Japan is Respectful
The word that came to my mind most often while visiting Tokyo was respect. Japan and its people respect you, they respect their environment, and they respect everyone around them. You can see this in the clean and thoughtful way their cities are laid out and in the way everyone wordlessly lines up in neat lines before the subway arrives, but most of all in how willing people are to help you. I was consistently surprised by the extent to which total strangers would help me when I asked them for directions or how to buy an item. Even when they didn’t know English, they would go out of their way to help, and more than that, to not make me feel embarrassed. It’s as if everyone feels a duty to help.
From the ‘Irasshaimase’ greeting when you walk into any shop door, to the reassuring chatter while they weigh out change, to the smiles, salutes, and full-on bows you get from workers or policeman, it’s enough to make you think you’re in Mr Rogers’ neighborhood. And the respect goes both ways – I found myself being extra careful about my litter because of how well-organized my surroundings were, as well as offering my own little bows in response to passerby. Amazing how cultural forces can be used for good – the locals I spoke to said politeness is paramount from their youngest days. The politeness can make them seem aloof at times, though – literally everyone is staring at their phones o the subway, and people try to mind their own business.
Japan Loves Cute Stuff
The other cultural oddity that stuck out was how ingrained anime and manga are in everyday life. In the States such interests are reserved for nerdy teenagers, but in Tokyo, you can’t escape them. Manga characters adorn billboards, offer PSAs, and are even sometimes found in costumes roaming malls and selling pop music. They’re used in advertisements for things ranging from phones to amusement parks. I saw old women reading manga in the train more than once. It’s just a really big part of their culture. Sometimes the young people dress up for a normal weekend day with colorful wigs and contact lenses that alter their eyes to look like anime characters – pretty crazy.
Maybe it’s due to their obsession with cute stuff, or kawaii. Big eyes, small mouths, exaggerated movements, and anything that makes you say ‘aww’ are all super kawaii, which is what Japan strives for. All the pop stars sport looks that accentuate this (which you can get detailed views of, on the giant faces plastered on the truck billboards that drive around Shibuya blasting their latest album). Meanwhile, the WhatsApp of Japan, LINE Messenger, distinguishes itself from competitors mainly through its vast catalogue of stickers, most of which feature kawaii characters that offer cute ways to convey joy, surprise, or worry through the likes of a bear, rabbit, or duck.
There’s even photo booths in every videogame arcade (which are far more common in the states, although drenched in nicotine and paired with loud Pachinko gambling slots) that make you more kawaii by enlarging your eyes, smoothing your skin, and letting you add things like hearts and squiggles to your picture. It looks a little weird on guys….
Convenient Yet Staunchly Different
I asked a few resident expats what their favorite and least favorite parts of living in Japan were, which the consensus answers being the convenience and the xenophobia, respectively. Convenience stores in Tokyo are far more helpful than those elsewhere – you can buy decently filling and healthy food there, charge SIM cards, buy museum tickets, and even pay your government taxes and utilities at the counter! Sinks are integrated into the shower pipe so that they use the same water lead, and many toilets have seat warmers and little bidets built into them. There’s even a button that makes a flushing sound to mask your bowel movements without wasting water – which is both polite and respectful.
As for the racism, well, I didn’t see it myself, but these Americans who lived there for years and gotten embedded in the culture say that no matter how fluent in Japanese they got, they will always treat you differently. It’s the other side of the honor/polite equation – they won’t admit wrongs, and won’t accept that a foreigner could ever fully understand what it means to be Japanese. He told me stories about a Western CEO of Nikon resigning and hanging himself after the Japanese board refused to speak in English to him. Or take the current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine where Japan’s war dead are honored, which would be analogous to Angela Merkel regularly visiting a shrine commemorating Nazis. They just don’t apologize – better to commit seppuku than go back on one’s honor.
But of course I didn’t scratch the surface enough to get near any of that, and just saw the nation of polite Mr Rogers, as any short term visitor would. Don’t let this scare you away from delightful Japan.
Takeshita Street in Harajuku is an entertaining look at crazy local fashions, while the nearby Meiji Shrine is a worthy example of ancient Zen architecture. Shinjuku is full of neon signs at night, quality nightlife, and the Robot Restaurant, a surreal spectacle featuring scantily clad women, robots, dinosaurs, and all manner of ridiculous music. It’s hard to describe what goes on, but I came away feeling it was more flash than substance. Strip away all the strobe lights and costumes and you basically have a burlesque show with elaborate props and a few dance and fight numbers that pale to anything in Cirque du Soleil. That said, it is the very definition of a spectacle, and is a nice microcosm parody of Japanese culture, what with anime girls and mecha bots.
Shibuya is worth walking around as well, since it has the busiest street crossing in the city and is fun to watch the crowds swarm over the crosswalks, as well as a whole host of shops. Nearby is the FabCafe, which is not on any tourist’s wishlist but a cool local spot where you can fabricate things using their 3D printer, laser cutter, and other assorted machines.
Akihibara is anime central, with blocks on blocks of buildings holding massive amounts of anime and manga material (seriously, how does the market support that many stores selling the same figurines, trading cards, toys, and love pillows? What does one offer that the other does not?). There’s also a lot of maid cafes here – where women dressed in maid costumes serve you food and act all adoring and docile. I walked by a few of these establishments and couldn’t bring myself to enter – it just seemed too weird.
Azakusa and Ueno offer more traditional touristy neighborhoods filled with markets, shrines, and rose petal trees, while Rapponggi is the touristy drinking hole filled with bars. Ryogoku hosts the Sumo arena, while Odaiba has some futuristic buildings, unorthodox malls, and a giant Gundam statue.
Check out Tim Ferriss’s Tokyo guide for more great tips, as well as the Guardian’s roundup of the best places to play games (and their one for weird bars, like ninja bars and ones where you get locked up). I tried to stay in a Capsule Hotel, which is a bed/television space roughly the size of a coffin used by businessmen when they drunkenly miss the last train at midnight, but I couldn’t find one with space. Kamakura is totally worth the day trip, by the way: the shrines, verdant hills, and the cute main street are fantastic break from Tokyo proper. Be sure to visit an indoor sento or outdoor onsen hot springs facility, too.
I couch surfed with Yi-yang, a guy from Taiwan who was working in Tokyo and had learned a surprising amount of Japanese for only being 4 months in. His tiny 40 square feet apartment managed to fit me only because it had a loft space above his bed, although it was probably the worst CS digs I’ve ever had given that it was a hard wooden floor with only a blanket over it. That said, I was impressed with his hospitality – if I only had 40 square feet to work with, I doubt I’d be spending it on strangers.
I also ran into Sho, a friendly guy who struck up conversation with me in an anime shop (only because he used to live in LA, since that’s a very un-Japanese thing to do otherwise). He was endlessly interested to hear what I thought about the cultural differences, and shared a few with me: in Japan inviting someone to dinner does not mean you can bring along your spouse. Indeed, if you bring along your spouse too often without asking they will stop inviting you, since it’s about you, not the wife or husband. That saves many spouses from having to attend some work party they don’t want to, but comes with its own negatives as well.
Overall Tokyo was my favorite stop in Asia by far and you should totally visit. I’ll have to get back to see more of Japan in the future.