With around 35 million people, Tokyo is the world’s largest metropolitan area. Although we typically think of Tokyo as a city, it is – to be precise – a prefecture, or the Japanese equivalent of a State. Inside the prefecture are 23 individual wards, each with it’s own government (mayor, police, schools, etc). All of these wards are so heavily urbanized and seamlessly integrated that it forms the effect of one gigantic city. The area that Americans would consider “downtown” is roughly a circle that’s about 15 miles across. There’s no one place you can point to as the “city center”; rather, there are more than a dozen neighborhoods that could legitimately claim that title.
I’m not unfamiliar with visiting big cities – Chicago, London, New York – but Tokyo is on a different level. We expected this, of course, but the density, crowdedness, and sheer size of the city were still striking. Some parts of Tokyo, as our Lonely Planet book put it, “make Manhattan seem like a quaint rural village.” Tokyo’s busiest train and subway station, Shinjuku Station, sees more riders every day than the entire NYC subway system. Combined, the 2 busiest stations handle a number of people greater than the population of Washington state. On the Yamanote rail line, a key circular line that tourists will use frequently, trains arrive every 2 minutes and are still jam-packed with people (that line alone serves more people daily than the entire London Underground).
Shinjuku at night
One of the images I had of Tokyo before going there was a Times Square-like place with tall buildings covered with neon ads vying for the attention of the hordes of people crowding the streets. There are a lot of places like that in Tokyo, and instead of being a single intersection they fill entire districts of the city. The more impressive example we found is the section of Shinjuku east of the station.
There are also glass-and-steel skyscraper districts, old bazaar-style marketplaces, ugly grey residential blocks, and neighborhoods with upscale single family houses. Sprinkled throughout are Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, usually in places that create interesting contrasts between the traditional and the modern. There are even a few parks and gardens.
Hamarikyu Gardens and skyscrapers in Shiodome
Space – both inside and on the streets – is tight. But Tokyoites have created or inherited a lot of customs that make being in these close quarters more comfortable. The people there seem to show a greater amount of respect than any place I’ve visited; respect for each other, for their society, and for their city. This manifests itself in many ways:1. There is very little crime: nowhere we went felt even the slightest bit unsafe.
2. The city is very clean – it’s rare to see any trash laying about, even in the busiest areas. This seems to be due, in part, to the Japanese tendency to dispose of trash in the proper receptacles even if they aren’t always easy to find.
3. The transportation system is excellent; trains go everywhere and are frequent, clean, and easy to use once you get over the daunting route maps. Signs and announcements are in both Japanese and English. Bathrooms in train stations are free; some are amongst the cleanest and nicest public restrooms I’ve seen.
4. Everyone – even the hardest-core punks – say “sumimasen” (excuse me) if they accidentally bump into you.
5. Eating or talking on a cell phone on the train is a serious no-no. This helps create a calm environment even on a packed train. It’s also why you could play games, watch digital TV, and browse the internet on all Japanese cell phones a decade before the iPhone came out in the States.
6. The toilets, sensitive to the fact that sound and odor are more problematic in small apartments and restrooms, have a host of features which seem ridiculous at first but soon have you asking, “why don’t we have that?”
Control panel on the toilet in our hotel room
Of course one of the most exciting parts about visiting Japan is the food, and it didn’t disappoint. In general, the Japanese demand freshness and high quality in their food, and it’s easy to find a great meal. Sushi is the first Japanese food that comes to most people’s mind, but there’s a lot more to Japanese cuisine: grilled, barbecued, fried, etc. It would be possible, although certainly not advisable, to visit Tokyo without eating any raw fish at all. But there’s no fun in that, and most “normal” Japanese meals are going to include something we’d think of as “sushi”.
When Americans think of sushi, we usually think of little bits of fish wrapped in seaweed & rice. Rolls like that exist in Japan, of course, but are more typical of weddings, special occasions, or banquets. There are lots of other types of non-roll “sushi”, though, and in Japan they’re just part of the standard everyday cuisine.
Whether you like raw fish or not I’d highly recommend a trip to Tsukiji, the wor
ld’s largest fish market. It’s where restaurants and wholesalers come to buy all sorts of sea creatures – from super-expensive tuna to humble but tasty invertibrates. A stroll through the huge maze of stalls is sure to be educational and provide some interesting photographs. There are a few restaurants right inside the fish market; the small 8-person one we stopped at was excellent (unfortunately, I didn’t get it’s name).
Another area I’d recommend visiting is Asakusa, a neighborhood with a pleasant street market and buddhist temple. It’s touristy but still interesting, and you can find some great little souvenirs to bring home.
Asakusa street market
As you can tell, I liked Tokyo a lot. My only complaints were the lack of a smoking ban in bars and restaurants (although some are voluntarily smoke-free), and that I was constantly hitting my head against things. Tokyo was obviously not designed for 6’4″ people, although I did see some Japanese people taller than me. Luckily, shop and restaurant owners were extremely polite and gracious even to a klutzy gaijin (foreigner) who nearly destroyed their paper lamps with his head.
For more cool shots, check out our photo album.