10 Things I Hate (and Love) About You: Tokyo
Situated at the bleeding edge of all that is ultra-modern and futuristic, but with one foot firmly planted in the tradition and tranquility of its spiritual past, Tokyo is a glorious, dazzling and bewildering mixture of old and new. Whilst its frenetic pace can be tempered by the pockets of calm that its temples and shrines provide, sometimes it tips you over the edge: the chaos of Shinjuku and the crowds at Shibuya can fray even the least frazzled nerves. For me however, Tokyo always claws its way back from the brink, whether through the food, the people, or the Japanese obsession with putting kawaii (cute) faces on everything. (Delivery lorries in the UK would so benefit from having little smiley turnip faces on the side. See below). So, without further ado, it’s time to say “moshi moshi” to the 10 things I hated and loved about Tokyo.
Oh my. Compared to South East Asia, where you can scrape by on a delightfully small amount of money each day, Japan is expensive. A week in Japan cost us roughly the same as nearly three weeks in Thailand, and we weren’t skimping on luxury in the latter either. Major costs included things like train passes, which are worth checking out as far in advance as possible (mainly to get your head around the various options) as well as food. As with most cities, this can vary hugely depending on where you are eating and, as we found out to our very great cost, what you are eating. One day, my other half inexplicably declared “No more sushi! I need to eat something normal… like bread!” and we set off in search of sandwiches. Lo and behold, we spotted a nice looking cafe, serving delights such as Earl Grey tea and cucumber sandwiches. So far, so British, and we sat down to enjoy. Bearing in mind this kind of grub would normally set you back no more than £5 or so in the UK, we were a little surprised to have racked up a bill of over £30. Turns out sandwiches and tea are some kind of exotic delicacy in Japan. Who knew?
When you think of some of the great cities of the world, you think of their skyline. The famous silhouette of the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge; downtown Manhattan; the distinctive London landmarks dotted along the Thames. Tokyo? Well, there’s the Tokyo Tower of course, but apart from that… Hmm. Except for the bright lights of Shinjuku, I was surprised by how grey and concrete a lot of Tokyo appears to be. Looking out across the city in daylight provides a particularly unrewarding vista: blocky, bland buildings with little of the interest or ingenuity that Tokyo’s ancient architecture displays. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building‘s observatories offer far-reaching views across the city for free, but I would definitely recommend going up at night (specifically the North Observation Deck, which provides a better view at a late hour). Tokyo by night viewed from above is an entirely different prospect: the neon fizz of the bright lights at street level coalesce into glowing clusters, whilst the slow blinking of the red orbs on the tops of the city’s skyscrapers is mesmerising.
The – very apparent – pressures of work
At first, I really liked Tokyo. I mean, really really liked Tokyo, in the sense of ‘I could live here (if only I spoke fluent Japanese)’ kind of like. Everything clicked with me: the food, the way everything was so perfectly organised, how polite everyone was – etc. That was until I looked a little bit closer at the people around me, however, and the lives they seemed to lead. I’ve spent a fair amount of time squeezed into trains with weary commuters on the London underground, but that was nothing in comparison to the sheer exhaustion I saw on the faces of my fellow passengers in Tokyo. It reached a point where I was no longer surprised to see folks who had mastered the art of sleeping whilst standing up. In some respects I was fascinated by this: what a glimpse it provided into the realities of people’s lives here. More than anything however, it made me feel sad for these individuals and the stressful lives they obviously led. Some of the harsh realities of work in Japan are well known overseas, but it is sobering to see these pressures in the flesh.
There’s no way round it: Tokyo is an agoraphobe’s nightmare. And if you don’t like packed trains, I guess it’s also a claustrophobe’s nightmare. There’s probably a few others I could throw in here too, but I’ll stop. If you have any kind of issue with crowds whatsoever, my main piece of advice would be to avoid travelling in Tokyo during rush hour, if possible. If you’re ok with crowds, but haven’t experienced anything like this before, my other piece of advice would be to go with the flow. (Sometimes quite literally). Bizarrely, Tokyo is also one of those cities where crowds gather to take photos of the crowds. The famous Shibuya crossing, apparently one of the busiest intersections in the world, sees hordes of pedestrians massing at the edges of the pavements before flooding every which way out across the road once the lights change. The best vantage point to view this phenomenon is the nearby Starbucks. Surprise, surprise, this is also one of the busiest Starbucks in the world. (Are you noticing a theme?). Crowds gather in front of the first floor window in Starbucks, to get the perfect shot of the crowds gathering below. You (obviously) have to buy a drink to get a spot up here, and staff will move you on if you linger too long, but it is worth dropping by. That is, if you can stand the crowds.
The weird, weird address system!
I don’t know why I do this to myself, but I have a habit of making the journey from airport to hotel as difficult as possible. In principle, it is always easy: I have a map, I can read maps, hey – I’ll find my way there using my map. Our hotel in Tokyo was just around the corner from Shinjuku station and, looking at my handy map, seemed like an absolute breeze to find. Setting aside the fact that you will most likely need a map to get out of Shinjuku station itself (it has 36 platforms and over 200 exits), how hard could it be? Miraculously, we found our way out of the correct station exit, and promptly became completely lost. I should also add we were horrifically jetlagged. And it was raining. (See what I mean? Why didn’t I just get a taxi? I never learn). Part of the problem was that the Japanese address system is complicated (its Latin or Westernised version is also back-to-front to when it is written in Japanese, just to add to the fun) and street names or building numbers can be thin on the ground. Luckily, two friendly travellers (Aussies, I think) sensed our complete and utter confusion and helpfully pointed us in the right direction, but managing to find streets or even buildings continued to cause problems throughout our trip. Adding to this was the small matter that businesses or shops can go vertically up inside a building, as well as horizontally along the road. In the UK (and many other countries I’ve visited) shops tend to be at ground level – you find the street you need, and walk along until you find the shop front. Not so in Tokyo. We spent ages walking up and down a street looking for a cat cafe. I was adamant that we were in the right place, but could we see it anywhere? No! Turns out it was seven floors above us. D’oh.
‘How do I love thee, Tokyo trains? Let me count the ways’. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a city before and fallen head over heels in love with the public transport, but there’s a first time for everything. I knew that catching the train in Tokyo might be a bit of an *experience*, and had visions of being pushed onto crammed carriages by men in white gloves along with all of the other cliches, but I was actually pleasantly surprised. For obvious reasons, we avoided rush hour, and despite busy Shinjuku station being our local stop we never really had a problem with using the train system. (Navigating Shinjuku station however is another matter). I first had an inkling that I would come to love catching the train in Tokyo when I spotted the lines on the floor indicating where passengers should queue. We all stood there in a lovely neat little line, and then the train arrived, with the doors opening exactly in the right place for our orderly queue to embark. To add to the OCD highs I was already experiencing, the train was on time to the second. Coming from a country where “leaves on the line” frequently delay commuter trains, and trying to get on board amounts to surviving a rugby scrum, this was delight upon delight. The real icing on the cake however is the little jingles that are played on the train to indicate which station it is pulling into, or when it is about to depart. They are ridiculously adorable, and the songs are so catchy you’ll be humming them for months. It is still one of my greatest regrets that I didn’t hunt down and buy the Yamanote Line moneybox – a miniature version of a train carriage that plays one of the jingles each time you put money in, of course.
I’m normally not the type to dash down to my nearest arcade when I hit a new city, but boy do the Japanese know what they’re doing here. I spent more time in arcades in Tokyo than I thought possible; certainly more than I have in any arcade previously, and probably more than I ever will do again. We loved the arcades so much, we were still bouncing off the walls in one at 12am, before getting up for our flight at 6am. (I paid for it dearly the next day, but you only live once). Even if you’re not a ‘gamer’ (and trust me, I couldn’t be farther from this) you will find something delightfully cute, addictive or downright bizarre to keep you entertained for far too long – and guzzle your yen in the process. Part of the fun is trying to decode exactly what you’re meant to do – and a spot of button bashing never hurt anyone – but one of the real joys here is people watching. There are some utterly awesome skills on display in the arcades, no doubt honed by people spending a little too much time here, but they are endlessly entertaining.
For a true memento of your arcade experience, you absolutely must visit a purikura (“print club”) photo booth. These are ubiquitous in arcades, and downright hilarious. Again, you will have next to no idea what is going on. You’ll be prompted to strike poses before editing your photos on the screen – adding sparkles/hearts/props/costumes/totally kawaii animals or faces. Your eyes will probably (and inexplicably) be tweaked to look massive and shiny, which will either make you look like an alien, or slightly deranged. Whatever the outcome, it is a brilliant reminder of how joyously bonkers Tokyo can be. I urge you to go to at least one arcade – you will lose some money, and quite possibly your mind, but it is so worth it.
It’s nothing new that Japanese food is inventive, unique and ridiculously delicious, but I was unprepared for how stonkingly good it would be in its natural habitat. Sushi started to infiltrate the UK in a big way over the last ten to fifteen years or so and I’ve eaten my fair share of it (i.e., it’s way up high on my list of favourites) but I was completely blown away by how much better it was here. Scratch that: everything was better here. Fresh, slippery sashimi which was light and clean-tasting; juicy fat noodles glistening in gorgeous meaty broths; and plump pastel balls of mochi munchiness. Our general approach was to try first and investigate later – an attitude which resulted in some bad mouthfuls (octopus: eurgh) and some very good (oh hello, sweet potato muffins). I was also pleasantly surprised by how much healthier I felt in general. By default, Japanese diets do away with many of our Western ingredients that tend to make us feel bloated or tired. Here, things like bread, chocolate and dairy were few and far between. With food this good however, you barely even notice.
As with ‘Trains’, ‘Toilets’ are not normally something I expect to rave about at any point on my travels. But then Japanese toilets are not normal by any stretch of the imagination. As with their approach to most things in life, the Japanese have engineered their toilets to combine an irresistible trio of functionality, ingenuity and delightful quirkiness. Before we get on to any of the high-tech washing, sound-effect playing, automatic-seat lifting delights however, let me just put one phrase out there. Heated seats.
Quite why the rest of the world hasn’t caught up with this stroke of genius is beyond me, because that’s what it is: utter, utter genius. I got so used to using toilets with heated seats that going home again was one hell of a cold, hard shock (the emphasis being on cold). Japanese toilets don’t stop there however: there is also a veritable plethora of other functions, many involving jets of water being sprayed with varying degrees of intensity, as well as handy sound effects in case you are doing something, ahem, noisy. (Surely the sound effect just draws more attention to this? Hmm). To top it all off, some toilets also have sensors so that the lid lifts and closes automatically – because what kind of neanderthals lift toilet seats with their hands?
The unexpected moments of serenity
It’s quite a jump from toilets to Buddhist bliss, but in many ways I think this perhaps encapsulates the way in which the bizarre and high-tech sit right alongside the ancient and traditional in Tokyo. Tucked away behind the blinding lights, bustling train stations and packed out karaoke clubs lie little slivers of tranquility, in the form of the various shrines and temples that still survive in the midst of this manic metropolis. There was a small shrine just behind our hotel, and despite being only yards away from a main road, the sudden stillness and calm was humbling. If you can, make sure you visit at least one of these special sites in Tokyo: make time to sit still, savour the serenity, and enjoy the silence.
There are so many more that I could have added to this ‘Love’ list. Cat cafes. Bullet trains. The lovely, friendly, generous people. Feel free to add any of your own below!
Liked it? Pin it!