Visiting Tokyo

In the beginning of October I spent 10 days in Tokyo.

I gotta say that the very first thing I thought when I arrived in Tokyo was “damn I do NOT miss the humidity”. Even though the temperature was somewhere between 70-76 degrees I guess my body has readjusted to San Francisco weather and I found myself sweating profusely most of the time I was there.

other things I didn’t miss. I didn’t miss riding on crowded trains. They might be fun as an experience once but after that they pretty much suck. I also didn’t miss riding with sick people on the train.

I probably I didn’t catch my cold from someone on a train in Tokyo but I did have a cold for 7 of the ten days I was there. Fortunately it was not at all severe and while I didn’t get to party has hard as I wanted to I was able to at least make it out every day.

What I also noticed though is that I felt more at home in Tokyo than San Francisco. Of course 7 years there vs only 8 months in San Francisco might do that but SF has the advantage of being America, somewhere I’ve lived for 35 years.

The biggest reason has to be my wonderful friends in Tokyo. The first day I was back I saw probably 20 of them. Certain things have already changed in the group, one who was married is no longer, another now has a child, yet another got married. Still, it felt mostly the same.

Of course I ate like a pig trying to catch up on everything I miss so much. I had Koumen twice and Wanzhuji once. I had several Japanese desserts and western ones as well. I got to try Tunisian food, does that even exist in SF?

I know some people who read this won’t like the next thing I’m about to say but something really stuck out for me while I was on vacation and that is how living in Tokyo really made the things that suck about America stick out for me. I know using the word “suck” is going to invite flamers and I could have used something more like “things that are not all that great” instead but honestly, they just suck.

The #1 issue that sticks out is crime. Being in Tokyo is such a welcome from San Francisco. I don’t even think San Francisco is supposed to be considered that bad a place but I have friends that live near the Tenderloin or when I go clubbing down that way and just stepping outside there there are scary people. People who play chicken with the cars passing through. People who are clearly angry at the world. Or, take a look down in the SOMA were where pretty much every 4th parking space on the street there is a pile of glass denoting a recently broke in car. If I go to the AMC Van Ness 14 or the Metron theaters I don’t feel safe. There’s always some group doing something aggressive. My office which is in what looks like the cleanest area of all the bay has a “no guns” sticker on every door. Even my own neighborhood, Noe Valley, which many would think of as safe doesn’t always feel safe to me.

In contrast I can pretty much be anywhere in Tokyo day or night and not worry about a thing. Like I’ve said before, we in America have grown so used to it we just ignore it. It’s not until you live somewhere safer that it really highlights for you how much crap we put up with or that we ignore that we shouldn’t. We should instead FIX!

I brought up vandalism before. Why is that part of American culture? I grew up with it. I thought it was cool to make prank calls. I thought it was cool to pour sugar in someone’s gas tank. I thought it was cool to step on my friend’s brand new shoes. I thought it was cool to go in someone’s backyard and throw the fallen fruit in their garden against their fence. Why is that part of America culture? As far as I can tell it’s not part of Japanese culture. Where did that come from? Why is it just a part of life now in America. We just expect it. We don’t even think that it could be or ever was any different and yet living somewhere where it’s not that way I now know we shouldn’t be expecting it. We should be ashamed of it. As a small example, the people that live across from me by like 10 jack-o-lanterns out for Halloween. By midnight 3 of them had been kicked into mush by kids passing by. Why did they feel the need to do that?

I’m not saying Japan doesn’t suck in other areas or that Japan is perfect. I’m only saying that living somewhere where vandalism and crime are so low has highlighted just how much shit we all ignore in America. Stuff that we should not be ignoring.

Okay, back to the good stuff in Japan, another is food. Food in SF sucks. I used to think it was the best in America. I know I’ve read that somewhere but there’s just something different about food in Japan. They take it to another level or something. It’s like in America everything seems to be going toward genericness. More sugar, larger portions, brighter colors but less taste. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Japanese food or Western food, for the most part food tastes better in Japan than America. I’m not saying Japan is #1. Hong Kong had amazing food too but so far SF has been fairly disappointing in the food area.

The last is racism. I used to think America was the best in that area. That’s what we are told. We are supposed to be the Great American Melting Pot. I always thought that’s where we were headed. My schools were mixed, my friends were mixed. But, since I’ve come back to SF I’ve really felt like racism is getting a LOT worse in America. Each race is carving out their own small insider club and outsiders are not welcome. There are all kinds of Asian events in SF where a non-asian is not welcome. There are all Indian restaurants where you get stares like “you don’t belong here” if you are not Indian. I’ve been told that Hawaii, a place I was raised to believe had the “aloha – love everyone – spirit” that now if they think you are an outsider can you go to the wrong cul-de-sac or beach you can get beaten to death. WTF!

What is making that happen to us? Is it the oppression of “the man?” Is it popular culture’s messages? Is it just a desire to feel power through believing you’re oppressed? Is it less culture mix on TV? Is it 500 channels of cable TV so each group doesn’t need to share anything? Is it the internet that lets us easily keep in touch with only our friends instead of our neighbors? Is it all of the above? I have no idea, all I know is that it exists. I’m not saying Japan is not racist. But I can say that when I’m there those topics rarely come up for me. I feel excepted wherever I go. But, back in SF I don’t which highlights the issues for me.

Oh well, that’s not where I really wanted to go with this post.

What I wanted to end on is that I really had a ton of fun in Tokyo and I really miss my friends and parts of my life there. I wish I knew of way to live there that didn’t require me to live in a 300sqft apartment and never be able to save for retirement and still make games for a living but I don’t see that happening.

SF is getting better as I make more friends. Maybe by the next time I visit Tokyo SF will feel more like home.

  • anonnanana
    What are race relations like in Japan?

    “just how much shit we all ignore in America. Stuff that we should not be ignoring.”

    I blame bad parenting, and the attitude of “do what you want, do what feels good, don’t judge other people’s actions”. I agree, it is vary unfortunate that these attitudes are so rampant in many areas of the US; we shouldn’t be putting up with it.

    “I’m not saying Japan is not racist. But I can say that when I’m there those topics rarely come up for me. I feel excepted wherever I go.”

    Not knowing much about Japanese and racism, but how would things be for a “black” (aka African ancestry) person? Are there large groups of racially, ethnically, and nationally diverse people living in the big Japanese cities as we have in “the west” (US, Europe), and do the Japanese mix well with the “blacks”, “Hispanics”, “non-Japanese Asians (including middle-eastern?)”, “whites”, and “native Americans”?

    In Los Angeles, the “mix” in 2005 was:

    “White” : 29.5%

    “Hispanic”: 44.6%

    “Black” : 9.7%

    “Asian”: 13.1%

    “Native American”: 1.1%

    “Other”: 2%

    (As of 2000, San Francisco was still 49.7% “white”)

    – anonnanana

  • There is racism in Japan. They have different issues. The issues that come up because Japan (like many countries) is practically all 1 race. The CIA fact book lists Japan as 99.3% Japanese. And, there are outwardly racist Japanese vs just the typical mis-informed.

    But, that’s not the point. Sure with our bigger mix here we are bound to have different problems. My point is that it seems like they are getting worse, not better. Here it seems like the races are separating. In particular, each race is forming communities not just to support each other but to exclude people not of that race.

    BTW, Not that at changes anything but the Census is purposely mis-leading. San Francisco is not 49.7% white. It’s 35.7% white. (as of the 2000 census). The census puts Whites and Latinos together. You have to go look up the Latino population and then subtract it from the White population to get the real values. I’m sure there is some interesting story as to why they do it that way.


  • GenkiGaijin

    Would it be easy to get a job back in Tokyo if you decided you wanted to go back?

    I’m caught between wanting to live in Tampa, FL and going back to Osaka. The problem is, the company I worked for, Nova, just went close to $43,000.00 in debt. G Communications just bought Nova but there’s unpaid teacher salaries and the Japanese staff haven’t been paid for months. Going back for me isn’t much of an option because all I can do it teach English. There is still the JET program and Geos and Aeons but you can only teach English so long.

  • maiku

    I just got back from 2.5 weeks in Japan with my wife (jp) and two-year-old son. I lived there for a year after college and have been there a total of about 6 times. We completely avoided big cities and spent most of the trip visiting relatives in the suburbs and small rural towns. I should also mention in the US we live in the suburbs. Obviously my trip was the polar opposite of yours!

    This time around I felt much more out of place and conspicuous than I did in the past. Maybe I’m more sensitive now. Of course I’m used to the stares, but in the local neighborhoods I felt more like an intruder rather than a curiosity. I almost felt bad going out and disturbing the norm. I was much more comfortable walking around with my wife or son as it made me seem more harmless. Hard to describe, but I felt more like I was being watched rather than stared at. I imagine a lot of this is due to being in a small city, but I hear it’s also related to crime. I’m fuzzy on the details, but apparently there are a lot of scams and crimes run by non-Japanese these days. For me, the US still wins in the melting pot category.

    I didn’t feel any safer in Japan this time than I do at home. Then again, our suburbs don’t have all that many dodgy areas. My mother-in-law caught a guy poking around an alley behind her house at 11pm on a Saturday night. When confronted he claimed to be from a security company and quickly left. He seemed polite enough to me, but apparently smooth talking criminals are common in Japan these days. I also learned that car and home break-ins are much more rampant now than they were 6-8 years ago. I guess I feel safer in the US because I’m at least aware of what to look for.

    On a lighter note, I agree, Japan still wins in the food department. Even chain and fast food restaurants have more consistent quality than their equivalents in the US. US food does lean towards salty/sweet as the lowest common denominator while food in Japan seems to lean towards milder and slightly sweet. For instance, the kimchi I tried in Japan was sweeter and less spicy. The sweets are amazing. I love being able to pick up a cheap shu-cream or pudding rather than the crappy Hostess or Jello equivalent.

    As a fairly new parent this trip definitely made me appreciate the US more. I love being able to mindlessly push a stroller down the sidewalk rather than having to constantly dodge fast cars and bicycles on narrow roads. Playground equipment seemed to be more difficult, geared toward kids 4-5 rather than 2-3. Less safe too, with lots of rusty metal, concrete, and steep ladders. Car seat requirements for toddlers seem less strict as well. Who knows, maybe we’re too neurotic about safety.

    Regarding anonnanana’s comment about parenting, I actually felt that Japanese kids were as wild if not wilder than their American equivalents. We noticed more half-hearted scolding than you see in the US. It was almost as if parents were disciplining just enough to not be perceived as indifferent. Around here most parents will pull a kid aside and even cause a scene if it’s in the child’s best interest. Of course you have to compare apples to apples. Working vs. stay-at-home parents, rural vs. suburban cultures, etc..

  • anonymousTroy

    I think there is quite a different inverse dynamic between the US and Japan here . . . here in the US our inner cities are dumping grounds and the rural/suburban areas the “Quality” areas, while in Japan it’s the reverse.

    The only time I was scared by riff-raff in Japan in the 90s was when I was on my motorcycle out past Mito and came across a boatload of bosozoku weaving all over the road at 15mph.

    maiku: I think it’s safe to say that Japanese kids get Discipline pounded into them at school, not home. And it is true that for quality of life, the nicer areas of the US/California are loads nicer than the nicer areas of Japan/Tokyo . . . (I lived near Hirou next to 3 embassies for 5 years but Los Gatos / Los Altos is more my speed).

  • jkg
    only dumping grounds?

    >here in the US our inner cities are dumping grounds and the >rural/suburban areas the “Quality” areas, while in Japan it’s the reverse.

    Why such a blanket statement about the US as that? You are completely ignoring one of the largest housing/social trends over the last 20 years with regards to city/social living dynamics…massive gentrification. I have lived in the so-called inner cities or near to them in Boston, NYC, and DC for 18 years of my life (12 in Tokyo now), and there have been huge changes. Sure there are still “dumping grounds” here and there, but my real point is your blanket statement is a false premise…

  • anonymousTroy
    perhaps. . .

    though Gentrification has to compete with simple expansion away, into the “Edge Cities”, from the urban-core blight.

    “dumping grounds” is the wrong term, I can agree. Area of depressed economic dynamism might be a better description, at least in those areas of the US where gentrification hasn’t moved forward sufficiently.

    From what I’ve seen, the Japanese have done a better job of maintaining the integration of their urban centers. . . mass transit and greater cultural commonality certainly helps here.

    If I had a point, I was trying to say that, at night, the Japanese urban core can often be much safer than out in the sticks.

  • sirla
    That blanket statement about U.S. cities has validity…

    Despite the gentrification in U.S. cities, you won’t find a single one in 2007 that compares favorably to Tokyo in areas like violent crime, pre-university level public education, or public transit. It’s even hard to find U.S. cities that exemplify “mixed uses” in the way that Tokyo does; NYC might be the only significant exception.

    There are other down trends in U.S. society, too. Find me a big city in the U.S. that respects the postman, the meter man for the gas company, mobile phone customer service rep, or the package delivery guy as they do their counterparts in Japan. You can’t. The U.S. middle class shrunk to obscurity awhile ago, leaving angry, rude, disgruntled, and unhelpful employees in their wake that most people barely acknowledge as human beings. Japan has problems, sure, with their obsession for appearances and implicit racism towards non-Japanese, but they’ve also maintained a society that for a Westerner, is a pleasure to live in.

  • CaliMeow
    About the food…

    I don’t know where you ate but the food in the US is far superior to that of Japan in variety and flavor. If you only count what is considered american cooking and what you can get commercially, I would agree with you. BUT there is nothing close to good Indian, Mexican, Korean, or Italian on the cheap here – mostly due to Japan’s monoculture. The Japan idea of spice is making it hot without the flavor. And in my opinion if it doesn’t have spice it’s just bland. I guess I’m just use to being able to eat Mexican for lunch and Korean for dinner. And I miss getting some pho or falafels at midnight. And that is the melting pot since as an American I expect and want these things on a regular basis.

  • Maybe it depends on what you are looking for?

    I have yet to find any good Indian in the San Francisco Bay Area. I knew lots of good Indian in Tokyo. In fact, case in point, most Indian restaurants in Tokyo have Tandori Ovens. Most Indian restaurants in the Bay Area (all?) make do with a western oven.

    Korean, well, my Japanese school was in Shin-Okubo, Korea Town for Japan so I had Korean food 3-4 times a week. I agree though, Korean is better here than Tokyo.

    Mexican, yea, you win. There is very little good Mexican in Tokyo except this place which is off the charts good for UP scale Mexican food (don’t go for tacos and burritos)

    And Italian? Well, Pizza Salvatore Cuomo is better than any pizza I’ve had in the states. Sure, all those Japanified pasta chains are not Italian at all but there’s tons of great Italian. Here’s one

  • acidic
    food and racism

    tokyo dining rated the best in the world, according to michelin. san francisco is good, but doesn’t compare to new york. even vancouver, bc has far better chinese food than sf. better japanese food as well.

    japan is far more racist than san francisco. it might not seem that way, since the japanese are generally very friendly, but they take their stereotypes seriously. sure, among some of the younger folks, there is some racial integration. but there is much more in the bay area and other culturally diverse metro areas in the usa. perhaps as a white american, you feel welcomed. try going to japan as a southeast asian or a chinese tourist (i am none of the above, btw). ever go check to shin-okubo? it’s quite the segregated chinese/korean community, right in the heart of western tokyo.

    if japan does open up their immigration to allow more workers to enter the country (most likely blue-collar work from poorer parts of asia, equivalent to mexican workers coming into the usa), you can be sure that the racism there will be far more extreme than that of the bay area.

  • Mie

    I’ve followed your blog for awhile now and have never felt compelled to comment until now. I’m fairly disappointed that your transition back to San Francisco has tougher than expected. Being a Hawaii transplant to SF myself, I could not see myself moving back to the islands as I love the city dearly.

    Re crime – You are correct. San Francisco has a relatively low crime rate compared against its dense population. Unfortunately, the limited amount of physical land the city has forces lower income/higher income communities literally next door to each other, causing sharp contrasts. ie. Nob Hill and the Tenderloin (or Noe and the Mission). It’s inevitable that criminal activity will spill over… especially specific activity like theft or drug offenses. Anyway, I won’t go on and on about my own opinion, but I don’t think you need to be anymore cautious here than in any other big city — American or not. Many of the folks in the TL and SoMa mainly have substance abuse problems and mental health instability. I wouldn’t necessarily go out of my way to go strolling down there, but I’ve also not ever felt unsafe when I’ve been there. For me, its more unpleasant than fearful. There are other areas of the city that I (20-something woman) am more uneasy about. Also, I believe Honolulu is only second to San Jose in safest cities in America (pop 500,000+). I’ve never heard of anyone getting killed for being an outsider. A few thugs might get into a scuffle with visitors regarding improper surfing etiquette, but every city has its louts. *sigh*

    Re vandalism and other cultural shenanigans – I believe a large part of this has to do with America being an individualistic culture. People here are raised to stand out. Kids are taught to express themselves and to value individual achievement. Japan, and most other Asian countries are collectivistic. They value interdependence, adherence to norms and authority. Thus, the Japanese tendency towards social conformity. The Japanese child is not only taught to return a lost item – it is ingrained in them. Not so much with the American kid, who might only return a lost umbrella if it doesn’t inconvenience him/her. The American child is the absolute center of his/her own world. Thus, taggers, vandals and fruit throwers (!) are looking for attention and reaction. This outweighs any sort of obligation he/she might have to society. The sense of self/enjoyment comes first.

    Re Food – No doubt the Japanese are obsessed with food. I’ve never eaten so well as when I was in Tokyo. However, you really aren’t going to do better in the US than the Bay Area. Restaurant-wise, NYC will always be better, by sheer volume. We’re talking about a city w/ 8 million people vs SF with maybe 750,000. They damn well, better have better food if they have that many people there! But NorCal is a mecca for chefs since there is an active farm community and an even bigger wine community. The seasons are mild and produce lasts longer. So go tell Thomas Keller and Alice Waters that their food is crap! 🙂

    Seriously though… I don’t know where you’ve tried thus far, so I can’t give too many recommendations. You won’t find *outstanding* Indian food around, but try India Clay Oven, Aslam’s or Lahore Karahi if you don’t mind a wait. Try Little Star for deep dish pizza, or the standbys like Zachary’s or Cheese Board if you’re in Berkeley. Burma Superstar is always delicious, but crowded. Cha Cha Cha, Bocadillos and the like are fun places to go with friends. Otherwise, I think you’ll be underwhelmed with most of the Japanese, Chinese and Thai restaurants in comparison to Japan. Heck, I’ve found better places in Hawaii.

  • mrdonut

    As for food, it really depends what you want. Here in So-Cal, there is *one* decent sushi restaurant in town in my book, and a handful of backups, which I rarely frequent. I’ve eaten at both Keller’s French Laundry and Japan’s #1 French restaurant, and the French Laundry wins hands down (and half the price). There’s some ‘okay’ Izakayas in town, but nothing to compare within the local suburban one near my girlfriend’s parents house in Japan. For me, in general, Japan rules for casual dining, whereas for fine (French, etc) dining, Europe and America are better. When I try casual American dining in the US, its quantity over quality, and that’s not where I’m at.

    Interestingly, the owner of said-sushi ya told me that when he opened, he hardly served any fish the first couple of months he was open… twice a week the fish merchant would show up and the owner would say ‘sorry, not good enough’, until the merchant realized that this guy wasn’t going to take the same thing every other sushi shop would take, and started bringing the ‘good stuff’. The food problem goes further than the restaurant itself…

    I hardly ever feel safe in mainland American cities… just too many screwups, drug addicts, homeless, etc, etc. Whilst Honolulu is a safe city, it has a terribly high petty crime rate. Japan? Well, I’ve never lived there, only visited…. just those black vans with loud speakers…

  • come back!

    i’m bummed i somehow missed this post until four months later, but the sentiment still stands — you need to come back!! 🙂

  • toomuchtokyo
    6 months on

    I’m interested in hearing how you feel now, 6 months after this post. Any chance of a follow-up post?

    I left Japan Nov’07 after 7 years living in Tokyo. However, my reasons for leaving were very different to yours. Basically, the feeling of being an outsider was driving me mad. I had a great job in IT and was doing very well financially but felt like my personal growth was stifled. I’m still battling with the urge to return to my old position in Tokyo but I’m afraid I’ll fall into the same expat lifestyle habits as what drove me from Japan in the first place.

  • in limbo

    It’s hard to figure out how I feel now.

    I believe I wrote that post while on the plane back from Japan though I posted it a month later. Something kind of strange happened. Before I went to Japan that October I missed it terribly. I met all my friends and loved every moment of it.

    But, the moment I got off the plane in S.F. I feel like “okay, that’s it, I’m done with Tokyo”. I don’t know what happened or why I felt that way but there was this strong feeling of that’s over. That was in October.

    Since then, well, it comes up often in my thoughts. My general thinking is I loved Tokyo but there’s just no chance for me to go back, short of getting independently wealthy or having someone agree to fund a game dev company and pay me my western salary. And even then they’d have to be doing something awesome. Just working and living in Tokyo isn’t enough, the job has to be fulfilling. So, I generally don’t seriously think about it.

    At the same time, life in SF so far is not so great for me. I think I mentioned this before but everything has gone back to the way it was before I went to Tokyo. In Tokyo I had 20+ friends and probably over 100 extended friends. I helped organize several events where 80+ friends showed up. Before I went to Tokyo I generally had 4 friends or less. Especially less as friends got married and had kids and therefore didn’t have time.

    Well, back in SF I have 2 friends and maybe 10-15 extended friends. On top of that (I think I’ve mentioned this before) in Tokyo when I finished work in Akasaka it was 15-20 minutes to Roppongi or Shibuya or Nakameguro or Ebisu or Kachi-Doki or Omotesando or Shinjuku to meet friends after work. It was common to meet friends 8:30 or later. We are already down town, we hang out until 10, 11 or 12 then go home.

    In my SF life I work in Mountain View so leaving before 7pm is out since the traffic is bad. If I leave at 7pm I get back to SF at 8 but the lifestyle in SF appears to be that people get off at 5-6 and party and then are home in their pajamas by 8-9ish. All restaurants in SF have their last order at 9:30pm. One of those 2 friends I mentioned is on that SF schedule so meeting her on a weekday is generally out. The other is on my schedule so we go to the same 3 places that are open past 9:30 on those days we go out.

    In other words, in some ways my social life sucks here compared to Tokyo. So, I often think “dang, I should go back to where my friends are” . . . . except, my experience is going back is never the answer. Things change, people move, situations change, it’s never the same.

    So, right now I really don’t know what the answer is.

    there’s also the fact that I’m getting older. In both America and Japan things tend to be segregated by age. It was bad enough going to clubs in Tokyo and having everyone but me be under 25. At least in a dark club I looked like I fit or so I was often told. But at some point, soon, I’ll no longer fit. That’s just more to the point that things change. At some point, going to a cafe in Harajuku at 45+ will probably seem creepy to some.

    I guess that means I’m focusing on finding a wife vs trying to find friends. It just seems like the single lifestyle is getting out of my reach and most of my lifestyle in Tokyo was about being single.

  • BL

    I am also a transplant from Tokyo currently living in SF. I concur. SF is really a dump. If you factor out the foreign ghettos that compose most of SF, you are looking at a society of overindulged boomers. The food is awful except on those occasions where you are willing to overpay. Even then you aren’t assured of a decent meal. Basically, it is a small, parochial town with all of the disdvantages of a large city. I will be settled back in Tokyo within 60 days.