A New Meaning to “Food on the Go!”

The machine from which the traveler orders his food.

The machine from which the traveler orders his food.

At Shinegawa Station, in Central Tokyo, a traveler can have lunch on the tracks. I don’t mean that anyone can just eat on the platform while waiting for a train; I mean that one can have a hot, hearty meal right there at the train tracks.  It’s a whole new meaning to fast food.  First one picks and pays for a dish from the vending machine – the choices are all some sort of ramen noodle bowls with various accoutrements such as pork, tofu, scallions, etc.  A ticket pops out of the machine, and the hungry traveler hands it to the chef

Check out that proximity to the tracks!

Check out that proximity to the tracks!

behind the counter.  Within a minute, the chef has assembled the food and handed it over.  This is by no means a method of food preparation reserved for the train tracks – these types of vending/casual counter joints exist throughout the city of Tokyo for various types of food such as Indian and Chinese dumplings, in addition to just noodles.  The proximity of the tiny restaurant to the train tracks, in addition to the

Diners at the counter

Diners at the counter

speedy service – it really is JUST for travelers waiting on a train – struck me as quite convenient and much healthier than lugging junk on to the train.

I was headed to the airport via the Narita Express and watched several hungry people eat and then jump on to the train.  It was convenience in action. Yum!!

Holy Smart Cars – it’s a Ferrari!

When my husband first saw this photo, he thought it was just a regular Smart Car with a Ferrari sticker on it.  But oh ye of little faith, I checked in with my “friend” Google and found out that yes, Ferrari has been making a smart car.  At first it was just Ferrari designers working for Smart Car, but then the company, in 2008 or thereabouts, starting their own line of them.  Here’s a link to a Ferrari dealership in the US that carries the car, Dessert Motors.  I went on Smart Car Owner fora and also looked at some interesting design options for the car.  Tokyo is a car-lover’s dream – you can find every conceivable type of car around here, from a tiny Toyota to a huge Hummer.  Japanese people love new cars, but most of them are pretty practical, and the city exists mostly on the infrastructure of the public transport.  But still, it’s fun to see what people drive around every day, and every now and then, you find something astounding.  Enjoy!

Bicycles – Lots and Lots of Bicycles

Bikes as far as the eye can see....

This is only a tiny example of a huge phenomenon in Tokyo – bicycle parking.  People just leave their bikes wherever, locked or unlocked, and they sit for however long completely untouched.  My bike is the second one in in the photo.  I parked the bike and stepped back to take the photo.  Before I could get my camera fully ready, someone slid in between me and my bike and parked his quickly.  He walked away in a quick second, not bothering to lock his bike.  This site is in front of Temple University, where I teach two afternoons a week.  There is a line of bikes that extends down the block, stops for an intervening street, and then continues down the next block.  People are generally polite and don’t park their bikes perpendicularly if the sidewalk is narrow, but this sidewalk is unusually wide for Tokyo, so that’s how they fit in the most bikes. Scads of bikes as far as the eye can see…

The phenomenon is by no means particular to Tokyo – any city that has a big population of cyclist will have random bike parks – but it feels totally un-American.  Americans wouldn’t bunch their bikes together like that and certainly they wouldn’t have 50% or more of them unlocked, like they are here.  I’m not sure where else in the world would have a lack of locks like this.

To be honest, I have never thought much about bike parking before, but now that I’m a cyclist myself, I think about it all the time.  If I take my bike, where will I leave it when I get to my destination?  But as time has gone on, I think about it less and less – there is always somewhere to leave my bike.  I am one of the few who locks mine, but I can’t help my upbringing.

Eyes open, folks.  Beware of randomly parked, clusters of bikes!


The Travails of Being a New Cyclist

Here’s a picture of me on my bike.  And then here’s a photo of the bike itself.  It’s big.  It’s really heavy with that huge battery in the back, so it’s also a bit unwieldy.  But it is really neat to be a cyclist in the city, I’ve found.  I like finding my new routes to take with the bike and I feel like I garner respect when riding it.  Just last week a group of American tourists in the city approached me when I was stopped at a traffic light in Hiroo.  They had a map and were slightly lost; I helped them, and as they were saying goodbye, one guy said, “Hey, is that a battery at the back of your bike?” I laughed and nodded.  They were so enthralled that they took a picture of it.  These things are not common in the States – I knew that, but I guess I forgot.

One thing I’m enjoying about the bike is figuring out how to navigate the maze of streets, pedestrians, cars and cyclists that populate the city.  However, figuring things out and the actual “doing” are quite different. I know I need to keep to the left on the street, but when I wobble a bit, keeping to the left and not rolling off the sidewalk are quite different things.  The pedestrians in Tokyo are just terrible.  They’re slow, and they weave on the street.  Their path is impossible to predict, so several times I’ve thought someone would move right and at the last second he swerved left and I had to quickly correct my course.  Also, they are completely oblivious.  They don’t look around them or listen.  Sometimes they’re just staring into space and not paying attention to anything so they walk out right in front of my bike.  I’ve already had to stop short more than once to avoid a pedestrian.  Even when they’re walking toward me, they’ll stare at me for long moments and sometimes they force me to stop because they’re walking five abreast taking up the sidewalk.  Where do they think I’m going to go?  It’s maddening.

I have to admit that I have a funny habit when cycling – I talk to myself.  Out loud.  The running commentary goes something like, “Okay, made that turn. I wonder if that schoolgirl is going to move for me. Do you think she can see me? She’s only staring directly at me walking in the middle of the sidewalk.  Aack, old lady in front of me – I have to avoid her. Wait, is she moving left or right? Maybe I should ride on the road. Oh man, is that a taxi coming up behind me…” And so it goes on.  It’s a weird, little habit and I sort of bank on the fact that the Japanese don’t understand my English.   It sort of helps me understand and correct and keep on the route.

Today I took my second spill off the bike.  I know I’m still a terrible cyclist, and that’s after about three weeks of practice/improvement.  Both of my falls took place in the same spot – in front of Nishimachi, Sydney’s school.  There’s just a lot of pedestrians and cars right there and it makes me nervous.  I have to learn to just stop riding, or even to walk the bike when I’m nervous, because when I’m nervous, I wobble more.  In this case – and in the case of last week’s fall – I was trying to get onto the sidewalk and the curb is too high.  If I was going fast, it wouldn’t have been a problem, but I was going very slowly and instead of rolling over the curb and onto the sidewalk, I hit it and fell over.  Again, I was going about 5 feet per hour, so it was a slow-speed crash, but I have a lovely lace of cuts and bruises down my right leg.  My right palm isn’t too pretty either.  It’s about the same as the cuts last week, though.  At least I’m not getting worse.

Most importantly I got back on the bike right afterward both times.  I’m never going to improve if I don’t keep riding every day.

So I’m a little bit cut and bruised tonight, but I’ll take a bath and it will be all right in the morning, I’m sure.  I am trying very hard not to be discouraged.  Like many other things in life, becoming a cyclist takes time and practice.  At least for me, it doesn’t come naturally.  But hopefully, with practice, things will improve.  I’ll keep you posted.

Hop on the Bus!

There's a reason why there are two buses approaching my stop. Read below!

Since starting my new job at ISS, and waiting for my bike to arrive, I have been a bus commuter.  I’m not a bus newbie; I spent two years living in New Jersey and commuting by bus into New York city, so I know the ins and outs of it.  But like all things in Japan, bus commuting is with a twist.

First of all, the bus is always on time.  The buses don’t break down and there are few enough accidents that the buses, for the most part, run on schedule.  And sometimes, early.  Earlier this week I arrived at my bus stop at 7:58am and 30 seconds, to find that my bus, #96, had just closed the door and was pulling away from the curb.  It’s supposed to leave at 7:59.   The picture above has my bus in the back of the bus that is supposed to arrive and leave before it.  What you can’t tell from the photo is that my bus arrived at 7:57am today, at the exact time the #06 is supposed to arrive.  My bus stopped short of the actual bus stop and waited.  The #06 pulled around it seconds later, loaded up, and left.  Only then did my bus pull up to the stop and open its doors.  Meanwhile those of us on the curb had to sweat for an extra ninety seconds until 7:58:30 precisely.  Note to self: arrive on or before 7:57.

Beyond the efficiency factor, there’s the shear breadth of it.  On any given major thoroughfare, you’ll find a few buses around.  The system is well-marked, easy to figure out, and goes via most major train stations.  This city’s infrastructure is bus and train dependent – few people drive.

Commuting by bus is cooler than by train by the way – and in a city where temps will reach well into the nineties throughout most of September, cool is crucial.  The trains and train stations are all saving electricity due to the March 11th earthquake, but the buses don’t run on electricity; they can be as cool as the driver wants.  Oh heck, this is Tokyo – as cool as regulation allows.

I see some of the same people every day, as I would in any metro area where I commuted by bus.  My favorite is the old lady who wears a printed skirt – and a non-matching print blouse – every single day.  Another favorite is the man who looks to be about my age who is with his daughter, who has to be about two years old.  The two of them chat and chat.  Clearly the dad is off to work, judging from his impeccable suit, and is dropping his child off at the Hoikuen (preschool) near his office.  They’re just so sweet together as he juggles her, his work bag and her little diaper bag.  There’s another Japanese girl who is probably about ten years old, whose American dad brings her to my bus stop, waits for her to get on, and then heads off to his own work.  She gets off at my stop too – there must be a Japanese school nearby.

Japanese manners are always different than American manners, and that fact is apparent on the bus.  Children are encouraged to sit and women give up seats to men.  There’s still an old lady rule – everyone moves for an old lady.  But the other day the bus was crowded and a woman got on with her little one and no one gave up a seat.  I did, though.  That baby looked heavy!

The bus is silent.  Yep, completely silent.  There are reminders to turn phones off completely – they don’t even want ’em to buzz.  (I don’t – just put it on silent)  No one talks (except the guy with the tiny girl) and no one plays music at any sort of audible level.  Complete, utter silence.  It’s refreshing.

There are some definite downsides, many of them in the summer.  Body odor is much less control-able in this heat and humidity.  And some Japanese businessmen don’t bathe that often anyway.  Deodorant is not as prevalent as it is in the U.S. either.

Anyway, the bike arrived today, and we’ll get it in working order this weekend, so my bus days are numbered.  But I’m sure if it rains or snows that I’ll hop on the bus again.  It’s a great way to move.