I spent 3 days in Tokyo, Japan as a stopover on my way to Bangkok last November. Though I was only there for a brief stay, I tried to see and do as much as possible in that time and the city made quite an impact on me. Here are some quick first impressions, scribbled down in my notebook about 24 hours after arriving:
1) The metro system is ridiculously easy to navigate and super well-marked, though as a native New Yorker I have an innate appreciation for public transit and that may have colored my experience. I traveled around the city with some guys from my hostel who had been there for at least a week longer than me and they couldn’t figure anything out whenever we headed somewhere, so who knows. I found it logical and straightforward, and while the ticket machines and pricing structure gave me pause for a minute, I just looked on the map above for the proper costs and it was simple enough.
2) However, their trains look, sound, and feel totally different than ours. Instead of just metal bars to hold onto or old-school straps, they have giant pastel-colored plastic rings hanging down from the ceiling in each car. It always made me feel vaguely like I was in some sort of child’s playpen.
3) People don’t seem to jaywalk. They will stand on the curb until the light changes (and the lights seem to take much longer to change too, incidentally), even if there are no cars coming in either direction. When I dared to cross against the signal, people stared at me like I had three heads and stayed glued to their spots on the curb. I did see a couple of Japanese people jaywalking during my time in Tokyo, so it wasn’t like I was the only one, but it was definitely a serious minority.
4) The face masks! I had heard of and seen people wearing them before, of course, but never in such a concentration as I did in Tokyo! I never realized the habit was so widespread and common — I probably saw about 50 people wearing them just in the first few hours I was in town. The local 7-11 even dedicated an entire aisle to displaying at least 8 different types of surgical masks.
5) The plastic food! This is another thing I thought was an exaggeration, but no, it is ubiquitous. And it totally helps you order when you’re a foreigner who can’t read the menu!
6) There’s no free wifi anywhere. This came as a total shock to me, since Tokyo is known for being at the forefront of technology. But everywhere I tried to get a signal, I couldn’t. You can’t even use the wifi at Starbucks without subscribing first (and you have to log onto the website to subscribe from a different location, you can’t do it from Starbucks itself!). One mall in Omotesando had signs outside advertising that you could use their wifi in that location, but it was a total lie (confirmed by a Tokyoite I asked who said you could never get any signal around there). I’m still totally baffled by this one. I don’t expect free internet access at every cafe in say, Laos, but Tokyo? For real?
7) Whereas in many Western countries nowadays you can’t smoke in restaurants or bars anymore and have to step out on the sidewalk, in Japan this is just not the done thing. From what I could surmise, it is considered rude and/or dangerous to walk down the street with a lit cigarette. So instead they have big smoking areas every few blocks and everyone stands around clustered inside of this square painted on the sidewalk. I’m really not sure what the difference is. Also, you can totally smoke in bars and restaurants there. Just not on the street. The whole thing still seems backwards to me.
I was also informed that by a similar token, it’s also considered rude to be eating something while walking. Just so you know.