There’s only one thing worse on social media than other people’s holiday pics. And that’s your own holiday pics. Or more specifically, mine.
And yet I do now have quite a lot of pics to share. So what to do? Well, when you travel from your town of 6,908 inhabitants to an urban metropolitan area of 37.8 million souls, it’s less of a holiday and more of a total immersion sensory experience.
So here is some total immersion son et lumière to share my recent experiences of the storm of the senses that is Tokyo. This is not intended as a thoughtful critique of Japanese culture, nor even a list of the top 8 things that should be on your Japanese bucket list. Rather, it is an impressionistic view of just some of the things that to date make Tokyo my absolute favourite, and most fascinatingly ‘other’ big city to be in.
Japanese trains just impress the hell out of me. They’re very long, they’re very fast, and they’re very full of people. They arrive two minutes before they’re meant to leave, and
they leave on time. Inter-city trains on major routes run every five minutes or so. They’re regularly patrolled by a conductor who will never leave a carriage without first turning round and bowing to all the passengers. That’s class!
My week of intense field research revealed that over 40% of Tokyo train passengers now travel wearing face masks. Some are well and don’t want to become ill. Some are clearly ill, and don’t want to infect the well. My six-foot-one Caucasian offspring tried to blend in and turned a tickling cough into a fashion statement. He did keep his germs to himself, but I’m not sure whether the blending-in worked so well.
Almost all the passengers on a Tokyo train will be carrying a mobile phone. The one thing you won’t find any Japanese person on the train doing is shouting “I’m on the train!” into their phone. That would be just too rude. Instead, they’ll all be sitting there quietly, using their data.
I’d always assumed they were checking their emails, messages, or stocks and shares, but a few sneaky sideways glances at their screens have made me realise that, in fact, most are just playing games. So if you want to suss out the latest Apps that you might like to play, check out first what that guy next to you on the Yamanote line is playing.
Now that station names are numbered and are also given in English, there’s less excuse for you to get lost on the railway network. So, my final tip, if you’re heading out of Tokyo on the Shinkansen ‘bullet train’ to Kyoto, don’t forget to keep a look out on the right hand side windows. You might just spot a landmark.
I have a very functional view of shopping. I don’t like it. When I have to do it, I treat it like a military operation. I plan the action, execute a lightning fast strike, and withdraw as quickly as possible with the prize. In the crowded main street of Harajuku district though, clinical shopping strikes, as you can see, are not an option.
My first visit to Tokyo was in the era of the ‘non-sequitur T-Shirt’ where you saw people sporting tops with three words emblazoned on them such as “Fragrant Effort Balcony” that would have no obvious connection between them.
This time round I ambled through department stores with a metaphorical green pen in hand, like the functional skills lecturer I used to be. At some, I mentally corrected the spelling. At others, I just scratched my head, equally as baffled as in the non-sequitur days. What does “If Construct Seduction” mean?
There are signs, though, that the typographical boot is moving to the other foot. Even now, vendors down Takeshita Street are selling tourists T-Shirts with memorable slogans written in Kanji and translated as:
“My personality is really not bad”, and
“Handsome man but overbite”.
And that’s before any typos kick in.
The greatest thing about shopping in Tokyo, however, is the sheer enthusiasm of the sales techniques. While in the quieter parts of quieter towns, client interaction is determined by the ritual “Irasshaimase” greeting for every single person entering the shop, down Shibuya way there’s a lot more exuberance employed to grab your attention. It’s almost enough to make me want to go shopping.
Are you sitting comfortably? I said ‘sitting’ madam. I just love Japanese toilets. I fell in love with them the moment I first cleared Japanese passport control and stumbled into the Gents in a remote coastal train station. So many choices to make!
How warm do you want the seat? In which way and with what velocity and at what temperature would you like to direct water at your undercarriage (answer = none of the above, thanks). And best of all, what sound effects would you most like to mask the sounds of what you are about to do – a flushing sound effect, birdsong, orchestral music? Any society that shares such an unhealthy unease with its bodily functions is alright by me.
It always catches me out when the toilet seat sensors set off a pre-flush cleansing of the bowl just as you sit down to do your business. And the choices don’t end there. The Shinkansen toilets often have two hand-activated sensors to complete the task. One, as you would expect, activates the post-business flushing of the toilet. The other, and this is one for the ladies, allows you to lower the toilet seat without use of your hands. It does so at great speed, so be wary gents of premature activation of the wrong sensor.
And in the midst of all this hi-tech toileting there is occasionally a surprise. Every so often you come across a hole in the floor type apparatus as used to be prevalent many years ago on continental European holidays. Perhaps with this in mind, the Tokyo airport toilets now have the following warning in case unsuspecting visitors are confused that the same historic crouching position should ever be used on the computerised ablution facilities.
At least that’s my theory, given that I couldn’t understand the Japanese script that went alongside these instructions. I suppose a more interesting interpretation could be that this is a warning never to dismount the toilet using a backward somersault. Now there’s a challenge!
4. Power napping
Wherever you go, in and around Tokyo you’ll find people sleeping: slumped over their table in a restaurant, propped upright inside the door of a metro train, or fast asleep in the front row of a lecture theatre. There’s so many people doing it, they have a special word for it – “inemuri”.
If you caught one of your students asleep in a class in Britain, you’d probably be very unimpressed. You’d tell them to stop burning the candle (or whichever other substance they were using) at both ends. In Japan however, so many people work way above their contractual hours each week, exhaustion seems to be accepted as a positive sign of dedication and hard work. Work-life balance? Nein danke.
5. Eating and drinking
If all your dining is fine, and all of your menus written in French, then look away now. This section is not about seeking out the haute cuisine of the Japanese kitchen. It’s about finding the right things to eat and drink in a country with three alphabets, none of which look anything like yours. The answer of course is in pictures, or rather, in three-dimensional copies of your meal, presented in the window or at the entrance to your cafe.
It’s not for every meal of course, but there comes a time in every tourist’s visit when you just need something recognisable to eat, and you want it now (though not mummified in a spray of plastic veneer, of course). You can size it up in the window before ordering and hey, you can maybe even guess whether it’s gluten-free or not.
And as for drinks, then in this land of the vending machine you can have hot or cold drinks waiting for you at the end of every street (more or less), to keep you hydrated and at the appropriate level of caffeine or blood sugars. Red for hot, blue for cold. It’s that easy. And if, like me, you have traveled from the world’s whisky capital in Speyside, there is also the possibility to visit distilleries where some other world-famous drams are made; but that’s another story.
And one final hint on restaurant life. You know that ornamental snow globe-sized piece of table furniture nestling beside the condiments, the menu holder and the toothpicks? Leave it alone. Stop fiddling with it.
It’s not a snow globe. It’s a buzzer. It’s the reason the waitress has appeared to be so attentive in the last five minutes, checking if you have any further requirements. So stop buzzing her. Put it down. Get on with your meal.
That’s my tip.
6. Crossing the road
The people of Tokyo have made crossing the road an art form. There is little or no jay-walking. Pedestrian crossings offer the possibility to cross most junctions from almost every conceivable angle. The “Scramble” outside Shibuya station takes crossing the road to a whole new level. At peak times there is a whole sea of humanity on the move and it becomes unclear where the road ends and the pavement begins.
In the evenings the soundtrack for the crossing is provided by giant illuminated advertising screens blaring out their wares, and the edges of the crossing are populated by commuters, Karaoke sales staff, and informal groups of young people offering “free hugs”. It is best viewed, as below, from the lifts of the Tokyu Excel hotel. And always expect the unexpected. I have seen couples posing to have their wedding photographs taken there, right in the middle of the mêlée that is the Scramble.
7. Cherry blossom
Cherry blossom happens throughout Japan for one week each year, although for different weeks depending on exactly where in the country you are. As well as weather forecasts, there are also “Sakura” forecasts, counting down the days to the blossom’s arrival. By luck or good fortune we arrived during the Sakura in Tokyo, and spent one day walking and busing between different parks just to see it. (Clockwise from top left: Yoyogi Park; government buildings in Shinjuku; Ueno Park at twilight; and at the entrance to the zoo).
Most of Tokyo seemed to spend most of the week doing something very similar, and it was truly spectacular.
8. Lost property
And finally, one last recommendation. I am a fairly experienced traveler, both for work and for pleasure, and usually know how to keep my stuff together. As I checked into our hotel in Tokyo I realised I had lost my ‘man-bag’ somewhere between airport and hotel. With my bag I had lost my passport, my tickets, all my cash, my cards and keys. The only thing that helped me keep my mental stuff together was knowing that this was Tokyo.
Six hours later my bag had been handed into the lost property office of a railway station, completely intact. The only problem with retrieving it was that my signature was so unlike the one in my passport, the official almost had second thoughts about returning it to me.
So if you’re going to lose your stuff in a major city, then my advice is: lose it in Tokyo. It’s the place you probably have the best chance of getting it all back again.