You haven’t seen a big city until you’ve seen Tokyo. Even if you think New York is a highly manageable place, Tokyo is an entirely different species. I can’t fully qualify how it’s different, but it’s just more. More of everything (except dirt). Combine an area almost twice the size of Los Angeles with the highest density rate of any urban area in the world, and that’s what you’re dealing with.
It’s very easy to feel overwhelmed by Tokyo, but if you can get your bearings long enough to slow down, it’s a truly charming city. Individual neighborhoods have so much character and you don’t have to stray far from the well-trod path to find yourself on an amazingly quiet side street and feel like you’re the first outsider to discover this hidden gem. Surely you aren’t, but it’s a nice way to interact with the city.
Like basically every city, Tokyo is full of contradictions. On the one hand, everything is very orderly. People neatly queue to board subway trains; the entire city is immaculately clean; there are baskets under your seat in restaurants to put all your crap; and jaywalking appears to be completely out of the question. The only people I’ve seen crossing against the light are teenage boys dressed in what can be universally recognized as the uniform of “rebellious youths.”
Simultaneously, the city is a madhouse. “Scramble crossings,” like the one in Shibuya (which sees 2.5 million people a day), are a favored and efficient way to move a lot of people, but makes the process of crossing the street feel a bit like charging headlong into a Peloponnesian War battle, which is great fun and an unexpected adrenalin rush.
One of the things I love about Tokyo is the formality. Everyone is always dressed, not necessarily in the most formal or fashionable clothes (though frequently), and often in some pretty outrageous get-ups, but Tokyoites clearly take pride in their appearance in a way that’s not vain, but considerate and aware of the fact that they are in public. I haven’t seen a bra strap or a butt crack all week, which sounds ridiculous, but walk down any moderately busy street wherever you live and tell me you can say the same thing.
There’s a certain ceremony to even the smallest things, from buying pastries (think Rowan Atkinson in Love Actually but not obnoxious), to getting into a cab (the driver operates the opening and closing of the door). Everything is very minimalist and tasteful, from the decor, to the dress. Then you something that looks like this.
This is the other side of Tokyo, the one that’s crammed full of neon lights, five-story high anime posters with scantily clad women, loud music, TV screens constantly shouting at you, entire shopping centers dedicated to toys, electronics stores that take up entire city blocks, food courts hawking the most sugary, brightly colored weirdness you’ve ever seen, seizure-inducing arcades, and every other kind of imaginable outrageousness. Some of these areas make the Las Vegas strip look both restrained and energy efficient. At one point, I genuinely wondered whether the store I was standing outside of was a sex shop, a cellphone store, or a real estate office, as all three seemed within the realm of possibility based on the advertisements out front. Stupidly, I didn’t take a photo so we can’t all weigh in on what exactly was going on there, but trust me that it was weird.
Tokyo does a great job of preserving the old and welcoming the new. Because the city is so staggeringly huge, there’s plenty of room for both physically, but I’m amazed at the ability of two completely different, seemingly antithetical cultures to coexist simultaneously.
If you only do one thing in Tokyo, you have to visit a department store (stay with me here). There is no better way to understand a culture in a single outing than by observing what people are buying and eating. It’s fascinating and amusing, and there is air conditioning, which sounds like a pansy’s justification for doing something, but the humidity in Tokyo right now can be conservatively described as “oppressive.”
I’ve wandered into a few of these stores (which are, of course, huge) in my first few days in Tokyo and Isetan in Shinjuku, based on my experience, is the champion. Shibuya Hikarie, which Japanese Google Maps lists as a “community center,” is a close second. The kimono floor at Isetan is awesome and you’ll probably spend an entire afternoon there, likely because it will take you that long to locate the exit. Then there’s the “food court,” which is really more aptly described as a food kingdom. If you want a picture of the entire thing, you’ll have to refer to a satellite image of Earth. Never in my life have I seen so many different kinds of food and understood so little of what I was seeing. Which brings me to Japanese food.
No one understands food and texture like the Japanese, and I only realized how static Western food is when I saw just how many forms food can take. Things definitely tend to squirm and squish a bit more here, but the diversity is amazing. What makes walking around the various grocery stores in Tokyo so interesting is never having any idea what consistency the thing you’re about to pick up will be. I never realized how much I took this for granted until I picked what I thought was a baked good, only to discover it was squid in some prepared form.
As a complete side note, I’d like to give the award for most obnoxious tourists so far to the French. I rant a lot about tourists, usually Americans, because the cavalier way so many tourists dismiss any attempt at local assimilation is both hilarious and sickening (Americans have been surprisingly rare in Tokyo so far, but don’t count them out yet). These aren’t so much cultural faux pas as just a complete refusal to honor local customs. Anyway, to continue my soapbox lecture, here are some of the various behaviors I observed the French participating in (perhaps “French-speaking individuals” is better. Don’t want to leave you out, Quebecers): shouting so loudly to one another at the Tsukiji Fish Market so as to interrupt a conversation between a vendor and a buyer; talking during an entire kabuki performance; and standing in a prayer-circle formation on the subway during rush hour to continue their very loud conversation about Paris Saint-Germain despite taking up an immense amount of space. Honorable mention goes to the Spaniards who were literally sleeping three people across on the sidewalk outside Tsukiji in matching Real Madrid jerseys with their names on the backs.
As for cultural faux pas, I’ll nominate myself here for pouring tea into the metal cup where the bill is supposed to go at lunch yesterday and creeping on my fellow diners at a ramen restaurant trying to figure out what I was supposed to do.
On my first night in Tokyo, I went to Ichiran Ramen, which is delicious and everyone must go. Anyway, what I learned, and have discovered since, is that many restaurants in Tokyo use a ticketing system to pay, whereby you purchase tickets from a machine for the food you want before sitting down. These machines are usually bilingual, which is enormously helpful.
Once I had my tickets, the couple in line in front of my handed me a clipboard with a piece of paper entirely in Japanese, so like the Peeping Tom I’ve become, I simply circled all the same things the women in front of me had circled. Only later did I realize this was supposed to correspond to the tickets you’d bought and the staff were very kind and patient with my stupidity.
The restaurant has two longs rows of single seating like a sushi bar and it’s perfect for the solo diner because there are these blinders on either side of you, so you are essentially eating inside an enclosed wooden tripartite. At some point, the wooden door in front of you will open and ramen will appear, at which point you probably won’t see another human for the rest of your meal.
Having previously only eaten ramen surrounded by equally clueless Chicagoans, I had no idea the proper way to eat, which made this blinder system excellent for someone who is always a bite away from acting like a savage. However, this system also makes it very difficult to know what you’re supposed to do when you’re done given that you can’t easily snoop on the other people in the restaurant. So, thank you to the two Japanese girls next to me who kindly pretend to not notice the bug-eyed American peering around the wooden divider like your regular neighborhood creep.
Now that that meandering train of thought has come to a close, I am actually shutting up. I’ll be posting again about specific places in Tokyo I’ve visited and my various musing there before heading to Kyoto on Sunday.