Expat Life In Tokyo, Japan

Japanese Are From Mars, Americans are From Venus, Part 1

Want to get away to something different? Want to be somewhere unlike anywhere else you have ever experienced?

Think about Japan.

I’ve been all around the world, and, for me, no place, no culture is more removed from the United States than Japan. The way the Japanese think, where they place their priorities, what they find interesting and motivating…it’s all just different.

I love different. I am always seeking out people, things, and places that get me out of my comfort zone and introduce me to something new. This is why I love Japan, every minute of it. I’ve loved and lost in Japan, partied in Japan, met many interesting people, and experienced more in one week in Japan than in two or three months in Southern California, where I’m from.

Japan has both world-class cities and old-school fishing villages. It is in these out-of-the-way villages where I’ve had the greatest sushi in the world. The place to start in Japan, though, is Tokyo.

Japan’s capital is the largest metropolitan area in the world. It is one of the country’s 47 prefectures (think counties) and includes 27 “cities” with a total population of over 13 million. Tokyo is home to 47 of the Fortune Global 500, more than any other city. It is considered one of the three “command centers” of the world economy, along with New York and London, and Michelin has awarded it more stars than any other city.

This year’s Mercer and Economist Intelligence Unit cost-of-living surveys name Tokyo as the most expensive city in the world for expatriates. Tokyo city-dwellers are more focused on material possessions and outward appearances than any Manhattan metrosexual. And the city is maintained with the same level of fastidiousness. You won’t find a piece of trash anywhere in Tokyo…or in the whole of Japan, as far as I can tell.

This mindset is applied to everything, including the food culture. Quality food is a work of art to be appreciated before it is enjoyed. Sushi, desserts, and any fine dining experience are perfection in presentation first. The approach is referred to as “Kodawari,” obsessive and passionate perfectionism.

The resources required to maintain these appearance levels, as well as the extraordinary cost of living in Tokyo, mean that most people are working 11+-hour days to keep up. To the Western eye (that is, your correspondent), this translates to enormous bottled-up stress…which is often released in wild, all-night parties.

Where might these stress-reduction activities take place? If money is no object, the best clubs and bars are in the Ginza district. But I must warn you, this is extremely expensive territory. I once saw a bill for a group of five guys of US$25,000. I’ll leave it to your imagination as to what was included. Even under more ordinary circumstances, though, it’s easy to spend US$500 on dinner for two in this, the most expensive district in the most expensive city on earth.

Ginza Dress Code: Dress to impress. No jeans or sneakers if you want to get served. Suit and tie is standard for men and, I believe it is a law that all women carry a Louis Vuitton bag. LV Ginza has its own designs not available anywhere else in the world.

What if you don’t have a corporate expense account to cover your party budget? Head not to Ginza but to the Roppongi and Shinjuku districts, where you’ll find more reasonably priced bars, restaurants, theaters, and plenty of nightlife. I have spent more time in Roppongi, as Shinjuku attracts a younger crowd.

One of my favorite spots to begin a night in Roppongi is the Mori Tower. It has a great rooftop, and the views are spectacular at sunset. On the 5th floor is a good shabu shabu place, and there’s a little art museum on the 51st floor (where, I admit, I haven’t spent a lot of time). For a food adventure in this district, just walk around until you find a small sushi bar, one with 5 to 10 seats in total. I guarantee the food will be great.

Looking for love on a budget? You are in the wrong place. Kabukicho is Tokyo’s red-light district and much (think in thousands of dollars) less expensive than the Geisha bars of Ginza but still pricey for someone who has traveled in Latin America and elsewhere in Asia. It has a good variety of love parlors, soap bars (no, I won’t explain them), night spots, and pachinko parlors (Japanese gambling establishments). Kabukicho is also accepting of foreigners. In other parts of Tokyo, foreigners need to phone ahead to see if they will be admitted to certain bars or clubs. Life as a gaijin (outsider)…

Even with the pressures of everyday life, and the lack of respect a foreigner will sometimes suffer, Tokyo is an experience I recommend everyone seek out at least once. If you take the time to understand the people and the culture, you will be rewarded with a worldview-altering adventure.

Would I live in Tokyo? No, it is too expensive, and the stress is palpable at times. However, I would love to live in Yokohama. This big city is more laid-back than Tokyo. It reminds me of San Diego, California, on steroids.

And it will be the focus of Part II of my Japan reporting, coming soon.

Live and Invest Overseas Editorial Staff

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