⏱️ 17 min read
I just came back from an unexpected trip to Tokyo and Hong Kong. On the whole, I was lucky to roam around without much agenda. There was space to explore, soak in the vibe of the cities, get unguided impressions and think about what I noticed.
I'm not a big 🇯🇵 or Asia freak and did not do any research in advance. I simply arrived on the spot with minimal preparation, a deliberately clueless attitude and let things hit me as they came. These are my raw, naive conclusions, so take it all with a grain of salt. Also, I will not mention food as foodie stuff is boring 😛
TL;DR: Tokyo is insanely clean, feels sadly old but still futuristic. Many face masks on people, the coolest sounds and faces on objects, lots of weird pervy elements and it's so enormous that it messes with your head. Hong Kong was designed for bankers with slaves but has that mesmerizing Blade Runner skyline. The lower class Chinese outskirts are overwhelmingly full of life, it made me feel that the "future" will clearly happen in Asia.
Although having lived in several — mostly 🇪🇺 — countries, this was easily my biggest trip in a decade and the first proper one in Asia. Typically I'm not a big traveler-nomad type, family visits and gig travel made me jaded about frequent trips. The ~10 hour flight was my longest flight ever.
What I've noticed is that long-distance air travel has gotten a LOT smoother. There's in-flight WiFi above the artic circle and Siberia. Surprisingly, I also didn't have to have any human interaction after testing false positive for explosives (??!!) in Berlin. Once that amusing episode got sorted on the journey's first leg, there was no more passporting hassle as EU biometric passport scanners are fully automated gates. For me, the most worrisome were the thermal cameras upon arrival in Tokyo which could land one in quarantine. Getting the 90-day visa in both places was a 1-minute rubber stamp procedure with bored customs officers wanting to get you out of their way as fast as possible 🛂
For the attentive and well-calibrated, visiting Tokyo is like a psychedelic experience 🍄👩🚀🌏
This city is the largest megapolis on Earth with almost 40M people living in the metro area. It's insanely big and DENSE. It took a good 40 minutes from the center with the Shinkansen 🚅 trains roaming at takeoff-speeds until I began seeing small, sporadic patches of unused land. Witnessing the sheer scale of the place tripped me out big time. When you see it, it puts your own (and anyone's) significance in perspective ⚗️😵
It is also the cleanest place I've ever seen. There are no trash bins on the street, you simply carry your own trash and dispose it at home. Like the foam padded construction scaffoldings in Barcelona, this would be a good candidate for wholesale adoption worldwide. I have a hunch that personal feedback loops are important - similar to cooking your own meals or cleaning up after, it's probably a good idea to feel how much trash you produce.
An immediately obvious travel fail was forgetting my audio recorder. In Japan, the use of sounds and music in machinery is omnipresent to the point that it feels like discovering a new sense. The conscious use of sound design and music for feedback clarifies what is happening without needing to attentively read or listen to speech. This feels so cool that communication elsewhere seems incomplete in comparison.
Despite 99% of the visible writing being undecipherable to me, getting around was easy. I was told that (English) signage has improved significantly in the past few years, and is poised to get even more common with the preparations for the 2020 olympics.
Obviously, your biggest friend in a foreign place is the Internet 🌐 Sort that out ASAP with either getting one of the pan-Asian 4G data sim-cards or better, renting a slightly more expensive pocket wifi device with a generous multi-GB daily data allowance. Internet connectivity is far ahead of Europe and makes it look like a joke in comparison. I had several video calls while walking through the city, something I stopped attempting with the tragicomically outdated "startup capital" infrastructure of Berlin - take cues 😉
In general, Tokyo is optimized for giving you all the tools to keep you stay the night at work. Most places have 24/7 stores and you'll find everything you'd need - wet wipes, contact lenses, fresh underwear, shirts and so on.
Money wise, don't be like me and take at least two credit cards from different banks. I had a small freak-out moment upon arrival when my card didn't work for a few hours - turned out to be the bank's routine nighttime maintenance on the weekend, but the time difference made it mid-day in Japan.
You can also use your rechargeable 🤖 Pasmo or 🐧 Suica public transport card to pay for stuff. If you can figure it out, just load them on your phone's NFC chip and then you have one less thing to fumble with. This felt easy and refreshing, I think it might catch on.
Face masks are a cool staple of Japan. You can buy them on every corner, but you'll often get a pack for free as a street promo item. Unlike in China, the air quality isn't too bad. Why wear them then? They serve a number of purposes:
The are other practical reasons. Air in Tokyo is extremely dry in the winter. When it's cold, the mask will help keep your face warmer and wetter. While face masks might be weird to an European outsider, they totally make sense in the context of large, crowded cities.
Despite the anonymous nature of a huge city, I noticed that any public display of affection is rare. You rarely see couples holding hands or anything similar. I don't think I've seen anyone kiss in public my whole time here.
The most mind-boggling thing in Japan is the general politeness and sense of the common. Perhaps it's a down to wanting to cause the least disturbance to the carefully constructed environment. Maybe even a sense of duty to protect a shared, fragile order. After a few days, I noticed unexpected changes in my own behavior. I was trying hard to be more polite, kept quieter and tried to get out of everybody's way. Everything is organized and not left to chance, down to the system of queing for boarding trains ⬅️
I noticed a lot of pensioner-volunteers just passing time, helping tourists find their way. Sometimes they also help directing traffic in and out of parking lots or construction sites. There are plenty of caretakers and minders of all things.
The ticket office opens at 5:30:00
You do get a feeling that you're in "the past of the future". There's an old and melancholic tinge, perhaps partly due to the winter season. But the average age is noticeably old and too "middley". It's not a fresh, youthful place. In this sense it's similar to Germany, but way further down the line. When you're here, the historical ties between the countries will suddenly become obvious. The right-wing conservative roots of the cultures are hand-in-glove - there's an emphasis on public order, precision and preserving traditions, to the detriment of free expression and a sense of social freedom.
I guess the pressure-cooker environment also drives ones attention inward. There's a lot of care and thought put into every facet of life, and a sense of pride thereof. As a real-life illustration of the insane attention to detail, see the ticket office man as one of my favorite moments of the whole trip...
There are still strong leftovers from the late 80's culture peak, which is most obvious when you see all the crazy gaming arcades. If you can, please check out any of the pachinko parlors, in which the noise is higher than in factories or industrial aircraft. I only lasted about as long as previously in a -140 °C cryo chamber. It's so loud there that it's beyond me how people spend hours in these ultra-stressful environments.
Needless to say, there's a lot of weird freaky shit to be randomly found when hanging out in Japan.
Like "smile trainers"...
...or a large assortment of replica guns, including rocket launchers. It's obvious that they have a thing for military stuff here. I've seen a lot of airsoft/paintball stores and there are all kinds of advanced Metal Gear Solid style training compounds. A recent Vice video piece offers some cues to how this came to be.
Perhaps the most disturbing stuff I ran into was something I'd describe as a thriving business mixture of pretend underage girlfriends, pop idol shows and sports (or more accurately, cheerleader) card collectibles. Some of these girls are in their early teens and you can buy their pictures in many stores:
Apparently they're part of a bizarre pop group that has hundreds of members and millions of fans. They are grouped into teams so that they can perform in several cities on the same dates. When you look into it, it's super pervy stuff that goes several layers deep. Each girl has their own feed with solo video clips and you can meet them at "handshake events" in their group's own theatres...I talked about this with some friends over dinner and this weird Japanese obsession is clearly not as innocent as tries to appear on the surface. Search for "JK business" if you want to go further down a distressing rabbit hole...
Some of my most amusing hours were spent hanging out in the obviously Wall Street-inspired downtown financial district. I don't know why but it felt to me like visiting a 20th-century skanzen of LEGO movie President-business bullshit. The whole thing just seemed laughable with every cliché checkbox ticked. There are golf stores and coffee places everywhere, everybody wears suits and acts in a highly pretentious, douchy manner.
You will also definitely see the infamous burn-outs, collapsed people on the metro traveling home late at night. If this is the pitch for your post-school life, no wonder many just drop out and become shut-ins.
In Tokyo, everything seems to have a face. I'm a huge fan of character design, smiley faces and just putting faces on objects in general. In this sense, Tokyo was a paradise right up my alley, by far the best signage and graphics I've seen anywhere. I don't know where it comes from, but I'd guess a tendency of humanizing and personifying objects might stem from earlier animist traditions and religions. Pretending - or acting - as if everything had personhood feels strangely primal and makes you care more about your surroundings. Cool and good.
In Japan, automation actually delivers. From super-fast tap and soap dispenser sensors to vending machines, things just work as they should. After a few days, I felt strangely confident in appliances. In Europe, I'm always suspicious and never really sure if a machine will work out - they feel slow and clumsy in comparison.
I've also met my first, legit, real life robot. It's a big difference to see robots in Youtube clips versus your own eyes. This thing somehow totally overwhelmed me for a moment, I almost cried 😂
But what's more interesting than the robots themselves is watching children interact with them. Kids are growing up in Tokyo thinking that humanoid robots are completely normal. If proper robots are going to happen somewhere, it's in Japan - I think they'll just will them into existence.
Up until a few months ago I was not aware of the existence of snow monkeys, and promptly assumed they were some Yeti/Bigfoot type fake news when a friend mentioned them. So when I got this close to their alleged habitat, I wanted to go check and see. I'm happy to report that the snow monkeys are real:
This was a nice little trip to take and a refreshing peak into small-town/village life in Japan. The only downside was the typical overtourism. You will see a lot more apes than monkeys:
As I said, Tokyo is futuristic but does not feel modern in the present-day sense. I was looking for some signs of the actual future, and the closest thing I found was a VR arcade / theme park. It was full of "force-feedback" style machines - cars, skiing threadmills and a full scale room where you can move around freely while wearing VR goggles.
I've been keeping and eye on VR stuff for a while now. It's obviously still in its infancy, even the best goggles are a bit clumsy and there's plenty of room for improvement. Yet the level of deep immersion is already there and unexpected; the few rare instances where I've seen people scream and fully let go happened here. I went twice to the Shinjuku VR zone - but make sure you schedule it in advance, the demand is high and there are hour long queues. I wish I could've spent more time here and dwelve deeper, but it was time for the next stop...
In most ways, Hong Kong turned out to be the exact opposite of Tokyo. If Japan is order, Hong Kong is chaos.
The city will force you think in 3D. Getting around on a street level is not simple, you will likely have to use corridors and overpasses that connect one building to another. Hong Kong has the most skyscrapers in total - all the fluffy talk about its beautiful skyline and futuristic Blade Runner vibes is no exaggaration. It's a truly special place that sucks you in.
I vaguely recall watching the British handover of Hong Kong as a small kid. There's still some ghost-like tinge of the colonial past, but the legacy doesn't stretch far beyond Pret-a-Manger and a few graveyards.
Still, everything is bilingual and you can fully participate in English. Setting yourself up is therefore trivial. Transportation is modeled after London, except the maskot is an 🐙 instead of an 🐚 (the oyster emoji was apparently removed from the standards 😢). (P.S.: apparently it's the other way around, London was modeled after Hong Kong)
I did feel a sense that mainland China's influence is getting stronger. There's visible pushback to that. As a sign of rifts, there were small groups of resilient protesters campaigning here and there, but it didn't seem to me like they could prevail in the long run.
Sadly I didn't manage to properly explore clubs in Tokyo. I did get a small peek in Hong Kong though. The existing scene is driven by a few ultra-enthusiatic expats, trying to nail down the tech-housey vibe of Berlin. Clubs are rather tiny and hidden away in the middle of buildings that gives them a distinct windowless, "overground" feel. It's all super small but legit. The enthusiasm and zeal renewed my appreciation to what we have in Europe. You tend to forget that after a while as you adapt 🤔
It felt like the city suffers from an age gap, most people going out are either slightly underage teens with fake IDs or expats in their mid 30s. Not much inbetween as kids typically go study abroad once they're out of high school.
Compared to Tokyo, people seemed way friendlier and affectionate. There's sort of a jovial chaos going on, especially as you venture outside of the city core. At the Chinese street markets, you'll find various disturbing stuff - sketchy meats, caged birds and probably even shadier things if you know where to look for it...
The saddest thing about Hong Kong is that it seems to have been designed for bankers. A lot of precious downtown real estate is dedicated to expensive designer stores and shopping malls. While observing the habits of Tokyo sararīmen provided for an amusing pasttime, I concluded that the Hong Kong bankers are boring and have no edge in comparison. Everything smells of a culture of haha-business! bullshit, in a saddening way.
Suprisingly, there are a lot of Teslas everywhere. I'd guess about every 10th car is a Tesla. A lot of Model Ss or Xs. Further contenders are Porsches, top of the line BMWs or other luxury cars costing millions of HK$/元 (about €1/10). I found out that until recently, electric cars were exempt from to an approx. 100% registration tax - that explains it all, a Tesla cost half of what similar gas vehicles would.
There's a lot of tasteless, cheesy stuff, like stupid-looking statues and golden gates in front of apartments. But there's a weird, troll-like twist to this splashy display of wealth — plumbing in most dwellings is quite ridiculous. There might be a million millionaires in Hong Kong, but they seem to lack the collective will to get their shit together on water and waste. I've heard this is common throughout China. Many flats have pipes rigged on the outside.
Talking about 🤑, I noticed a suspicious lack of anything Bitcoin with interest. While in Tokyo there were mentions of blockchain left and right, I saw nothing at all in Hong Kong. There were plenty of visibly run-down banks and front offices for fake-sounding companies, though. (P.S.: Commenters pointed out that the blockchain hype is actually huge and many companies active in the "sector" are registered in HK. I also expected so, but didn't see anything visible - which was strange!)
Outside of banker districts, everything is teeming with life. Full of hustle and buzz. Many children around. Already super young kids are helping out in family stores without anyone turning a head. Despite being poorer, people seem paradoxically happier and in better overall shape, fuller of energy. There's a strange sense of optimism, determination and relentless progress - at least that's how it felt to me.
During the day, you'll also see a lot of helpers walking kids and dogs in richer residential areas. This is a super disturbing phenomenon that I'm unable to accept but also don't pretend to understand the nuances of. There seems to be a hidden life in their community, a parallel societal stream of sorts. Sunday is typically their "free day", when the entire downtown is swarmed and taken over from the bankers, if temporarily.
There are lots of other festivities and a joyous atmosphere in the evenings and weekends, due in no small part to the great climate, beautiful hills and the crazy city lights. LED balloons seem to be a big hype now, to the point they're being banned from the subway. As I found out only later, you have to watch for counterfeit balloons filled with cheaper hydrogen. Scary, as you cannot tell just by looking.
Returning to Europe was quite a letdown. In the first few days, everything seemed eerily slow, derelict and empty, especially back in Berlin. I kept thinking I missed an announcement about staying inside and preparing for an impending apocalypse.
It's normal to get some kind of a post-travel depression after living a more intense life for a while, but it's been a couple weeks and the feelings didn't quite disappear. There's a disproportionate impact.
Truth is - Advanced Asia™ is just incomparably more vibrant right now. There's constant movement. A steady, fast-paced struggle. Seeing it IRL reinforced my presentiment of feeling like we're living in a lazy, cushioned and outdated region with little hope for rapid advancement. The trip recalibrated me to pick up my own pace and just to try harder.
I don't know how to pin it down exactly, but it feels like Europe is suffering from the culture and attitude of pensioners who are still living in their ignorant version of a 20th-century fantasy. They are reassured by their situational wealth and are either unaware, or scared of reality. Everything is hedged, risk averse and there's a general sense of aimlessness and cluelessness. More than that, there's a baffling and dangerous tendency of trying to isolate and roll things back instead of pushing ahead.
While I've yet to visit the other big cities in China or Korea, this trip already demonstrated to me that the current thinking here is centered on a long outgrown scale... Everything needs to be addressed at 10× - 100× larger levels, in all terms of speed, size and social impact.
I would still say Berlin is the best place to base off in Europe (Rotterdam or Barcelona might be 2nd), but its pace and trends make me seriously worried. And this applies to the whole continent. It's not looking good.
Think about it this way — if someone from SEA/EA visited, it'd already be difficult to show them something culturally new. Besides the hedonist 👯 dungeons (which thrive mainly thanks to a happy accident during post-WWII occupation) and some galleries, what cool things do we still have here? There's less and less as the city slowly ages out. Everything is about the past, and not about what's current.
The weirdest thing was that I somehow never felt out of place or terribly far from home when I was away. It feels more like that after my return. You know, I don't want to live in an old, outdated and lethargic place. That's how Europe makes me feel right now. The way things are going, I'd wager that more and more young, prolific 🇪🇺 creators will essentially leave to Asia or other pockets of innovation (as they already do). It's just beginning to feel more apt to do so, somehow.
Nationality is a fading illusion, nobody cares where they were born unless they have nothing else to cling to. We are citizens of the globe. Home is basically where a good bed, a supportive environment and fast Internet is. The former you can get from IKEA pretty much anywhere. For the latter, we'll just travel and spend most of our time where things are easier, cooler and better.
Title image by Pablo Fernández
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