the Tokyo experience – part 2: crowds and idyll

The cityscape

Umbrella bag dispensers at the supermarket entry! Oh my, the Japanese really do think of everything. You stick your wet umbrella in the narrow plastic bag and then pull both together sideways out, thereby automatically opening a new bag for the next customer. Thanks to the umbrella condom you can now calmly do your shopping without dropping water all over the place. However, this only works because apparently everyone has the same umbrella model here. I guess owning a pocket umbrella would cause you some trouble in Tokyo. At the entry to the university there’s a more eco-friendly solution: there you can simply dry your umbrella by pulling it through two tight cushions.

For me, Discovering such little oddities is what the joy of travelling is about. In fact, the first things you notice in a foreign country are usually those that are different from home – even if they are the most trivial things for the people living there. On the other side, you will only understand what is special about your own homeland once you have looked at through the eyes of a stranger. The fact that I was surprised of being routinely asked in Tokyo whether I want my coffee hot or cold (no, It wasn’t summer) says as much about Tokyo as it says about my own hometown (where it is usual to get your coffee served hot). By the way, practical as the Japanese are, they have these little packs of syrup instead of sugar for the cold coffee. My view of Tokyo and everything that I write here are thus shaped by my own rather limited experience of the world. However, I hope my experience and with that my gaze will be broadened precisely by me stumbling upon all these little things and writing them down here.

On the first day already, Tokyo is taking my breath away by its inapprehensible hugeness. The metropolitan area has unfathomable 37 million inhabitants. And you can really see this, for example when you look over the city from one of its skyscrapers: it just doesn’t seem to end. Even when we took the train to a small city a bit outside of Tokyo, we didn’t see any green. There were just houses next to houses next to houses. Also in the vertical dimension Tokyo is simply impressive with its many skyscrapers. Tokyo is full of life at any time of the day. The big city streets are a shrill flashing colourful explosion of sensations. From all sides huge signs and billboards are trying to outscream each other with their bright colours. I guess it is a matter of personal taste whether this is total overkill and stress hell for you or whether you feel stimulated and vitalised by it. In any case, the Tokyo cityscape is a stark contrast to most European cities where we measure beauty in historic buildings and harmonic facades. Most Tokyo buildings would be quite ugly and bleak without the colourful ads, so they are definitely a plus factor.

However, Tokyo is by no means only a bustling gigantopolis. Quite to the contrary, there are at least as many places in this city where one can find a calm that gives you the feeling of being in a small town. In the street where we lived for example, the pedestrians were kings: if a car wanted to get through, it would do so very carefully and only at walking pace. People used to stroll, push their bicycles or just linger and look at the shop windows of the restaurants. In Germany, you would have to declare a pedestrian zone for that. In Japan, this is not necessary, the different road users simply show respect for one another. What surprised me most about this kind of streets however, was the music. Peaceful melodies coming from speaker masts fill the street in the evening. Oh, what does that say about a culture, when they provide background music the same way they provide street lights? As we were not used to our way home having a soundtrack, we felt like in an idyllic dream world. And such places are by no means an exception in Tokyo – outside the busy commercial streets they are rather the norm. Moreover, you can find peacefulness and space for reflection in Tokyo’s many temples – the big and famous ones as well as the smaller ones you can discover everywhere. Some religious places are not bigger than a bus shelter, standing in between a row of small shops where you can buy deliciously smelling meat on skewers.

In the small shopping street of Yanaka Ginza you find the diversity of a metropole with a relaxed charm.

 

It is this contrast that really defines Tokyo: megacity, bustle and hype on the one side, village-atmosphere, idyll and loving attention to detail on the other side. One of the characteristics of the streets of Tokyo are the vending machines on every corner where you can buy drinks and snacks. Conveniently, you can pay with the same card that also serves as electronic train and underground ticket. This is the principle that keeps this metropolis going so smoothly: you can get everything at any time, without having to waste time in supermarket queues. The vending machines sell for example warm tea as well as cold tea. Drinking cold unsweetened tea needs some time to get used to for a European palate, but then it is a healthy way to quench your thirst. At first, I thought that the Japanese are less sugar-addicted than we are, but then how do you explain all these extremely sweet American pastries that are being sold in the bakeries? Apropos food: Even more than you can effectively eat in Tokyo, you can look at all kinds of food because plastic replicas of the meals are presented in the showcase windows of every restaurant. Again, this is a very practical idea, although personally I don’t find plastic food very appetising. Ordering food is mostly an automated and maximally effective procedure. After having studied the plastic replica you choose your dish, then you type its number into a machine and also pay there. Thereafter you can go and get your food at the counter. I have to admit that we were a bit suspicious of many meals as they seemed to contain weird sea creatures or an uncooked egg. Sometimes you can get a very fishy surprise. But on the other side there are so many interesting and wonderful dishes to discover, like for example Monjayaki, a kind of pancake with vegetables and meat or fish. My favourite Japanese foods so far are green tea ice cream mochis. Japanese ice cream proves that things like sweet potato or beans can serve as much more than a side dish.

 

Just like a tree, a city such as Tokyo doesn’t expand only above ground but also below it. I have always thought that there’s no better way to experience the character of a city straight and undisguised than in the tube (subway). The Tokyo tube map seems overwhelming at first, but then it is surprisingly easy to find your way around. The different stations of a line are numbered so that you can always see with just one look how many stations you have to go. In addition, most trains have an illuminated display that shows you exactly where the train is in every moment. While some stations are incredibly vast (once we walked over a kilometre just within a station), they are always brightly lit, clean and labelled clearly also with roman letters. Although Tokyo’s underground transports more passengers than any other, everything works frictionless like a well-oiled machine. This is also due to the fact that the Japanese mostly behave with consideration and politeness when using public transport. I didn’t come across any jostle, loud conversation or passengers getting into a fight. I remember that when I was in school we were taught that English people liked to queue everywhere, even at bus stops. Nowadays, I think it is hard to find this kind of behaviour in England. However, you find it in Tokyo. When waiting for a train on the platform, people queue at all the spots where the doors of the train will be (you can tell that by the marks on the ground.) Yet, apparently not everyone is polite, else it wouldn’t have been necessary to introduce “women only” carriages at rush hour times.

A steady source of amusement in the metro are the posters that are supposed to warn you from dangers or teach you the appropriate conduct. In Japan, they are of a bewildering cuteness. It is not for nothing that this country is famous for its comics. I assume the thought behind this is: If you have to exhort people not to run on the platform or molest other passengers, then at least you can do it more gently by saying it with cute animal figures. And don’t the warnings about pickpockets or the guidelines for earthquakes feel less frightening when illustrated by button eyed comic figures appealing to our sense of cuteness? I have to admit, however, that it was really hard for us to even take such posters seriously.

Ever since I have seen this poster, I feel pity for trains.

Without question the Tokyo transport system works impressively well and smooth, but it is a real drag that there are so many different providers for which you have to pay separately. The tube alone is being run by two different providers that split the net between each other. In order to save money we bought a day ticket for only the bigger one of them which meant we had to pay attention not to use one of the other provider’s lines. In addition, there are also the lines run by Japan Rail, a bit like the S-Bahn in Berlin or the Overground in London. But if you want to change between the metro and the JR, you have to pay extra. And that’s only the beginning, since there are many more private transport companies. For example our area was served only by the Tokyu company. It is convenient at least that the different providers cooperate with each other. In the late evening for example, trains of the Fukutoshin metro line just drive on after their final stop and thus become trains of the Tokyu company. But when you get off, you’ll have to pay extra for that. Though it is comfortable that you can use the same electronic ticket with almost all providers, this means that without even noticing it you can spend a huge amount of money very quickly. Unfortunately, because of having all these different providers, there is no price cap in Tokyo as there is in London (where after spending a certain amount you don’t have to pay for the rest of the day anymore).

If Tokyo was a machine, it would be a clockwork with hundreds of little gear-wheels buzzing quietly along as it works with reliability and consistence. If there is one thing you can say about Tokyo than this: Tokyo works. It functions. Smoothly, orderly and without interruption. Considering the number of inhabitants that is truly remarkable. The most famous symbol for this is the Shibuya crossing where every time the traffic lights turn green masses of people pour out on the streets, bustling and buzzing chaotically only to free the streets for the car traffic again just in time. In order to make Tokyo work, everyone takes responsibility. There are hardly any public waste bins? No problem, Tokyoers just take their garbage with them – as long as the city remains clean. Once we had a little problem with our ticket at the gates to a station; immediately two very agitated men came running and their main concern seemed to be that we could block the traffic of people – although the station was almost empty. In Berlin, when there are construction works in a tube station or on the pavement, you can count yourself lucky if they place a warning tape around it. Adding an arrow or sign to show you the way is considered an unnecessary luxury. But not in Tokyo! Here, they even pay people who have nothing else to do than standing at five meter intervals to point the way with light sticks.

To get an impression of Tokyo’s many sides, check out my video in the previous article: Part 1: masks and melodies

Or continue with part 3