Smile Politely

Stranger in a strange land

Back in January, when the boyfriend and I made plans for our Korea trip, he suggested that we also hit up Tokyo while on that side of the Pacific. Having studied Japanese for a year in college and being generally interested Japanese culture (but not in that dorky way), the boyfriend was itching to see the fast-paced efficiency of Tokyo first-hand. On the other hand, I was terrified.

Here is what I “knew” about Tokyo prior to our trip (Thanks in part to my 9th grade Global Studies class.):

  • There are four main islands. I didn’t know where Tokyo was located.
  • The culture is extremely homogenous with a strong emphasis on politeness and saving face.
  • Shinto is the most popular religion, followed by Buddhism.
  • Sumo wrestling.
  • Anime and its weird, X-rated counterpart, hentai. Along related lines, there are strange theme-restaurants, e.g. “maid cafés,” which cater to everyone’s inner misogynist.
  • Sushi is delicious.

Needless to say, I didn’t know much when we stepped off the plane in Tokyo’s Narita airport after thirty straight hours of traveling. Armed with two guidebooks, the boyfriend’s sketchy Japanese, and blind optimism in our ability to survive, we embarked on a lightning-fast, four-day trip of Tokyo.

On this trip, we took the “travel,” rather than “vacation,” approach, which involved early mornings and jam-packed days. It would be far too cumbersome to write out a detailed travel account of everything I did in Tokyo. Rather, now that I just scratched the surface of Tokyo, I will share some photos and tidbits of things that I now “know” about this very cool city.

  • Things are smaller in Tokyo, or, put another way, everything in the U.S. is humongous. Our hotel made my college dorm room look positively palatial in size, and it didn’t even have a bed! Instead, we opted for a traditional Japanese room, with a tatami mat covering the floor and futons that we would unroll at night for sleeping. You even get to wear cool “room shoes” for walking on the woven straw mats. However, they only come in one size, so big-footed people are out of luck. In the bathroom, the boyfriend had to duck down to get under the shower spray, and he is 5’7″.
  • Tsukiji fish market is one of the most terrifying places on earth. At 5:30am on our first day, we found our way to the world’s largest fish market. This is not like Seattle’s famed market with relatively tame fishmongers singing and jovially tossing fish. Tsukiji is a veritable labyrinth of tiny alleyways in an open complex, through which trucks and carts go hurtling past, sloshing salt water everywhere. If you manage to get into the complex without being run over, you are met with hundreds of stalls, each carrying a variety of sea creatures, many of which are still swimming around in tanks. Striped shrimp, mussels the size of your hand, giant mollusks that look like dongs? You can find it all at Tsukiji fish market! Additionally, though it is hectic, loud, and crowded, the Tsukiji vendors are very accommodating of tourists. No one minded as I tripped my way, slack-jawed through the market, and none of the vendors batted an eye as I snapped photos of giant tuna carcasses being hacked apart with a saw. And it goes without saying that if raw fish at 6 a.m. is your thing, you can’t find it any fresher!
  • Running is difficult in Tokyo. Everyone actually obeys traffic signals in Tokyo, which means that you have to actually stop for the entire duration of a stoplight, even if no cars are coming. This understandably interrupts one’s running time. As expected, the streets are pretty crowded with throngs of business men, women in heels, bicyclists, and children in school uniforms, so weaving and dodging is inevitable. The boyfriend and I did most of our runs around the Imperial Palace, which has a nice, paved sidewalk and a four-mile loop.
  • Silence is golden, especially on the subway. If you want to immediately ostracize people in Tokyo, talk loudly on the subway. Better yet, pick up your cell phone and have a loud, personal conversation while crammed next to some businessmen. No one talks on the subway, unless it is an extremely quiet, nearly mouthed conversation. However, if you want to look at porn, that’s okay. I know this because I sat next to a man who was doing just that.
  • Squat toilets are common, but you can also find the Western variety. I am uncoordinated and don’t have very strong “squatting” muscles. As you can imagine, the idea of using a squat toilet was intimidating, especially since I wasn’t sure which way I was supposed to face. Fortunately, most places that have squat toilets typically have one Western toilet in a separate stall. (This is apparently not the case when you get outside of Tokyo.)
  • The famed maid cafés do exist. And so does hentai. You can find both in the Akihabara electronics district.
  • Sushi is delicious and can be found cheaply. My friend James, who is studying abroad in Tokyo this semester, helped us find a keiten zushi bar, which is one of those restaurants that serve sushi on a conveyor belt. The one we found had a seven plate minimum, plus all the pickled ginger and green tea you could ever want. As the plates circulate on the belt, you just snatch the ones that look appealing. (Note: the one that looks like chopped liver isn’t appealing.) Though these conveyor belt restaurants are pretty expensive in the US, they are delightfully fast and cheap in Tokyo. The boyfriend and I both ate our fill for the equivalent of $25, which would cover one person’s dinner in the US.
  • Tako yaki is also delicious. Because eating with one’s hands in public is considered rude, there isn’t much street food in Tokyo. One notable exception, however, is tako yaki. These are little balls of dough filled with chunks of chewy (cooked) octopus. The batter is poured into a circular mold, and the cook on duty spins each ball with chopsticks to form the round shape. It looks incredibly difficult and is mesmerizing to watch. The balls themselves are generally covered in a mayonnaise-based sauce, and the inside is a molten mess of uncooked batter and octopus. More than likely, you will burn your mouth eating them, but it is totally worth it.

In short, Tokyo is awesome and a really neat alternative to the cliché European spots like Paris and Venice. (Wow, I sound like a spoiled, bourgeois brat.) As a caveat, the trip there is pricey and grueling, and the culture shock is potentially intense. In particular, I had a difficult time because I couldn’t read or speak Japanese at all, and all three of the alphabets looked like strange scribbles to me. However, if you are willing to travel outside of your comfort zone (And what international travel doesn’t involve this?), I highly recommend giving Tokyo a try… if only to try the tasty ice cream snacks.

More Articles