Sunday May 15, 2022 – La Minute Monocle
The fastest way / Tyler Brule
Removing the mask
Previously on The Faster Lane, I had just landed in Tokyo (last Saturday, 9:30 a.m. local time, to be exact) and was trying to get my bearings after 26 months away. With the help of a few friends and colleagues, dinner at a favorite Italian restaurant in Daikanyama, and an impromptu bullet train trip, things started to look (almost) familiar.
What is missing ? At first glance, Tokyo looks pretty much the same: some buildings have collapsed, new towers have been erected, and many cranes swing around Shibuya and Roppongi. Masks are still the order of the day in Japan and although the odd person chooses not to wear one outside (more on that shortly), it makes the place feel like it’s still under the grip of the pandemic. During the day, the streets are lively, the trains crowded. But something strange happens around 9 p.m.: the streets empty out and Tokyo puts on its pajamas. Although there are no official guidelines for closing times, the city is far from having regained its 24-hour rhythm. Sure, there are plenty of bars and restaurants open late, but l I miss the night energy that characterizes my favorite city.
What is missing ? Second part. Japan has not been ruled by heavy lockdowns or draconian emergency laws to keep society in check. Most of the measures were based on government guidelines and it worked well in a conformist country. The downside is that it doesn’t come with an “everything is clear, let’s drop the masks and the plexiglass” moment. On Wednesday, the government said masks were no longer needed outdoors as long as a “safe” distance could be maintained between other pedestrians. As of Thursday morning, there was no evidence that Tokyoites had read this statement as everyone was still masked while walking to work or cycling in the park. Meetings with ministries and agencies throughout the week have suggested that Japan will, as always, take a slow approach to reopening and dropping measures despite the Prime Minister saying he is time to follow the rest of the G7 and put ourselves on an equal footing. While China remains confined, Japan should take the opportunity to be the most open nation in Asia, win back business and revive its pace. For this to happen, Japan Inc. needs to be more vocal and apply more pressure; business visas and 90 minute entry times are not a way to go. There is a real danger that without a proper jolt, the country will just drag on and lose even more momentum.
I think you have until the end of the year to discover a Japan that looks more like that of the early 1990s
There is good news, however. On the plus side, the fact that Japan is somewhat closed means you have the place all to yourself. No Chinese tour groups, no boring influencers in silly sneakers and silly outfits, and no groups of American college students walking around in saggy sweatshirts sipping Frappuccinos. This moment of calm won’t last forever, so get a business visa while you can and savor the moment. I think you have until the end of the year to discover a Japan that looks more like it was in the early 1990s.
How quickly we forget. It took me a few hours after landing to conclude that I needed a proper reset to get my Japanese groove back. With only a week in the field, I needed to get going – and fast. But how? After a short sleep, I woke up last Sunday morning, took the 07.24 Shinkansen to Karuizawa and caught a return a few hours later. As nice as it was to see the Cherry tree in the late bloom at high altitude, it was more about the journey itself – having a coffee and cheese toast at Doutor, listening to polite announcements, watching fellow passengers, marveling at all the pointy-nosed trains and savor the silence. After more than two years outside of Japan, the digital decency is striking; the complete absence of ringing phones on trains, a boring conference call in the seat next to you, and the sharing of music videos are reminders of how Japan can make the rest of the world feel deeply uncivilized. And what a joy to hear only the hum of steel against steel hurtling at 200 km/h.
Back soon? Earlier this week I was telling friends and colleagues that I would probably be back at the end of the year. Tuesday had become October. Thursday was a trip in August. And now, as I return to Zürich, I think there might even be a trip as early as June. Japan must remind the world that it has a lot to offer. But before that, he has to fold his pajamas and dare to go to bed late, come back into the world and turn on his Genky side.