When you land in Tokyo, you’ll get your first of many surprises in the city before you’ve even left the airport at the taxi stand. If you weren’t aware ahead of time, you’ll quickly become appraised of the fact that the price of a taxi from Narita to Ginza is approximately 250 US dollars. I’ve never seen such an expensive ride from the airport to the center in any city, and I doubt anyone else has either. Your sense of surprise continues after boarding the taxi. The headrests in the brand-new, spic-and-span taxis are covered with white lace. Such handicrafts used to be spread over radios and refrigerators largely by middle-income denizens of the Mediterranean. And especially if you’ve just come from New York, the difference in quality in terms of taxis will leave you astonished. And after the white-gloved taxi driver drops you off at your hotel, there’ll be another surprise waiting for you at the reception.

This second surprise is the fact that the people at the reception and concierge in your downtown, five-star hotel don’t happen to speak much English.

Japanese politeness

The third surprise, however, is the Japanese politeness. Especially when the fact that you happen to hail from the Mediterranean, happen to not like the room given to you, happen to get a chance to look at another room following a few false starts in communication but happen to not like that one either is combined with the fatigue induced by a 12-hour flight, failure to find a room you like and inability to get your point across due to the language difference, you might find yourself yelling at all and sundry around you. At least that’s the situation I found myself in. Despite this, none of my counterparts every lapsed into impoliteness or raised their voices, bowing instead in front of me with their hands clasped together. For a fairly wealthy person with a past of staying in hotels in America and Europe, this quiet politeness is truly a great surprise! (At this juncture, I would be remiss if I didn’t emphasize America’s indispensability; however much some say “America’s time has passed; other countries are stepping up to the plate,” I don’t believe America’s weight can be so easily dismissed.) In any event, while yelling that I didn’t like the rooms – or more precisely, when I was trying to explain the matter – the sentence, “If, perchance, I don’t get a good night’s sleep tonight, I will leave this hotel tomorrow,” escaped my lips. Whatever the case, we had a good night’s sleep, but when I came downstairs the following day, what did I see but the bill waiting for me! I was flabbergasted.

day, what did I see but the bill waiting for me! I was flabbergasted.

“What’s this?”

“You said you were going to leave today, so we prepared the bill!”

“For crying out loud, I didn’t say I was going to leave; I said that if I didn’t like the room I would leave,” I said.

I quickly determined that it wasn’t going to be possible for us to understand each other, so I called my son in San Francisco who, despite the time difference, explained the matter to the person at reception in a manner he would understand.

Cotton-like shabu shabu

“Haaa, sorry, we understood wrong,” the bowing receptionist said in something that came out half-Japanese, half-English. I, in response, also murmured something like “No, no, I explained it incorrectly” while bowing. Both of us bowing helped smooth things over. God only knows how I would have reached an understanding with the Japanese man a meter in front of me if it hadn’t been for America thousands of kilometers away!

11th time lucky

The fourth surprise concerns health, and I’m not talking about the fact that nearly everyone on the street in Tokyo has covered their mouth and nose with tape. What I’m talking about is your desire to have a drink or two and fill your belly after a long journey. You’re not going to want to leave the hotel to do this, as trying to find a restaurant in a place you don’t know could, very well, turn into an exhausting adventure. As such, you’re bound to reckon “there must be a place to eat at the hotel – that’ll do.” And as luck would have it, wouldn’t you know that our hotel had – count ‘em – a grand total of 11 restaurants and bars. After peeling off the clothes in which we had made our journey and having a shower, we made a beeline for the restaurants, saddling up to the door of one that caught our fancy. But what was that? The door was closed! They’d stuck a message to the window which, thankfully, was in comprehensible English: “We found some of our hotel staffs in poor physical condition and currently under inspection. Following the instructions of the Health Center, we decided to close on site restaurants temporarly voluntarily for security.” Well, if this one is closed, we’ll just go to the next one, we thought.

Of course, the story was the same at the second place. “No need to panic; there are nine more places to get a bite to eat in the hotel!”

We saw that there was ultimately no need for panic, but only because of the very last place.

We said a prayer for…

When you’re hungry and tired

The only place that was open in the hotel was the Tokai-Tei, a shabu-shabu restaurant.

Even if the staff at all the other restaurants weren’t ill, they were at least suspected of being sick, but you’re telling me that only the people here managed to stay well? Or did the hotel staff go on strike and they made up this excuse? We sat down at a table entertaining such unnecessary thoughts and suspicions. I had had shabu-shabu, which is cooked at the table, for the first time in New York in 1979 at a famous and expensive Japanese restaurant. It’s a dish in Japanese cuisine that is both delectable and healthy.

Soon after a lady adorned in a kimono who was to cook the ingredients at our table arrived, bowing in front of us. The lady was old and frail; how was it that this doe-eyed, feeble woman was able to stay on her feet when the personnel of the other 10 restaurants had all taken ill? Devoid of a hat to doff and Japanese to speak, I could only rise to my feet and bow in respect before her.

Our fare was not as ostentatious as that the shabu-shabu I ate in New York, but it was certainly no straggler in terms of taste.

More to the point, you know what a wonderful feeling it engenders to be able to find something to eat when you’re hungry and tired!

As we finished our cotton-like meat accompanied by a fantastic red wine, we said a prayer for the good health of the kimono-clad elderly and spindly lady.