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.
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.
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.
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?