I spent a few weeks in Tokyo over the summer, the well recognized global city most frequent travelers have been to more than once. For this well-traveled chica, it was my first trip, largely since I had been told for years how hard it is to get around as well as how expensive it is to get around. People also talked about the language barrier and truth be told, none of these stereotypes should scare a long time traveler and for some reason, between the stories and the radiation in the north, I put Japan on hold for awhile.
In just a few days, after nearly losing my cool getting lost five times in Shibuya’s massive maze of a station, I fell in love with this renowned global Asian city.
First of all, a few surprises for the record.
Formal But Genuine Friendliness:
I was astonished how friendly people were despite the language barrier. Regardless of whether I was pointing to my map trying to get directions from a subway station to a restaurant or shop, or simply saying hello, I was greeted by a warm smile and a concerted effort to help even if they didn’t speak any English at all. One day as I flew forward in an effort to catch a fabulous shot in the north of Tokyo, I ended up face first on the ground, my camera lens thankfully was still in tact when I finally looked up.
What wasn’t in tact was my knee, which had lost a chunk of skin and was bleeding profusely. I tried to ignore this little incident because there were far too many photos to take and food to try, however a few women nearby came to my aid by pulling out band aids and antiseptic from their purses and offering them to me. They wouldn’t leave me alone until they were sure that my wound was covered and I was happily on my way.
A similar thing happened in the airport on the way to Tokyo. A Japanese woman sitting near me before we were due to board, noticed that I was shivering from JFK’s overly active air conditioning system. She grabbed her shawl and wrapped it around my shoulders, which not only took me by surprise, but for a moment, I thought I was in a small village and not an international city airport. The act brightened up my day and frankly, my long flight ahead.
It’s All In the Order & The Details:
Japanese people really care about the details. From great design to clean lines, I found things in order nearly everywhere I went, from prestine hotel rooms to efficient sushi bars. The shops were also well organized and I always felt like I was being “treated” after leaving a shop where I had purchased something, a bit like upscale shops in Paris make you feel after you’ve parted with your money.
They also know how to present themselves.…well. Whether it’s women and girls in beautifully presented komonos or men in white business shirts who still looked good while they were drinking in a bar hours after they left work, it was a joy to see given how sadly accustomed I’ve gotten to the logoed t-shirts and jeans look in Silicon Valley.
Hair Cuts & Styles:
Clean cut, design and sharp angles are the order of the day. I found this to be true in both women and men. They’re also not afraid of going wild with color, which I love!
Hair salons were literally everywhere and reasonably priced compared to American standards. I had the feeling that you’d get higher quality stylists for about 30% less than New York or San Francisco for average ones.
Heated Toilet Seats:
I’d be remiss if I didn’t give Japan’s toilet seats its own category. Heated and overly technical toilet seats were literally everywhere. I found them in restaurants, hotel rooms, and even shops. It’s not just that they’re heated, but there are several modes you can choose from for a variety of things, including the power level of your flush. You can do a soft flush or a more powerful flush depending on what is needed. It’s certainly efficient although I have to admit, I was confused on more than one occasion and just wished it could read my mind and take care of the flush for me.
Great Restaurant Ambiance Inside & Out:
I loved the restaurant scene. Aside from the sushi bars which you could find throughout the city, there were other more classic places where you could combine a cooked meal experience with music. Take Kuriya Restaurant in Tokyo for example, which also offers jazz on selected evenings.
This restaurant is on a side alley in the trendy Omote-Sando area which is also very popular for shopping.
Not far from the Omote-Sando area (a ten minute walk away), I discovered this cute little Japanese restaurant with the following entrance. You feel more like you’re going to enter a garden than a restaurant and the inside was equally as charming, with plants scattered throughout.
Remember that its a global city so despite the fact that there are boat loads of traditional Japanese restaurants, sushi and noodle bars, you can find many ethnic restaurants, more popular in some neighborhoods more than others. Not far from the Yushimi subway stop in the north of Tokyo, I discovered Dela, a quaint little French restaurant that served up crock pots of cheese and onion soup and had a fairly extensive list of French wines, including a Bordeaux I was happy to sip slowly throughout the night.
Japanese but modern is Uotaru Restaurant on Kasuga Street in northern Tokyo.
Fun Side Streets & Alleyways:
The world is but a maze in Tokyo where you can literally find an interesting side street or alleyway off a larger street in nearly every neighborhood. The following side street is near Asakusa – note the chaos, but also the culture and the color.
Below is taken near Shinjuku
Quirky Bright Objects:
Because of their love of all things electronics and entertainment, it shouldn’t be a surprise to find nearly life size brightly colored statues and objects throughout the city. Of course, they’re not everywhere, but in more populated areas, you’ll spot things like this. This was taken near Cat Street, a widely known shopping street where hipsters hang out.
The bright and the loud extends beyond objects onto city walls. The below shot was taken in another popular shopping area – Takeshita Street.
Martial Arts & Theater:
It goes without saying of course, but Tokyo has its fair share of martial arts and decadent costuming. Theatre is also celebrated and there are options throughout the city where you can see classic performances.
I’ve mentioned color quite a few times, but it shows up in places you’d least expect it such as the choice of paint for a building that would have remained gray in another city. Because the Japanese love gardens, there always appears to be flowering plants peaking around every building.
The Tokyo Tower Et Hem The Japanese Eiffel Tower:
The Tokyo Tower was obviously inspired by the Eiffel Tower. Despite being taller than the Eiffel Tower, Tokyo Tower only weighs about 4,000 tons, 3,300 tons less than the Eiffel Tower. The below shot was taken while I was whizzing by in a car, so it doesn’t look as grandiose as it looks in real time.
While you might think that London’s Picadilly Circus or New York’s Times Square are massive and confusing, they are country sisters compared to Tokyo’s Shinjuku and Shibuya’s districts. Overwhelming at first, you’ll soon find yourself like a kid in a candy store, intrigued by the size and choice of colors throughout the city. Below is taken in the Shinjuku area.
Here is a video I shot walking through Shinjuku late at night.
Diversity in a Homogeneous Kind of Way:
While on the surface, it appears that everyone looks like they’re from Japan and its population even in Tokyo, is not as mixed as you’d expect, people are very individualized, expressing themselves in creative ways that make them stand out from the crowd, rather than blending into it. I wondered if part of this wasn’t because of the former generation’s more traditional expectations and that the subsequent generations are wanting to set an example. There are several books out about this including The Lost Generation.
It’s Not As Traditional As You Think:
While there are plenty of traditional restaurants, cafes, bars and shops, in the hipper neighborhoods like Omote-Sando and Shibuya where hipsters crawl the streets till the wee hours of the morning, I discovered many more cosmopolitan cafes where you could as easily be in New York.
I LOVED the fashion in Tokyo even though a lot of it isn’t necessarily a fit for my own personal style. Color exudes….everywhere. From shoes to komonos to more modern shirts and dresses.
White Gloves, Hats & Umbrellas Everywhere:
Women take their skin seriously throughout Japan, not just Tokyo. Wherever you go, you’ll find them wearing long white gloves to protect their arms from the sun. Every woman seems to wear a hat, which means that the hat stores in this country are incredible. I bought three hats in Japan and didn’t intend to buy any – love love love them. The best hat store was one I discovered on the main drag at the Asakusa Market and yes, I did leave with one from his shop.
Umbrellas are also incredibly popular and you’ll find women carrying them everywhere for protection from the glaring sun.
Bikes Everywhere & None of Them are Locked:
I kept expecting someone to show up from around the corner of a shop, someone who was dedicated to watching all of the unlocked bikes in the street that is. Everywhere I went, regardless of neighborhood, I found unlocked bikes everywhere. Apparently bicycle theft isn’t a problem – how unusual for a global city but also refreshing. It reminded me of Stockholm, Oslo and Copenhagen.
Safety and…Unattended Children:
Unlocked bikes throughout the city brings me to safety. The other shocking thing was how many children I kept running into who were unattended. Even in boisterous places like Omote-Sando, I saw small kids in their school uniforms, walking alone. They’d have their cell phones with them, backpacks on their backs and confident in their stature as if they knew exactly where they were going and hadn’t a care in the world.
Shibuya is as mad as everyone says it is. Regardless of whether you’re there by day or night, it’s a massive maze that can be confusing even for those without the language barrier. That said, it’s a fascinating place to get lost and there are some fascinating shops and restaurants in the streets surrounding the main square. Even if you hate crowds, you must go there for the experience regardless.
Despite how many cities I’ve been to around the world, this one had me in awe again and again, each and every time I went there, which was a few times before my cruise and a few times after I returned to Tokyo.
Does every Japanese citizen grow up caring about gardens? It appears so since I found plants outside of nearly every apartment or home regardless of neighborhood and they were all manicured. The below prestigious and well kept gardens at the 5 star Otani Hotel is another example of where it extends to public places as well, which are not public or private parks. I stayed at the Otani and absolutely loved it.
Prestine gardens and great cafe for nature (and things) extends to the service the Japanese provide. While the 5 star Otani Hotel in Tokyo may have been over the top in graciousness and service, the Keio Plaza Hotel, where I stayed for the last couple of nights, is a four star hotel that makes American four stars look like two stars. Below two employees help me with my luggage, grabbing it the moment I walked through the door. Later, BOTH of them escorted me up with my luggage, asking me if there’s anything else they could help me with again…and again.
Below, like everywhere I went, I was greeted with the warmest of smiles at breakfast one morning.
Speaking of Breakfast:
Breakfast buffets in Japanese hotels are incredible. I could never understand why Americans would opt for the hotel restaurant that had American and western choices, when you could get the display of delicious Japanese options that are on offer. Have a look.
Bottled Drinks and Cigarettes EVERYWHERE:
At first, I found myself hoarding bottled water every time I left one destination for another, because of how hot it was in Tokyo over the summer. I later learned that this was a useless exercise since there are bottled drink machines literally on every corner. The great thing about them is that they’re inexpensive as well. For around $1 or $1.20 a pop, you can get bottled water, iced teas, juices and sodas in a nano-second every time you’re thirsty. It was one of my favorite things about the city.
The Electronics Thang:
I’d be missing an important part of Tokyo culture if I didn’t mention the electronics insanity of Tokyo. There are a few neighborhoods that are worth exploring for electronics and one of them is in and around Shinjuku, which by the way, is a stone’s throw from the Keio Plaza Hotel. The other one is the notable Akihabara Electronic City, which is home to the world’s largest electronics and electronics consumer goods in the world. Offerings range from appliances to computers and everything in between.
City Boat Rides from North to South:
Not everyone I spoke to knew about this which I found surprising, but you can catch boats and cruisers from north to south and south to north, which is a great way to see parts of Tokyo not easily accessible by train or foot.
Some of the views from my boat ride, which only lasts around 20-30 minutes each way.
Hipster Shopping & Movies in Roppongi:
I discovered this neighborhood and shopping area by accident despite the fact that its a very well known urban hang out in the city, by both locals and tourists. Roppongi has a massive shopping center that is open late – below is the view of the ceiling and surrounding area as you come down the escalator.
Sense of Honor:
Honor is a big part of Japanese culture, which is in Tokyo as well. People respect elders and there is a gentleness and polite formality to nearly every exchange you have. I even noticed it with taxi drivers, which I found astounding. The service felt more like I’d find from a limo driver than a standard taxi driver. Americans and the rest of the world could learn a thing or two from Japan’s generosity and hospitality.
Random Festivals Without Warning:
I love this about Tokyo and Japan in general. You’ll find random festivals and parades when you least expect it. Below is the Shinjuku Eisa Festival, celebrated in part by a parade with dancers and drummers. It was incredible. I wrote a separate write up on the festival, so be sure to read it which includes a video of what I saw.
Did I leave anything out? What are some of the quirky and fun cultural things you experienced in Tokyo? Share below.