels). There are several train stations linked by the walkways as well. The lowest four levels of most of the buildings are occupied by shops and restaurants, many of them on the fancy, name-brand designer sort, though some of the restaurants are reasonably priced.
After checking in, I asked at the front desk where I could find an ATM that would take a foreign card, and they gave me a map with the post office circled. I had heard that post offices are about the only reliable place for an American to get cash in Japan, so I went to give it a try. The result was the same as at the airport, so I went for Plan B and found a restaurant upstairs from the post office that took American Express.
It was called Cafe Haïti, and while I’m no expert on Haitian food, it tasted pretty good. Eating a Haitian meal seemed like an odd thing to be doing in Tokyo, but there I was. Note the table displaying plastic facsimiles of the menu items. If I understand right, the English translation of this is “information food” and just about every restaurant has some.
It was dark when I got back to the room, and this is what I saw out the window.
After a conversation via Skype with my bank at 4am local time, I managed to get the ATM issue cleared up, and at the first opportunity returned to the post office. I felt much better with 20000 yen in my wallet. I used the morning to wander the area, take a few pictures, and just see what was around. The hotel is close by the famous Ginza shopping area, which is packed full of places with prestigious names for shopaholics to get a fix. Luckily that is not my addiction, so I just watched the people and gawked at the buildings.
I took a break with a latte at Tully’s. In this town, I do not need to worry about being unable to catch a caffeine fix (since that is one of my addictions). In my walking around a five or six block area, I saw at least four Starbucks, two Tully’s, two Excelsiors, and a half dozen other coffee places.
This odd contraption adorns one of the Shiodome buildings. On the even numbered hours from 8:00 to 22:00 it puts on a little show, with various parts moving while wistful music plays. A crowd always gathers (and not just obvious foreigners like me), taking pictures of it and each other. It's patterned after Howl's Moving Castle, and inside is a store selling Studio Ghibli items as well as gear from various Japanese sports teams.
I took the shuttle bus back out to the airport to meet D in the afternoon, snapping pictures like an idiot as we went. Her flight arrived a little early, so she walked out from customs just as I was walking in. We gathered her stuff onto the bus for the trip back into town. It was Friday evening rush hour by the time we hit the road, and it took more than two hours to make it to the hotel, part of which was on a detour route.

On Saturday morning, we stopped by Tully’s for some coffee and pastries, then got onto a train to the Tokyo Big Sight convention center for the Tokyo International Anime Fair. We did not actually plan our trip to coincide with this – we just got lucky.
We waited in line for quite a while, in a long string of people outside the doors. When they finally let us in, it seemed like a half mile inside the building before we got to the hall.
Yes, that’s a real building, not a model or the set from a science fiction movie. It’s a huge convention center. There was at least one other exhibition going on there at the time, something to do with photography, and the place was packed.
The amine fans were all gathered into a huge hall with booths from studios, distributors, and whatever. I never did figure out the organizing principle – it seemed the same characters and shows were being promoted at multiple booths. One Piece and Death Note were especially popular. There were lots of people dressed up as characters handing out flyers, bags, and all sorts of free stuff. One thing that was really amazing was that the crowd contained people of all ages, from toddlers to retirees, all snapping up the freebies and checking out the latest animated promos as well as old favorites. Even Disney was in on the action, with a large play area. Stitch seems to be a very popular character in Japan.
There was a special exhibit on the history of robots in anime, covering everything from Mighty Atom (AKA Astro Boy) to Evangelion, and dozens in between. I had already snapped this picture of Doraemon before I found out you weren’t supposed to take pictures. Oh, well.
The whole thing was quite overwhelming, with noise everywhere, people elbow-to-elbow, and things to see in all directions. One of the most interesting areas was devoted to up-and-coming independent anime creators, some of which were definitely trying things out of the norm for the genre.
After that, we spent the rest of the day exploring a couple of the different districts of town and learning how to get around by train. We have 7-day passes that are good on almost all Japan Rail lines, but there’s also Tokyo Metro and a few private lines that you need to get everywhere. Luckily the non-JR lines are not terribly expensive – a few hundred yen will get you across town.
It was pouring rain on Sunday morning, which put a damper on our visit to the famous Harajuku district. This is kind of the Haight-Ashbury of Tokyo, with funky clothing shops and kids in eccentric outfits.
It’s also known for street performers, and we caught a group of guys dressed like 50s greasers doing a dance routine.
The Meiji Shrine is right near there as well, and the park looked very picturesque in the mist after the rain let up.
This is a popular spot for weddings, and we saw three different parties in the time we were there.

Monday was our day to visit the Studio Ghibli Museum in the Mitaka district in the western suburbs. It was nice to get out of the city and see another side of Tokyo.
The museum itself was very cool, full of items relating to many of the Ghibli films. My Neighbor Totoro, Porco Rosso and Kiki’s Delivery Service seemed to get the majority of the attention; there was surprisingly little from Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle. They had a special art display in one hallway for a film by Russian animator Aleksandr Petrov called
Моя любовь (My Love in English see a little snippet of it here), which Studio Ghibli release in Japan. There was an extra special unexpected bonus: two whole rooms devoted to Aardman Studios, full of things related to Wallace & Gromit, Chicken Run, and other great works.
You’re not allowed to take pictures inside, but outside is OK, and this is what you find if you climb the stairs to the roof. It’s about the only thing in the museum from Castle in the Sky. We spent way too much time and money in the gift shop, but it was surprising how limited their merchandise was. They only had two T-shirt designs, and there was not a photo book of the museum aside from the small one for the Aardman exhibit.

We got to watch a short animated film about an underwater spider who developed a crush on a water skimmer. It had no dialogue and was quite beautiful to watch. I don’t know the title of it or if it was the work of Miyazaki or someone else at Ghibli. Edit: I've since learned that it's called
Mizugumo Monmon (Monmon the Water Spider), and was directed by Miyazaki in 2006.

After leaving Mitaka, we went to Chef’s Heaven. That’s not the official name — I just made it up. It’s a whole district full of shops near the Tawaramichi Station devoted to cooking and kitchens.
A lot of it is restaurant supplies, from commercial cooking equipment to furniture and display cases.
There were several shops selling the “information food” that Japan is known for. Dishes by the thousands, pots, pans, utensils, chopsticks, aprons, and more than you could possibly take in.
Here’s a little sneak shot taken on the subway. We occasionally saw women in traditional kimonos, whether by choice or as a job uniform we don’t know. In spite of the old fashioned clothing, they had mobile phones just like everyone else except us.


The must be The Place

I’ve read in many places that most of China’s major cities are good destinations for people interested in shopping. Of course, most foreigners who come here to buy things are interested in bargains, but along with the influx of wealth (as well as the rapidly increasing domestic wealth) comes a certain amount of upscale retail business. Which leads us to The Place.

My taxi ride to the Mexican restaurant on Saturday evening took me down a street I hadn’t seen before, though it’s not far from where I live. As we drove through the darkness, I saw a massive video screen suspended above a side street, and a giant cover over the street behind it with some sort of light show going on. It reminded me of the pictures I’ve seen of someplace in Las Vegas. On Sunday I needed to go out to buy some things in that general part of town, so I took my camera and went to check it out.
As you approach in the daylight you can see the video screen and tell it’s showing something, but not much detail.
If you walk in, there’s a block of the street that’s been closed to traffic and ready for throngs of shoppers. It’s been open less than a year, and many of the store areas have “Opening Soon” signs up.
It’s all done on a massive scale, and a poor human being feels pretty small.
Apparently all the money in the world can’t buy good English form. And I must be ignorant to have not thought of Switzerland as a center of the perfuming art.
Inside it’s a fairly typical “fancy mall” with marble everywhere and modern sculpture. There are four levels of shops in the building on the south side of the courtyard. I was a little tired and thirsty by this point, so I went in and got a beverage and a snack at Starbucks and did some quality people watching.
A large portion of the clientele were foreigners like me.
After a while I wandered upstairs and went out onto the second story deck to see what was going on outside. There was music playing from the suspended speakers (Elton John, I think – it wasn’t very loud) and patterns played on the canopy above. Several other people were taking pictures.
I went back inside and took the escalator down to Level -1, underneath the courtyard (there’s apparently a Level -2, but I didn’t see what it was). This is where the Food Court will be, and there are a few other shops down there as well, including a Beijing 2008 Official Licensed Olympic Store. These characters seem to be following me wherever I go.
There’s also an English-language bookstore with a rather odd name. Did they mean “Chapterhouse” or “Charterhouse”? I went in and found a UK paperback copy of the last book in the science fiction series I’ve been reading for the ridiculous price of ¥105 ($13 US). But it’s imported – what do I expect?

The Place is the kind of over-the-top shopping area you might expect to see in Tokyo, though I suspect that a similar complex in Japan would not have so much open space. The sheer extravagance of it is impressive, and I hope it’s not a victim of the rampant speculation that has plagued the Chinese market in the last few years, leaving many ambitious projects half-finished.
Right next to The Place is a very interesting set of buildings. The light on the top of them says SOHO, but in this town that name seems to apply to a wide area and dozens of buildings. Anyway, at night these odd-shaped towers light up with white neon along the angles, and I can see them from my apartment.
And just for the heck of it, here’s a Chinese car that looks suspiciously like a BMW.


Hold your breath and count to a million

On Tuesday I got another chance to tour our new office. There’s been quite a lot of progress since my last visit. Here’s a reminder of what it looked like on 26 January:
And here’s a picture of the same area on 6 March:
The countdown continues. Only a couple of weeks left until we move in – so they say.
This will be one of the break rooms. I think we’ll call it “The Café”...
And this is looking into the reception area from behind.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the first stage of the Olympic ticketing web site came up this week. The Chinese media all reported on it, though they messed up on the statistics we provided. They reported it had 300,000 visitors in the first two days. That was actually the number of page views – the number of visitors was large, but not that large.

In immigration news, I have a temporary work visa now, good for two months. Before that time is up, I’ll put in for an extension so I can stay.
And I thought I’d include a picture of one of my plants, which is looking quite nice. I still don’t know what it is, so I’m groping in the dark when it comes to caring for it. I water it twice a week with the others, and occasionally put it where it gets a little sunlight.

This afternoon I went to Carrefour, which seems to be my most reliable source for household items. I picked up something that will contribute immeasurably to my well-being here in China:

(I would have bought more than one, but this was the only one they had, and it didn’t have a price tag on it. The cashier had to call for a price check and it took forever to discover it was ¥4.60 – about $0.50. Some things are the same all around the world.) While refrigerators with freezers are commonplace now, the Chinese have not picked up the American habit of putting ice in drinks (aside from cocktails when they go out), and my freezer did not come with any ice trays. This one was the best I could find – I didn’t think tiny pieces of ice in the shapes of assorted fruit would be as practical. On a (tenuously) related note, some restaurants will have two or three prices listed for each kind of beer on the drink menu. It’s not the size of the bottle, it’s the temperature. Colder costs more, room temperature is cheaper.

While I was at Carrefour, my BlueBerry buzzed with an email from JW. His wife had read about a Mexican restaurant that is highly regarded, so they were going there for dinner. I couldn’t make their departure time, so I said I would just join them later.
On the way there, I came across this fellow directing traffic around a construction site. Yes, it’s a mechanical officer.

The restaurant is called El Fogoncito, and it’s kind of hard to find, tucked into a half-finished office/retail complex called the Wanda Center. The others had already had some appetizers and drinks before I arrived, and the report was, “So far so good.” I’m pleased to report that the food was quite good. I have certainly had worse Mexican food in several states of the US. BG was quite pleased, and had a great time chatting in Spanish with the owner.

So now we’ve found decent Mexican food, which had previously been on our “Conspicuously Absent” list. I was told the margaritas were not good, so BG promised to have a word with the owner about that. They had some decent tequilas behind the bar so I must be a matter of technique or recipe.
And here’s something I came across the other morning while waiting for my ride to work, a leftover of the fireworks madness.