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?
16 thoughts on “Travel in Tokyo – Three Personal Challenges and How to Overcome Them”
Three great points Matt, Japan is incredibly high on my to-visit list and that last photo really brings the city to life. I wouldn’t have a problem with the food (I love sushi and tasty noodles :D), but the epicness of 13 million people crammed into one city is certainly something that might take getting use to!
When you go back, try to get here. http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/indepth/scenic/worldheritage/c_4_nikko.html
How long time did you spend in Japan?
Matt, great post! When I first moved to Japan (lived there 1997 to 2004) I lost 20 pounds (from a 160 pound body) in about a month and half, because the food was so strange to my palate. Within a year, I loved Japanese food. Now it’s one of the things I most miss about Japan.
How funny that food was something you feared in Japan, while this is the ONE thing I’m most excited about! :)
LIke I said, for many people this wouldn’t an issue. It’s my problem with seafood that created the fear :)
I am currently in Kyoto (staying in Japan for one month), and I’m running into similar situations. The language barrier, although a struggle, is something I actually enjoy. It’s nice to be somewhere I won’t be exposed to English because it forces me to pick up the language quicker. Plus, because the people are so overwhelmingly kind, I want to be able to talk to them. It might just be me, but I feel like I’m being disrespectful by speaking English to them.
I also don’t eat seafood by personal choice, and it has been difficult to find foods that don’t contain some sort of sea critter parts. Not afraid to admit I’ve purchased spaghetti and instant ramen from 7-11 a couple times since I’ve been here. The food I HAVE tried in restaurants has been excellent though.
Great post and great photos!
Thanks Kimi and what an amazing experience! You’re right about how great it is being thrown into a place where you have to learn the language. That’s really the only way and I’d be really curious to hear more about your misadventures with seafood. I was VERY worried about that.
The Sudden Death Hamburg is a very spicy beef patty topped with a secret mixture of a chili powder, chili paste as well as special habanero sauce it serve for you on a sizzling hot plate to ensure the spicier is target. if you are like chili food you will appreciate that. food because it very delicious try it..
Yikes, I don’t do spice either, so another one for me to avoid! :) But I’m sure many of my readers would love to try it so thanks for sharing!
Oh, my only challenge was not having enough time to see and experience everything I wanted to. We only spent 3 weeks in Japan, but I could easily live there for a year or two. I loved the food and I didn’t find the busy streets at all confusing, on the contrary, everything is so organized in Japan! I loved every minute of my visit.
Japanese is such an easy language to learn some basics of that it’s not really a problem for the short-term visitor. Just a handful of words can see you through most situations.
As for food… I think you got lucky :D I picked something which looked edible, and it turned out to be a pot of cod roe with cheese baked on top to make it look tasty! Gah! (In my defence I’ll eat seafood, but roe is ‘orrible!)
I definitely did get lucky, mostly I think because I was so nervous about it all!
The secret to asking directions in Japan, and other countries where English is universally minimally spoken is to *isolate* the person. It’s a good idea to stop someone younger, perhaps educated (generalize; nicely conservatively dressed). Make sure they’re not in earshot of a friend/coworker/anyone who will hear their limited English.
Try to phrase question as “yes” and “no” and use visual props like a map.
Never respond with “I don’t understand”. That will throw them. Make it up if you have to. “…then I take the first left?” “No! second…”
I heard that even busy people will stop to help and that “helping a foreigner” is a legit reason for being late at work. I tried it once. The businessman stopped dead in his tracks and took all the time in the world to make sure I got on the right train. I felt so guilty! So just take my word for it… Please don’t try it yourselves!
You put my mind at ease. I am headed to Tokyo in a couple days and was worried about the same things. Thanks Matt!
Japan is a wonderful country. People are kind when you are lost. Talking to school students will help with English and if you cannot understand directions, they will gladly take you to the place you are looking for. For me, food is delicious, I enjoy sushi and sashimi and long waited to be back to Japan in October. Nikko, as recommended by Daniel is not be missed. Try Mt. Fuji and Hakone outside the city.
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