Landing in Tokyo, first contact with a country that is so different from our good old Europe. Tokyo, one of the largest cities in the world, stretches as far as the eye can see. This gargantuan city is the starting point for the journey to Japan.
he ground shakes under our feet. A little music accompanied by a bird whistle and then a female voice announce through a loudspeaker the arrival of the metro. The map in front of us shows the countless metro lines and companies but is of no help as it is full of characters and, let’s face it, complicated as hell. On the screens, between two advertisements, the waiting time per second for the next metro. This one arrives on time, as always. The headlights of the lead car dazzle us and the automatic doors on the platforms remain closed until the metro comes to a complete stop – a safety measure. When the doors open, the heat rushes in with us.
Tokyo, capital of Japan. It is nine o’clock in the morning. After more than twelve hours of flight over northern Russia – close to the Arctic Circle – the wheels of the gigantic Airbus A340 touch down in Japan at Narita International Airport. Still tired from the chaotic flight and especially from jetlag, we look for the famous Japan Rail Pass directly in the airport. The debates continue to inflame the web and the world of travel, it is still a safe and stress-free way to travel in the country, provided you know how to use it properly. Americans seem to represent a large part of the tourists in the queue at the agency and many of them are waiting like us to receive the precious sesame. By an incredible luck, we came just before the arrival of the flight from San Francisco, which would have added a few tens of minutes to the already long wait.
Even in this futuristic capital that is Tokyo, Narita airport is an airport like any other and we still don’t realise where we are. The day before we were at work, our noses plunged into our computer screen, in our obligations and our daily routine, quite far from the spirit of this trip to Japan. It’s only when we get off the EXP, the high speed train connecting Narita airport to the Japanese capital, that we slowly start to realize that Tokyo is opening its arms to us.
The real legend of the Japanese Salaryman.
In front of us in the metro, several young men in suits and ties are waiting like us, their eyes riveted on their mobile phones. Japan’s economic power was built on these “salarymen”, so much so that they have sacrificed their lives for Japanese multinationals. These little hands that shaped the modern society of post-war Japan are now increasingly decried by the new generation. In society’s imagination, salarymen have become almost a “disgrace” and becoming one of them sounds like a failure in professional life. Who of today’s Japanese youth dreams of spending their lives working for a Japanese multinational like their fathers? To have to work hard, with endless working hours, to spend their time commuting in the Japanese megalopolis and especially to work after more than sixty-five years? Just by reading some manga – popular Japanese comics – we can understand the desire for change. Unfortunately, the Japanese work culture is one of the most rigid in the world, as is Japanese society itself. And despite this call for change, reality quickly catches up with the desire for societal (r)evolution. The myth of the “salaryman” remains a reality for many Japanese.
Shinjuku, the ultra-modern district of Tokyo is our final destination for the day. After a fleeting meal in a small restaurant lost in the middle of the towers, it is time to go to the flat booked on AirBnb. At Higachi-Shinjuku station, Koeda is waiting for us and we are late. Definitely, we are really French. Despite his limited English, Koeda welcomes us and thanks to technology, we manage to communicate with him. Fortunately google translate exists. It’s a funny situation, especially as Koeda also tries his hand at French. Yes, he does! The flat itself is quite small, but what can you expect for less than a hundred euros for three? Knowing that Tokyo is still one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in. This one is very well equipped: washing machine, kitchen, balcony and what seems to be the most important, Japanese toilets.
Kabukichō, the neighborhood of Shinjuku that never sleeps.
Night falls quickly in Japan. It is barely five o’clock and the light is already fading. With it comes the cool of the night. Temperatures are pleasant during the day, a little cooler in the evening and at night. Autumn is slowly beginning in the land of the rising sun. In the Shinjuku district, Kabukichō is the destination for any Saturday night partygoer. The entrance to Kabukichō is marked by a large gate. The district “that never sleeps” is apt well named, so much the artificial light of the advertisements, the giant screens, the karaoke give the illusion to be in full daylight. But whoever says partygoers and fun, also says hoodlums.
Kabukichō is without doubt the “hottest” place in Tokyo, with notably the Yakuzas who are easily recognizable thanks to their tattoos. These are right on the street, in the middle of the crowd. But we are in Japan, they never attack tourists directly and you should know that pickpockets are rare. It is thanks to gambling money, prostitution – often hidden in karaoke bars – and extortion from merchants that the Yakuzas “survive”. As for the pickpockets, they either join the big criminal groups that control the area, or they understand that disrupting business by pickpocketing will get them into trouble with these mafia groups. Crime in Japan is often not visible and that is why it is one of the safest countries in the world.
We stop in the Shinjuku Golden Gai district to have a good meal. On the menu, octopus and pasta soup as well as traditional rice dishes. The first challenge is overcome, because unlike at lunchtime, the restaurant’s menu was only in Japanese. But with incredible delicacy, our waiter served us the best. Of course you have to like octopus. The Shinjuku Golden Gai area is rather similar to a small period town, with houses of no more than two stories, small restaurants on the street etc. It’s an incredible feeling to be in a small town. It’s an incredible feeling to have discovered this district almost by chance, following a young girl who had all the trouble in the world to walk with her high heels (many young girls are in the same case). Next to the ultra-modern Kabukichō district, Shinjuku Golden Gai almost gives an image of a “bad suburb”, whereas it is the opposite. Back in Shinjuku, we find a café behind one of the countless towers, overlooking a busy square, it’s time to rest and finally land. We are in Japan. The first contact with this country caught between modernity and tradition is impressive, the two weeks in Japan will be even more impressive.