Thursday, May 23, 2013

Tokyo: Home of the world's greatest metro

So yes, Tokyo's metro system is cleaner than DCs and probably at least close to the size of New York's. The trains are certainly small by DC standards -  only about 9 feet wide and enough room for two rows of chairs facing inward and a small space to stand. But the primary reason it's so impressive is the metro has a letter and number for each station, and the numbers increase or decrease as you move away from the station you're in. this makes travel incredibly easy and means you really don't need to know the name of the station or any Japanese at all. I need to go eight stops up on the M line, and I'm at M2, so I look for the side of the station that says M3 - M13 and stay on till M10. brilliant!
But I think what makes it so impressive and outstanding are all of the little touches:
* the ground has arrows on it to show you which side of the hallway or staircase to walk on
* they play bird calls in the station so it feels less cold and mechanical 
*  they have vending machines and recycling cans everywhere, yet no litter
* at major stations there are employees standing at the tracks to direct you
* newsstands and other vendors like in NY
* the trains have different chimes or classical music snippets that play before the door closes
* some stations even have doors built into the station that open only when the train doors are next to them 
And if you get a daylong metro pass for between 7 and 10 bucks, you're good and can zip through the stations like a local. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Japan: I'll have one sake - hold the bowing

Japan is like a little girl who has lost her way. Japan is like a child fighting a dragon. Japan is like a cat on a hot tin roof.
Writers sometimes use these grandiose statements to describe a very complex place or situation and look exceptionally wise while doing so. Usually I think they are full of b.s.
But Japan does appear to have some basic dichotomies: old vs new, young vs old, Pepsi vs coke. In that sense, everyplace is just about the same. (It's true - travel writing is not my forte). So rather than sweeping statements about Japan, I'll just comment on a few different areas.

When you arrive
Expect clean like you've never seen in a city before. I always thought DC had the cleanest metro on earth - it's a bag lady in comparison. Japan metro bathrooms are actually just regular bathrooms that anyone - not just the desperate - would use. Their streets are litter free. Their soda machines often have recycling containers built into them, which is ingenious.
Cleanliness is a cultural institution as well. At every meal you are given a scented towel to clean your hands off with. At shrines you wash your hands in a fountain first. And their toilets... Well, their bathrooms probably merit their own blog post entirely...
People really don't bow that much - in traditional sushi restaurants, occasionally. But that's it.
Some signs are in English, some aren't. People at hotels will know English very well - your average restaurant employee won't. Best to get some words under your belt first. You'll often be the only American that you'll see - especially on the metro. At tourist attractions, though, be prepared to see the people from your hotel over and over again.
Don't worry about food or drink - there are vending machines every 30 feet selling cold drinks and cigarettes. Haven't seen any of those "other", less reputable vending machines yet.
There are also giant, monster crows the size of small cats and with beaks like parrots. They travel in huge flocks are fearless and noisy as hell.

Work attire is very American - suits and ties for me, dresses or skirts for women. Because Japan puts such value on collectivism as opposed to individuality, there is usually very little diversity in what people wear. Men's ties are drab and muted. Women often wear white tops and blue skirts. Children almost universally wear uniforms - often in the sailor style that became very popular after WW II. Older women wear these goofy sun hats that are adorable. And speaking of the sun, women use umbrellas (regular ones, not the fancy ones you think of) to cover themselves from the sun all the time. Often, they'll be riding a bike, using an umbrella, and texting at the same time.
But there are little things people do to stand out. There are millions of phone cases with floppy ears or fun designs on them. Key chains have adorable anime characters on them that stick out of pockets or backpacks. And then there is the famous Harajuku district, which caters to dozens of subcultures, like goth, Lolita, punk, even pirate (I think that one is still catching on, though).
More soon.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Jon's DC Brunch Reviews

I suppose I am turning into a Portlandia character, because Sunday brunch and a discussion of brunch culture has gradually become quite interesting to me. DC has an incredible assortment of brunch places. Here's my best and most hated joints around:

Exceptional: Perfect for special occasions
  • Liberty Tavern (3195 Wilson Blvd  Arlington, VA). Blow-your-socks off all-you-can-eat $25 brunch of incredible quality. The deserts alone are worth it.
  • Beacon Bar and Grille (615 Rhode Island Ave NW Washington, DC). Rightfully voted One of the Top 50 Best Brunches in the U.S.  $35 for all you can eat and drink from dozens of food stations. Tons of vegetarian options. I would eat here every day if I could.
Solid: Always a good time
  • Metro 29 Diner (4711 Lee Hwy  Arlington, VA). Featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, the menu is vast and food is served in blinding speed and always correct. Only problem - no reservations and a 20+ minute wait.
  • Silver Diner (3200 Wilson Blvd, Arlington, VA). Featured on Man vs. Food. Delicious, excellent service, creative menu.
  • Front Page (1333 New Hampshire Ave NW  Washington, DC. A disaster. Tasted like Howard Johnson's fare. Clueless or aloof waitstaff, dirty glasses, sub-par food. Small selection, with an omelet bar hidden at the other end of the restaurant. Certainly not worth $21 a person.
  • Farmers Fishers Bakers (3000 K St NW Washington, DC). Not a huge failure, but not worth the $29.99 per person. Food is so-so, no vegetarian options.