Our first afternoon in Tokyo: after arriving from the airport and checking in to our hotel, a mob of exhausted and underfed omnivores starts roaming the streets of the Shinjuku district. At first there is the illusion of small civilized groups, but as we tentatively look at menus we can't decipher, and our hunger and inability to deal with it in any efficient way take over, we are attracted to strength in numbers. We remember what our elders kept telling us about representing our country of origin, so we try to behave. We are way beyond the remote possibility of not sticking out. Somehow, almost the whole orchestra ends up in the same unassuming and previously empty Ramen joint, half hidden behind a staircase. (No singers, since no jetlag or hunger can overcome the segregation between chorus and orchestra.) More menus we can't decipher. Not even menus, just signs on the walls. Thank God for our fearless leader, the junior of our two bassoonists who gracefully applies his dedicatedly acquired Japanese language skills to order from the friendly and excited middle-aged couple running the restaurant. Ramen for 20 people, but how you say 'vegetarian' or 'kosher' in Japanese? (Fewer omnivores in our midst than I thought!)
By the evening, some have given in to the allure of sleep, but this jetlag wisdom plays right into my masochistic tendencies, so I force myself to sleepwalk the streets of Tokyo once more, this time with just three of my colleagues. First impressions of Tokyo, of Japan. Walking around without a plan (my favorite way to get to know a new city), we see well-organized lights, somewhat less revolting and more continuous versions of Times Square. What we don't see is homeless people (except for that one sleeping in an elaborate construct of cardboard boxes), trash on the streets, abandoned and/or un-cared-for buildings. Some things you hear over and over again are actually true. Everything seems cleaner, more manicured, less dumpy than we are used to. And those school uniforms aren't just a myth from the movies, either.
We end up sitting down at a bar that opens up to a square. Kirin Ichiban on tap. The odd sensation of cigarette smoke in my face with the taste of beer in my mouth reminds me of growing up in Germany. Walking home – after stopping at MUJI and admiring their organizers and miniature pencils – we realize that even the rolled down shutters of the closed stores look nice, especially compared to those battered eyesores we are used to at night in New York. "It's because they care and we don't," one of my fellow sleep-walkers points out. "I care," I half-jokingly, half-caringly retort. All I get is a skeptical look, one I have become accustomed to. "But do you really?"