My (Not So) Secret Go-To Spots In Japan: Part 2 – Best Hoods In Tokyo

Amigo! Konichiwa,

Your trip is coming up and you must be excited. Last time we checked out the parks, botanical gardens and hikes that Tokyo had to offer.

Let’s get a little more metropolitan, because yes, Tokyo is huge! But the bustling urban center is made up of smaller cities, each with an incredibly engaging personality and we are going to dive into some of the more notable faces that Tokyo seems to love to show off.

This is a long post and probably shouldn’t be digested in one sitting. It covers a lot, from sushi to sumo to Kanye West. Skip around, read the descriptions under the photos and click on the links.

About 10 groupings of “neighborhoods” were made to add some organization and some sanity to the madness of all that Tokyo has to offer. In no particular order, those groupings are (click on them and you’ll get taken to that part of the post):

Shinjuku – Night Life, Metropolis, Food, Red Light District, Parks, Shopping, City Center

Ikebukuro – Food, Metropolis, Performing Arts, Shopping, My CITY!

Asakusa – Must See Shrine Site, Festival Location, Tokyo Sky Tree

Akihabara – Nerd Culture Mecca

RoppongiNight Life, Museums, Shopping

Azabu Juban – Gourmet (and vegetarian) food, High-end shopping, Tokyo Tower

ShibuyaNight Life, City Center, Shopping, Food, Everything, Major Must See Shrine and Park

Harajuku & Omotesando – Shopping, Food, Kawaii (cute-pop), Fashion

The Marunouchi Area (surrounding the Imperial Palace) – Most expensive real estate, Food, Palace

… and finally, Odaiba – Museum, Japanese Bathhouse, Adult Fun Center (not too “adult”)

Throughout the post, there will be plenty of references to other must-see parts of Tokyo and helpful tips to keep you well informed as you travel through each section, like this one:

JapanTips: If you plan on traveling extensively throughout Japan (not staying exclusively in Tokyo) it would be best to look into the JR Rail Pass for foreigners. For a span of 7, 14, or more days, you could have unlimited access to Japan’s bullet train system and other trains. Could save you hundreds, if not close to a thousand dollars!

I promise you will get a lot from this post. Share it with your friends who are going or are planning to go to Tokyo!

Photo Credit: Mistuki Takizawa

Shinjuku

Let’s start with Shinjuku because it embodies a lot of what the city is; the ground zero for Tokyo. This part of Tokyo has got a looming, giant skyscraper, New York City feel (it is a seismically stable area, perfect for big buildings in an earthquake prone Japan); it’s got the botanical gardens; it’s the hub for most trains and Shinkansen to the far reaching corners of Japan.

For two months I lived in Waseda, which is home to a big university and right next to Shinjuku. So most days, I found myself whiling away the time in the coffee shops and streets of Shinjuku. The Kabukicho area is a great night life area and good place to spend some of those ever flowing Yen (It was described to me as a tourist trap by a local who still loved to go waste money there).

Shinjuku Must Do’s:

Shinjuku Gyoen – Botanical garden with prime areas for strolling, picnics and being in nature.

Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office – Get a free trip to the 45th floor, giving you a panoramic view of the entire city and Mount Fuji on a cloudless day!

Kabukicho – Shinjuku’s red light district. The Golden Gai area, nestled in Kabukicho, offers narrow pathways with tiny food stalls and restaurants with every type of Japanese cuisine.

Shinjuku Tip: Among the many “must do’s” that came up when researching Tokyo before I left, the one that kept popping up was a serious tourist trap known as Robot Restaurant. A performance space where futuristic robots are used by bikini wearing women to fight lizard monsters and pandas in a room drowning in neon, lasers, and smoke. I must warn you: I did not meet a single person, Japanese or foreign, in my entire year in Japan that actually went to a Robot Restaurant show, and yet, it is the highlight of some notable travel shows covering Tokyo. Why????

JapanTips: Train lines stop running between midnight and 1:00 AM throughout Tokyo. Factor that in when making nightly plans.


Near Shinjuku: Ikebukuro

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Ikebukuro was my city while I was living in Tokyo. I worked here and lived only a ten minute subway ride away (which didn’t stop me from always cutting it close with getting to work on time.)

This city has a special place in my heart for better or worse. Whether it was on my lunch break or after work at around 9 PM (English teachers’ schedules are weird), I found myself wandering the city streets looking for cafes, restaurants, and sights.

With a major university in its city lines, Ikebukuro draws a mostly younger crowd. It also spawns a really wonderful coffee shop culture, is known for having some of the best ramen in Tokyo, and Sunshine Street will stuff you up with shopping and eating excess which you can best deal with by visiting the aquarium at the top of the Sunshine building.

Photo Credit: Jennajapan.blogspot.com (with added artwork by yours truly)

 Ikebukuro Displays The Dark Side Of Tokyo

For all the beauty that is offered by Tokyo, I’d also say that Ikebukuro is a good place to see the darker aspects of Japan; namely the suffocating work culture and the overbearing crowdedness. I’m of course biased as I worked and gave my soul in this part of Tokyo, but I definitely got the feeling that life is particularly stressful here.

Ikebukuro Must Do’s:

Sunshine City – A shopping mall meets amusement park behemoth, this entertainment complex is found at the end of Sunshine Street. Excellent restaurants, clothing stores, gaming centers and a popular aquarium make this place pretty alluring.

Coffee Shops – There are tons but I recommend Coffee Valley.

Ramen Shops – Ikebukuro is known for its ramen, and I love Ippudo.

Indian/Nepalese Restaurants – Inclined towards vegetarianism, I may have eaten more Indian food than Japanese throughout my time there. I especially enjoyed Masala Hut and Tomboy.

Tokyo Metropolitan Theater – Located on the West Side of Ikebukuro Station, the space in this complex is huge and is a sight to see by itself, not to mention it hosts a number of concerts and shows. The wide open space outside features a fountain and performance space where you might catch some musical acts. There’s never a lack of people, particularly college students, hanging out around here.

Ikebukuro Tip: I spent most of my time on the East side which offers a lot (Sunshine Street and Junkudo, the 10 floor bookstore) but the West side of Ikebukuro Station offers a somewhat calmer, more mature and fulfilling experience: a variety of restaurants with character, city streets that are an adventure to walk through, and Ikebukuro’s own red light district.

JapanTips: Addresses are made up of mostly numbers and are therefore (mostly) incomprehensible to humans. Google Maps is incredibly helpful, particularly with Japan’s transit system.


Asakusa

Asakusa is notable for some of the most attractive features of Japan, and it draws massive crowds, foreign and local, all year long. The frequent festivals held here throughout the year are also a big draw.

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By Chensiyuan – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41891905

Here are just a couple reasons why:

Asakusa Must Do:

Tokyo Sky Tree – A couple train stops away from : Japan’s largest phallic feat of engineering (recently built to surpass Tokyo Tower for the number one spot).

Senso-ji Temple  – Dedicated to the Buddhist Saint Kanon, this temple is central to the allure of Asakusa. Breathe in the incense, throw in some 5 yen coins as tribute and get your fortune as you take in all the incredible Buddhist design found on every building.

Sumida River – allows for incredible river side walks and bike rides, and when it comes time for festival season, floating lanterns!

The Flamme D’Or (Golden Flame) – a building that leaves you more confused than inspired.

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Asahi, one of the largest beverage manufacturers in Japan, asked a French architect to design the Flamme D’Or as 1) a commemoration of their ‘gutsy’ employees and 2) a resemblance of the froth of their best selling ‘Asahi Super Dry’ Beer. Unfortunately, neither message is immediately accessible to unprepared eyes. The building has been dubbed the ‘Golden Poo‘ by many locals. Photo Credit: japaneseperspective.com

Asakusa Tip: Never before had I seen such a blend of commerce and spirituality as I witnessed in Japan, and particularly in Asakusa. Walk past Senso-ji Temple’s front gates, complete with oversized statues of menancing and muscular guardians against evil (or unprepared) spirits, and you will find yourself on Nakamise Street: abundant with souvenir shops and food stands (with some of the best street food and snacks in Tokyo).


Near Asakusa: Akihabara

The Electric Town or Otaku (nerd) Heaven.

The amount of lights and flashing signs in this part of Tokyo makes Times Square look like an off-grid camp site.

If you are coming to Japan, then chances are you are somewhat interested in the electronics and gaming, anime, or just the off-the-beaten-path porno culture that the country provides. Akihabara is the place for you. This sound-and-light induced headache of a city is home to buildings with dozens of floors, mostly accessible to customers who are looking to engage in all things Otaku (nerdy or geeky).

  • Looking for figurines of super obscure anime shows? They got it.
  • Looking for any and all electronics (except Xbox)? They got it.
  • Looking for cos-players galore, enough to put all the Comic Cons in the world to shame? They got them.
  • Looking for floors and floors and more floors of some really specific pornography of different sorts? Come on down to Akihabara!

I’m more likely to be critical of this part of Tokyo as I found no refuge in Akihabara (it was hard to relax with the barrage of sights and sounds and I could never stay there for more than a couple of hours). For that reason, some other sources may be more helpful, if you are so inclined.

Akihabara Tip: Akihabara is home to a plethora of maid cafes. You can easily find one by spotting any of the number of young cute girls dressed in maid outfits handing out fliers on the street. In such establishments, girls (usually one assigned to you) giggle and coo while making small talk and convincing you to get more drinks. These may be a fun experience for any traveler but knowing Japanese will definitely improve the experience.

Ryogoku – the home of Tokyo Sumo, only a couple stops from Akihabara. Sumo is an incredible sport to experience live. It’s steeped in spirituality and culture (which can make it especially BORING if you’re uninformed; matches usually last less than 10-20 seconds with 5-7 minutes of traditional practices in between). But the force of impact between two professionals is electric and will shake the entire stadium! Find out when the tournaments are happening and try to go.IMG_0527


Roppongi

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Photo Credit: tokyofotos.photoshelter.com

Roppongi has a weird reputation and it almost deserves it. The town simultaneously houses the largest number of expats in Tokyo, a diminishing presence of the Japanese mafia (the Yakuza), and the Japanese offices of some of the biggest corporations in the world. It’s also known as a party district for foreigners and locals alike.

The city night view from The Ritz-Carlton located in Tokyo Midtown.

The Roppongi I got to know was the neighborhood where I went to a salsa club for the first time and felt horribly unprepared for a salsa club for the first time. It’s the neighborhood with several museums, including the Mori Art Museum where I got to see Takashi Murakami’s incredible blend of anime and Buddhist art. (You probably already know his work; he designed Kanye’s Graduation album cover and the Good Morning music video. Oh, and he did something with some designer named Louis Vuitton.)

And the Mori Art Museum and Building are located in Roppongi Hills, where I’ve spent plenty of time watching free concerts or lying on the grass with a partner as the summer came to a close.

Roppongi Must Do:

Tokyo Midtown and Roppongi Hills – Two industrial complexes that offer everything from world renowned museums (Mori Art Museum), expensive and elegant dining and shops, movie theaters and performance spaces. You could easily spend an afternoon or two walking around these two locations.

Roppongi Tip: The nightlife in Roppongi is particularly welcoming to foreigners making it a great place to party but also attractive to people who may want to rip off unsuspecting foreigners. Probably less prevalent now (I didn’t go to Roppongi often and it never happened to me), but Roppongi has a reputation for clubs that lure people in with attractive women or pushy solicitors. These clubs have been known to serve drinks that have been spiked or laced, and then force the guests to foot an astronomical bill. Careful now!


Near Roppongi: Azabu Juban

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I kept stumbling upon this same building where I took this picture. A simple 10 floor walk up later and I was granted the most incredible views of surrounding Tokyo.

In the shadow of Tokyo Tower, and a couple stops away from Roppongi, this section of Tokyo is reminiscent of upscale, cobble stone European city streets, and it has got the restaurants and stores to match.

I was first drawn to Azabu Juban when I learned of the abundance of vegetarian restaurants there which suited my semi-vegetarian diet in the midst of a seriously meat obsessed Japan.

Azabu Juban Tip:

No “must do’s” for Azabu Juban. This small town is a must-do in itself. Romantic and lovely area to walk around in and take in the sites. There are plenty of restaurants. Oh, and don’t forget to grab a gelato and walk over to Tokyo Tower.

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It had just drizzled as we finished our gelatos and my friend (a girl I was seriously interested in) and I walked over to the base of Tokyo Tower together. The tower was lit up in its colors of fiery, bright orange and flood-light white and the tower’s rays were slowly and gently swallowed up by the deep, majestic blue of the freshly rained night sky. Considered that if it was to be my last night alive, it would be alright. Photo Credit: Bhavini Joshi

Shibuya

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The statue of Hachiko: In the early 1900’s, a professor at the University of Tokyo adopted an Akita breed dog. The dog would leave its residence everyday to greet the professor at Shibuya Station. One day the professor suffered from a cerebral hemorrhage and passed away. Hachiko, as the dog was known, returned to the station every day for the next 9 years waiting for his absent owner’s return. Photo Credit: Airbnb.com

Probably most famous for its crossing, Shibuya stands as a hub for cafes and restaurants, shopping centers, night clubs, maid cafes, and if you venture far enough to its corners, prostitution rings.

Shibuya, unlike a lot of Tokyo, unveils more and more to you the more you venture through its streets and buildings. It has a labyrinthine city system to it that can make you feel like you are experiencing a new city every time you go.

It also encompasses some surrounding areas (see below: Harajuku and Omotesando) and some of my favorite places in Tokyo: namely Meiji Jingu and Yoyogi Park.

Shibuya, like Ikebukuro, has special meaning to me, thanks largely to many of the incredible experiences that all happened there. For example:

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Shibuya set the location as I watched world-traveling friends and colleagues say their goodbyes.
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There’s a bridge with a park on it called Miyashita Park. I would go there for a Tokyo Street Dance meet up. Photo Credit: Simon Tan, Daniel Norris

And then Halloween was just crazy…

Shibuya Must Do:

Go ahead and indulge!Department Stores, gourmet food, one of the busiest Starbucks in the world; the glutton is gleeful in Shibuya!

Meiji Jingu – Massive wooden Torii gates mark the entrance of this Shinto shrine dedicated to the former emperor Meiji. Entrenched in a forest (next to Yoyogi Park) you will have to take a small stroll through paths sided by enormous trees. A really wonderful treat and escape from the busyness of Tokyo and Shibuya.


Near Shibuya: Harajuku and Omotesando

Harajuku: The breeding ground of kawaii(cute-pop) culture!

If you are going to Harajuku, 2 words: Takeshita Street. Go to it; embrace the colors, the doll-like wardrobes, the fancy boutiques and cafes; eat a thousand crepes at the thousand creperies available; and then get out of there! Doctors have advised refraining from exposure to so much cuteness!


Omotesando: You’ll find that Omotesando offers much less kawaii but makes up for it with polish and elegance. Taking a stroll down Omotesando’s street can be quite lovely when it is not over crowded.

Also, be sure to check out Commune 246 – an outdoor food court with some gourmet food that also plays host to some music performances that kick ass.


Around the Imperial Palace: Ginza, Tokyo, Yurakucho, and Yotsuya

More commonly referred to as the Marunouchi district of Tokyo. This is the most elegant and upscale section of the city, with Ginza being home to the most expensive real estate in the world.

This area offers wide open streets (an anomaly in Tokyo), high-end shopping everywhere, endless skyscrapers, salarymen (Colloquial term for office worker), and some of the best food you’ll find in Japan.

But an impeccably clean city center with wide streets would only be fit for royalty in Japan if it were balanced by a sense of openness and connection to nature. Immediately encircling the Imperial palace, a big field with pruned trees and a moat tempt you to kick your shoes off and take a break on the grass, or go for a run around the circumference. Either way, it’s a rejuvenating experience in the midst of the busy and gray Tokyo.

Marunouchi Must Do:

Take a walk around the Imperial Palace. 

Check out Tokyo’s fascination with cars – This area is a good place to get a taste of Tokyo’s (and Japan’s) obsession with incredible cars.

Jiro from Jiro Dreams of Sushi operates his restaurant in Ginza – But if you’re looking to skip the $300 USD price and possible 3 month wait, then I recommend Karaku Ginza’s lunch special which ranges between $10-$20 per sushi bowl and matches the quality.

Marunouchi Tip: The Tsukiji Fish Market, famous for its early morning tuna auctions and home to this guy who hates money, is a couple stops away and definitely a place to check out if for nothing other than some of the freshest fish in Tokyo. But! The market won’t be there forever. Due to the Olympics, Tsukiji will be winding down its run as the fish marketplace in 2016.


…and finally, Odaiba.

This man-made island in the bay of Tokyo is what you would get if you asked land developers and city planners to design an area for workers and families that felt like an amusement park.

Odaiba Must Do:

Ageha – I’m not a club person but I’ve been around to a few and in terms of venue space and set up, Ageha is the best club I have ever been to because it mixes huge concert venues, small intimate dance floors and an outdoor area by the Tokyo Bay. And almost everyone who goes there is ready to party – trains stop running at midnight – so you’ll have plenty of time to make friends.

Diver City – A playhouse for adults featuring floors of restaurants and shops with a skate park on the roof and a giant Gundam statue out front!

Miraikan – The National Museum of Science and innovation – Where else can you find a giant spinning globe, watch demonstrations of the Honda Asimo robot, and ponder what that icky sense of unease is that you are feeling when you see the almost life-like androids exhibition?

Oedo Onsen – Hitting up a bathhouse was one of my favorite activities and for good reason. You can wear a Japanese robe (known as a yukata), try some delicious foods, and stroll through the garden and indoor festival area. Oh, and the baths are relaxing, too. I also recommend Niwa No Yu in Toshimaen.


One last must do before you go:

Ghibli Museum – From Studio Ghibli, the creators of Spirited Away and the the Totoro characters. I must admit that I knew very little (read:nothing) of the anime these people produced but the museum still instilled a sense of wonder in me. The attention to detail is extraordinary (I especially loved the mockup of the artist’s (Hayao Miyazaki) studio and the staff is incredibly well informed/former artists for Miyazaki.

My visit to the museum also inspired me to embark on a solo journey to the mystical island of Yakushima. I’ll discuss that magical place in a future post.

Ghibli Tip: Order you tickets WELL in advance, I had to wait months before I could visit.


Still with me?

If you’ve made it this far; congratulations! How you feeling? That was a lot of information you just took in! So here’s a little treat for you. This is one of my favorite videos on Tokyo. It’s called Tokyo Roar and will make you want to book your ticket tonight!


Next, I’ll focus on easy day trips out of Tokyo to some of my favorite places in the world, including Kamakura.

Til then,

Mahyar

My (Not So) Secret Go-To Spots In Japan: Part 1 – Parks That I Cherish And Hiking

Hey friend,

You’re going to Japan soon. That’s pretty incredible. I’ve heard it described as the furthest you can go away from your own culture without leaving Earth.

2020 Tokyo Olympics is right around the corner. That means general interest in travel to Japan is going to dramatically rise in the next few years. The Japanese are super excited about this. I worked with plenty of people, students and fellow teachers, that were preparing themselves to work as translators and guides for incoming Gaijin (foreigners).

The list I’ve compiled is all the places that I found notable during my year long stay in Tokyo and other parts of the Land of the Rising Sun. It will include parks, shrines, restaurants, and experiences that you will only find in this country.

My wish is that this series of posts will inspire you to be a little more prepared before you go and to gain a deeper understanding than had you not read this.

Most of what I will have to share will be about Tokyo, but I will add some details about other travel destinations as well.

Tokyo


For a little over one year, I called Tokyo my home along with 30 million other people (that’s a quarter of the nation’s population). And one of the things that kept Tokyo so refreshing to me was not just that it was metropolitan behemoth, teeming with things to do and people to see; the city has a nice way of blending the concrete with the natural; the office building with the botanical garden.

That’s why this post is dedicated to the parks, the gardens and the hikes that gave me that healthy dose of luscious green when the city grey had me feeling all sorts of Tokyo blue.

 

 

Parks


Ueno Park

Situated on the east side of Tokyo, this park is world renowned and has been the location for several famous Western films, including the Wolverine movie. Always bustling with tons of tourists and locals, it has a zoo, a big lake, several shrines that offer picturesque opportunities.

It’s always crowded in Tokyo. I would get off work at 9 PM and it would still be rush hour traffic on the trains. Just look at this:

But the amount of people at Ueno Park during cherry blossom season (or hanami) is ludicrous.

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I had never seen a river made of people before.

 


Yoyogi Park

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Photo Credit: Connor MacHugh

Great park near the center of Tokyo. When I think of Yoyogi Park, I think of late night walks with friends and dates, stuffing my face with food and drink during festivals and picnic seasons, and all sorts of showcases from environmentalists to people celebrating their international cultures (Brazil was a notable festival).

I cannot believe that I do not have a single shot of my own so here are a few more from my friends!

 


Showa Kinen Park

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The only reason I found this gem is because I stumbled upon it as I was heading home from an elementary school that was designed in the shape of a circle with no real walls or barriers between classrooms. The kids also get to run around on the roof (The architect of the school gives a surprisingly sweet and inspiring TED talk)!

I decided to return to the trains (hoping to avoid questions about a foreigner in his twenties standing outside an elementary school) when I made my way through this park that made me feel like a kid again. There were hills to climb, pyramids to traverse, secret groves to discover and even a a field covered in a trampoline-like material.

 

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Botanical Gardens


I never realized how important botanical gardens were to me until I lived in Tokyo and was deprived of instantaneous access to nature. But botanical gardens are more than just a break from city life. They are a meditation. They are a mixture of human discipline and the wonders of the natural world. I spent countless afternoons walking through the paths, reading by the ponds and staring in awe at the incredible and agonizing positions the trees had been shaped into. You’ll have to pay to get in ($2-3 US) but they are always worth it.

Plus, among the dozen or so botanical gardens that I visited, most of them offered a pairing of matcha tea with some small traditional Japanese sweets. Those will make your day.

Here are two that I really cherished:

Shinjuku Gyoen

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This girl had just turned 20 (a coming of age year in Japanese culture). She and her parents were kind enough to let me take a picture. Actually, she was really happy I asked.

Shinjuku Gyoen affords some peace from the endless on goings of the city center, Shinjuku. Not only does it have the traditional aspects of a botanical garden, the disciplined shaping of tree growth and paths to get lost on, but it also has a huge field where you can play and eat with friends. Free access to the green house is also a big plus.

 


Rikyugien

Unlike Shinjuku Gyoen, Rikyugien is quite traditional and rocks it that way. It is the only garden that I visited enough times where I would have been justified in buying a yearly pass. Situated around a pond, the paths lead you in a circle and inside paths where you come across bridges and water falls, koi and turtles struggling to get the small pieces of bread thrown at them, and small wooden structures. If you are lucky you might be given a free small lesson on green tea.

 

 

Hiking


Yes! Places to hike in Tokyo!

Okutama Mountain Range and Lake

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Went skinny dipping in Lake Okutama. Was almost attacked by a hawk while doing so.   Photo Credit: http://www.jnto.go.jp

Looking for an escape from the bustling city of Tokyo? Then go no further than… Tokyo. Two hours west of the city center, the Okutama mountain range exists as a hiker’s paradise while still in the prefecture of Tokyo.


 

Mount Takao

I was first attracted to Takao when I learned of Hiwatari-Sai, the Buddhist monk ceremony of walking on burning embers held at the mountain base. I eventually found my way there and hiked to the top. Paths of varying difficulty are lined with monuments to the Buddha and traditional food stands.

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The view from the top. Approximately 2 hours of hiking (and eating mochi at the food stalls) until reaching this point.

 

This post is meant to give you an exit plan from Tokyo’s madness. My next post, however, will lead you straight into the depths of it all!

See you soon.

 

Mahyar

Have You Questioned Your Beliefs Lately?

“If you have not come up with you beliefs on your own, then they are not really your beliefs”

(Taken from the Critical Thinking course I took this past year)

In Michael Gelb’s How To Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci, the author details the life and methods of the proverbial renaissance man. Stories of the ‘maestro’ are beautifully woven into parables for modern living like a genius.

I enjoy this book. Quite a lot. So much that I have made it a daily habit to read part of a chapter every morning during my morning visit to the bathroom. Yes, that’s right. You may not want to ask to borrow my copy.

The chapter that I am currently on is called ‘Dimostrazione‘. As Gelb describes it, it is a commitment to forming knowledge through the one true vehicle of learning: experience.

‘No one should imitate the manner of another, for he would then deserve to be called the grandson of nature, not her son. Given the abundance of natural forms, it is important to go straight to nature…”

Leonardo Da Vinci

This is really a call to action for myself. For too long I believe my mind has remained dormant and inactive. That it has been focused on trivial and insignificant affairs and I am quite ready to change that.

The real catalyst to this motivation to change has been spending time at home post graduation from undergrad. No longer burdened with an endless procession of academic hoops to jump through, I have been given a little opportunity to reflect on what really matters.

Because there must be something that drives us. There must be something that stops people from getting together and committing mass suicide. Something inside of us yearns for something more.

But I think it’s the ability to distinguish what is truly important to us and what we have been taught to conceive as important that creates happiness in our lives.

I can openly admit that for too long in my life I spent more time looking in the mirror than searching out verifications for my beliefs and engaging in challenging conversations. I spent more time on social media sites, in the hopes of attaining ethereal pleasures, than exposing myself to new ideas and perspectives.

This left me, as I recently realized, with beliefs that aren’t my own but have been given to me and I have accepted as my own.

When asked what is the most important thing that the world needs to focus on developing, the Dalai Lama was quick to answer that critical thinking must become a priority for us. We must challenge ourselves, our beliefs and the information that is given to us.

Critical thinking allows us to discern the good information from the bad, allowing us to make more informed decisions. The more we are able to make informed the decisions, the happier we will be. The happier we will be, the better the entire world will be. Thus, critical thinking makes the world a better place. Got it? Good!

So how can we put this to use?

By remaining an open minded skeptic and asking as many questions as possible.

By reading articles, books, sources of information with the OPPOSITE viewpoint of your own.

I particularly like this one a lot because when you throw your ideas and your beliefs into a pit of fire composed of opposing view points, it comes out charred. It comes out beaten and weak. It may not even be recognizable when you take it out of the pit but what remains, whatever fraction of the original it may be, you can be a little more certain that it is right… for now, at least.

Other solid practices, according to Gelb’s book, are making commitments to learning something through personal experience, as far as possible.

Question how the role of media and advertising have had an impact on the shaping of your beliefs and values. Or ask yourself whether you would maintain you beliefs if you were a different person, in a different time, from a different religion, race or gender.

Putting it to use.

Personally, I have questions regarding the existence of ‘true love’, the meaning of fame and why so many people crave it, myself included, the idea of reincarnation. The only way to get some further understanding is by putting it up to the firing squad that is deliberate and focused questioning.

Now the question remains; which beliefs of yours could use some more questioning.

What a 5 hour Old Baby Taught Me About Life

With each corner navigated in the maze of halls that was the New York Presbyterian Hospital, my anxiety quietly built up. Not bad anxiety mind you. I just really wanted to get to the destination.

Finally, we reach the room we were searching for, my dad and I. He opens the door and walks in. He turns around the first corner inside the room where he is momentarily out of my sight and the sound of welcome and tremendous joy echoes out into the hallway. What was it that caused the jubilation?

He had just met his first grandchild. My niece. My sister’s daughter.

I enter the room and see for myself what’s going on. Do a quick one over to make sure there are no ninjas or assassins in sight and that’s when I see them. My sister, in bed, dressed in a hospital gown with a loving smile surrounded by her husband, the in-laws, my mother and aunt. In the corner of the room sat my brother-in-law. Holding a baby. This is the first time I get to meet the little girl. Name’s Leila, they tell me.

Born the morning of June 4th, 2014.

Immediately I swoop in. I want to see this baby. I want to play. I want to hold this new little darling in my hands. Ok, I’ll respect my elders and allow my father to hold her first. I watch as my dad takes her in his hand and watches her with a beaming smile. A smile so sweet, so proud.

My mom, from the other side of the bed in which my sister is still recovering, watches solemnly. She’s been with my sister since the day and night before. She has been here since the beginning of this child’s existence. She’s braved the battle my sister braved. Now she’s tired. Us soldiers, meaning the men from my family, fresh from our barracks are ready to take active duty; which of course entails cooing and playing with the baby until we wear her out.

My patience runs thin and like a child only slightly older than the one my dad is holding, I whine, ‘DAD, MY TURN. LET ME SEE HER!’ He concedes of course and he goes to hand me the baby. It is at this moment that the demons in the mind come out. You know those tricksters; the ones that fill your head with questions of ‘What if’.

‘What if I drop her and she falls to the floor and breaks like a bad watermelon?’

‘What if I accidentally choke her?’ What if what if what if what if what if.

Endlessly

Like some heavy dust on my shoulders, I brush off those inane thoughts and focus on the present. I got a baby in my hands now. I find the confidence to quickly take the baby with ease and without much hesitation or thought. She feels comfortable now in my arms and I can’t stop looking away.

I notice a few things quickly. This baby has been asleep the entire time that she and I have known each other. A little rude I might say but I’ll abstain from judging her hour old knowledge of proper social etiquette.

Also, not obliged to any parental feelings of guilt or pride, I am free to admit this baby is not the most attractive baby I have ever seen. I mean, she’s cute, but I have seen some CUTE babies in my day. Nevertheless, I look on.

Later on she finally opens her eyes and we make eye contact which she is able to retain for quite some time.

She is contemplative and stoic. No facial expressions to imply her inner feelings. Only observation. Her little dark eyes seem to be just wondering what the hell it is this place she has just been disposed into and who are these moving and ogling beings that seem to take such an interest in her.

It must be odd, from a baby’s perspective, so new to the world, so ready to take everything in or just sleep after such a long journey and there is an incessant crowd of people always trying to hold you, stare you dead in the eye or make awkward incomprehensible noises at you. Give it a break folks, the kid just got here.

But her little stoic mind seems undisturbed by all the ogling of strangers. She looks on. She yawns, She flinches when you tickle the bottom of her incredibly mature looking feet. She has nails and toe nails already, you know.

I start to feel such an affinity towards the child. This thing in which I have known only for a couple hours. I have never kissed a baby before seeing as my political career hasn’t launched yet and I ask myself whether or not I should. Then I think back to my jaunts in Israel, spending time with family and observing the notorious affection towards the smaller children.

It is almost universal amongst the men in my family who live in Israel to shower their small children with kisses. Not only on the head and face but on the shoulders, down their arms. I have had conversations with some cousins of mine who without missing a beat to our chat managed to kiss up and down the arm of their small child, their face and small stomachs. I was left wondering whether they really loved their kids or they were getting a taste test for the day they decide to prepare a meal with the child as the main entrée. Side of hummus and tabouli, of course.

But inspired by my pseudo-cannibalistic family, I lay a baby kiss on the baby’s forehead. And her soft skin warmly accepted it and it was so sweet, I had to kiss the baby a couple more times. I do not feel much tendency to show tenderness to others, but this baby had stolen my heart and run away with it. She was beautiful.

Lessons Learned From The Baby

She taught me a few things, this baby. And probably much more than I had a chance to teach her up til now. She showed me who my sister and her husband really were. She showed me who I was.

My sister, in her time of great pain and distress while going into labor and the agony of contractions before exuded a brilliant resistance to panic and a calm determination. Even during the height of pain she remained as calm and collected as possible. It was incredible to watch.

Little Leila also allowed us all to see the glow of beauty that my sister emitted as she was peacefully (or so it seemed) watching from her hospital bed as we all played with the new human. It was a sight to see and it made me believe that she was quite ready for being a mother. Don’t get me wrong here, I have always sensed that Tandis (my sister) has wanted to be MY mother and attempted many times to act in such a manner, only to result in my bitterness. But now I was quietly convinced she would do wonderfully.

My brother in law, her husband, was compassionate, caring, strong and he was there through almost every contraction pang my sister went through. And not only that, he remained calm and he helped my sister calm herself and he used dorky inspirational sayings that made you shake your head in bemusement. I felt I was truly seeing his unadulterated self for the first time.

The little baby also showed my own insanity. While I held the small child in my hand and was surrounded by doting and loving family, I became fearful for the child and I wanted to shelter her from all the bad and the ugly or any negativity that might get lodged in her maturing subconscious. Kids pick things up quick!

But as I stared at the face of the now sleeping little beauty in my hands I found some ease in my mind. There was no point fretting about these things. She was going to experience horrible things in her life. She was going to feel insecure and unloved. There is no perfect life. But that’s not a bad thing. It is what will make her grow to be a strong and independent young woman. Strong enough to face those challenges. That hell that life gives you.

I am quite excited to see how she will grow and how the dynamics of our family will change as a result of this new addition. I am excited to see the woman she becomes. But for now my job as uncle is clear:

Time to corrupt the little bugger.

My Daily Habit: Scare, Share, Tear

Habits

 

Not long ago, I learned that the key to success was creating habits for yourself that lead to creating excellence in everything you. If life is meant to be lived well and we are tasked to be creators of excellence then the only way to do that is to do that… every day.

Having decided this, I came up with a three part daily habit that I will expound in just a moment.

 

Scare, Share, Tear.

Scare

Do something that scares you everyday.

Why? Because every person I have ever considered as being successful successful has done it by doing that which scared them. They weren’t fearless. No. They felt small and weak and outnumbered. In the American culture, this would be translated to ‘feeling like a pussy’. But they faced their fears, made themselves uncomfortable. And they learned and grew from being brave. It was these insights that propelled them into the stratosphere of accomplishments they have attained.

It’s the reason I started writing. I was scared to express myself. I didn’t ever want to make people uncomfortable with anything that I said. I wanted people to like me because I was agreeable. But I quickly realized agreeable made me feel fake and I developed no real connections with the people around me because of it. It took scaring myself, being willing to look awkward or stupid to start gaining some confidence in myself.

And maybe it’s because I believe it is our duty as conscious beings to seek truth and when so much fear is propagated by our cultures and societies, the only way to understand the validity of a fear is by testing it. Seeing if it stands strong even when you face it. It probably won’t.

Or maybe like the artist’s intuition or the genius’s hunch, fear is meant to tell us what our next challenge will be.

Share

Create a Win/Win Situation Everyday.

Share your wealth. Share your love. Share your help, your gratitude. In everything you do, make it a win/win situation for everyone.

Again, all the successful people I have studied have found a way to build others up. They award gratitude, humility and acknowledgment to those who helped build their magnificent lives. They found ways to build beautiful futures for others. They paid it forward.

But giving thanks and helping others is also a way of humbling yourself. I’m a recovering ego-holic. I understand how easy it is to get wrapped up in yourself and think you are the center of the universe especially in our culture of selfies and social media.  By creating win/win situations, or by giving to others without any expectation of anything in return, you acknowledge that there is more important shit going on in the world than the things in your life. More significant things are happening; people are suffering more than you are and when you help them or forget about yourself for a little bit, the tension that the ego weighs on you eases just a bit. You feel lighter and you feel more connected to others. And it’s quite nice.

And if you ever start getting too self involved or consider the infinitesimal problems in your life worth your ranting and raving about, remember this small, disturbing but illuminating thought by Ryan Holiday in his enlightening book The Obstacle Is The Way:

It doesn’t matter who you are or how many things you have left to be done, somewhere there is someone who would kill you for a thousand dollars or for a vile of crack or for getting in their way. A car can hit you at an intersection and drive your teeth back into your skull. That’s it. It will all be over. Today, tomorrow, someday soon.

One day we’ll all die. So it is our duty TODAY to make the world a bit better for those who are here now and who will be here when we are gone.

Tear

Throw something away Everyday (or give it away, you wasteful bastard!)

This habit is meant to rip, tear, rid me and my life of dependence on material goods. Some may call it minimalism. All I can tell you is that there is not much better feeling in the world than ridding yourself of possessions (that you certainly do not need) and thus taking off the burden from your mind. It’s freeing. It’s less things to worry about. There’s a great line from Fight Club that accurately expresses the idea here. What was it again?

The things you own end up owning you

Ah right. Thanks Brad. But there’s also that one by Bruce Lee…

quote-Bruce-Lee-its-not-the-daily-increase-but-daily-54

Don’t get me wrong. I would like to be adequately wealthy and successful. But to me that doesn’t mean compiling copious amounts of gadgets, things I’ll use once and never look at again and other garbage. I would like more freedom as I grow older and having more stuff to take care of impedes on that freedom.

Minimalism and success are not mutually exclusive.

Cut away the inefficient. Cut away the material things that are holding your life down and start focusing on what is actually going to make your life and your mind better. Like developing yourself. Reading. Finding a new hobby that expands you!

I have a penchant for reading and as a result I love my books. The hardest things for me to give away are books. Because I find myself thinking that I will eventually read them again after I had already read through them. But there is not much like the feeling of lightness you feel when you get rid of stuff that was taking up physical space in your life. Even books that you will probably never read again!

Write it down everyday.

The last thing I’d like to say is that if you do not write down the specific thing Scare, Share, Tear act you did for each day, it is easy to go about days on end without actually doing anything, convinced that you have.

So if you decide to scare the shit out of yourselves, share yourselves and tear yourselves away from material things, keep a journal and watch how you progress.

 

Ciao.

The Good News About Robots Stealing Your Job

Having graduated last week I find myself at home with a lot of time on my hands. Time spent slowly oscillating between hopes for my future and dread of a meaningless life.

But in my bipolar state, I have carved out some time to think. I have been playing around a lot with the idea of potential jobs and what the future holds for careers. And the more I think about it, the more I realize that with the advancement of technology, the jobs that would be best suited for people like me (or not like me) are being quickly eaten up.

Robotic-Muscle-2

And then I ask myself: is that such a bad thing? Hmm…

I want you to try a little exercise with me and it’s going to involve you using your imagination.

Close your eyes and let’s go a decade or two into the future. What’s going on? What do you see?

One thing you should see besides all the awesome scantily clad sexy or absurdly obese (we do live in America after all) future people are the machines and technology that will be everywhere. Much more so than it is now. They’ll be in our homes, in our communities and most profoundly they are going to be crowding out our work places.

Can you see it now? Can you picture a world where robots and machinery become so advanced that they take over our middle class and lower class jobs. Robots making deliveries, cooking burgers at McDonalds, doing your accounting work. With all of these robots doing the things we used to do, much more efficiently than we used to do them, it won’t be long until the work force won’t be made of flesh and blood but iron and oil. These robots will automate the work and destroy the work force. This sounds scary. But maybe it’s not.

Now. OPEN YOUR EYES (how you would still be reading if your eyes were closed I’m not sure).

The year is 2014 and the proliferation of robotics and machinery can be found in newspapers and websites EVERYWHERE. This isn’t a couple decades in the future. This is now and and it is happening everyday. And these aren’t just robots that smile and bark and beat human geniuses at Jeopardy. These are robots and machines that are being designed to take over the mundane (and in some cases the surprisingly specific) jobs that hold our economic well beings in balance.

They-Took-Our-Jobs

In his article ‘How Technology is Destroying Jobs’, David Rotman details the phenomenon that has been taking place over the last several decades; the overall productivity of the United States is going through the roof, GDP is higher than ever, and yet unemployment is also on the rise. This is interesting to note but it is also a tell that the future is not too far away.

Congress and other factions of the state like to blame exporting and trade for the decrease in jobs but that is just not the case. In fact, although some jobs may be lost to outsourcing, trade has, for the most part, shifted productivity from less quality firms to more quality domestic firms.

It seems clear that robots would soon replace our work force. Humans make mistakes and are slow. Machines are designed to be meticulous and speedy. Plus you don’t have to pay them or worry about them sexually harassing each other and getting reported to HR.

Whose losing their jobs?

In a Huffington Post article on the issue we find Webb Wheel Products. This Alabama truck brake manufacturing company has increased productions significantly while not hiring a single factory worker in the past three years because of new tech.. Dwayne Ricketts, the company president, had this sentiment:

“Everyone is waiting for the unemployment rate to drop, but I don’t know if it will much. Companies in the recession learned to be more efficient, and they’re not going to go back.”

And it’s not just factory jobs and manufacturing jobs that are being lost. It’s not the simple minimum wage service jobs at fast food restaurants. Some more surprisingly sophisticated jobs are being greatly affected. Taken from an article on MIT’s Technology Review:

 

The most vulnerable workers are doing repetitive tasks that programmers can write software for – an accountant checking a list of numbers, an office manager filing forms, a paralegal reviewing documents for key words to help in a case. As software becomes even more sophisticated, victims are expected to include those who juggle tasks, such as supervisors and managers – workers who thought they were protected by a college degree.

What won’t robots and tech be able to do better than us?

A careful look at one of the charts on James Sherk’s article Technology Explains Drop In Manufacturing Jobs reveals that jobs are sharply declining for anyone that has not yet acquired their college degree. And those with bachelor’s degrees (myself included) should not feel comfort; job growth in that sector has greatly decelerated to only 2.4%.

But there is one beacon of hope for humanity. Jobs left for those with graduate degree or higher have seen a rise in availability by 44%.

I have mixed feelings about graduate level and higher education with the exception of medical, law and fields in which it is absolutely necessary for a degree. I don’t believe this statistic is a call to action for all students to dig themselves further into debt than before and spend even more time in school.

I think this just means its time for us as humanity to wake up.

The Wake Up Call

The fact that higher degrees equals more jobs in the future just signifies that unless you are really good at what you do, you will soon be replaced. This can be scary. But it’s a good wake up call. You must become excellent at what you do, be the only one that can do it or do it purely for love and passion.

The future seems to be a place where mediocrity will leave you hungry and poor. You must choose your craft or art, and hone it until there is no machine in the universe that can do it as well as you can.

Yes, things may get a little bumpy, but this can be a GREAT thing.

Robots will be taking over the repetitive and the low to mid skill level jobs. But with the mundane tasks out of the way, won’t humans be forced to become better at what they do or starve? Wouldn’t a greater number of people be misplaced from the jobs that weren’t fulfilling them any way and thus FORCE them to move towards a life well lived.

You must become excellent at what you do. You must offer something that no machine can. There won’t be any room for second rate accountants. You have to be the best god damn accountant around. You need to be a rock star amongst bean counters. So not many will survive but those who don’t will be tasked to find another way.

When pushed against a wall, people get creative. What will happen when the world has no choice but to become entrepreneurial. I’d like to see that day.

School’s out for… Ever.

And what would happen to our schools? No longer would we have to sit through mind numbing, senseless classes that force us to memorize fact after fact. Who needs rote memorization when machines can do that faster than we ever could?

What would schools and education consist of if not for training the masses for factory work? It could be havens to cultivate creativity and ingenuity. We could develop people to start early at making their own future. Watch one or two TED talks by Sir Ken Robinson and you’ll get an idea of the possibilities that we have with education.

There will be questions…

The potentials of technology spurs a lot of questions that won’t have clear answers until the future is smacking us in the face.

Some of my own questions:

  • Does everyone have what it takes to be an entrepreneur?
  • Will there be social disorder due to the ‘hallowing’ out of middle class jobs?
  • Are we moving towards a society that promotes excellence and people pursuing fulfilling work or are we just constructing our own demise, one little robot after another?

These are questions I do not have the answer to but I prefer to err on the positive.

Lastly – Don’t be an annoying pre teen!

How can one fight the advancement of something as inevitable as the growth of technology? It’s madness, is it not?

Trying to hide away from the fact that machines are coming and are going to drastically change the way we live and work is like a preteen dreading and trying to get away from puberty. But the same applies for technology: It’s going to suck and it will be hard to adjust. It’s going to be awkward and we’re going to be discovering parts of ourselves that we don’t really know how to use at first.

But eventually, we will all come out of it smarter, more mature and more ready to create a better world!