I love Tokyo. If I had to eat only in one city for the rest of my life, Tokyo would be it. Most chefs I know would agree with me.
For those with restless, curious minds, fascinated by layer upon layer of things, flavors, tastes and customs, which we will never fully be able to understand, Tokyo is deliciously unknowable. I’m sure I could spend the rest of my life there, learn the language, and still die happily ignorant.
It’s that densely packed, impenetrable layer cake of the strange, wonderful and awful that thrills. It’s mesmerizing. Intimidating. Disorienting. Upsetting. Poignant. And yes, beautiful.
Pity the salary man, Tokyo’s willing cog in an enormous machine requiring long hours, low pay, total dedication. And sometimes what’s called karōshi: death by overwork.
Here, in a society of tight spaces and many expectations, the pressure is on to keep up appearances, to do what’s expected, to not let the interior life become exterior. But at night, things are different.
Afraid of rejection and uninterested in the complications of involvement, many Japanese are happy to pay intimidating sums of money simply to be flirted with, assured that they are interesting and amusing, made to feel special—often at “hostess bars” where no actual sex ever occurs.
In many ways, the Tokyo episode is about fantasy—as much as anything else. This is a “difficult” show. But I hope it doesn’t frighten anyone away from one of the most fascinating and deeply enjoyable places to visit, experience, and learn a little about on earth.
What do you need to know about Tokyo? Deep, deep waters. The first time I came here, it was a transformative experience. It was a powerful and violent experience. It was just like taking acid for the first time—meaning, What do I do now? I see the whole world in a different way.
I often compare the experience of going to Japan for the first time, going to Tokyo for the first time, to what Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend—the reigning guitar gods of England—must have gone through the week that Jimi Hendrix came to town.
You hear about it. You go see it. A whole window opens up into a whole new thing. And you think, What does this mean? What do I have left to say? What do I do now?
Welcome to Tokyo. You are not invited. This is the other Tokyo.
This field note was adapted from Tony’s original episode notes and his narration for the original episode.
Highlights from Tokyo on Explore Parts Unknown:
- A Perfect Day in Tokyo
- A history of Tokyo in 8 dishes
- 14 things to know before you go to Tokyo
- A guide to everything Bourdain ate in the episode
- A round-up of Bourdain’s best quotes from the episode