Alone in the Crowd

Alone in the Crowd

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.

Shibuya Crossing

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.

Shibuya Crossing

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.

9 thoughts on “Alone in the Crowd

  1. Random fact: During my honeymoon trip to Japan, we noticed the trashcan thing too. My husband spoke to the cab driver and he explained that they removed them a year or so before we went due to bomb threats. Someone had hidden a bomb in a trash can in Korea or something and the Japanese government decided to do away with cans to prevent that being a thing. (I many not be 100% on the details since that was a year and a half ago.)

  2. I just love your comparison of Tokyo to New York. I haven’t been to Japan but everything I hear is like you mentioned — so spotless and courteous.

    Was quite surprised to meet NYC… Had I dropped a chip on any square inch of ground there, I would not have dared pick it back up! The very idea of two surgery patients – one with blood and guts exposed and the other tidied up for visitors – is so charming to me and I am sure very accurate.

    NYC closed their riding school a few years back, I am guessing Tokyo doesn’t have one at all? I’m guessing they don’t have carriages either.

  3. My cousin and his family are living in Tokyo. I should have told you sooner to watch Japanese CNN while you were there. He does a segment every week where they discuss English phrases. From what I gather it’s pretty funny, but I speak no Japanese so I’m not entirely sure.
    Anyway… I love your description of the city. I’ve heard that Tokyo is very clean, but hadn’t ever been told of the quiet.

  4. It’s amazing to me how clean Japan is. I’m not sure if you know this, but it is frowned upon to walk and eat/drink/smoke, so when people do have trash from food or w/e, it’s normally in a sit down location (cafeteria, restaurant) so all trash is disposed of there. In contrast, In Korea, trashcans are everywhere, but people litter at night like crazy. Still, by 7am, you would never know because the awesome street cleaners come out and make everything look amazing again.

    1. Totally noticed the smoking thing. I’ve never been anywhere that had “smoking areas” outside that people actually followed. I also noticed a lot of “Don’t walk & smoke!” signs on the sidewalk, which were primarily in English so I’m sure they have a problem with tourists doing that.

  5. I love the comparison — it’s so interesting how two huge cities at the heart of their respective countries can be so similar, yet so incredibly different at the same time.

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