Getting Lost in Japanese Culture

Getting Lost in Japanese Culture

TOKYO - From a vantage point 50 stories above Tokyo in the lounge of the Park Hyatt Hotel, it becomes clear that this is a city that sprawls endlessly in every direction. Like Bill Murray’s character Bob Harris in the 2003 film Lost in Translation, I have only a few days to understand not only the city, but local culture, as well.Like that character, I’m also based in the luxurious Park Hyatt in Tokyo’s Shinjuku business district.

I, too, am completely overwhelmed by my first Tokyo experience.Tokyo is a very much a city of neighborhoods. I choose two to explore, knowing all too well that in a sprawling city like this, the chances of experiencing each one is next to impossible.

What I quickly find is that the uniqueness of Japanese culture as portrayed in the film--observations which were criticized as being ignorant and racist by some—plays out on the bustling streets of Tokyo.

Take politeness as one example. In Japan, friendliness is almost ritualized.

The first time (of many) that I find myself lost on Tokyo’s web-like subway system, I’m approached by a passerby who (in perfect English) helps me find my way.

We exchange an almost endless series of half-bows and thank you’s afterwards. Japanese culture demands utmost respect for elders, business colleagues and virtually anyone encountered in a non-casual setting. The locals take this etiquette very seriously.

With the exception of that one lucky and welcomed encounter, it’s obvious that a translator would be an asset—more so than I originally expected.

English is a rarity here. My Japanese is pathetic. Put the two together and you lose a great deal in cultural translation.

Luckily, signs inside subway stations are labeled in English. My first stop is in bustling Ginza, where names like Chanel and Prada dominate store signage.

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Above: Tokyo's skyline is a mixture of old and new architecture and it's always evolving.


This is one of the key areas for shop-aholics to spend their hard-earned Yen. But mistake number one occurs quickly: I decide to jaywalk across one of the district’s busier streets. I’m greeted with looks of horror, even disgust. Japanese almost always follow the rules. Lesson learned.

With a bit of shopping under my belt I hop in a cab and show the driver a business card with the word Harajuku written in Japanese. I planned ahead and had a Park Hyatt staff member write out a few destinations after being warned that cabbies don’t speak English, either.

Which brings me to mistake number two: Don’t take cabs in Tokyo. They are extremely expensive and this ride costs me a small fortune. The starting fare for any ride here is around $5.50 US. Take the subway, it’s far cheaper.

Harajuku district in Tokyo’s west end sits in stark contrast to the rest of the city. This is the area where wildly-dressed Japanese youth shop in trendy stores, dress like characters from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (literally) and clash with the rest of the generally conservative society.

It’s a bizarre place to complete my brief tour.

While I found myself lost during most of my visit, the unplanned strategy worked perfectly.

This is the kind of cutting edge city where visitors need to wander in awe, but also need to be prepared to visit two or three more times before they get a handle on local customs.

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