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Matthew Firestone – He’s Big in Japan!

I recently had the privilege and pleasure of interviewing Matthew Firestone, a freelance travel writer who is one of the authors of The Lonely Planet Guide to Japan and the writer of Big in Japan for Gadling. Over the past three years he has also written or contributed to the Lonely Planet Guides to Egypt, Panama, Southern Africa, Costa Rica and many others. We met for lunch at a traditional Japanese Soba restaurant in the ultra modern Shin-Marunouchi Building located near historic Tokyo Station. The setting of our lunch is symbolic of Matthews’ thoughts on the duality of the city itself.

“One of the classic images of Japan is of a bullet train speeding past Mount Fuji with a remote shrine in the background. This is a country of extremes. On the main streets in Tokyo, you can find soaring steel and glass skyscrapers where you can sip some of the finest coffee in the world, indulge in hand made pastries and see beautiful women wearing the latest designer clothing. But then, you can skirt down a back alley to discover a Showa era temple that hasn’t changed in decades, where priests are sweeping away dried leaves and chanting Buddhist prayers under their breath.

Japan is a true dichotomy. People here have a profound sense of the old yet are embracing the future – all the while trying to strike a compromise between these extremes. Tokyo is one of the few places in the world where you can get this sense of old and new in a single place”

Matthew is a Harvard graduate who spent a year studying at Cambridge, got kicked out of China for being an alleged spy and now lives in Japan. He is a full time writer for Lonely Planet who thought he would write a couple of guidebooks and then start a career in public health. He has degrees in Biological Anthology, specializing in the ancestral nutrition patterns of native cultures, and Epidemiology (the statistical analysis of disease). He is well into his third year as a travel writer, and he says that he will continue to travel and write guidebooks until it “becomes a job” and his passion wanes. He says that “Traveling is wonderful and I love living in Japan, but I still have this internal passion to change public health, and to be involved in international development. One of my dreams is to blend my love of travel and international development, and perhaps one day help countries improve their tourism infrastructure.”

When I asked Matthew what he liked about living in Tokyo, he talks about exploring the ‘wa‘, or the sense of what is going on around him. He goes on to describe the culture shock that he experiences almost daily, despite having lived in the country for five years, speaking the language proficiently and socializing frequently with Japanese friends.

“I see things on a daily basis, big and small, that make me say ‘wow, that’s new!’ That’s really what makes this place so wonderful.

I have been to 75 countries in the world, and sadly there are very few places where you can completely escape from American globalization. While you can still feel some strong aspects of the West here, for a good number of Japanese, America might as well be a different world. You often hear Japanese people say, ‘Nihon wa ichi-ban da yo!’ (Japan is the best!), and they truly mean it. Indeed, the people here have love, respect and affinity for their ancestral culture, which is certainly admirable in this modern age of globalization.”

When the subject of Japanese food came up, I think I may have detected a slight gleam in Matthews’ eyes. He describes his love of Ramen and how enjoyable it is for him to write about the food of Japan. Sushi is right up there on his list of favorite foods, and he is quick to point out the following: “The variety and quality of sushi in Tokyo is unmatched the world over. It comes directly from the market in Tsukiji, and typically hasn’t been flash frozen. It’s fresh, usually caught that same day, and is simply fantastic!”

Matthew also described his love of the Japanese onsen experience, which features prominently in his ‘must do’ list for visitors to Tokyo. Here are Matthew’s top 5 things to do when you visit Tokyo:

  1. Take a trip to LaQua onsen in the Tokyo Dome City complex (map). Matthew describes LaQua (pronounced La Ku-a in Japan) as a theme park onsen with indoors baths, outdoor baths, saunas, a restaurant floor and an entire floor dedicated to various kinds of massage. Hawaiian hot stone massage, Japanese traditional shiatsu massage, Swedish therapeutic massage, deep tissue massage, Korean akasuri (skin scrubbing) and other services are not included in the price of admission.
  2. A visit to the famous Tsukiji Fish Market (visitor guidelines).
  3. An afternoon in shitamachi, or low town, which is an area east of the Sumida river that includes Ueno and Asakusa. In shitamachi you can still get a sense of traditional Edo culture that you may miss out on if you stay in the newer, shinier parts of the city.
  4. Dining out and eating at least one traditional Japanese meal to get a sense of how wonderfully refined the cuisine can be. Kaiseki ryori or formal meals can be found in many areas of the city, and Matthew particularly likes the restaurants in Tokyo Midtown and the Shin-Marunouchi Building (where we met for lunch).
  5. Lastly, Matthew says that you should plan for at least one crazy drunken night out in Roppongi or Shibuya just to see that Japan is not all raked pebble gardens, kimonos and geisha.

On the flip side of the must do list are the things that you might want to pass on. Matthew feels that maid cafes (located mostly in the Akihabara area) are overrated, and he feels that the Ginza area is past its prime. Instead of a trek through Ginza, he suggests a stroll through Daikanyama and Ebisu, which are stylish and sophisticated neighborhoods with an international flair, and Shimokitazawa which is hip, trendy and one of the city’s best up and coming neighborhoods.

Lastly, take a moment to read about the five Japanese foods might want to avoid that Matthew and I agreed upon over lunch and I documented for today’s edition of Big in Japan.

Discussing Japan and Tokyo with Matthew was a real pleasure and I hope that we can do it again soon. Domo-arigato gozaimasu (thank you very much) Matthew, for your time and for the great tips that you so generously shared with the The Tokyo Traveler.

Photo Credit: Personal Collection