Tokyo. Take what you think you know about this place and throw it out the window. If your understanding of Tokyo is based on western media portrayals then I think the above statement holds water. I came here expecting crushing crowds, Times Square over the top billboards, hi-tech everything, and some totally outrageous people. I expected noise, lots of it, given the number of people. I had it all wrong.
Tokyo is a quiet, open place. So sprawling in fact, that after 7 days I still don’t have a great idea of how one might be able to see an actual skyline. People are ineffably polite. Silent even. There’s very little talk on the trains (we sampled several lines and all were the same hushed tones) and we saw the highest number of people reading books than anywhere we’ve ever been. There are signs posted on the train to turn off your mobile and refrain from conversation especially during busy times. And they obey.
On the streets, the loudest noises you hear are the trains above grinding to a stop or heading quickly through the station. Even this, though, is an anomaly. The trains are obscenely quiet. US subways must seem like the most deafening of noises to anyone traveling to NY or Chicago from here.
There are some exceptions to the general silence we observed. There is the occasional small trailer that drives by piping out new releases from Tokyo pop artists. These trucks are covered with billboards of the artists and release dates and repeat one song over and over again. Apparently this is an effective marketing tool? There are billboards that are full of fluorescent lights and have sound, but I actually found the sound kind of quiet and the billboards overall to be not as “in your face” as I had imagined.
The people were the loudest and most rambunctious while they were picnicking in the parks. It was sakura (cherry blossom) season and the trees were in full bloom when we were there. Tokyoites seem to love to picnic, and cherry blossom season is a perfect excuse. Parks were filled with huge blue tarps that were then covered with tables, chairs, bar-b-q’s, multi platter sushi trays and loads of people. It seemed as if offices spilled out into the parks and co-workers had “social/business” time under the trees. Sake and beer seemed to be free flowing and this seems to be what draws out the outgoing side of Tokyo’s residents. We saw a couple of business guys in full suit and tie sumo wrestling (one was given a severe grundy by the other; the likes of which I haven’t seen since childhood) and conversation would kick up a few decibels. We saw other co-worker groups playing getting to know you games and groups of mothers cooing over each other’s babies.
There are a lot of parks and they are HUGE. Each day we found ourselves in a green respite from the concrete buildings and shopping areas that are prevalent. This could have had something to do with the sakuras, but let’s just say, if you need a “green” escape when you are here, there is no shortage of options and they all leave you feeling like you have been transported to another place.
But even with the above said, there were several other things in Tokyo that completely shocked me (I would later come to find out that while the silence is unique to Tokyo, the following are rampant across Japan):
1. Smoking is allowed in restaurants, cafes, outdoors, etc. – There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to when or why someone is permitted to smoke inside or even on the streets. There were plenty of times we saw no smoking signs on streets, but then walked into an izakaya (bar/restaurant) and people were smoking. Other establishments were smoke free. We sadly turned down several places to eat because we just couldn’t handle the number of people smoking in these tiny places
2. There’s surprisingly little English spoken – admittedly this is an incredibly English centric statement. I speak no Japanese other than a few ways to say hello and thank you. However, I was shocked to find few restaurants had English menus and few people spoke English. In fact, this was the first place on our trip where we had such troubles with not speaking the local language. There were several restaurants in which we couldn’t make hide nor hair of the menu options and just pointed to what people around us were eating. Luckily most of the places we went had pictures, were self serve, or had the plastic food showcasing their options that we could just point and feel somewhat confident in our choices.
3. Everyone and I mean everyone, wears suits and trench coats – we saw this over and over again. All the men dressed the same and women too. Blue or black suit with either navy or camel trench coat. There would be mobs of co-workers walking to/fro their office together all looking exactly the same. This same thing was echoed in children’s school uniforms. Each school had a slightly different take on the uniform, but all were generally a deep navy blue, ties for boys, skirts for girls, jackets, and some sort of hat.
4. The trains are complicated - Again this is Japan overall but especially obvious in Tokyo. Even getting from the airport is a particular challenge. The lines are owned by different companies, which means they have different fares, routes, and usage of passes. There’s no real discount pass to speak of and one needs to know the cost of the fare for their destination when buying a ticket. If we hadn’t been able to use Google maps (which tells you the station, the line, the direction, sometimes the platform and the cost) we totally would have been cooked. With Google in our pockets we breezed through using the trains, though it took some faith and a few days of use before we got into a rhythm.
Overall, I loved Tokyo. I would visit again in a heartbeat. Maybe even live here and learn the language. There are some definite complexities and I don’t even feel as if I scratched the surface. Rules rule and it’ll be interesting to see how things change as the population shifts to those that are exposed to other influences and tastes. Many things left me feeling conflicted between love and confusion or frustration. But for now, Tokyo seems to be the greatest city for introverts I have ever seen. And that made me feel right at home.