the Tokyo experience – part 3: people

The people

What better way is there to challenge your own certainties than to confront yourself with other ways of living and thinking? As it is, the way we think, feel, work, enjoy and treat each other is not just given, it depends to some extent on the culture we grew up in. In what way then does being a human in Japan differ from being a human in Germany? Obviously as a tourist with only six days’ time I could only scratch the surface of this matter. And even this is not easy when you don’t speak Japanese, since you don’t get really far with English. If you address someone in English the response you generally get is sheer horror. You can watch as the panic rises in the other person’s eyes and then they cross their arms in front of their face. I guess this is just supposed to mean “I don’t understand English” but to me this gesture always felt kind of aggressive, which stands in sharp contrast to the Japanese politeness. This proves that gestures are not as universal as one might think. I always felt wholeheartedly sorry to cause people such agony. Once we went into a cell phone store to ask about SIM-cards. Instantly, all employees seemed very busy. They probably hoped we would just go away. Twenty minutes later, when they couldn’t ignore as any longer and we finally got the chance to speak, two employees disappeared into another room. An additional ten minutes later they returned with a little pocket computer in their hands. On its screen a translation programme had written the following words “Not speak English.”

Of course there are exceptions and several times we got so lucky as to get into a conversation with Japanese people. One woman even showed us her home. It was connected to a temple because her husband was a monk. The flat looked beautifully Japanese with Tatami mats and her husband’s calligraphies on the walls. In the living room however, comfort had won over tradition: the lady had just bought a new Italian sofa because with the age it had gotten too uncomfortable for her to follow the Japanese tradition of sitting on the ground.

Due to the language barrier even the smallest everyday situations turn into a big challenge. The first one was expecting us right after our arrival when, deadly tired after the long flight, we had accidentally travelled one stop too far with the Tokyu train. After some minutes of wild gesturing we managed to persuade a transport employee to let us through the gates onto the opposite platform. We then reached the next level of difficulty a few days later when we discovered one evening that too much had been charged on Mr Calabria’s underground ticket because apparently he hadn’t properly touched in at one of the many gates we had passed during the day. How can you explain this using your hands only? I don’t know how we managed to do it. In Japan, you really experience what it feels like to be a stranger. Our European phenotype already made us stick out. Even in Tokyo there are not so many foreigners. What a contrast to a city like London where you find people of all colours in every single tube carriage and where you’re immediately treated as a Londoner even if your English is bad. For foreigners wanting to settle in Japan it is probably not easy to become a fully accepted member of the Japanese society. The people are friendly to visitors like us, but they always keep their distance. In the city of Kamakura, Mister Calabria once talked to a teacher who had just left the school building. In an instant, a dozen 12-year-old female pupils came running by with their eyes and mouths wide open. Without even trying to hide their astonishment, they gathered around Mister Calabria and the teacher, giggling and whispering behind their hands. It must have been an exciting experience for them to see their teacher talk to a STRANGER (and such a curly one to boot).

lost in translation?

If there is one thing the Japanese culture is famous for, then it is the complicated rituals of politeness. Being a foreigner, I could fortunately count on some indulgence. Adding a little bow here and there seemed to be fine. Actually, this custom of bowing is just right for me. In general, I tend to feel awfully uncomfortable when I have to talk to somebody or – heaven forbid – when I risk to cause even the slightest inconvenience. In such situations I would want to apologize twenty times for even existing. In Japan, I can do this in some way – through bowing. Of course, if you were Japanese you would also have to assess the social status of the person you’re talking to and then be terribly careful to choose the appropriate words and expressions of politeness in order to avoid losing your face. I wonder what it feels like to live in such a culture. Anyway, when you go shopping, everyone is extremely eager and ready to help. They set the whole world in motion when you have a question and they express their keenness to serve with every gesture. As a customer, you truly feel like a king here. This feels really weird to me. After all, I’m from Berlin, capital of the sassy mouth.

Without a doubt, you can feel very safe in Tokyo as most people strive to behave correctly. Unfortunately, this also tends to makes them inflexible and cumbersome. If you’re having a problem in Berlin, you can either come across an asshole who will only bark at you, or you might come across a nice person who might even help you more than necessary. Once, a bus driver in London left us coldheartedly in the middle of nowhere because there was a problem with our card. Another time however, an employee at the station simply opened the gates for us and waved us through with a wink of the eye and a big smile. In Japan though, you hardly notice whether you are dealing with an asshole or a philanthropist because on the outside everyone is wearing the same mask of correctness. The mask helps taming the roughness and badness of people, but it leaves little space for cordiality and one’s own initiative. While in the Western countries everyone wants to be different and strives to prove their originality, in Japan it doesn’t seem to be well considered to break the conventional patterns. We could observe this delightfully when Mister Calabria tried to joke with the employees who were showing the way around a construction area in the tube station. Every few meters the men were showing the direction with their light sticks, although the way was unmistakably marked with huge arrows on the walls and the floor. So Mister Calabria made eye contact with one of the men respectively, pointed in the wrongest possible direction and asked for confirmation with his eyes saying “So this way, yes?”. Had we been in Germany or Italy, the men would have either laughed or rolled their eyes in annoyance. In Tokyo however, four out of five men took Mister Calabria seriously and were very eager to show the right direction.

One thing that I found quite disturbing in Japan was the weird ideal of cuteness for women. Women in advertisements or in TV often look like little girls or even dolls. When Japanese girls take pictures with their friends they love to do so in photo booths that make your eyes bigger, your cheeks smaller and your skin smoother. In other words: they make your face look more childlike, thus appealing to our cuteness instincts. The most distressing example of this ideal are the waitresses in the Maid cafés in Akihabara who, in their sexy maid costumes, have to play the role of a naïve girl admiring the guests. At the same time, many young girls wear the skirts of their school uniform as high as even possible (you couldn’t wear your skirt like this in Berlin without getting a lot of very uncomfortable looks). This infantilisation of women combined with the sexualisation of girls left me feeling quite uneasy.

For more about Tokyo check out part 1 and part 2

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

the Tokyo experience – part 1: masks and melodies

Have we really been in Tokyo or was it just a colourful twinkling dream in one of those short nights full of worries and exhaustion? Back then, more than two years ago, we were stuck in a very difficult situation that didn’t allow us to take the time and process our experiences. We had booked our flight just two days before and as soon as we got back we had other things to worry about. Therefore, I cannot claim to even remotely provide a description of the city. All I can do is to sum up some of my impressions – as surreal, confused and flaring up chaotically as Tokyo threw them at me during that week.


The surgical masks

Oh my god, is there an epidemic? Of course not, and I knew well in advance that in Japan it’s perfectly normal to wear a surgical mask in public. Still, I couldn’t shake that slightly unsettling feeling. To my subconscious mind these masks were signalling: hospital, emergency, danger. That’s why the masks actually contributed more to my feeling of being in a strange foreign land than the Japanese characters on the street signs. “I feel like I am at the dentist” Mister Calabria said when we met a mask-man in the elevator for the first time. Allegedly, Japanese people wear those masks in order not to infect others when they are ill. However, if all people wearing a mask were indeed ill, this fact itself would prove the masks to be ineffective as there are just so many of them. I assume some people just wear the mask as a preventive measure. In Japan, having your face shielded behind a mask is as normal as wearing glasses. It doesn’t keep anyone from laughing with their friends or flirting with their sweetheart. If this happened in Berlin you’d probably think that person must have escaped from a hospital. In a study, Scottisch scientists showed that inhabitants of East-Asian countries read other people’s emotions mainly by looking at the eyes, while Westerners pay more attention to the mouth region. That would explain why it doesn’t bother the Japanese to communicate whilst wearing a mask whereas I was always feeling like there was a wall between me and the other person when I had to speak to a service employee wearing a mask.

The sounds

Tokyo is the city of sounds. Music, melodies and mysterious tones accompany every step in this city and add a dreamlike dimension to life. It’s like in a movie where even the most banal scene becomes significant and emotional through the soundtrack. This is one of the reasons why at first Tokyo feels so surreal. The most striking sounds are probably the departure melodies at many underground and train stations. At first I thought the melodies were played so that people don’t miss their stop. Maybe the familiar melody of your own stop could snap you out of your daydreams the same way as when someone says your name in a noisy environment. However, this little idea of mine seems to be wrong as the melodies simply announce the departure of the train. Every station has a distinct melody, or even two melodies for the different directions or lines. My favourite ones are the melancholic melodies of Kamata station. Furthermore, when you’re walking through the stony maze of a train station, you might all of a sudden hear a bird’s tweeting or a cuckoo’s cry. I guess this is a code for the visually impaired as I could hear the tweeting only close to stairs and the cuckoo near escalators. As a little side effect, these nature sounds might help to relax the stressed metropolitans while they’re on their daily rush through the  concrete catacombs. In a similar manner also the sounds of the traffic light are borrowed from nature. Tokyo traffic lights don’t settle for those neutral knocking sounds like the ones in Berlin – no, they chirp like an abandoned chick (sometimes it’s also a cuckooo’s cry). This sound is such steady companion on all the streets that it becomes part of the Tokyo-feeling itself. The most amazing part of Tokyo’s soundscape is without doubt the fact that in the evenings they’re playing music on big loudspeakers in many streets. More about this in the next section. After I had returned from Tokio, the silence in Berlin – especially in the tube – suddenly felt very tangible. When in Berlin, I find this calm very pleasant. Here, I can immerse myself in my thoughts, whereas in Tokyo the outside world is constantly getting into your bones through its sounds and melodies and thus it provides the rhythm of your thoughts. However, it does so very smoothly and is always discreet and gentle. (Except for the noises of the big screens at the Shibuya crossing.  But that’s what the crossing is famous for.)

Here you can get an impression of the typical Tokyo sound:


Continute reading with part 2: crowds and idyll