Tokyo in the time of Coronavirus: 11 April 2020 (entry #1)

This is not the first day of the coronavirus meltdown, only the first day I’ve found the energy – mental and physical – to write about life during this global pandemic. It feels like we are in the middle of the middle of the pandemic, but of course that will only be knowable after the crisis has fully subsided.

From here in Tokyo, life continues, if not normally, at least without the same strict quarantine restrictions that have been implemented in much of the developed world. Until last week, Tokyo remained largely open for business (as long as you weren’t flying in from overseas). True, I’ve been working from home for over a month now, and all schools have been closed for several weeks, but restaurants, bars and shopping malls have all remained open and, in many cases, crowded. That is, until this past Tuesday when the Japanese leader Shinzo Abe declared a state of emergency that is effective until May 6th. Bizarrely, the emergency declaration only gives local government authorities the ability to ask people to stay at home and avoid non-essential activities, while not actually providing any legal authority to punish people who ignore such requests. Judging by my own daily walks around town, certain businesses have closed down – like Starbucks and our local department store – but many others remain open and, in some cases, crowded with people.

Maybe one of the biggest differences between Japan and other parts of the world is that mask usage here has been nearly universal since the coronavirus outbreak emerged from Wuhan earlier this year. For February and March, I would guess that mask usage in Tokyo was around 70% (that’s a lot of people on the trains and just walking around wearing masks), but now I think that number has risen closer to 90%. People who do not wear masks are definitely the exception. Whether or not masks are effective in preventing the spread of the Coronavirus seems unclear, but if the official Japanese virus numbers can be trusted – and given the very limited testing being done here, there’s little reason to believe that they can – the widespread (and by all accounts proper) use of masks in Japan could be one reason that the virus has spread much more slowly here than in Europe and the US.

As one would expect given their high use, masks have been very hard to come by in Tokyo these last few months. Until the state of emergency, I usually did not wear a mask outside, as I only had a single option available to me, a 15 minute “steaming” mask that I had found abandoned in a store and was clearly not intended for outdoor use given that it looked quite ridiculous, what with its comically protruding center ridge and large ear flaps. However, this past Wednesday I happened to be walking by a pharmacy when I looked in and saw a crowd suddenly forming around a large plastic storage box that had – apparently apropos of nothing – been rolled out into the center of the store. I walked inside to see what the commotion was about and found that the container held individual boxes of face masks, 60 per box. I had arrived only 30 seconds after the container was rolled out, and I barely managed to grab one of the last boxes. I paid for the masks and left the store clutching the box like I fully expected someone to try and wrestle it from my grip at any moment. You would have thought that I had just discovered the last golden ticket, the way I practically ran home to tell my wife the good news. Anyway, we can now wear masks outside, and how fun it has become to pass judgment on anyone, especially another foreigner, who is not wearing a mask. They are jeopardizing our health! I think, with an indignation that feels hard won.

So, from our small but not tiny Tokyo apartment – where my wife and I are trying, with diminishing success, to not drive each other completely crazy – I will sign off on this first Coronavirus entry. Hope everyone is safe out there, wherever you’re weathering the storm.

Tokyo: Mecca for Food and People

In Japanese, “tok” means city, and “yo” (pronounced Yu-a) means food. Put it together, and you get “Tokyo” – city of food.

Actually I just made that up, but it might as well be true because Tokyo genuinely has some of the best food in the world. Sushi, ramen, soba, udon, Kobe beef, Tokatsu – fried pork, chicken on a stick, squid on a stick, stingray on a stick. . . and the list goes on. And on.

We flew into Tokyo’s Haneda airport on Saturday night and left by bus on Tuesday afternoon. It was just enough time to wish we had a lot more time.

While in the city, we took an all-day bicycle tour – an unconventional way of seeing Tokyo but something I would highly recommend – joined a night food tour and explored as much of the city – by foot and by subway – that we could. To sum it up: we walked a lot, we ate a lot.

Food wise, In those three days we managed to sample a bit of everything. From the indulgent – Kobe beef and lobster …

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This beef came with a “certificate of authentication.” I’m sure the cow would be proud
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Lobster cooked in front of us

to the simple: ramen served at convenient, cubicle-style desks where patrons are free from distractions (like other people) to concentrate on the flavors of the meal.

Plus, the ordering is all done through an easy to use vending machine – so no reason to bother with those annoying people who always try to talk to you at restaurants – I think they’re called waiters.

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Vending machine ordering
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You don’t have to bother with pesky small talk from waiters here – the food is slid through small slots in the wall
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Ramen!

Our first meal in the city was in the Tokyo subway – that city beneath a city. We ate tempura at this small restaurant in the Shinjuku station.

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Amy enjoying some tea
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Tempura in the Tokyo subway

On our food tour, we ate Yakitori – chicken and pork skewers cooked over an open flame.

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Yakitori at the bar

A plate full of fresh sashimi and a fish that was hand picked from a tank and filleted, still flopping helplessly about, in front of us.

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Fresh sashimi

And of course we had more ramen.

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You can’t have enough ramen

People

Tokyo is second to none when it comes to people watching.

On the subway and on the streets – Tokyo fashion runs the gamut from 1980’s esque puffy colored pants and all denim outfits – big accessories included – to slim cut black suits worn by the endless masses of sleek but tired looking Japanese business men.

In Akihabara, an electronics (and sex) district – women dress in French maid outfits to promote fetishized cafes. And in Shibuya -at the famous cross walk – one could spend all day watching the never-ending stream of busy looking pedestrians hustling off in all directions.

Finally (but not really – not by a long shot) on Takeshita Street, locals and tourists push together in a giant mass of slow moving, consumer-happy humanity.

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Takeshita street on a busy Sunday afternoon

Bottom Line

If I were more adventurous – and had more money and spoke Japanese – I would move to Tokyo in a heartbeat. An endless melding of concrete, bright lights and over-the-top eccentricity – Tokyo is a city that defies characterization. Urban sprawl writ large, Tokyo can neither be fathomed nor explained – but it should, without doubt, be experienced.

Japan Revisited – Ten Years On

I first visited Japan ten years ago as part of a study abroad program at Nanzan University in Nagoya, Japan. I went with a good friend from school and, after five weeks of pseudo-study, we booked tickets on the Japan rail pass and explored the country from Tokyo to Nagasaki.

In those pre-iPhone days and before TripAdvisor had fully caught on, our itinerary was based less on concrete travel plans and must-do activities, and more on WWII nuclear destruction: which is to say we visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki because, well, they are Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and because we didn’t quite know where else to go.

In Hiroshima, we explored the peace memorial, walked the city’s hallowed grounds – watching the eternal Flame of Peace burn – and then, unsure of what to do next, boarded the Shinkansen and headed south to Nagasaki – where we did largely the same things.

After Nagasaki, we travelled north to Tokyo. That massive, thriving and urgently vibrant megatropolis that is the heart of Japan. There, we wandered the city’s chaotic streets, got lost in its incomprehensible subway, ate whale meat and other non-traditional “food”, and toured the famous fish market – watching the tuna auction at 4:00am.

I loved everything about Japan. I loved how there were multiple vending machines on every corner and back alley in the country – offering everything from beer to umbrellas. In Nagoya, I loved how the streets and subways were immaculately clean – even though it was virtually impossible to find an actual garbage can. I loved, of course, how good the food was – even 7 Eleven had excellent Onigiri; and I loved watching the nonsensical Japanese television, which seemed like a strange, non-english cross between Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and a Snuggie infomercial.

That trip, now a decade on, seems at times like it happened ages ago, and at times like it could have ended just the other day.

I was 21.

All that is to say, it had been a long time since I was in Japan, and I was ready to go back. This time, despite my protests, there would be no atomic site visits, instead, as detailed in the coming posts, our week-long itinerary (this time with my wife) was split out as follows:

  • Three days in Tokyo;
  • one day in the Mount Fuji area; and
  • three days divided between Kyoto and Osaka.

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Japan, 2006

Trip Report: Singapore to Washington DC (Flight 1: SG to Tokyo)

Last week, Amy and I travelled back to the U.S. from Singapore. We used my entire balance of United MileagePlus frequent flyer miles, along with several thousand points transferred from my Chase Sapphire Preferred account, to book our business class flights. This is my trip report.

Flight 1 – Business Class: 

  • Singapore to Tokyo Narita
  • Boeing 777-300ER
  • Operated by ANA All Nippon Airways

The first leg of our trip departed from Singapore at 6:00am. ANA operates out of Terminal 2 at Singapore’s Changi airport. In my opinion, Terminal 2 is the most outdated terminal in Singapore’s otherwise modern and easily accessible airport.

While checking in at the ANA Business class counter, our taxi driver ran in to the airport to find us. We had overpaid by $10 and he was bringing us our change. I took this as a good sign: a favorable start to a long trip.

After checking in, we proceeded through Singapore immigration. Changi airport performs security scanning on an individual gate basis. In my opinion, this is far superior to the normal security process where all passengers are bottlenecked into the same long security line. However, I understand Changi’s New Terminal 4, which is currently under construction, will employ a traditional, airport-wide security process.

After passing through immigration, we proceeded to the KrisFlyer Business Class Lounge. As we were flying business class on a Star Alliance airline (which includes Singapore Airlines), we were entitled to use the Singapore lounge.

Entrance to the KrisFlyer lounges in Terminal 2

The business class lounge and the first class lounge are side by side in Terminal 2. We presented out boarding passes and entered the Business class side.


As it was still early, the lounge was fairly empty. A light buffet was available along with plenty of drink options, both coffees and alcoholic choices.

Business class lounge buffet
Self-serve bar at the lounge
Coffee machine
Plenty of available seating

Just in case, there were computer terminals and even booths to make private phone calls in.

Computer terminals
Phone booths

The food in the lounge was good but nothing amazing. We waited in the relative quiet of the lounge until about 30 minutes before our flight was due to depart. After quickly going through the gate’s security line (there was almost no one in line by the time we got there), we boarded the large 777 and found our seats.

I did not explore the back of the plane, but the business class section was almost completely empty.

lots of empty business class seats

The ANA 777 we were on offers a staggered 1-2-1 business class arrangement with direct aisle access for all seats.

For the aisle seats, every other seat is flush with the window, in my opinion these seats offer the most privacy as they are blocked from the aisle by the storage and tray table area.

business class seat flush with the window

The business class seats were adjustable into fully flat beds. When extended, I found the beds to offer more than enough space for sleeping comfortably.

After boarding I took my seat, 5F, and settled in. We were offered newspapers in Japanese and English and a welcome drink of orange juice, water or sparkling wine. The pre-flight drinks were served in plastic cups.

welcome drink in a plastic cup

We left the gate shortly after the doors closed and taxied for only a few minutes.

After a smooth takeoff, the seat belt sign was turned off and I explored the forward business class cabin.

Business class seat at boarding
View of the flight plan halfway through the trip

The individual screens for each passenger were large and easy to operate. However, I was a bit underwhelmed  by the entertainment options. Although there were approximately 32 “new releases” available, many of these were actually duplications of the same movie in different languages.

I like to watch breezy comedies on long flights, so I opted for the Robert De Niro and Zac Efron movie, Dirty Grandpa. Unfortunately, the movie was neither breezy nor funny. It was unquestionably the worst movie I’ve seen in a long time. In addition, there appeared to be issues of continuity regarding the feeble and predictable plot. I think this was due to ANA censoring certain aspects of the movie (i.e. sex and drugs), but it is also possible the movie was just poorly edited. Either way, I have no plans to re-watch it and find out.

 

Dinner onboard the flight

The flight attendants in business class were attentive and friendly. The food was okay but not exceptional – but I guess that is to be expected given that we were on a plane. The fruit was my favorite part of the meal above.

Japan from the air as we approached Narita

It was a beautiful day as we made our approach to Tokyo’s Narita.  Overall, the flight was relaxing and comfortable. It was especially enjoyable given how quiet business class was (I’m pretty sure I had a bathroom all to myself).  We were first off the plane (we passed a small first class compartment with a single passenger) and after clearing a short security line, we headed for the ANA lounge.