Oh Tokyo

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April 3rd 2018
Published: April 6th 2018
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Malcolm Gladwell supposedly said “We don’t know where our first impressions come from or precisely what they mean, so we don’t always appreciate their fragility.”

I’ve been struggling with Tokyo - mostly because so many other travellers have rated it their fav city in the world and I feel like I took a u-turn somewhere else. But already (having revisited this draft blog multiple times over numerous days), my impressions are changing.

It’s not just that I don’t know where to start, I don’t even know what to say. See if you can stay with me.

Here’s the first of three distinct, definitely conflicting, impressions that hit me clear as day.

Have you ever seen the movie Zootopia? Disney. Animated. The sloths are my favourite characters, though not related to this line of thinking. Our hero, Judy Hopps, is zipping along toward the big city in a speedster train (excellent subtle reference to Japan here), when she gets her first view of the distant outline of the crazy-shaped highrises, bridges, and urban gloriousness of the titled city. But from afar it is the outlines, the drama of the architecture that grabs - but what if that was all the city was?

We took a hop-on-you-can’t-get-off bus tour through the heart of the Tokyo and over the impressive highways and bridges, past palaces, towers, Olympic parks, rivers, the amazing Fuji building with a big sphere in the middle of it, and were in awe. Our English head sets had wonderful classical music playing when the narrator took a break. The live Japanese guide spoke without pause during the whole tour - we likely missed a few things.

But up close, what the heck? That brings me to observation No. 2. If I were a numbers geek and crunched the amount of time we spent walking, training, eating underground and compared it to the time outside in Tokyo, I’d bet it’d be a toss up, maybe tilting toward sun-side time, but not by much. The sidewalks are lined with buildings, most with ubiquitous glass entries into a corporate building, hotel or lower-rise building of unknown use....and metro entrances. A decided lack of street-side businesses, window displays, restaurants, no kitsch sellers nor vendors encouraging your custom. John stopped at a neighbourhood barber shop and the poor man inside looked terrified, walked John out and pointed at the “by appointment” sign and shoo’d him away. Traffic is light, and pedestrian traffic even lighter.

Where is the life of the place? We walked for miles, some to just explore, some to get places and some to find food. Eateries are hard to find at street level. Go to the basement of a larger subway station or department store, or the top floor of a highrise and you may have luck. Oddly, we found sushi only once. Raman noodles and soup were the standard fare. Using Google’s “restaurants near us” returned places 40 minute walks away - surely not accurate.

People sit down on the metro car and promptly fall asleep. Most people are corporately dressed. Men in black suits with early Beatles pin-straight legs and edgy leather shoes that make for fun eye-balling. Edgy socks are not as common, but peek out once in a while. Women are in skirts, blazers or matching suits too. Hose are a must. I was the only one with bare legs and a skirt. The homeward rush seems to run between 6-8 - a long day for the corporate crowd. We’re told not to look for a cab between 10pm and 2am - they’re only interested in the well-known beer swilling that occurs after work, when the inebriated need to get home to the suburbs on expense accounts.

Breakfast was a challenge - nothing was open or close. Our hotel suggested a walk to MacDonalds. Thanks to an Anthony Bourdain tip (we have sought him out more since our delight at his Bahn Mi recommendation in Hoi An - and damn it, if he doesn’t name Tokyo as his favorite city in the world), we found the local 7-11 sells great egg salad sandwiches, coffee and yoghurt. And fried chicken in a pinch for dinner. And shirts and ties for clientele with other issues.

The famous trains are incredibly precise in arrivals and departures. In our hood, four different lines were within walking distance, each with four entry points. I consider them stairmasters, as we went up and down several to try to differentiate connections and directions. When we were leaving town with our suitcase, it took us 45 minutes just to find the platform to leave our neighbourhood. The 13 train lines cover a lot of ground and hoofing between them covers a fair amount too - I felt like a ground hog, popping up hopefully at a location of our choosing. For impact, imagine 278 stations covering over 300 kms within the city....and then Japan Rail connects with those for jaunts beyond city limits. More on that later.

Then the Wow Factor is observation No. 3. After dealing with a sort of flat experience, a sense of missing something or simple frustration, all of a sudden you turn a corner and the city is on fire. We arrived at the famous Shibuya Station one night just before dusk and stayed till after night fell. Tokyo’s answer to Times Square is electric with young people, travellers, neon signs and happy pandemonium. With the change of the lights on the 5-corner intersection, all traffic stops and pedestrians tumble out on the streets going every which way. People with selfie sticks are capturing the moment. Others stand still in the middle, while someone videos them from a lamp standard, catching the mob passing by. Up beat, energized and fun.

We met a 30-something Aussie woman travelling alone. She stayed near one of the happening hoods and described it as living inside an arcade.

Other neighbourhoods are
Sky Tree and Asahi FlameSky Tree and Asahi FlameSky Tree and Asahi Flame

We referred to it as the sperm until we learned otherwise.
apparently energy centers too - one specializing in anime, another in techno gear and a famous park with eccentric performers, musicians and edgy artists. Two events that we missed due to timing or late booking - a crazy Robot Show that is over-the-top fun apparently, and the famous tuna fish auction that is held at the working fish market. You need to get there at 3am, and only 120 people are let in, first-come-first-served. If you make noise or a nuisance of yourself, you’re out. These guys are serious about their business and the auction of these massive fish is their livelihood.

And then there are the twin high-rise buildings with a skywalk connecting them near the top - not for people, but as a massive stabilizer to absorb and stretch during an earthquake. A lot here beyond what seems to be.

So, there you have it. A tale of three cities in my mind. Already my thinking is evolving and softening about it all, so consider this a point in time, though real, reaction of a 57-year old women, who has been on the road 6 weeks and arrived in Japan having done nominal research...and
One-man restaurant’s order machineOne-man restaurant’s order machineOne-man restaurant’s order machine

The young chef came out to order for us, we paid the machine, chef took the vouchers, did his thing and returned with a tasty ramen bowl.
has few clothes options for cooler spring weather (don‘t underestimate the effect of this on my psyche). Yup. There you have it.

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