It’s huge. It’s energetic. It’s frantic. It’s the definition of an urban jungle. But mostly: it’s full of surprises. We spent five days in Tokyo and I could have explored for weeks more. Usually when I visit a world city, I feel I got to know the place a bit. But in Tokyo, I definitely only scratched the surface. I’ll just have to return as soon as possible. It would be easy to name fifty things to love about Tokyo, but here’s ten things to start with.
1. Crossing an intersection
Does this sound like a weird thing to love? Well, in Tokyo it’s not. Trying to reach the other side of a busy intersection in Tokyo is strangely exhilarating. Take Shibuya Crossing, where a million people cross the streets every day. When the lights at this intersection turn green, they all turn green at the same time. In every direction. So there you stand waiting, between high rising skyscrapers and blazing neon billboards, along with hundreds of other pedestrians. At the exact moment the lights change color, everybody starts moving. You’re caught in the middle of a pedestrian rush hour, and there’s nothing you can do but go along with the masses.
2. Choosing dinner from plastic replicas
Since we don’t speak Japanese and most Japanese people don’t speak English, I was prepared to be lost in translation a lot. But somehow, that hardly ever happened. People did everything they could to help us when we were looking doubtfully on our map, the metro is in English and the same goes for street signs. We had only one problem: finding a restaurant. Well, not exactly a restaurant, since every other building is a place to eat. But finding a restaurant with an English menu was a different story. So, thank God for the plastic models of dishes on display in the windows! All you have to do is point, order and eat.
3. No famous sights, yet still not enough time
Paris has the Eiffel Tower. London has the Tower Bridge. Cape Town has Table Mountain. Tokyo has…Tokyo Tower? Strangely, Tokyo does not have any big famous landmarks. Sure, it has a lot of skyscrapers, temples and hundreds of museums, but no main tourist sights. And still we didn’t have enough time to experience all the city has to offer. It’s the different neighborhoods, the fascinating subcultures on the streets and some of the best people watching in the world that make Tokyo the great city it is. It takes more than a few visits to take that all in.
4. Using public transport
The metro map is a blur of multicolored lines and stations. A bit intimidating, but the public transport in Tokyo turned out to be amazing. The metro goes everywhere, all the signs are in English and as a bonus, it’s a great place to watch the Tokyoites go about their daily business. Whether it’s a bunch of texting schoolgirls in their uniform, businessmen sleeping in their seats or a kimono clad woman hurrying to her train. And the metro is very quiet. Nobody talks on the phone (although everybody is glued to his smartphone), people hardly talk among their selves. Even when you pass through Shinjuku Station, the busiest station in the world, you’ll only hear the rhythmic sound of thousands of feet, shuffling and click clacking to their next destination.
5. Takeshita Dori on a Sunday afternoon
My favorite place in Tokyo is Harajuku, the fashion district. And that’s mostly because of the bizarre fashion statements you see on the streets, ranging from very cool to, frankly, quite bizarre. From Lolita to goth, from rockabilly to punk: fashion is being taken very seriously and it’s fascinating to see how people are trying to stand out. I found Takeshita Dori especially fun: a narrow shopping street for teenagers, packed with small trendy shops and boutiques. Everything that’s considered ‘fashion’ is being sold: crazy clothing, outrageous shoes, clothes for dogs, hats, sleeves for the latest smartphones. And in those shops, girls in their school uniforms, contemplating where to spend their money on.
6. Finding out what’s hot in dog fashion
It’s definitely a dog’s life, being a dog in Tokyo. Sure, you’re never cold in your tracksuit, ladybug costume (really!) or warm dress. Your hair is never in your eyes, but nicely tied back with a bow. You hardly ever have to walk yourself; you’re being pushed in your comfortable dog stroller. And when you want to go shopping, there are loads of stores with the latest in dog fashion on display. But dog, where has your dignity gone?
7. Ordering sushi by computer
1. Sit down. 2. Find out how the computer works. 3. Look at the pictures and choose your favorite sushi. 4. Make a couple of mistakes with the Japanese menu. 5. Find the right button for ‘order’. 6. Enjoy the delicious sushi that’s being served. 7. Order some more. And more. 8. Press the Japanese sign for ‘bill’. 9. Pay at the counter and be on your way. Easy does it!
8. Getting a feel for the city from Tokyo Tower
It’s an obvious observation, but Tokyo is huge. It’s kind of hard to get a feel for this metropolis. The great metro system is partially to blame for that, since you travel mostly underground. If you want to know what’s where, take the elevator to the top of Tokyo Tower. The urban jungle sprawls endlessly at your feet and there are signs that point out the different neighborhoods. And with a lot of luck, you’ll even catch a glimpse of Mount Fuji in the distance.
9. Finding Japanese traditions
Tokyo is all about modern architecture, the latest fashion and high tech gadgets. But if you look carefully, you’ll find lots of Japanese traditions around the city. When we visited temple Sensoji, we got caught in a cultural festival, with traditional dance and music. When we visited Meiji Shrine in Harajuku, we watched two Shinto weddings. Our visit also collided with Shichi-Go-San. This is a traditional rite of passage for three- and seven-year-old girls and three- and five-year-old boys. The children were beautifully dressed in traditional clothing and it was fun to watch them and their proud parents parade around.
10. Enjoying the amazing eye for detail
What amazed me the most about the Japanese people is their eye for detail. Nakamise, leading to temple Sensoji, was the first shopping street we visited in Tokyo. We almost didn’t get to the temple, because I was constantly stopping to watch traditional snacks being produced and wrapped. Even simple cookies are beautifully presented, individually wrapped and packed in gorgeous paper. Everything you buy in Japan looks like an expensive Christmas gift.
Special mention: clean toilets!
Everybody who travelled around Japan talks about toilets. And now I know why. Heated seats, music if you’re bored, different ways to clean your behind, the sound of a flushing toilet if you’re embarrassed to take a wee with somebody in the boot next to you: the list is endless. But mostly: the toilets are always clean and they are everywhere. Even in public parks in Tokyo, you’ll easily find a decent toilet. Try that in any other Asian country (or any country at all!).
Are you going to Japan and are you looking for the perfect itinerary? I wrote this post about the perfect itinerary for the first time visitor.