I had always thought that Tokyo is like a visit to another planet. When I finally arrived in Japan, it was
even weirder and more bizarre than I ever expected it.
01 | TOO MANY PEOPLE AND VERY LITTLE SPACE
With more than 35 million people living in greater Tokyo, the city is the largest metropolitan area in the world. Space is limited. A typical size of a one bedroom apartment is usually not more than 15 square meters (170 square feet). Hotel rooms are often tiny. Uniquely are "Capsule hotels", they are popular in Japanese cities. Like the name says, you get nothing more than a capsule or a box to sleep in.
For more comfort (and to save a few bucks), I couchsurfed during my stay in Tokyo. Cheap accommodation is rare in Tokyo. And small. I've seen apartments the size of walk-in closets. Everything in Japan seemed smaller than in the rest of the world. Sometimes I felt like I was in a smurf village, houses were so small, I couldn't believe it. That's probably another reason why most Japanese apartments have sliding doors. There is simply no space.
When I walked around Shimbashi Station (located West of the famous Tsukiji Fish Market) I noticed a strange apartment complex, that looked like a pile of washing machines. I googled it later and found out that the building is called the Nakagin Capsule Tower, a mixed-use residential and office tower designed by architect Kisho Kurokawa.
Each capsule is roughly 10 square meters, including a bathroom unit the size of an airplane lavatory. The last update I heard was that the building's residents voted to demolish it and replace it with a larger and more modern tower. However, I actually liked it. Small, but functional. The smaller the room, the less stuff you can put in it.
The city is so overwhelming and crowded, Tokyo's subway is one of the busiest in the world. Millions of people use the subway and railway daily, and they even have staff cramming passengers inside the trains. I wonder what the job title for these guys is? You don't believe me? Check out this video:
02 | TOO MANY RULES AND (HILARIOUS) SIGNS
"Welcome to Japan. Please respect the rules." This sign awaits you at the Narita Airport. Thank you Japan, but what rules? Well, just open your eyes, rules are everywhere. It's obvious Japanese people love rules. They respect rules, it seems they love to follow them and even more to obey.
Later on when I arrived at my host's place and we took the elevator up to his apartment I was amazed at how many rules they had
in terms of how to use the elevator. Most of these rules come along with funny pictures.
In 2009 they had an hilarious campaign in the subway stations about how to behave on the trains. Click on the photo to enlarge. Seriously funny.
03 | FASHION FORWARD
Before we begin, let's get one thing straight: Most of the following photos were taken in Harajuku, a fun and colorful district in Tokyo. Harajuku is well known as the fashion capital of the world, famous for its unique street fashion. The place is like a huge outdoor catwalk. If you want to see teenage fashion culture at its most extreme, come on a Sunday! They are here every day but on Sundays it's like an invasion of teenagers, dressed as Gothics, Lolitas, Cosplayers, Punks and many other mixes. Most of them gather on the Jingu Bridge next to the train station. Just follow the crowd, it's impossible to miss them. It's such a paradise for photographers.
If you're as amazed as I was and want to see more of Tokyo's latest street fashion, check out Tokyofashion. They post new photos daily. Highly entertaining. The photos above are all taken by myself, click to enlarge them.
Every two months they have a big street party called the Harajuku Fashion Walk. A few hundred people (it gets bigger every time) meet up in Harajuku and walk through the streets, showing off their taste in fashion. Unfortunately I missed that event, but if I ever return to Tokyo, I'll make sure to be there. This video shows one of the Fashion Walks in Harajuku.
After I passed the Jingu Bridge I continued walking until I reached the entrance of Yoyogi Park. Suddenly I stopped - what the heck was that?? Guys with greased hair, dressed in vintage denim were dancing to rockabilly music in the street. Apparently, this subculture has been around since the early 1990s. How cool is that?! They look threatening though, but when I approached them, they posed for me and I got this amazing group shot. Arigato.
04 | INCREDIBLY CLEAN CITY
Probably the first thing I noticed about Tokyo is, that there is almost no vandalism. It's so clean everywhere, that if I dropped my food on the floor, I would even pick it up and continue eating. Everything is so shiny there, it almost looks surreal. It's hard to find homeless people, but when I spotted a few, they lived in clean boxes under the bridges and some of them even kept small potted gardens.
I haven't seen any garbage bins in the city, so how can Tokyo be so clean? The answer is that clean people don't need garbage bins. Or Japanese people carry their garbage back home, if they have a snack outside. Who knows.
While some places can be terribly crowded, others can be strangely quiet. The photo above is taken on Odaiba, a large artificial island in Tokyo, just across the Rainbow Bridge from central Tokyo. Peaceful, clean and quiet, it's the perfect place to escape from the crowds in the city.
05 | DELICIOUS, HEALTHY AND CHEAP FOOD IS EVERYWHERE
Let's get down to my favorite subject: Japanese food. Mmhmmm.... In my opinion the tastiest and most delicious food on earth. Japan might be expensive, but there are many places where you can get cheap and healthy food. There is no need to go to expensive restaurants, check out the local joints. They offers meals for less than 500 Yen ($ 5 US) and if you want to eat loads of sushi, I found the cheapest sushi near the Tsukiji Fish Market.
My favorite cheap bar was Coins Bar in Shibuya (photo below), all drinks and dishes cost just 315 Yen. So don't complain that Japan is oh so expensive. If that's still too much, try the convenience stores or go to one of the 100 Yen Shops (like a dollar store), they're everywhere. Convenience stores like Lawson or Family Mart are open 24 hours and offer an incredible variety of snacks, noodles, sushi, sandwiches, cakes and loads of other delicious food.
My favorite snacks are Onigiris, the Japanese version of a sandwich. They come as triangles, circles or as a roll. Onigiri are made of rice with fish or other fillings, wrapped in seaweed. These cost roughly 100 - 150 Yen ($ 1 - 1,50 US). Super yummy!
06 | PEOPLE ARE ALWAYS BUSY WITH THEIR MOBILE PHONES
Japanese people and their phones... Look at a crowd of people and then count how many of them are busy with their cell phones. Hold on, you better count how many are NOT busy with their phones, you'll finish quicker. On top of that, they love to personalize their phones. It's not uncommon to see a business man in a suit, but when he pulls out his phone, there might be a cute teddy bear attached.
07 | GUYS SPEND A LOT OF TIME ON THEIR HAIR
Guys... I mean MEN. Yes I'm talking about men. Japanese men are one of the weirdest and at the same time one of the cutest guys I have seen. The photos below are random street shots, taken in Shinjuku, Shibuya and Harajuku.
The next photo below shows men as well, even though it doesn't seem so. This phenomenon is very often seen in Kabukicho, Shinjuku. Walking around and seeing guys with weird hair. And then I noticed those billboards, showing guys with funny hairstyles. First I thought it's advertising for a hairdresser, but I was completely wrong. I was confused. One of my Japanese friends explained to me later that guys with these hairstyles are not normal guys. Oh Really? Good to kow.
So let me explain what he told me. These guys are so called "Hosts" - they work in bars and clubs. Apparently for Japanese standards they are so freaking cute that women are willing to pay to spend time with them. Sex? No, only talking... Giving compliments, smiling, pouring drinks. Hmm... In my country men are doing these things for free (without the funny hairstyle though). I still don't understand why women would pay for that kind of attention?! A club where guys are nice to women? For a price? And why the hell does none of these guys have facial hair?
So the conclusion is, that in Japan a lot of men have trouble expressing their feelings to their girlfriends or wives, so women are coming to host clubs to get maximum attention from random guys (with funny hair!). Isn't it obvious that these guys are just telling sweet lies? Strange. This concept would never work in Europe. I found a video on Youtube about host guys and the fact that the guy in the video earned US 30,000 $ a night kinda freaked me out. Money is money but this business is sad.
(If you are male, you probably ask yourself right now where to apply? Hold on, these host guys are only Japanese. Sorry if I killed your dream of getting paid for pouring drinks to the ladies...)
08 | JAPANESE BATHROOMS - A SHORT INTRODUCTION
If you google Japanese toilets you will be surprised how many websites on the Internet are dedicated to explaining this culture. So let me explain it briefly for the 1000th time.
First, something that is not mentioned so often is that Japanese people love fluffy and cozy things. I once got lost in a 100 Yen Shop (a must visit place in Tokyo - everything costs a Dollar) I saw these toweling toilet seat covers. It's like a cushion for a toilet seat. They also have pads with a fluffy surfaces to stick on the seat. Ergh. Disgusting, how unhygienic was my first thought. Who the hell would put this on the toilet seat? Well, the truth is, a lot of Japanese people do. At least the majority of my couchsurfing hosts had these toilet seat cushions in their bathrooms. I still wonder why one of my hosts had chosen the color brown. Orange or pink would look so much nicer.
And now let me explain some bathroom rules.
Whenever you enter the bathroom, you have to put on special bathroom slippers. Don't forget to take them off when you're done, that's a big no-no because if you keep them on, you will contaminate the rest of the house.
If you plan on taking a shower, be aware, that you will take the shower outside of the bathtub!! Look at the photo on the right: The shower head is clearly not in the bathtub. That was actually my first big mistake I did in Tokyo. My host checked the bathroom after I took a shower and asked me why the hell the bathtub was wet inside. Shame on me. I should have learned more about Japanese etiquette.
So this is how you do it: You're supposed to wash your body while outside the tub, with soap of course. The bathtub is only used for soaking and you are only allowed to enter after you have cleaned yourself thoroughly. Soap should not get into the bathtub!
The water stays in the bathtub and will be used for other people in the house. Everyone uses the same water, but it's clean water because they clean themselves with the shower first. My host told me that new modern bathtubs can be programmed to be automatically filled with water or to heat up the water again. Clever.
Now let's talk about Japanese toilets. BTW, the toilet and shower are never in the same room. Japanese toilets come with a bar of buttons and provide all kind of luxuries: Heated seat, waterfall or flushing sounds (if you want more privacy), bidets, spray, air dryer, deodorizer, and some other stuff.
I won't get further into this, as you simply have to experience it on your own. Don't worry, most toilets come with a manual and funny pictures. And well, the icons on the buttons speak for itself. Just a note for guys: Since the toilet uses electricity, you'd better sit down. If your pee splashes in the wrong place, it can cause an electric shock. (They have a picture of that in the manual!!)
The Japanese toilet is a huge energy killer. The Economist published an article last year titled "Why the capital should turn off its toilets"; according to the trade ministry, 4% of the house-hold energy use in Japan is from these toilets. Wow. Maybe it's time to unplug...
09 | TOKYO IS A.M.A.Z.I.N.G.
We'll get to the end of this story... Tokyo is indeed one of the most fascinating cities for me, it's incomparable to any other place in the world I have seen. Beside all those amazing and bizarre things, the city throws out unexpected glimpses of its cultural core.
With so much to offer in Tokyo, I never got bored. I can strongly recommend discovering this fantastic city for yourself. Don't worry about your budget too much, you don't need to stay a month. Just meet locals and go couchsurfing and you will be able to experience Tokyo on a budget.
There is a lot of sightseeing in Tokyo, but the best thing you can do is just walk around getting lost. Buy a daily pass for the metro or rent a bike and pedal around. Each part of the city looks different. People are unbelievably kind and friendly, though their English skills are not always advanced level. If you don't know anyone in the city, join weekly Couchsurfing parties to meet locals who are able to talk with you in English and show you around. You can also book a Free Tokyo Guide, but please be nice and take your guide out to coffee or lunch at the very least.
Try as much local food as you can, even if you don't know what it is (unless you have a seafood allergy!). And don't forget to buy some funny souvenirs from the 100 Yen Shops. Gosh, just writing about that, makes me miss Tokyo and the food so much... I can't wait to go back, even after 3 trips to Tokyo, I haven't had enough... :)
Have you been to Tokyo? Please tell me your impressions about the city!!
Thank you for reading.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sabrina Iovino is the founder of JustOneWayTicket.com. She's half German, half Italian and has traveled to more than 50 countries around the globe. She feels weird to write about herself in the third person, so she'll switch now. Phew...much better! Let's restart:
Hi, I'm Sab! This is my blog and I write about the things I love. Mostly.
Thanks to my Editor Bianca Müller.
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