I flew by Japanese airlines. The flight was unexpectedly full of Japanese people. I half expected to see lots of Indian people on the flight either visiting Japan or transiting, but there were only a handful. The service on the flight was unexpectedly good and the aircraft fairly fancy.
I arrived at Narita airport on Saturday morning. I was surprised to not find a more advanced and fancy airport. Things were a little bit confusing. Seeing so much of Japanese written everywhere didn't help. There were signs around immigration with scary words such as 'quarantine' written here and there. I was half expecting a medical checkup before I was allowed to pass through immigration. Customs happened quickly and so did baggage claim. The customs was surprisingly thorough and asked me for my invitation letter from Yale before they let me go. After spending a few minutes in Japan's very clean public bathrooms, I bought breakfast from a convenience store. Everything was in Japanese and I had no idea what I ate that day. But it was good. And cheap. When the cashier said "300 Yen" with a Japanese accent, I wasn't sure I heard right. I was expecting more of "1500 Yen", having heard about how expensive Japan is.
I took the Narita Express, also known as the NEX to Tokyo and made my way to the hostel. My first reality check came when I was trying to look for my hostel and asking people on the street didn't help. Most people didn't understand what I was saying, and others didn't know where the hostel was. When I finally did get to the hostel, I was pleasantly surprised at how large the rooms were. I had expected dark and dingy rooms with barely enough space to stand. It was quite the contrary. I was amused to see the system of the public bath, which comprised of a huge bath tub in which people could collectively bathe.
I walked around the area looking for lunch and found a small restaurant with bar stools and vending machine on the side. This was pretty new to me. The concept is that you decide what you want to eat, pay for it through the vending machine (which is generally quite cheap ~$5) and then you get a ticket in return. You take the ticket to the counter and the waitress brings you the food in a matter of seconds. I don't know what I ordered, since everything was in Japanese and I had just pressed a random button on the vending machine. But what I got was the best fast food I'd ever had. I was later told that what I had eaten was gyudon, which was beef slices on top of rice along with miso soup, a Japanese specialty that is eaten with almost every meal. The soup was served without a soup spoon and I wasn't quite sure how to go about drinking it, until I saw the man next to me drinking it straight from the bowl. Great way to economize on extra cutlery!
As I walked around after lunch, I saw many little food stalls on the street and quite a few European restaurants. There were people handing out flyers on the street and advertising their restaurants. When I'd walk past, people would look at me and decide not to hand me the flyer or shout out their advertising slogans to me because it was so clear that I wouldn't understand them. Being in a country where I clearly stand out as a foreigner was new to me. All the places I had been to before were those where people could have thought of me as a local-US, Singapore Indonesia, Malaysia, Canada, etc. This was also the first time I wasn't seeing any Indians or brown people on the street.
At first, I though that Tokyo was not as fancy as I expected it to be. The streets were small and the buildings were often old. But slowly, I realized that Tokyo is advanced in the most functional sense. The restaurant waiter at dinner had an app on his phone that could send orders to the kitchen and track the order later. One train line had several types of trains-local, rapid, semi-rapid, so that people who live faraway don't waste time because of the train making stops every 2 minutes.
My first takeaway? Don't judge a book by its cover.