Welcome to Unboxing Asia: Small girl meets big world

Unboxing Asia: a new column that's running east on a journey of discovery, giving you news updates from around Asia, and thoughts on technology and society in Japan.
Written by Hana Stewart-Smith, Contributor

One small blonde girl's battle to survive Tokyo, and report back on the results: "May involve gigantic robots and pocket sized monsters", with an emphasis on the ‘may'.

Sounds a bit like a pitch for a manga film, if you ask me.


The famous Shibuya Sprawl, where 300 people cross every minute; though is much smaller than you might think up close.

I'm Hana Stewart-Smith, and I'll be your host for this new column, ‘Unboxing Asia'. I'll be doing the unboxing, so to speak, as I've only just moved here and am as new to Asia as most of you.

After all, my homeland of Britain is full of crazy people rioting, bow ties and mad-cow disease, so now is as good a time as any to get the hell out of dodge.

I'm here for a year to learn, to teach and to see the East through Western eyes. All of this I want to share with you; if you're willing to come along for the ride.

Joining the small legions of gaikokujin (foreigners) in Tokyo, I'll be covering news and updates in Japan and across Asia, whilst also dissecting the interplay between society and technology, in the hopes of opening up and uncovering some seldom-seen aspects of life.

From business to bathrooms, I will be covering how people really live and rooting out the source of technological innovations. I'll be visiting universities and discovering what new technology is being developed, what ideas and concepts have grasped the imagination of the next generation, and trying to predict what tomorrow's big story will be.

Having found a career that sticks I've upped and moved myself over to somewhere I can put my new skills to work whilst getting a firsthand look at all the awesome tech on the ground. I chose Japan. But why Japan, exactly?

Well, what do you see when you think 'Japan'? Some people might think of Samurai and honour, hot sake and beautiful temples. Others might see robots and skyscrapers, huge flashing screens and an unreasonable amount of karaoke.  Either way when we think about Asia we think about a world that's moving ahead of our own; literally and figuratively.

It's a completely different world, and what could be more appealing than that? I thought to myself that Japan couldn't be all that different; they sometimes eat KFC for Christmas dinner, and the toilets come with seat warming functions, but deep down its all pretty much the same thing, surely? It can't all be like one gigantic internet meme, no matter what certain image boards might like you to think.

Well, you'll be shocked to know that I was right. People, after all, still wear socks.

Take one example: when I first arrived at Narita Airport -- I won't lie -- I found myself a little disappointed. Not a single robot offered me any help with my luggage, and everything was surprisingly low key and low tech.

The airport was sparsely populated and small, with only a very tiny fracture of staff; compared to the lavish, wide marble floors and pointlessly huge waterfalls that made up Dubai's terminal during my transfer. Narita was deeply underwhelming. Nothing exciting; grey carpets, grey walls, grey everything -- and so quiet. I've never been in a quieter airport.

It only occurred to me a short while later that I was missing the greater significance. When have you ever been able to enter an airport manned by only a small group of staff, with a queue of at most three people and get straight through to collect your baggage, with no fuss and no trouble?

Everything about the small, simple terminal was designed to run smoothly. That's the kind of place Japan is; filled with little designs that make your life run smoothly.

If you ask me, in our ever complicated times, that's the kind of thing that's worth finding out.

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