Every year, the Economist publishes the Big Mac Index, "a fun guide to whether currencies are at their “correct” level. It is based on the theory of purchasing-power parity (PPP), the notion that in the long run exchange rates should move towards the rate that would equalise the prices of a basket of goods and services around the world." The current spot price of a Big Mac in Tokyo today is ¥680: just under $9. Yes, NINE DOLLARS.
This fact might cushion the surprise I experienced this evening when I discovered that four small chicken skewers (yakitori), one medium bowl of rice, and a beer, cost $32.75, including tax. This wasn't at the Tokyo equivalent of Charlie Trotter's; this was at an anonymous izakaya near the Shinjuku train station.
Now, friends and enemies alike will tell you that I routinely spend that much at, say, my remote office. There's a tip, for starters, not to mention the occasional disnumeria after I've spent an afternoon there. Only, at Duke of Perth, that amount goes a little farther.
I've noticed other things beside the angina-inducing prices in this city. In no particular order:
- I stand out. I've traveled all over the world, and in no other city (except possibly Shanghai) do I stick out more obviously than I do here. I find no small irony in that here, people don't know whether I'm American or Albanian; but they know I speak English, they know I'm not from these parts, and they know I'm the most likely person in any crowd to act unpredictably. It's not just me; all European-looking people look out of place here. And we all smile wanly at each other on the streets. It's odd.
- Shibuya at night looks just like you'd imagine, sort of Piccadilly Circus, Times Square, and North Michigan Avenue smashed together and fed amphetamines. I'm glad I had the experience. People who know me will understand how happy I am to report that I have been to the most crowded, most chaotic, and most commercial place I have ever seen (i.e., the Shinjuku train station), on my way to the most crowded, most chaotic, and most commercial place the world has ever seen (i.e., Shibuya Crossing at 5pm). And this was Sunday night. Tomorrow, when both the train station and the shopping area are actually busy, I might avoid it. In fact, since my access to the rest of Japan depends on going through the busiest train station in the world, I may start fantasizing about renting a cabin in upper Manitoba for my next vacation.
Obligatory Shibuya-at-night photo:
- No one here speaks English, but it doesn't matter. I've encountered none but helpful, patient people for the last two days. The price of dinner tonight may have made my baby cheeses cry, but the wait staff really dug in and helped me find the right words in my little dictionary. They were also enormously impressed that I know how to use chopsticks, which puzzled me, because I haven't encountered too many Americans who can't. Perhaps they thought I was British?
None of these things really bothers me, by the way. Well, all right, the crowds in Shibuya did, but it's Tokyo, so there are crowds, so what? I mean, we don't have this back home: