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Outlier’s Path

Tradition AND Innovation

Hello from Tokyo. While growing up in Taiwan, Japan was an aspiration vacation destination. My grandfather studied at the University of Tokyo and told tales of his adventures in Japan. My first opportunity to visit Japan was when I was twelve. Flying from NYC to Tokyo was quite a time change, but it was the first time my parents let me stay out for the nightlife and sleep in during the day. It’s fun to carry that tradition and bring my son on his first trip to Japan for his spring break.

Visiting Tokyo then and ever since, it is fascinating to see what some would call the dichotomy of tradition and innovation. Walking in Tokyo, you can see the Imperial Palace close to modern hotels conducting ritualistic tea ceremonies next to stores selling expensive Birkins. A bookstore selling only manga anime is on the same floor as a bookstore selling only academic textbooks. The last surviving ninja clan’s school is down the hall from a row of futuristic vending machines in the basement of a midcentury modern office building next to the Tokyo Tower. Ancient temples are next to a sea of high-tech billboards plastered across tall skyscrapers. Delicious street food courts are in the same building as Michelin-starred restaurants. No place balances tradition and innovation quite like Japan.

The dichotomy of tradition and innovation has fascinated me for years. When I was a young teen, the simple explanation from my parents was that tradition is the Eastern way, and innovation is the Western way, which was never a satisfactory split for me. Traditional practices provide continuity, stability, and predictability in a changing world. However, innovation offers novel approaches and better solutions that significantly improve the quality of life to keep pace with our changing world. Both have merits, and my parents hoped their sons would take the best elements of tradition and innovation.

When I walk the streets of Tokyo with my family today, I do wonder how valuable it is for a sous chef to a master sushi chef to make the tamago for five years before moving on to making rice for five years before making consistent balls of rice (verified by a scale) for ten years before s/he is allowed to cut fish? How useful is carrying on the craftsmanship of the ninja, samurai, and geisha for those entering that trade today? At the same time, how valuable is the innovation of a robot making 50 flavors of matcha latte with different kinds of milk, flavorings, and fruit, or vending machines on every street corner, selling a wide variety of food and drinks, but also the weirdest stuff such as clothing, shoes, underwear, batteries, and things I do not dare put in writing?

Anyway, I digress. The real reason my family is visiting Japan is for the food! We love Japanese food, and Tokyo has 203 Michelin stars, more than any other city. Paris and Kyoto are tied at #2 with 108, and Osaka is not far behind with 96.

While debating the merits of tradition and innovation, we will eat through Japan.