Last week I visited Tokyo for the first time and found it to be one of the greatest experiences of my life. Somehow, even with the language and cultural barriers, the city made a lot of sense to me. And like Vincent Vega says of Europe in Pulp Fiction, it's really all about the little differences.
There are the suits, ties and white gloves worn by the taxi drivers; the electronic pushbutton answers for so many tasks; how many women use umbrellas walking in the sun; a channel on my hotel TV devoted entirely to Peanuts cartoons dubbed into Japanese; the moist cloth given as you enter virtually any restaurant; how business casual is eschewed in favor of suits. And so on.
Overall, it may be a cliche to say this, but I was really struck by how civilized Tokyo is despite being among the densest and largest cities in the world. There are a lot of things I love about New York, a city I lived in on and off for seven years, but Tokyo makes NYC feel so much more dirty and rude.
One of the other most moving aspects of my trip was to walk around the city and realize that there did not seem to be a single building in central Tokyo that was built before World War II. I knew the war had destroyed a lot of the city, but it's almost as if Tokyo temporarily ceased to exist by 1945. In saying this I'm not taking issue with America's waging of the war -- they attacked us, after all. But it's still sad, made even more so after I traveled to Kyoto, Japan's ancient capital (which was spared from bombing), and saw the magnificence not only of old Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, but the maze of old streets and residences surrounding them.
A lot of the food I ate was relatively familiar--sushi, tonkatsu, miso, ramen, tempura (hard to go off the beaten path when you don't speak the language)--but as you might expect, in many cases it was the best I've ever tasted. The first night I arrived, the texture of my tempura at a small restaurant in neon-festooned Ginza was just a little flakier and more flavorful.
I'll surely be posting more thoughts about the trip in the days/weeks ahead. Rest assured that Tokyo remains branded on the brain.