Tokyo is an incredible urban agglomeration. It’s much more than a city, it’s an urban conglomerate made of 23 wards, with a core population of 8 million people. Adding the adjacent urban structures and we have the world’s most populous metropolitan area, with 35 million people (significantly more than my entire country, Romania, which holds 21 million people in its boundaries). Of course, you can learn that by reading Wikipedia. So why I’m starting with this info? Because the most powerful sensation you have first time in Tokyo is this overwhelming feeling of human presence. Huge, unstoppable, continuous human presence.
There are people everywhere: in the subway, in the trains, in the cars, on the streets, in the hotels, in the malls, in the restaurants, in the gaming huts, in the offices, everywhere. Silent, huge and powerful presence. 35 millions of people. And I was one of them for about a week. Welcome to my first post about my trip to Japan. It will be a mix of touristic information about Japan and my personal ramblings about what I saw.
Tokyo has several subway lines and a lot of surface trains. In fact, most of the transportation in Tokyo seemed to be built around trains. Although there are a number of expressways, the most important way for getting in and out of the city is by train. There are several subway lines, such Oedo and Ginza lines, and several surface trains, such JR lines, one of the most popular being JR Yamanote line. Train lines are everywhere, at the ground level or suspended, sometimes getting over each other for several levels.
Expressways are going up to the 8th or 9th level, while trains are going up to the 4th or 5th level.
And there are the Shinkansen trains, the high speed beasts that are going with 300 km/h. Even Shinkansens are separated in several classes, for instance Nozomi is the fastest, and Kodama is the second fastest, “only” goes up to 270 km/h.
Inside, trains are insanely clean. You are hit by this image of cleanliness which seems almost surreal, given the fact that trains are getting so much human traffic. The fact that more and more Japanes people are wearing white hygienic masks is adding up to this feeling and is making the train looks almost like hospitals. Announcements are made both in English and Japanese for most of the lines. As you can expect, almost every inch of the display space is taken by advertising.
Taxis are extremely expensive: 7 USD for the first two kilometers and then 5 USD per each kilometer. Cars have the wheel on the “wrong” side, meaning on the right. The fact that they are driving on the opposite side is a little bit confusing, you may surprise yourself looking at the wrong side of the street. I had this feeling first in New Zealand, last year.
The average commuting time from suburb to the city is 1 hour and 10 minutes, or so I was told by one of our Japanese guides.
The streets of Tokyo are sharing with the subway the same psychedelic cleanliness. When you walk out during night on the streets you’ll see huge piles of plastic bags filled with litter waiting to be picked up by the county cleaning services. I have seen travel bags packed worse than those plastic bags, you can think that they were packed by a computer program trained to use the least amount of available space. The attention to detail is amazing. I haven’t seen any form of litter on any of the street of Tokyo during my stay.
My hotel was based in Shinjuku, one of the most recent areas and the biggest train station in Tokyo. Shinjuku is also known as the Skyscraper District and is holding, among other huge buildings, the famous Metropolitan Government Buildings, which are even higher than Tokyo Tower.
If you walk around those buildings at day you are hit by the absence of humans. The entrance are guarded by some police guys but other than that you don’t see a soul. Which is kind of scary if you remember that the most powerful sensation in Tokyo was human presence. Metropolitan Government Buildings are like a desert inside of a metropolis.
Being a vertical city, Tokyo presented me with a very strange situation: restaurants, stores and offices are on the vertical dimension, rather than the horizontal. There’s no surprise to find a pub at the 10th level of a building and a restaurant just above an apartment. The lack of space made the social interaction to be reinvented. Now I understand that this a personal bias, because I never was in a very dense populated zone before, and this is something that my New York readers for instance could find very natural. Well, I was raised mostly on the horizontal dimension.
That was by far my biggest challenge during my staying in Tokyo. People on the streets are shouting in front of restaurants chasing for clients in strong voices. You are hearing strident shouts calling in a strange language in high volume. But nobody is using the same voice to do anything else. There’s no swearing on the streets, nobody is fighting with anybody. Other than those voices, everybody is silent. There is such a perfect, greased mechanism of social interaction that it almost look unreal.
Despite the apparent aggressiveness of the in-front shouters, the direct interaction is highly formalized. The base of this formalized approach is the smile. Everybody is smiling. Anytime. They smile at you when they start talking, they smile at you when they talk to you and they smile at you when they’re finished. But I never had any single second the impression that they’re actually joyful.
Smile is a form of showing respect. So is the vertical head banging in the traditional sign of “Yes”. I suppose that this huge human density made them transform the smile and the “yes” sign in tools of peace. With such a people density, an approach which will favor anything else instead of this smile cover would probably lead to a form of violence. Staying so close to one each other, Japanese must learned how to keep the social vibration on the safe side.
The paid price for this incredible social order is the incapacity of being authentic. They have discipline, respect, devotion and they are showing this all the time. But the expression of feelings has been damaged by emphasizing the functional side. They can’t afford to express joy and sadness in public. They won’t jump on the streets and I guess singing in the rain must be taken as a form of social affront.
Even their habits for receiving guests are so highly formalized than they become the tea ceremony.
What Tokyo Meant To Me
The 5 days I spent in Tokyo were the most challenging days of traveling for myself. Most of what I’ve learned and saw there is still hiding somewhere in my unconscious mind waiting for more time to process. Every hour, every minute spent there had a special meaning, I am waiting to reveal it some day.
What I can say for sure is that my initial reason for going there – seeing the Sakura Zensen, the Cherry Festival – was just an unconscious excuse. If I measure the amount of time and attention that I paid to Sakura I think it amounts to less than 5% of the total time I spent there. And yet, I did enjoyed a lot of Sakura, in Tokyo, on mount Fuji, in Kyoto and in Odayba island. What I found there was much more challenging than what I imagined.
The urban Tokyo has many other spectacular spots like Ginza, Akihabara or the morning fish market. I didn’t had time to visit that. But what I saw, including Shinjuku, Shibuya, Hamamtsucho, Kabukicho, Harajuku, Odayba island (which will have a separate post because of the highly different vibration I felt there) and every other streets I’ve been on, are fantastic experiences. I now have a little bit of a distance (I’m writing this post while still in Auckland, New Zealand) and I can start seeing how this was a huge benefit to me. I was literally stretching so far of myself that I thought I will never get back. But I did. 🙂
The next post in the series about the trip to Japan will be about Kyoto, the former main town. Stay tuned for more other posts, including Odayba, the artificial island of Tokyo, tea ceremony, Nikko (for the temples of the most important Japanese shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu) and of course, Japan – the aftermath. Until then, enjoy some of my Tokyo pictures.