Sleepless in Tokyo

Good round of meetings yesterday with the Tokyo team, followed by a subway ride on the Ginza line with a transfer to Akihabara, the fabled Las Vegas of Japanese consumer electronics. If I were a Gizmodo or Engadget writer I’d probably have been jaded, but the insanity of the place, the neon, the noodle shops out of Blade Runner, the pachinko parlors (think vertical pinball), and general Japanese anime/manga weirdness made this the place to see if time is short and a real Tokyo experience is required.

Here’s the random reporter’s notebook:

  • Vending machines: The Japanese use vending machines for everything. Take a stool at a noodle counter and stare stupidly at the staff until it becomes clear that the little vending machine on the wall serves a purpose. Stuff 1000 yen note into machine, press a button (any button) and out comes a chit which will yield a bowl of most excellent soup and noodles. This is not undergraduate ramen we’re talking about. Made me think of Tampopo. I did not see a vending machine with used underwear in it, for you peverts who are bound to ask.
  • Umbrella dryers: racks that stand outside of every restaurant, hotel, and shop. Stick a wet umbrella in it, and it gets dried while you are inside.
  • Subways: I half hoped for the sardine experience where the platform guard wedges people in like a football nose guard, but no, it was very civilized and efficient.
  • Cell phones: When I was at McKinsey working with the mobile commerce initiative, I coined the term “Idle Moment Applications” to describe the appeal of mobile phone content to people waiting in line at the bank or commuting on trains. Every, and I mean every Japanese rider on the subway was glued to the little screen of their cell phone doing the DoCoMo thing.
  • School girl uniforms: Okay, so they wear uniforms to school. But at ten at night, in high heels in Roppongi? Also, the racier stores are big on selling these weird pinafore uniforms out of anime cartoons. I don’t get it.

  • Cartoons: The whole anime, Hello-Kitty, thing is everywhere, from pictures of little Pokemon creatures getting crushed by subway doors as a warning not to let your Pokemon creature get crushed by the closing doors to inexplicably big-eyed creatures plastered on everything. Cute?
  • Blade Runner: My favorite sci-fi movie. An evening in the rain in Tokyo, with wet streets reflecting the waterfalls of neon; elevated highways buzzing with traffic and trains; dark skies and scurrying crowd of umbrellas. I expected a replicant in a sex shop to come crashing through a window at me with blazing rail guns at any second.
  • Food: Sushi on the conveyor belt the night of arrival. Easy, no language barrier involved in picking up a plate of raw fish as it rolls by, but last night me and two colleagues went to a place with no English capabilities and got into a picto-gram order fest that involved pointing at pictures and hoping for the best. I had one hand-roll that I swear was made with Ban Roll-On deodorant and seagull droppings. It was, hands down, the worst thing I have put in mouth that didn’t carry a phone number for the National Poison Control center on it.
  • Wasabi: They don’t serve wasabi with sushi. The chef evidently feels he’s done his thing with his wasabi.
  • Napkins: Forget about it. Not part of the program.
  • Jamaicans: Yep, the sidewalks of Roppongi are cluttered with Jamaican barkers who try to press cards into your hand and tell you in “hey mon” accents that there is a titty bar inside. How did they get here? Why did they come?
  • Plastic Food: The Japanese are the masters. Scary stuff some of it. This was my favorite. Ice cream weirdness that looks like baby aliens.

  • Phone poles: weird to see ugly utility poles all over the place. Makes me think of the sets of Godzilla.
  • Thinkpads: They are everywhere. All over Akihabara. Old ones though, not the latest and greatest.
  • Office hours: People work until 8 or 9 at night. They arrive later than Americans (I hit my desk at 6 am most days), say 9 or 10, but they leave a lot later.
  • Dress code: this is the land of the suit and tie. I am underdressed in my usual uniform of khakis, button down, loafers and Brooks Brothers blazer. Next time I bring the kick-ass pinstripes, the Hermes bow-tie, and the Bally cordovans.

I found my Halloween costume.
A full day of meetings today, dinner with the Japan marketing team tonight, morning meetings tomorrow, then off to Narita for the long haul back to Boston.

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