Five Things That Surprised Me About Tokyo

Our first visit to Japan was brief, it was a stopover on a longer flight but we still managed to eek out three nights in Tokyo for a little taste of what the country is like. As do most people, I had certain expectations and thoughts about Tokyo, some of which were proven true and others false, but looking back this is what surprised me most about my first trip to Tokyo.

1. Not as whacky as I thought – American pop culture at times seems to be obsessed with Japanese pop culture. That is to say, every time something Japanese is featured in the US it’s made to seem bizarre and even whacky. I point to a favorite show “I Survived a Japanese Game Show.” In light of this portrayal of Japanese culture, I expected to be confronted at every turn by the weird and bizarre. But in actuality, that wasn’t the case. Instead I saw hard working, polite people who were not whacky, but were sober and helpful. Sure, there were a few strangely dressed people and some of the products for sale are definitely weird, but those are the outliers. On the whole, Tokyo was a lot of fun to explore, but whacky is not a term I would necessarily associate with it.

2. Language barrier difficulty – I’ve traveled all over the world and have never once had any difficulty getting around without speaking the local language. Until Japan. Getting around Tokyo was hard, I won’t lie. Most restaurant menus are not in English, they’re in Japanese and while the train and subway system may be English friendly, that’s about it. I’m not saying they should be in English, I’m saying that I had problems because I don’t speak Japanese. The best example of the difficulties I can give is when we tried to take a cab back to our hotel from a nearby location. We knew we were close but it was raining and we didn’t feel like walking back. So I hopped in a cab and asked to be taken to the Ritz Carlton. Now, it’s not as if I asked to be driven to the Loper-san guest house; I asked to be driven to one of the most well known hotels in the city. When I made my request I was met with a very blank stare. After much discussion and a look through a translated phone book, we finally made it to the hotel, but it wasn’t easy.

Tokyo Subway

3. Easy public transportation – Even though we had issues with cabs, getting around town was actually pretty easy. This wasn’t at all what I expected given the famously large population and the incredible strain the Tokyo metro system takes on a daily basis. But while the system itself is a bit daunting at first glance, once you get used to it it makes sense and when it’s not rush hour it’s a pleasure to ride. We went all over town and each time we changed trains we managed to not only find our way, but a seat as well. Living in a major metropolitan area, I know that can be an extreme rarity.

Shibuya Crossing‎

4. People were kind and helpful – This may sound obnoxious but while I never doubted the kindness of the Japanese, I expected a standard big city attitude in Tokyo. By that I mean people who ignore anyone in need and instead are intent on reaching their own personal objective. This isn’t endemic to Tokyo, it’s a primary quality of most large cities. But on more than one occasion, when painfully and obviously lost, several people came up to us in order to offer their assistance. We didn’t ask for it but we needed it and it was deeply appreciated. It forever changed my impression of Tokyo from being cold and impersonal to a warm and friendly city.

Tokyo Japan

5. I want to go back – I’m as much surprised by this as anyone, but I’m desperate to return to Tokyo. I never, ever thought I would like the city. I thought it would be too big, too crazy and that I wouldn’t be able to eat anything. But in retrospect, I realize that not only did I barely scratch the surface, I failed to scratch the surface of the surface. I want to go back to reaffirm my own personal thoughts about the city and to get to know it better. It’s the largest metropolitan area in the world and it certainly deserves more than a couple of days of exploration.

Have you been to Tokyo? What most surprised you?

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

21 thoughts on “Five Things That Surprised Me About Tokyo”

  1. The fare adjustment machines! Such a nice way to persuade people to pay the proper fare. No fines, no angry guards, just a machine (or a booth) where you can pay the difference. All the ads on the metro were a bit overwhelming, though.

  2. I loved how you could get almost anywhere on the metro system, but I found I was usually transferring trains 3 or 4 times before getting there.

  3. Maybe Tokyo isn’t wacky, but Japanese TV shows sure are! I had a Japanese roommate in college and his parents would mail him recordings of his favorite TV shows. They were insane. :)

  4. Did you notice how clean the city was? I mean the trains were spotless and I never saw litter anywhere. That surprised me a great deal. I too was surprised how much I loved Japan. I’m hoping to go back next spring for an extended period. (I only had three days too).

  5. I was also quite shocked how big the language barrier actually was; my very limited Japanese that I had never actually had to use improved quite massively over the weeks I spent in Tokyo. But the people are really friendly, so you shouldn’t worry about the language barrier too much, you’ll get things sorted, although it might take a little longer :)

  6. My boyfriend and I are starting our backpacking trip in Japan this fall so I found this post particularing interesting! Would not have guessed that there would be a language barrier difficulty – I assumed a lot of places would have signs/menus in English – guess not!

      1. Tracy Nanthavongsa

        What my partner and I ended up doing was just only going to restaurants that had pictures on the menu LOL.

  7. I’ve been to Tokyo and Kyoto and I was also surprised by the language barrier. Not as easy to communicate in English there. I found Akihabara even more overwhelming than I had dared to imagine – very draining as you just have to stop and stare so many times, and take it all in. A very cool destination though!

  8. I took Japanese all through college, so I was thrilled to travel somewhere where I could actually practice my foreign language skills :-) I was amazed, too, about how quickly my vocabulary and kanji reading proficiency improved after just traveling there for three weeks.

    One of the best pieces of advice my professor gave me is that if you don’t know the japanese word, say the english word in a “japanese” way…like saying “ti-ke-to” instead of ticket.

  9. Hey, great post.

    Is the language barrier really that bad, I plan to go for three months to Tokyo to learn Japanese and I feel I going to have a difficulty getting around in the beginning.

    Great advice though, Arigato

  10. Tokyo is absolutely great, and Japan as a whole. I’ve been there last 2009 with a tour group since we knew language would be a big barrier for us since we don’t speak the language.

    Japan’s a very nationalistic country. They really love their country that’s why they use their own language and rarely do the common folks use English. It’s interesting and quite challenging. I’m planning to take the Japanese Language Proficiency Test soon :)

    Gotta love Japan :)

  11. chorochoroshitai

    You stayed at Ritz-Carlton.This hotel was newly built and worse was difficult to identify because including two”R”and “L”.I have never met any Japanese who distinguish one from another.Speaking Japanese is easy,for it has only 48 sounds.In 1012 a girl called “Murasakishikibu”,which means “staff of ministry of rituals in purple”.She wrote “The Tale of Genji”and settled all sounds into 48 and selected “hiragana”for each. Furthermore, she standerized several pattern of existing grammars into one. Even a senior high-school girl today can read this novel.This is unbelievable achievement even a chief minister admired her. As a result nobody have never changed regulation created by her.Even now half of national awards for novelist go to girls.Anyway it is inconvenient for you to watch every signboards non-romanized. Top of the pictures includes modern Chinese that reads “Honorable customers, welcome to Japan. Visit our shop and see around freely”.I think this type of words are not necessary Chinese and Koreans who enjoy sightseeing in Tokyo can read English and understand Chinese letters.Leftists or democrats have different idea.You might go to Sudacho restaurant in Akihabara. My granma was gunpointed by military-coup soldiers there in her highscool age.

    1. Please don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t putting anyone down and the stories related here were emblematic, meaning they occurred a few times. I loved Tokyo and would go back again, but there was a small amount of culture shock :)

  12. You took some great pictures! I was there just a few months ago, but seeing these pictures just makes me want to go back right away!

  13. One thing that surprised me about Tokyo was that most of the trains weren’t crowded. My impression of Japan because living there was that all of the trains would be super crammed. But that obviously wasn’t that case.

  14. I had been to Tokyo many times. Yes .Language is an issue, but Japanese modesty and helping nature out weighs it.
    When I wanted to buy something, the shop attendant did not understand me and my English. Then I thought, why to speak in English when they don’t understand at all, I can speak in my mother tongue as well. It doesn’t matter to them. So, I spoke and got what I wanted, perhaps my body language is better when I spoke in Telugu (one of the prominent Indian languages), my mother tongue . Surprising! I followed this self invented rule on my many trips to non- English speaking countries with great success.

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