I had no idea what I was looking at. The plastic food looked so pretty in the shop window, but I don’t speak Japanese and there wasn’t even an English comma hanging around. Add to that my notorious reputation as a picky eater and I was a little scared. The best-case scenario was to find something that resembled chicken and hope for the best. The worst case was that somehow I’d end up with a fish part of some sort and be completely screwed for that meal. That was symptomatic of my planning for Japan; the fear that Tokyo would be too hard to visit, too hard to get to know. By the time I left the country though I learned that while there may be challenges to travel in Japan, they are fairly easily overcome.
1. Language – I always heard from friends that there isn’t a lot of English in Japan, and that’s pretty accurate. I guess that I’ve been spoiled traveling to various countries where I can almost always find English translations in even the most unlikely of places. It is strange if you think about it, to see road signs in Jordan in English and Arabic; I couldn’t imagine having bilingual road signs here in the United States for the sole benefit of visiting tourists. But Japan isn’t an English free zone; you can find translations in some important areas, namely the subway. The Tokyo subway is immense, befitting an urban population of more than 13 million people. The crush of people and the spider web lines of the metro confuse on the best of days, which is why I was thankful for some English prompts. On the ticket machines there’s a translation feature and at each of the stops the names are printed both in Japanese and English. This linguistic courtesy does not extend to all areas of Tokyo transportation however.
One evening we attempted to take a taxi back to our hotel. I was confident that due to the popularity of the hotel surely every cab driver knew how to get there. And I’m sure our cab driver knew where it was also, had we asked in Japanese. Mild confusion soon grew to outright befuddlement and we had to help him navigate a massive bilingual hotel guide until we found the property in question. This is emblematic of speaking English in Japan, it’s not easy. While most Japanese people learn English in school, spoken English is usually not emphasized, oddly enough. Add to that a cultural predilection to shy away from making mistakes and you have a city of millions who refuse to speak English. It wasn’t so bad though; excluding the cab driver of course, only a few times was the language barrier a problem. I tried to learn a few Japanese phrases but those don’t help when you can’t figure out which line to take on a subway packed with thousands of people rushing in every direction. But if language is your concern when traveling to Tokyo, it shouldn’t be. Tokyo is a lot easier to get around than I ever thought and as long as you have some common sense, you’ll be fine.
2. Food – I must preface this by saying that food is not a concern for all travelers to Japan, but it was for me. I have written at length before about how picky I am and based on the comments, I know I’m not alone. So this paragraph is for the picky eaters out there; true omnivores may skip ahead. Japan is fairly well known as being a seafood obsessed nation, only befitting its island status. That’s fine, except I don’t eat seafood. At all. Not a bit. None of it. (No, not even lobster. Yes I have tried it. No I still don’t like it.) Even though our time in the capital city was short, I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to find food that didn’t include squid parts or worse. Sure, there are tons of Western style restaurants but I also didn’t want to be relegated to eating at McDonalds and Pizza Hut for three days either. I believe that food is the most important part of the travel experience and I didn’t want to miss out while in Japan.
Fortunately, many Tokyo restaurants have a strange but helpful feature that ultimately worked in my favor, the plastic display meal. In shop fronts of thousands of restaurants around town is a representation of every menu item molded out of plastic. As it turns out this fake meal art is taken very seriously and in truth the meals looked very lifelike. It was my best chance to finding something Japanese that I could actually consume without fear. Part of the problem is that while I’m sure the food is well represented, I couldn’t always tell what it was. Is that darkish colored meat steak or chicken or other? Is that rice or something more nefarious? Ultimately, I found something I thought was right, ordered very badly in a mix of English, Japanese, French (I don’t know why I always try French when I travel, but I do) and sign language. Sign language was the clear winner and within minutes my chicken katsu was sitting in front of me, ready to be consumed. Eating ultimately was never a concern during our stay, thanks to the food displays and a well located food court near our hotel. When I return I hope to spend even more time exploring the non-seafood side of Tokyo cuisine. As a side note, I reviewed a food app last year that will help should you choose to visit: Japanese Food Guide. It helps visitors identify food based on what it looks like, a brilliant idea for a city like Tokyo.
3. General confusion – I mentioned this number earlier, but Tokyo is a huge city with 13 million people. When you expand the circle though to include the entire National Capital Region, that number swells to more than 35 million people making it the world’s most populous metropolitan area. The sheer press of humanity can be intimidating to some and I think we in the West are trained to expect the worst, which is sad because it’s not a problem at all for the casual traveler. I’m not sure how I expected this giant population to interrupt my travel, but I was surprised when I found I could walk down sidewalks without harassment and even managed to get seats on more than one subway car. Of course, as with any major city, this changes during rush hour when millions make the commute home. Only once was I on a famously overcrowded train though and that was my own fault for not timing things right. I live in a city and I know I don’t like to see tourists during rush hour because they slow everything down. So when I travel I try to practice the same consideration, but it’s just not always possible.
Japan is well designed for the most part and thanks to certain cultural habits the huge number of people just wasn’t a problem as we went around the city and region to sightsee. Not every city in the world can say that and there are a couple in Southeast Asia that can be a nightmare to traverse any time of day, much less during rush hour. No, in Japan just about everything runs like clockwork, it has to really. There’s just no other way to deal with so many people. But not once was I unable to hop on a train, eat at a restaurant or enter a museum because there were too many people. Lest you think the city is antiseptic, it’s not at all. There’s as much character to it as Bangkok, it’s just different. The people aren’t automatons either. We struck up several conversations in bad Japanese/English and on more than one occasion people stopped to help when we broke out the map. It’s such a simple act of generosity, but it certainly doesn’t happen everywhere and that I think speaks more to the people than anything else.
Have you been to Tokyo? What were some challenges you faced?