It’s been two weeks since we left Tokyo and my head is still spinning with the experience. Here’s nine things I took away, some helpful, some silly, from the mesmerising, awe-inspiring and occasionally challenging Japanese capital.
1. The Tokyo train and subway lines can be an absolute headache
Paul and I have used a lot of subway systems over the years. We pride ourselves on picking them up quickly and generally feel like we are zipping around cities like locals within a matter of hours. This wasn’t quite the case in Tokyo. First off, some stations don’t use the Roman alphabet on maps which can make route planning a very tricky business unless you’re able to decipher Japanese. Secondly, the train and subway system is enormous. Think just because it’s a 10-minute journey between stations that you’ll be where you want to be in 10 minutes? Think again – many of the stations sprawl across frustratingly large distances and getting out at the wrong exit can throw your bearings to the wind. Transferring is also problematic; we found stations to be poorly signposted and often had to rely on (regularly incorrect) guesswork to get to where we needed to go.
2. The people in Tokyo are incredibly polite
Thankfully, when you do find yourself bewildered in a station in Tokyo, there’s no shortage of people on hand to help you. In one particularly desperate train drama, I resorted to asking if the man beside me could speak English; he could, a little. Rather than simply pointing us in the right direction however, he walked with us for a good five minutes to the line we were going to, despite it being in completely the opposite direction from where he was heading. Similarly, when we arrived in Tokyo and erroneously took a far swisher and more expensive train that we were supposed to from Narita Airport, the ticket inspector simply smiled warmly as he learned about our mistake and told us how to transfer to the correct line. A particularly fond memory of the kindness of the people we encountered came at a standing bar in Harmonica Alley where we struck up a conversation via Google Translate with the barman. He told us he was an artist and had painted the pictures hanging on the wall of the bar. As we were leaving, he lifted two of the paintings off and gave them to us as a gift! It was a lovely and generous gesture.
3. Tokyo is not easy for vegetarians
Japan does not easily accommodate non meat eaters and vegetarianism isn’t a common lifestyle choice like it is in the UK. Most Japanese dishes contain some form of meat or fish and even those which appear to be vegetarian will often contain a sauce or seasoning with meat or fish in it. This makes dining out as a vegetarian in Tokyo quite difficult.
4. There is so much to see and do
More than any other place I have visited, I left Tokyo with a list of things I wanted to see and do but didn’t have time to, despite packing in as much as we possibly could in the six days we were there. Tokyo is a mammoth city with an abundance of interesting neighbourhoods, views, museums, parks, shrines, shopping etc. etc. etc. You could spend months there and not see everything.
5. Constant chatter in convenience stores
One of the everyday quirks I grew to love in Tokyo was the constant chatter from the cashier when you buy something in a convenience store. From when you hand over whatever it is you’re buying until you collect your change, you’re met with a stream of nonstop Japanese, 100% of which I could not understand, just that every word seemed to end in “mas”. If I dropped my change down the receipt collection tray this sparked another round of animated chatter.
6. Plastic bags for everything
Another convenience store observation – in Tokyo they give you plastic bags for EVERYTHING. Packet of chewing gum? Plastic bag. Bag of crisps? Here’s a bag for your bag. You really notice this coming from the UK where you’re charged 5p for a plastic bag and are really conscious of the use of plastic.
7. All the Japanese businessmen wear white shirts
Paul joked that a surefire successful business idea in Tokyo is opening a white shirt shop – EVERY Japanese businessman (or salaryman as they are known as) wears a white shirt. I like to imagine the horror if a Japanese businessman went into work wearing a blue shirt. It would be like the episode of The Simpsons where Homer goes to work wearing a pink shirt and is sent home by Mr Burns for being a “free thinking anarchist.”
8. There’s lots of unnecessary jobs
Our friend Brian who lives in Tokyo told us Japan is a very bureaucratic country and that we would see lots of people doing jobs that seem totally unnecessary. Once he pointed it out we noticed it all the time; men in uniforms standing at the side of the railway tracks doing nothing, men in uniforms standing on the train platform doing even less, and my personal favourite; a souvenir duster. We saw a man in uniform dusting souvenirs in a shop getting in the way of the people who were actually trying to buy the souvenirs.
9. There are no bins
This is not an exaggeration. Tokyo, a city of over nine million people, has no bins. If you buy a can of Coke or packet of crisps you will be carrying them around all day. It is baffling. It baffled us so much Paul actually Googled it and came across this bizarre explanation – that after a cult carried out a series of attacks on the public in the 90s, all public bins were removed.
Have you ever visited Tokyo? If so, what observations did you make of the city?