The Faster Lane / Tyler Brûlé
Removing the mask
Previously in The Faster Lane, I had just touched down in Tokyo (last Saturday, 09.30 local time, to be exact) and was trying to get my bearings after a 26-month absence. With the help of a few friends and colleagues, a dinner at a favourite Italian joint in Daikanyama and an impromptu high-speed train trip, things started to feel (almost) familiar.
What’s missing? At first glance, Tokyo looks pretty much the same: some buildings have come down, new towers have gone up and there are plenty of cranes swinging around Shibuya and Roppongi. Masks are still the order of the day in Japan and while the odd person chooses not to wear one outside (more on this shortly), it makes the place feel as though it’s still in the grip of the pandemic. By day the streets are busy, trains packed. But something odd happens at about 21.00: the streets empty out and Tokyo pulls on its pyjamas. While there is no official guidance around closing hours, the city is far from getting its round-the-clock rhythm back. For sure, there are plenty of bars and restaurants open late but I missed the late-night energy that’s such a defining feature of my favourite city.
What’s missing? Part two. Japan has not been ruled by heavy lockdowns or draconian emergency laws to keep society in check. Most measures have been based on government guidance and this has worked well in a conformist country. The downside is that it doesn’t come with an “all clear, let’s bin the masks and Plexiglas” moment. On Wednesday the government said that masks were no longer required outdoors so long as a “safe” distance could be maintained between other pedestrians. On Thursday morning there was no evidence that Tokyoites had read this statement as everyone was still masked up walking to work or pedalling through the park. Meetings with ministries and agencies across the week suggested that Japan will, as ever, take a slowly-slowly approach to reopening and dropping measures despite the prime minister saying that it’s time to follow the rest of the G7 and get to a level playing field. While China remains locked down, Japan should take the opportunity to be Asia’s most open nation, win back business and reboot its tempo. To make this happen, Japan Inc. needs to be more vocal and apply more pressure; visas for business and 90-minute entry times are not a way forward. There’s a real danger that, without a proper jolt, the country could just shuffle along and lose further momentum.
I reckon you have till the end of the year to experience a Japan that feels more like it did in the early 1990s
There is good news, though. On the positive side, the fact that Japan is somewhat closed means that you have the place to yourself. No Chinese tour groups, no annoying influencers in stupid trainers and silly outfits, and no groups of American college students wandering around in saggy sweatshirts slurping Frappuccinos. This moment of calm won’t last forever, so get a business visa while you can and savour the moment. I reckon you have till the end of the year to experience a Japan that feels more like it did in the early 1990s.
How quickly one forgets. It took me a couple of hours after landing to conclude that I needed a proper reset to get back into my Japan groove. With only a week on the ground, I needed to snap into it – and fast. But how? After a short sleep, I woke up last Sunday morning, grabbed the 07.24 Shinkansen up to Karuizawa and caught a return a few hours later. As lovely as it was to see the sakura in late bloom in the higher altitude, it was more about the journey itself – getting a coffee and cheese toastie at Doutor, listening to the polite announcements, observing other passengers, marvelling at all the pointy-nose trains and savouring the silence. After more than two years out of Japan, the digital decency is striking; the complete absence of ringing phones on trains, an annoying conference call in the seat next to you and the sharing of video clips is a reminder of how Japan can make the rest of the world feel deeply uncivilised. And what a joy to just listen to the hum of steel on steel hurtling along at a clip of 200km/h.
Back soon? At the start of the week I was telling friends and colleagues that I’d probably be back at the end of the year. By Tuesday this had become October. On Thursday it was a trip in August. And now, as I head back to Zürich, I’m thinking that there might even be a trip as early as June. Japan needs to remind the world that it has much to offer. But before that it needs to fold away the pyjamas and dare to stay up late, get back out in the world and fire-up its genki side.