Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 19, 2009
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Tokyo (and a bit of Idol)
I never had any ambition to visit Japan. I was content with photographs and
books. I especially had no desire to eat Japanese food.
The only reason I went to teach for a week at the American School in Japan
was so that a certain family member who is an otaku (devotee of animé and
manga) could explore Tokyo to her heart's content.
To my surprise, I ended up loving Tokyo the way I love Paris, Barcelona, São
Paulo, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.
Tokyo is a city that keeps getting destroyed. A devastating earthquake in 1923,
and the American firebombing in 1945 left the city with only a few pockets of
Yet, while there are many modern sections of the city -- garish with neon lights
-- most of what the Japanese rebuilt after the war was uniquely and
After all, Japanese have never built their houses to be permanent. When paper
is a major component of interior walls, you're not building for the ages. Houses
have no resale value -- only the land they're built on.
On tiny lots that fit together like polygonal puzzles, houses crowd to the
boundaries; but shrubs and flowers and miniature trees fill every possible
space, so that the streets are graced with color and life.
It's a city with little air-conditioning, though it gets as hot (and as cold) as
Washington, D.C. Many two-way streets are so narrow that only the Japanese,
with their extraordinary courtesy and awareness of other people, could let cars,
bicycles, and pedestrians make their way without incident.
But it's not the streets or the houses, the extraordinary shopping districts or
the gorgeous public spaces that make Tokyo a miraculously comfortable city to
live in: It's the trains.
Trains that go everywhere. Train stations within walking distance of every
neighborhood. Trains that are well-marked, easy to use, and relatively cheap.
(And in the last five years or so, Tokyo has become wheelchair-friendly, with
elevators in the stations.)
But the success of the trains would not apply to America as we now organize
our cities. If, in Greensboro, we had stations in the same proportion to the
population, they would be so far from most of us that we would never walk to
them; and if we had stations in the same proportion to the area, there would
only be a relative handful of riders per station.
Except in a few exceptional cities that geography has forced into a limited area
-- San Francisco, Manhattan, Boston, Salt Lake City -- America won't benefit
from urban railways until we create neighborhoods that cluster rather than
But even if we can't benefit from Tokyo's example, it's still a joy to visit there.
There is as much energy as on the streets of Manhattan -- except that
everyone is unfailingly polite. Everyone accepts that pedestrian traffic can only
move at a certain speed, and I never saw anyone pushing through the crowd.
At rush hour, there are trains so crowded that gloved officials actually push
people together so they can all fit in the cars. But that's the point -- only when
someone is physically pushing them will Japanese people allow themselves to
intrude into someone else's space.
And it's clean. In my entire week in Tokyo, traveling into dozens of different
neighborhoods of every kind, I saw exactly two pieces of litter. Two!
And this despite the fact that the government insists that everyone must divide
their garbage into multiple types of recycling, most commonly four -- cans and
bottles, reusable plastic, burnable paper, and "other."
OK, I'm glad I don't actually have to work in a Japanese corporation -- way too
much conformity! I can't even work in an American corporation. But there's
still something graceful about the formality of dress, which reaches into every
level of society.
The school uniforms that are depicted in Manga and Animé are real. Girls
wear those short pleated skirts; boys wear those quasi-military uniforms.
Then there's the charm of watching little helmeted children being carried to
school in child-seats mounted on the handlebars of bicycles.
Or the startling cheerfulness of being greeted loudly by employees upon
entering a store or restaurant.
Or the respectfulness of being asked for your preferences at every point. For
instance, at a bakery I was always asked whether I wanted my pastries to be
individually bagged in plastic or grouped according to type.
And you don't hand your money directly to the clerk, you put it on a tray, and
then your change is returned to you on the same little tray. At first I thought
this was rather ridiculous; but then I got home to the U.S. and when people
dropped change into my hand it felt so ... coarse.
The rules of courtesy are not the same as ours, however. Japanese politeness
consists of benign blindness. When someone does something ill-mannered or
appalling, unless it's an actual emergency or criminal act, it is simply invisible.
I was on a train on the Chuo line, heading from Musashi-Sakai to Kichijoji,
when a young woman (who was dressed rather like a country girl, so perhaps
she was a visitor to the city) suddenly had a sneezing fit. At once it was
obvious that she had been caught without a tissue, and was in dire need of
I happened to have a pristine packet of Kleenexes with me, and, being an
American, I immediately pulled it out and gave it to her.
Only afterward did I realize that I had just done something appallingly rude.
Until I did that, the young woman was invisible. Her sneezing, her nose-wiping
-- none of them had actually happened until I called attention to it by offering
The only thing that excused my rude action was that, as a gaijin, nobody
actually expects me to know how to behave with proper civility.
Look, foreign countries are, in fact, foreign, and there are things that a visitor
doesn't know. Nor would anyone in Japan be so impolite as to point out to me
that I had done something wrong. I only got tips on manners from fellow
foreigners, who knew the kinds of things that Americans would inadvertently
Did I make any native Japanese friends? Of course not. I don't speak
Japanese, and while practically everyone in Japan knows some English,
relatively few are fluent. How can you become friends with someone you can't
But I met dozens and dozens of Japanese who were kind, courteous, helpful.
Everyone I asked a question of tried to answer me -- though my questions were
usually more sign language than anything else. I didn't meet a single person I
didn't like. And if they didn't like me -- this big, hulking American who took
up way too much space -- they never gave me a hint of it.
Though, come to think of it, the Japanese aren't as small as they used to be.
The older generation -- people my age and older -- are still markedly smaller
than Americans. But the younger generation had many young men who were
my height or nearly so -- six feet or taller.
I have been holding the best news for last: the food.
I thought it would all be appalling. Have you seen what Japanese eat for
breakfast? Soup! Fish! And they eat parts of animals that we discard -- not
to mention animals and plants that in no way resemble food to us.
All of that is true. In every restaurant, there was something completely
disgusting on the menu. And since most restaurants display plastic models of
their menu offerings in the window, you actually have to see the stuff.
But folks, the oddities are almost like a competition to show how macho they
are -- "We can eat things that other humans don't dare to eat."
Because in every restaurant there were dishes that were not only edible, they
were also extraordinarily delicious!
Like the yakiniku (grilled meat) restaurant where we were brought trays of raw
(but seasoned and marinated) chicken, beef, and vegetables, which we cooked
ourselves in small firepits built into the tables. Everything was delicious, but
the beef was brilliant.
Ever since I left Brazil I have been discontented with American beef. While a
few restaurants in America know how to cook beef well (for instance, Leblon in
Greensboro), the quality of beef you start with makes a huge difference. What
we ate in that yakiniku restaurant was so perfect it made me want to cry.
Instead I ate so much that it made the other diners want to cry ...
Here's the thing, though -- every restaurant we went to was terrific. In the
neighborhood of our hotel there was a food store -- Emio -- which is like an
extraordinarily good food court. Different mini-restaurants specializing in
different aspects of Japanese cuisine offer takeout choices. Everything looked
so good we were hard-pressed to choose.
And sometimes we didn't choose, because upstairs in the same building were
two restaurants -- one was Mia Bocca ("My Mouth"), a Japanese version of
Italian food (which was excellent), and the other was a Japanese dessert
restaurant with only four entrees for those who insisted on a full meal -- and
those were all excellent.
In fact, almost any restaurant you happen upon -- even little soba-ya noodle
houses -- will have high-quality ingredients and meticulously prepared and
served food. This was our experience -- and what we were told by American
friends who have lived in Tokyo for decades.
(For more about the enormous variety of Japanese cuisines, check out:
And there's no tipping.
That's right. You never tip anybody for anything. This nearly drove me crazy
at first, but it quickly became clear that tipping is not needed. Everyone does
their job as perfectly as possible because they take pride in what they do. So I
have rarely had waiters as careful, accurate, gracious, and helpful as all the
waiters who served us in Tokyo.
The cab drivers were flawlessly courteous, without a tip. The guy loading our
luggage onto the limousine bus to the airport ($30, as opposed to a cab ride
that would have cost $500 -- that's not a misprint, it's about five hundred
dollars from where we were) was highly organized but treated even disorganized
Americans with cheerful courtesy.
Even the airport officials who came aboard the bus to check that all of us had
passports were so gracious that it was almost a pleasure to undergo a security
Nobody gets tipped, because nobody needs to be rewarded for perfect service.
Perfect service is simply expected.
Back to the food: Apple juice in Japan is nothing like the stuff we have here
in America. It's so fresh and perfect and light that it tastes like -- get this -- a
fresh apple! We couldn't get enough of it -- and every restaurant had it.
Snack foods: In Tokyo, peanuts and cashews in the convenience stores (which
seem to spring up every thirty feet or so) are not greasy or oily at all -- just
delicious. (Oddly, Snickers and Kit-Kat were the only American candy bars I
Fresh produce: You don't have to handle the produce to find perfect,
unbruised, exactly-ripe fruit and vegetables. That's the only kind they offer.
It's expensive, but none of it will be wasted when you get it home.
Finally, my climactic experience in Tokyo: Bakeries!
Most notably the Little Mermaid bakery just a few doors down from our hotel.
I've had great pastries in France, Germany, Brazil, Spain, and (of course) here
and there in America. But Tokyo's bakeries are astonishingly uniform in their
excellence. I could have pastried my way through every day ... and, in fact, I
pretty much did.
Again, there are tastes that Americans aren't used to -- in Tokyo, black, brown,
and kidney beans are used to make a sweet paste that fills some pastries. This
flavor was simply too strange for us to appreciate.
But most of the rolls and twists and puffs and breads were so delicious that I
took a huge bag of them aboard the plane for the return flight and I ate way
better than those who partook of the airplane offerings.
And I haven't even gotten to the sights. Like gorgeously evil-looking gigantic
spider statue in the Roppongi Hills shopping mall. And the extraordinarily
creative and fascinating Ghibli museum.
It all comes down to this. If you have an itch to travel, but you never thought
Tokyo would be an interesting place to visit, think again. Tokyo is one of the
best places in the world to sightsee, shop, eat, get around in, and generally
Last week on American Idol, Paula Abdul called Adam Lambert "the bravest
contestant we've ever had."
And a friend of mine wrote to me that if Adam doesn't win, the contest will lose
all its credibility.
Look, I can't disagree. Adam Lambert has one of the most versatile, polished,
expressive, perfect male voices I've ever heard. He goes into and out of his
falsetto without a break or flaw. He dares to use extraordinary arrangements
of familiar songs. And his performances range from soulful ballads to over-the-top flamboyant shows that remind me of Bette Midler (and that's a good thing).
But let's not forget that last year's winner, David Cook, was every bit as brave,
with a voice almost as versatile -- he was just not as flamboyant in style. He
did extraordinary arrangements -- remember his "Billy Jean"? "Little
Sparrow"? "Always Be My Baby"? And the unforgettable simplicity of his
absolutely straight performance of "Music of the Night"?
For that matter, Jason Castro last year was every bit as original and brave as
Lambert. He simply didn't have the vocal technique -- but what he had, he
used wonderfully well.
David Cook's voice has a timbre that Lambert's cannot duplicate -- which is
not a flaw in Lambert, merely an observation. When Lambert sang "Born to Be
Wild," he was certainly flamboyant, but on the tag line his voice simply didn't
have the rasp and body of the original -- or of David Cook.
In other words, no matter how brilliant one singer is, there are songs and tones
and techniques and riffs that other performers can do better.
In this year's competition, Allison Iraheta gives such exuberant, spot-on
performances that in almost any other year she would have been the leading
contender. Like David Archuleta last year, she's young, and sometimes it
shows -- but, like David Archuleta, it never shows in vocal technique!
And Danny Gokey would be the front-runner this year if Adam Lambert weren't
in the competition.
But it goes deeper. Kris Allen reminds me of Jason Castro -- though he's even
cuter and cuddlier (or so I'm assured by those in my house who appreciate
cuddlesome male singers). And Anoop Desai's soaring tenor begs to cover
album after album of pop standards.
In other words, this is a great year, and just because Adam Lambert is such an
extraordinary performer doesn't turn the other contestants into chopped liver.
Do I expect Adam Lambert to win? Yes. But then, at this point in last year's
competition I expected David Archuleta to win.
And if Lambert wins, I'll be thrilled -- he's truly brilliant. But I want albums
from Iraheta, Allen, Desai, and Gokey, too.
For that matter, I'd love to have an album of the underappreciated Megan Joy,
whose sarcastic, playful performances reminded me of Bette Midler, the
Puppini Sisters, and Jane Siberry. No, she couldn't have won American Idol --
but she does a wonderful job of the kind of song she loves to sing.
I'm watching Idol this year, not just because I like the kids and am rooting for
favorites. I'm watching because it's a great variety show, week after week.
If Paula and Simon would stop wasting time heckling each other instead of
respectfully listening and then making their own comments without referring to
each other in any way, the show would be perfect.