I am ill.
I mean, I’m perpetually unwell, but this week has been different. I feel sick in a very specific and concentrated area rather than the general feeling of discomfort I feel towards life at large. While I lay in my fortress of blankets, my mind wanders back to my recent trip to Tokyo and how it wasn’t really at all how most people would picture it.
When most people think of Japan, they mostly either seem to picture it as a Mecca for anime, video games and all things nerd or as a traditional land of Zen with cherry blossoms in full bloom. While there are certainly places you could go which would galvanise that way of thinking, the true picture of Tokyo is one of a cutting edge modern city. Even so, there’s something about the place with really sets it apart from your run of the mill metropolis.
1. Everything Is Spotless
Having lived in London for two years, if there’s one thing I noticed about Japan it’s how clean everything is. On the street, you’ll see no litter. You’ll also see no bins, it would seem that Japanese people just carry their rubbish around with them until they get home. Indoors is much the same, you won’t find any dust or insects anywhere.
Perhaps this speaks to the post war Japanese stereotype that everyone in the country accepts their place in society and works together to overcome societies problems. I don’t think I’m qualified to say if that perception is accurate or not, all I know is that they certainly didn’t leave a mess.
2. Speaking English
I was under the impression that nobody in Japan would be able, or willing, to speak English. While everyone I met in Japan knew the basics of the English language, it’s fair to say that the level of English is still quite low. I can understand that, I learnt French at school but if you airdropped me into Toulouse, I’d probably struggle.
You have to remember that you’re not the first westerner to step foot on the islands. Pretty much everywhere we went had at least one member of staff who had a good understanding of English, but often times there would be only one. Practically speaking, everything is laid out in such a way that it doesn’t really matter what language you speak. You could get by for a week in Japan without saying a single word to anyone.
3. It Smells
The friend I travelled with has quite a sensitive nose, early on in the trip she complained about a sewage like smell. I didn’t really notice it at first, once I could smell it, I couldn’t stop smelling it. You’d be walking along and everything would smell fine, but every so often you’d get an unpleasant waft from a sewer grate.
I’ve looked into this online and I can’t find a whole lot of information about it. Maybe people are embarrassed to talk about it or are worried that people might get the wrong idea. It wasn’t a trip ruiner by any stretch of the imagination and you got used to it after a few days, but it certainly caught me off guard the first time I smelt it. I was worried the smell was coming from me so it was a relief to find out it wasn’t.
4. Courteous Shop Staff
Honestly, comparing other countries I’ve been to this might just apply to the UK. Cashiers in Japan seem to actually care about their job and the establishment they work for. In the UK, we kind of accept that some jobs aren’t very fun to do so we’re happy to make excuses for slightly sloppy service. Maybe the server in McDonalds didn’t seem very enthusiastic about taking my order, but can you blame them really?
Not so in Japan. In fact the number of things which happen when you take an item to the till can be a little overwhelming. There’s a little tray which I think you’re meant to put the money in. Then the server takes the money out of the tray and says a bunch of stuff in Japanese. Meanwhile, this baka gaijin stands wide eyed, hoping there’s nothing I’m expected to do. Finally, your change appears in the tray and the employee has a bow. It’s efficient and friendly, I just wish I knew what they were saying.
5. Busy But Never Hectic
On the face of it, the experience of travelling through Tokyo at rush hour is much the same as travelling through London. Loads of people get onto a subway train, it’s uncomfortable, somebody touches your bum, then you get off and breathe a sigh of relief. However, small details can change your trip from a nightmare to a mild inconvenience. It boils down to respect. There are no bag on seats, no blaring headphones, no obnoxiously loud conversations, nobody coughing all over everything.
Look to the famous Shibuya crossing for another example, here you have crowds of people power walking directly into each other. But no pushing or shoving, the crowds part for you and before you know it, you’re safely on the other side. Maybe that’s because I’m tall though, I don’t know.
If there’s one common difference I noticed in my time in Tokyo compared to my time in London, it’s respect or at least the appearance of being respectful. Maybe everyone I met was internally cursing my incorrect and rude foreign ways, but it never came across in any of my interactions with the locals.
My advice for anyone who’s thinking about going to Japan would be to go for it, but go into it with an open mind. Read up on the cultural do’s and don’ts so you can be as respectful to the people around you as they are to you. Try not to forget that, while you might be on holiday, there are 13 million other people around you just trying to get on with life.