Life in Tokyo can be exhausting. The city is huge and sprawling, almost a world unto itself. It has been the center of power of Japan for 400 years, and in that time has grown to into one of the largest cities in the world. 13 million people live here, and sometimes it seems like we are all crammed into the same train.
Much of Tokyo is a wasteland of concrete, steel and glass, with very little in the way of nature. Garish neon lights blast into the sky, pachinko parlors with their incessant noise are everywhere, and black-suited salarymen are constantly rushing around. Death from overwork is common enough to have a word to describe it (karoshi, if you are curious), and the city can be incredibly isolating, for both Japanese and foreigners alike. In other words, sometimes, it all gets a bit too much.
There are many possible temporary escapes from the stresses of Tokyo life. Alcohol and karaoke are popular, usually in combination. All the retail therapy one can afford is easily available. If a more personal consolation is what is required, despite prostitution being technically illegal, Japan is filled with brothels of various types. There are also many “host” and “hostess” clubs where those interested can go to be plied with alcohol and entertained by the modern day descendants of the geisha.
As for me, I prefer to go to a sushi shop.
I eat sushi at least a few times a week. When I step into a sushi shop, it often feels like stepping back in time. The walls are usually wood-lined, and when customers enter they are greeted with a hearty “irrashaimase!” from the staff. The types of sushi on offer are typically written in Japanese on boards against the wall, sometimes in English as well as Japanese.
In a standing sushi bar, the sushi chef will lay a bamboo leaf on the counter. Green tea is free, as is the ginger used as a palate cleanser between different types of sushi. Customers order sushi two at a time, which the chef places on the leaf. Customers come in by themselves, or in groups. Sometimes there is banter between staff and customers, but usually it is quiet. There is music playing, which usually seems to be about 50 or 60 years old. It is relaxing.
I prefer the bar to be not too crowded, but not too empty. Sushi is good for you, and eating it has its own little ritual. Lifting it with chopsticks, a slight dip into the soy sauce, and then into the mouth. If it is good fish, it often melts in the mouth. With each piece of sushi I eat, each minute I spend in the sushi bar, I feel a little more relaxed. A few of the worries of the world fall away, or at least recede from view for now.
If I’m feeling good, I usually feel great after going there. If I’m feeling down or stressed out, I tend to feel a little better. The food is healthy, and the environment is enjoyable. I step out of the sushi oasis refreshed, and ready to do battle with Tokyo once again.