Tokyo is a city unlike any other I’ve been to. Logically, my brain wants to compare it to New York because that’s the other massive metropolitan that I’ve visited, but it doesn’t seem like a fair comparison. New York feels vibrant and alive because it’s filthy, full of interesting characters and has a brisk candor in the air around those tall buildings. When I visit New York, I feel like I’m watching someone have surgery — their guts are busted open and you can see the beating heart at the center of it all.
If New York is cut open, Tokyo is a city that’s been neatly sutured. It’s sitting in a hospital bed enjoying lime jello with a pristine gown on, and a pleasant smile to thank the doctors.
Tokyo is the cleanest city I’ve ever seen, which is strange because you can’t find a public trashcan anywhere. The Japanese will take their trash with them to dispose of at home, because they have a lot of pride for their city… or there’s a lot of social pressure not to litter. Hard to say. Either way, it’s spotless there. With all the walking around we did (8-10 miles a day), I remember seeing a beer can on the sidewalk and thinking, “Wow that’s the first trash I’ve seen in weeks.”
During all that walking around, I realized that I’ve never traveled anywhere that I felt so “other.” Even though having a large DSLR strapped to your hand at all times is a surefire way to identify yourself as a tourist, I previously felt like I could blend fairly well in European countries if I wanted to. In Japan, there was no blending. I’m blonde, tattooed, about 12″ taller than most of the women there and let’s not talk about how much heavier! In Tokyo, no one stared at me but I can’t say the same for other cities. Despite how friendly the people are, being so different was a little unsettling.
Before I booked the trip, I was warned that nobody spoke English in Japan. Despite taking a beginner Japanese class last fall, I got to Tokyo with nothing more than a few easy phrases and (mostly) counting to nine. I needn’t worry though, because the Japanese are so friendly that they’ll patiently try to help you even if you don’t speak a lick of Japanese. The entire time I repeated two phrases everywhere I went:
- Arigatou gozaimasu (Thank you)
- Sumimasen (Excuse me)
The first is spoken by the Japanese as a greeting, an apology, a thanks, and really an everything. You can get by in Japan almost entirely by smiling, nodding/bowing and repeating those two phrases. The entire time I was there, I rarely felt overly frustrated by the language gap.
Our first night in Japan, we walked fifteen feet away from our hotel and had some of the best ramen I’ve ever tasted. Then my friend and I went down to Shibuya crossing to walk around a bit and take in Tokyo that first night.
It’s an almost eerie being in the city. For somewhere so crowded, it’s incredibly quiet. You don’t hear people yelling or talking loudly over a crowd, but instead a constant shuffle of moving feet and engines revving up away from stop lights. The buildings and people below them are cast in a soft neon light. There is color everywhere.
Tokyo has a quiet pulse, but it’s very much alive.