Visiting Tokyo

Arrival in Tokyo

Beijing to Tokyo

After what seemed like an interminably winding exit through airport lines for ticket checking, Immigration, passport checking, customs and ticket checking again, I found myself back on an Air China 777 and off to the next stop in this sweeping odyssey, Tokyo. After a 2-1/2 hour flight, we landed through the dark gray turbulence of an afternoon rain squall.

I'm told that the best way to get to my destination, Tokyo's Imperial Hotel, is by airport bus. On the flight, I'd inquired about the way to say "Thank you" in Japanese, and realized I already knew the phrase, but had forgotten it: "Domo origato." This now replaces the Mandarin equivalent, "Shi shi," I've been using the past 5 days in China. As I've found wherever I go, making even a small attempt as this to communicate in the native tongue is met with smiles of approval.

Waiting for the bus entailed a wait of about 45 minutes outside the airport terminal. Surprisingly, in the waiting area, there were no benches of any kind. Instead, the only place one could sit was on a rounded stainless steel railing running at seat height along the front wall of the building. Because the rail was only about 3 inches in diameter, I found it uncomfortable from the get-go, even though I have more, shall we say, 'personal padding' than the smaller-boned Japanese who waited with me. I was glad when the bus finally arrived.

The temperature was in the mid 70s, a relief after the hotter China. Because of the rain, the air outside was humid. Even with the occasional whiffs of diesel from arriving and departing buses, it seemed relatively sweet and Spring-like. No doubt this perceived 'freshness' had to do with the fact that our flight had been, for me, a throwback to ancient times -- onboard smoking was allowed. Although restricted to the last half dozen rows, virtually all the passengers in that area had been lighting up pretty much non-stop. The plane's air cleaning system had been no match for removing the odor from the air in the non-smoking section. As a non-smoker, I found it hard to believe that this was still an accepted airline practice, a sentiment obviously shared by many others on the plane.

Coffee was available inside the terminal, so I gave it a try. Though not as dismal as the room coffee in China, it still wasn't worth the 350 Yen I paid for it (120 Yen = $1 US). As I waited out front for the bus to arrive, it struck me how very different Tokyo's airport, workers and disembarking passengers were from those I'd seen in China. Throughout the airport facility, there was the happy buzz and laughter of reunions and spirited last-minute goodbyes, something altogether absent in the relative pall of the people in the airport at Beijing. Gone, too, were the surveillance bubbles that had been visible on the ceilings everywhere in the Chinese airport. My heart felt much lighter for the change.

Not that my current surroundings lent themselves to familiarity. The chatter of Japanese language coming from those around me lacked the singsong quality of the Mndarine I'd gotten used to, but the sounds offered no more familiarity of recognition. And, though there was more animation in the faces, and prevalence of conversation, a reserve of mannerism not seen in American culture was everywhere. Children stayed close by their parents' sides and had a quiet reserve. There was none of the running and laughing one sees from kids at a U.S. airport. The incidence of suits worn by the men is extremely high, as well, reflecting a country where formality is still so socially mandated. There could be no doubt I was still far from home.

The drive into Tokyo through the clearing skies was my first visit to this city, so I observed the surrounding countryside with interest. The buildings are much more western than those in China, although the Asian influence is seen through the minarets and fluted rooflines dotting the landscape. Japan's relative wealth is also a stark contrast to the older buildings and decaying architecture that marked Beijing's skyline. The impact of Japanese culture on municipal areas is quite obvious, as well. A high degree of care is taken with both roadside and sidewalk plantings. Trees, flowers and a variety of bushes are placed with what I can only think to call 'culturally-based planning.' This intentional landscaping effort lends a serenity and sense of beauty that is lacking in the U.S. and most other countries where I've traveled.

After nearly an hour's ride, I found my destination, the Imperial Hotel, to be in an elegant setting not far from the ponds, fine gardens and graceful structures of the Imperial Palace. Inside the lobby are more examples of the Japanese touch of serenity in furnishings and artwork. As I went toward my room, I was surprised to see that surrounding the stairs, and in other nooks and unlikely places, were the exacting rock placement and meticulously raked sand of Zen gardens. I am in the land where Feng Shui is practiced from birth. Unfortunately, when I arrived at my room, I could tell -- even through the aroma of cleaning and air freshener -- that it had recently been used by a smoker. After my smoke-filled flight, I'm not amenable to a smoke-scented room, and the hotel staff graciously find me another.

A room with a view

Out the window stretches an incredible skyline, the structures so close to each other as to seem touching from a distance. I'm reminded that real estate here is among the priciest on earth. Although buildings stretch to the horizon of my 26th floor room, those in the distance -- at least on this day -- are hazy with the thickness of the air pollution. As night falls, neon advertising lights start sputtering to life, and by true dark the scene is more like that of a carnival than of a sleeping city.

It's tempting to find out what else it is that keeps Tokyo awake, but on this night I find myself exhausted. It was after 2:30 AM this morning before I finished posting my most recent story and photo installments, and the previous days of travel, entertaining, meetings and marketing in China weigh too heavily for me to attempt more than sleep. Even though it's my only Friday night in Japan, I'm headed to bed. Tomorrow I have a 1pm appointment with one of Tokyo's largest sweeping contractors, and I want to be ready for it.

The bed is more comfortable than I had any in China, too, and I'm sure I saw a Starbuck's sign not that far from the hotel.

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