Medication time

I tend to write about a lot of small, quirkier things I find in Tokyo, but for a long time I’ve been planning to write a longer series on what the day-to-day routine of Tokyo working life is actually like.  Luckily for me, this ad on the Tokyo subway does all the work for me:

To explain:

07:45 – Crushed in Tokyo subway.
09:00 –  Operate computer in wind tunnel.
13:00 –  Bolt down lunch at a standing ramen bar.
15:00 – Offer your business card to a customer, making sure to show respect by being knock-kneed.
16:00 – Carry a box of things somewhere – quickly!
18:30 – Erase the soul-crushing memories of all of the above by ingesting some booze, and plenty of it.

Of course, being marketing, this is not nearly realistic: no-one finishes work anywhere near as early at 6:30pm.


Expensive bubbles

Soapbox time.  Tokyo has a reputation as an expensive city – a reputation that gets echoed repeatedly.  The most recent example of this was in Businessweek recently,  when Tokyo picked up the gong for #1 most expensive city in the world.

But is it true?  Is Tokyo prohibitively expensive?

No.  It doesn’t have to be.

Of course Tokyo can be a expensive city, if you so choose.  The reality is that if you live like the locals do, Tokyo is not nearly as expensive as it’s made out to be.  Let’s look at some of the claims of the article.

Lunch at a restaurant: $18*

Actual cost: $6 – $12.

$18 might be a Western-style upmarket eatery with cloth napkins and white wine.  At the restaurants I go to with my co-workers every day, which are uniformly excellent Japanese-style establishments, the most expensive set lunches cost 1000 yen (~$12.00).  A more typical example is the generously-sized, outstanding pad thai I had today for 700 yen (~$8.50).

…according to restaurant surveyor Zagat, dinner with a glass of wine plus tip in Tokyo costs $94, on average.

Firstly, Tokyo does not have a tipping culture as standard.  I believe you can tip for absolutely outstanding service (the purpose of a “gratuity” anyway), but it’s rare.  As for a $94 average for dinner – sure, there are high-end dining experiences in Tokyo running hundreds of dollars, but you don’t have to pay anywhere near this for a brilliant dining experience.  Meat on a stick, edamame beans, beers and a great atmosphere will set you back between $15 – $30 a person.

Source: Kobakou on Flickr

Movie ticket: $22*

This is true – going to the movies is expensive in Tokyo.  Still, cinemas are a discretionary expense, and DVD rental shops are practically begging you to loan DVDs at $3 overnight for a new release and $1 for a weekly.  Late night session discounts, “ladies day” and the first of every month sees cinema prices discounted down to about $12.

…rent for a two-bedroom apartment for expats is typically more than $5,000 per month in Tokyo…

Perhaps the key phrase here is “for expats”.  There are real estate agents in Tokyo set up specifically for cashed-up expats.  They’d be delighted to show you insanely over-priced rentals if you don’t know any better, or can’t find someone to help you with language issues.  If you’d like to live in a furnished apartment in the exclusive area inside the Yamanote ring line, you’ll pay for it.  Likewise, if you’d like a great deal of unnecessary space in your apartment, you’ll pay for it.  Once again, live like the locals do, live where they do, and you’ll be paying somewhere between $1000 and $2000 a month for a nice, if not extravagantly spacious, place.

For convenience, King shops at expatriate grocery stores, where goods sell at a premium, and it is not uncommon for him to pay $50 for a steak.

It shouldn’t be surprising that if you buy imported goods, you’ll pay a lot more for them.  Go to the same supermarkets as everyone else, and the prices are far more reasonable.  It’s also true that steak is expensive in Tokyo.  Other cuts of meat, smaller parts or the type you’d use in stir fry, are priced reasonably. Fish, too, is cheap, and is more of a staple of Japanese diets.

So, I’d summarise the article like this.  If you refuse to integrate into Japanese culture at all, and insist on creating your own little bubble of the West in Tokyo, then yes, your Japanese experience is going to be expensive.  Otherwise, you can have a great time in Tokyo for not too much money.  For an extreme version of living frugally in Tokyo, this guy tries to survive for one month on $400.

My ones and zeros sound better than your ones and zeros

Near my office is one of Tokyo’s audio equipment retail districts, and I recently happened to pop into a store with a co-worker who said he wanted to pick up a couple of things over his lunchbreak. High-end speaker equipment is not unique to Japan of course, but it was the first time I’d ventured into one of these stores for myself.

I entered the world of the audiophile, and I don’t think things will ever be the same.

How about this used speaker cable, a steal at just $2800 AUD?

Or how about one of these second-hand audio cables at only $977 and $1140 respectively?

I’ve got to say, they look the business.  If they also happen to improve sound quality, I guess that would also be useful.

I once happened to meet a guy who used to work in stereo sales. He confided that while the margins on the speakers and amps were only modest, they made an absolute killing on cables – sometimes up to 80% pure profit.

As he said: “Once a guy  – yes, almost always a guy – has already dropped multiple thousands of dollars on high-end stereo equipment, it’s the easiest thing in the world to say, ‘You know, it would be a shame if you weren’t getting the best out of your new gear. If don’t use these $2000 cables, really, what’s the point?'” Thanks the the miracle of price anchoring, that $2000 seems like a trifle compared to the several thousands more the punter has already outlaid.

What also makes this so effective as a money-turning enterprise is that as audio quality is such a subjective thing, you can always be lead to believe that there’s just a little too much bass, or that treble is not quite sharp enough.  If only you’d bought those more expensive cables!  Time to upgrade!

But don’t let me sit here and claim that audiophiles are alone here.  I have a funny feeling that this scene in a camera shop is based on bitter personal experience.  I imagine you can easily replace the word “lens” with “speaker cable”:

A most orderly bedlam

Everything they say about Tokyo is true.  Well, true in terms of the rail system being brilliant, at least.  During peak hour, trains arrive every two minutes.  The longest time I can remember waiting for a train Tokyo is about seven minutes.  After about three minutes, I was tapping my foot with impatience.

As well as being frequent, the trains run with military precision.  In peak hour, you walk up to the platform, and the electronic signboard announces that the next train will arrive at 8:27am.  Precisely as the clock ticks over to the appointed minute, the train appears from around the bend without fail, as if it had just materialized, summoned by the signboard itself.

Except for that one time in one hundred when it doesn’t.  I commute on one of the bigger train lines in Tokyo, and any fault on the line creates absolute commuter havoc.

There are a few different causes for this, usually.  Strong winds.  A freakishly large amount of snow.  Someone deciding to avail themselves of the rail system to end their life: interestingly, while the status message in Japanese flashing on the station screens shows it was due to a suicide, the English version shows something nice and euphemistic, like “personal injury”.

You know there’s been a problem on the line when you get to the station and there are about one thousand people anxiously mingling in front of it.

Because the trains are so freakishly precise and everyone is expected to be in the office at 9am on the dot, everyone immediately whips out their mobile phones and start calling and emailing bosses and co-workers that it’s terribly unfortunate and unforgivable, but they could possibly be up to TEN minutes late.

Actually, on the morning of this particular incident, the trains turned out to more like two HOURS late.  People who were desperate to get to work took the scenic route on buses.  With no buses to fall back on (that I knew of), I went home to monitor the situation on the Internet.

One thing doesn’t vary, though, whether the train is on time or late: prepare for some train moshing on your daily commute.

The man who (really) loved trains

Rattling along on my daily commute, the announcement would come over the PA, as it did every day: “Tsugi no eki: chikatetsu hakubutsukan mae” (next station: the Subway Museum).  I’ve walked past it countless times.  It’s an unimpressive squat, beige building, wedged underneath the subway line itself.  In the several years I’ve lived in this area, I’ve never bother to go – how interesting could a museum about trains be, anyhow?

(Source: Wikipedia)

So, let me just say that contrary to my expectations, the museum was really quite impressive.  I can recommend it if you happen to be out this way.  But that’s not what I want to talk about today.

I want to talk about a certain young fellow and his hat.  Let’s call him Taro-san.

One of the centrepieces of the museum is a full-sized subway simulator.  I would imagine that actual train drivers practice on something very similar to this.  It comprises of an entirely authentic front section of a subway train, which moves around to simulate accelerating and breaking.  A kindly looking elderly staffer in a green blazer would explain to the (mostly) dads and their sons how to operate the throttle and break, and to watch the speedometer.  In front of the simulator was an enormous, high definition screen showing the driver’s view as you moved between two Tokyo stations.


Standing in front of the simulator on this day, there were about five people lined up, but Taro-san was the one who really attracted attention.  Probably in his mid-twenties with a stooped, short frame, he wore a train driver’s hat festooned with subway-related pins and badges.  He completed his ensemble with white gloves, a green-ish jumper, beige slacks, and white trainers.  And, inevitably, glasses – not the stylish kind, either.  Sitting beside him on the desk was a small, soft attache case with a Tokyo Metro logo on it, the same kind I’d seen actual train drivers carrying as they come off shift.  Two of his friends were with him, dressed similarly, but he was clearly the leader of this weekend train crew.

He was patiently lined up with his friends, with the look of someone on well-trodden, comfortable ground. They might as have been wearing leather jackets and hanging out by the pinball machines at the local pizzeria, given the nonchalant vibe radiating from them.  Whereas most of the visitors received a polite welcome and their instructions as their climbed the simulator’s steps, the gentleman with the green blazer stood aside wordlessly as our be-hatted and gloved subject bounded up the stairs come his turn.  It seemed obvious that this routine had been carried out many times before.

Once sitting in the simulator seat, he affected a different bearing altogether, became a different beast.  His shoulders went back, his chest out, his spine stiffening as he operated on auto-pilot, opening his attache case and laying timetables and documents swiftly and precisely in their appropriate places on the train console.

Checking the wall of dials and gauges, he smartly brought his gloved hand up to the brim of his hat in a pointing motion, perfectly mimicking the protocol of Tokyo subway drivers.  Bringing his hand down in a crisp salute, he looked back out the window of the simulator, doing a safety check.  With everything set, I saw him mouth a radio command for departure, and he let the breaks go and throttled up.

Looking on from the sidelines, I was riveted.  What kind of person spends their weekends in a train museum, lining up again and again to pretend to drive a train?  I mean, sure, I’ve been accused of having a few obsessive hobbies from time to time, but – train driving?

I was temporarily a little depressed for Taro-san.  Apparently the competition to become a Tokyo subway employee, let alone a driver, is quite fierce, involving entrance examinations matching you against a large number of other hopefuls.  There’s even a word for people who love trains – densha okaku – train geeks.  I imagined poor Taro-san missing the exam cut more than a few times, having to console himself with lining up with the tourists to experience his dreams two simulated minutes at a time.

When he got off the simulator though, his friends gathered around as they went to the back of the queue to line up again.  They smiled and talked excitedly about trains, waiting for their next chance to become a train driver for just a few moments.

And then it struck me.  As I was standing on, looking at these guys with pity for being obsessed with a hobby outside the mainstream, you know what?  They’d discovered something they loved to do.  The amount of passion they put into what they were doing, the precision, the as-close-as-they-could-get authenticity, made me think of them passing the time at university or working in a convenience shop by day, waiting for the weekend when they could be a train driver again, just for a little while.

I’m sure Taro-san will get his wish eventually – I don’t think you could ever repress that kind of passion and zeal.

The guy just loves trains.

Such is snow

It’s snowing tonight in Tokyo; the first time I’ve seen snow here in two years. Snow falls are not common in Tokyo, so any time it happens must be savoured.

Snow in Tokyo 2010

I’m in my apartment at the moment, Ugg boots and hot carpet on (obviously, not in the same manner), watching the flurries fall outside my window. The train line outside my house seems to have stopped running too. Snow has a curious muffling, deadening effect on the world, but the lack of traffic and noise make it surreal, like I could be cooped up in a solitary cabin somewhere in the mountains rather than in a jungle of apartment buildings with tens of thousands of others.

Illuminated by the streetlights,  the snowflakes make flickering shadows on my window as they add to the blanket down below; it’s a supremely tranquil feeling.

Snow in Tokyo 2010

The snow isn’t silent, either – it makes plopping, lapping noises as it alights on to my window sill, then a dull whump as a flurry breaks off and heads earthwards.

Snow in Tokyo 2010

As exotic as living in a foreign country may seem, you can still find yourself in a routine sometimes, just like back at home. I know a rare evening of snow in Tokyo makes me remember to appreciate those unique experiences.

This morning, I draw back to curtains, ready to savour a pristine white blanket of snow:



Oh well, if I can only have an hour of snow, that one would have ranked up there.