Souhan: In Tokyo, we’re likely in for earnestness and illogic from Olympic host city

Penni Schewe

TOKYO — Five years after Rio, the “We Are Not Responsible for Your Valuables” Olympics, we present Tokyo’s “Circa 2020, By the Way You Can’t Do That” Games.

There will be a lot of drama and beauty for athletes and viewers over the next three weeks. For a writer from Minnesota sitting on a bus in a parking lot in Tokyo, you can only hope that this moment wasn’t defining:

The Olympics representative stood at the front of a bus packed with journalists. Calling himself “An honest man,” he admitted that he had been stalling, hoping for taxis to arrive, by reciting Tokyo trivia.

He told us that there were more Michelin-rated restaurants in Tokyo than in Paris and New York combined. This would be useful information if journalists were allowed to eat in restaurants in Tokyo during the Olympics. We are not. We are not even allowed to eat in our hotel until our fourth day in Tokyo.

Then the representative told a bus crammed with people who had also just flown in planes jammed with people and were headed to a hotel jammed with people that every person would have to ride individually in a taxi to the hotel.

I think we are in for three weeks of host-city earnestness and illogic. The Daily Beast is reporting that some journalists traveling to Tokyo are being forced to quarantine in their hotel rooms for 14 days, even though they are vaccinated, because they came in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID. The hotel isn’t providing food, so they’re looking at two weeks of eating pizza in a small room.

Rachel Blount and I are covering the Olympics for the Star Tribune, and the trip to Tokyo, from the door of my house to the door of our hotel, took 26 hours.

We went through about eight checkpoints (honestly, I lost count) at the airport to deal with COVID protocols, customs and baggage claim.

The trip felt like being an extra in a really long shooting of one of the great ESPN commercials, where athletes and mascots wear their uniforms around the office and cafeteria. We stood in line with athletes from Europe, Asia and the Caribbean. I’m guessing Michael Phelps didn’t go through that.

It was like Disney, but without the annoying rides. Understanding the psychology of herds, they kept us constantly moving. If they had packed us into a room for five hours, they would have had “Lord of the Flies” on their hands. Instead, you just kept walking and wondering what would come next.

When we did get to the hotel, via the cleanest taxi I’ve ever experienced and a driver wearing a tie, I wondered if my editors had ordered this room specifically to increase productivity. It’s smaller than any hotel room I have ever seen before. Nice, tidy, clean and about the size of a toll booth.

I’ve traveled to New York enough to expect small rooms in large cities, but I have never before seen a room with zero cabinet space.

If you could visit Tokyo under better circumstances, you wouldn’t want to spend time in your room. The city is beautiful. It’s also massive. It’s like some idealized combination of New York, Toronto, Chicago and Miami. And by “idealized,” I mean they don’t pile garbage bags on the street.

The main press center (MPC) is called Tokyo Big Sight. This seems eminently accurate. It is massive and it is a sight to see. The venues we passed on the road look pristine, as well.

There are a surprising number of signs in English here. I haven’t seen a scrap of trash anywhere yet, and the volunteers and security workers are relentlessly polite.

My only other trip to Asia was for the Beijing Olympics, and you could say that had a different feel. The airport and venues were stunning, but they had been created strictly for that Olympiad. When we arrived in Beijing, citizens were wearing masks not because of a virus but because relentless construction in the city had created an acrid, acidic mist that cleared away only after wind or rain.

Tokyo is hot, humid and gorgeous. I hear it has lots of good restaurants, too. It’s the kind of place I’d like to vacation, when talking about Michelin stars sounds a little less like taunting.

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