The Japanese capital city is the world’s most populous, with over 37 million people living there, so it’s always a little daunting to arrive in Tokyo for the first time.
The Tokyo Metropolitan area is known as the world’s most populous, with 37.8 million people living within its limits. As the capital of Japan and as the seat of the Imperial Family, this megacity also has a lot of political and economic duties, which make it a chaotic place in which to travel. However, despite this, it is regularly ranked as one of the best cities to live in by experts. So why does it feel a little daunting to the average traveller when they arrive in Tokyo for the first time?
I am lucky enough to be have been to Tokyo many times now, but when I first arrived in Tokyo in October, 2011, I was left disgruntled by the culture shock. It was actually the first non-English-speaking country I had ever visited, and my Japanese was not up to scratch. Even simple things like ordering a Big Mac require some Japanese skills, as the workers there cannot understand the English names of the products (i.e. “burger”, “fries”, “hash brown”), and why would they? It is their country, and their language. So we have to adapt. But it’s very hard. Harder than you think.
People always seem to associate Tokyo with the bright lights, and this would be correct. It is a built-up megacity full to the brim with neon signboards and a rat race of people (New York’s Times Square or London’s Piccadilly Circus is mere child’s play in comparison), and this stops for no-one, regardless of whether you’re a tourist trying to get your bearings or not! The Japanese do not mess around! They are very efficient, and this includes streamlined processions of crossing the road at the world famous Shibuya Crossing (yep, you guessed it, it’s world famous for being the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world)!
A trip on the Metro or the Yamanote Line will also give you a fright when you first visit Tokyo. The Tokyo Metro system is one of the busiest metro systems in the world, and Shinjuku Station, near to where my hotel was located, is known as the busiest train station in the world. Put simply, you cannot attempt to use the trains during rush hour, as I don’t even know if it’s safe! As with all things in Tokyo, it seems much harder to use the trains here than in other major cities.
On the roads, however, things are usually very orderly. I didn’t see many near-misses with accidents, nor did I see many maniacal mopeds that you see in other countries. You still need your wits about you in Tokyo, though. The sheer fast pace of the pedestrians on the sidewalks took me by surprise. Many of the Japanese salarymen were always talking on their mobile phones even for the simplest of things like crossing the road or buying a drink in a convenience store. It’s always ‘go go go’ on the streets of Tokyo!
Sometimes I liked to find refuge from the hustle and bustle of the streets of Tokyo. There was one small location near an underpass, not too far from Shinjuku Station (on the way to Harajuku and the Meiji Shrine), where I could stop and eat my green tea ice cream in peace. Of course, the weather plays it part, too; today it was raining and there were less people around than usual, which was a godsend to a tourist like me who was still trying to suss out the place.
Another culture shock you are likely to encounter in Tokyo – and indeed anywhere in Japan – is the toilets! They have these Japanese-style toilets in mainland China and in Korea as well, but my first encounter with them was in Tokyo. Even budget hotels like mine has the crazily modern Japanese toilets! Who would have thought that toilets can be electronic and full of gadgets? Yet, this is Japan, so why was I surprised?! I am not used to pressing buttons before or after going to the toilet, and I won’t go into detail here(!), but let’s put it this way, it brings a whole meaning to word “sanitation”!
When all was said and done, it took me a good few days to overcome the culture shock in Tokyo. It surely a tough nut to crack, and in many ways, just as much of a culture shock as what I found in India or Madagascar (for different reasons, obviously). The good thing with Tokyo, though, is that – unlike with the other two examples I gave – on my second visit to the Japanese capital, I relaxed a lot more and was able to enjoy things a lot more, and now it is one of my favourite cities in Asia! I can’t wait to come back!