It is now a month that I live in Tokyo, the time has come to share with you my experience in this city that never stops to amaze. Although it may seem pretentious to allow oneself to talk about “living in Tokyo” after only two months of stay, I can rightly say that I have at least managed to grasp the fundamental elements. My work as a volunteer in the Language Exchange Cafe allowed me to talk to dozens of Japanese people every day, so as to exchange cultural knowledge in a very thorough way.
First of all, one thing needs to be clarified: Tokyo is NOT Japan. As London is not England. The capital is a world of its own in this vast country full of islands, which is bigger than the UK of 135,000 km2 and has the double of its inhabitants. Knowing the incredible diversity that exists in the UK, you can imagine the one that you can see travelling through the Land of the Rising Sun. In this article, we will focus only on Tokyo, in particular on some aspects that concern me closely and those that I have been able to extrapolate from the conversations I had (this is not an article about what to see or what to do in Tokyo).
A bit of history
– Tokyo? What is that?Son of Godzilla
– Well, it’s kind of … a kind of man-made jungle.
Tokyo literally means “eastern capital“, being it east of the previous one, Kyoto. It is such only since 1867, when Emperor Meiji after the end of the shogunate, transferred political power from Kyoto to Edo, calling it Tokyo and going to live in the shogun’s palace. Edo, in turn, was founded by the Tokugawa Ieyasu shogun in the late sixteenth century and slowly became the most important centre of the region. In fact, Tokyo is made by a large number of independent cities merged with each other. Since 1943, indeed, with the name of Tokyo, the prefecture itself is indicated and not a specific city: Tokyo is technically a metropolis. It has fifteen million inhabitants but if we consider the commuters from the adjacent prefectures the number is doubled. The Greater Tokyo Area reaches 13500 km2 and 35 million inhabitants, incorporating part of the prefectures of Chiba, Kanagawa and Saitama. This agglomeration is the largest in the world in terms of population.
In 1923 a powerful earthquake destroyed much of the city, which was soon rebuilt, considerably changing its urban planning. But it was the bombings of the Second World War that completely destroyed it. This is how Fosco Maraini described Tokyo when he saw it in 1945:
“Around Marunouchi, the financial center of the metropolis, some large reinforced concrete buildings remained standing (it seems that the Allies had purposely saved them in order not to lack of offices, and to be able to efficiently govern the country on their arrival), but the vast neighborhoods consisting of houses, small shops, warehouses of the low and high Tokyo had been completely burned to the ground. Not even the rubble mountains of German cities remained; the wood was consumed in flames and smoke, leaving a ground strewn with black dust and extinguished embers. The eye ranged for hectares and hectares of a gray desert, where every now and then you found shards, strange green stones (piles of melted bottles), pieces of twisted tin covered just with some flowering creepers, which it had made in time to sprout between one bombing and another”.
Nowadays there are no signs of such devastation.
Tokyo today: 2019
Tokyo is a city in full evolution, there are urban renewals and development plans all the time. Especially now, in view of the 2020 Olympics. Considered the world capital of technological progress: it has the second tallest building in the world, the Tokyo Sky Tree, it holds special merits for pioneering discoveries in engineering, information technology and electronics. It has a neighborhood dedicated to high tech, the so-called “Electric Town” of Akihabara, where it is possible to purchase highly advanced devices; has a museum, Maraika, dedicated to emerging innovations, whose mascot is Asimo, to date the most complex humanoid robot ever made; not to mention the well knows electronic toilets.
Below an example of a Robot Restaurant, in this case that of Takadanobaba in Shinjuku, Tokyo
We often see giant screens with high-volume advertisements, illuminated signs, robot restaurants where high-tech machinery serves clients. Finally, the two giant shops for electronics such as Bic Camera and Yodabashi Camera have devices that are not found in Europe: smartphone models, PC brands (mainly for video games), Apple or Microsoft models (such as the Surface that in Europe it’s only in very few models), smartwatches, PC batteries and loads of other stuff. One of the most surprising things is the very popular arcades, with videogames that we European can only dream of them.
Here are two examples of video games that are popular in Japan:
Tokyo is not just modernity, also a tradition that blends admirably with unbridled technology. Just visit Asakusa, with its historic Sensoji temple dating back to 645 (the current buildings are from the second post-war period) or the Meiji Jingu Shinto shrine, in the green Yoyogi park; the imperial palace, whose visitable area is only the garden; the Kanda Shinto shrine, built in 730, a stone’s throw from the very modern Akihabara; or that of Yasukuni in the Chiyoda area. Do not miss the traditional festivals, called Masturi, whose main ones are the Kanda Matsuri, the Sanja Matsuri and the Sanno Matsuri
It is not uncommon to find people in traditional clothes around the street, outside of parties and “ancient” places. It is easy to find in Shinjuku, with a thousand coloured neon lights, a traditional building in which there are storytellers that narrate the legends and myths of Japan, an art called Rakugo. But not only that, there are still many social rules that the Japanese carry with them from what was a feudal Japan until very many years ago. One of these is the extreme dedication to work, the sense of responsibility, kindness and courtesy, hospitality, respect for the rules.
The following gallery covers one of the oldest buildings in Tokyo, a company that makes button coating, one of the few survivors of the war.
Living in Tokyo
Organization and punctuality
One of the first things that strikes those who move to Tokyo, even for a short time, is transport efficiency. The local railway network is extremely widespread and functional. There are countless lines managed by different companies, but which can be accessed with a single prepaid card (there are two, Pasmo and Suica). Usually, Japanese trains are always on the dot. They are so reliable that, looking for any route on Google Maps, this will indicate the entrance to the station, the track to go to, the carriage in which to enter to optimize times, whether during that time it is usually crowded or not, the train schedule of the moment and the following ones.
Despite this reputation for precision, punctuality and organization, I must say that many Japanese are laggards and poorly organized. Several times it happened that I had to wait for a Japanese person after making an appointment. I have often received messages of last-minute plan changes, of schedule, of place to see, etc. Obviously they don’t behave like this relating to their job.
Tokyo, despite its size and the flood of people who live there, is incredibly clean. Of course, there are times and areas in which Tokyo becomes a mess, especially the weekend, yet the next morning everything is magically clean and tidy. Due to a terrorist attack perpetrated by the religious sect Aum Shinrikyo in 1995, which caused 13 deaths and 6200 wounded using nerve gas, the government decided to make all the baskets disappear in the streets, in the parks, in the stations of the main cities of Japan, to avoid similar situations in the future. So every citizen cleverly brings his bag behind where he/she collects his/her garbage by taking it home (or leaving it in convenience stores, which usually have containers to leave the waste). Despite the absence of baskets, Tokyo remains a very clean city. The same applies to public baths, which can be found everywhere: in stations, in some convenience stores, in parks, etc. All free and clean.
Tokyo is one of the most expensive cities in the world. The aforementioned transports are very expensive: efficiency is paid. The same goes for the apartments, in fact, there are many young workers who still live with their parents, sometimes up to old age (if they haven’t been able to marry before). Cohabitation with other people, be they friends or strangers, so widespread in Europe, is quite unusual to the Japanese, who prefer to live alone, perhaps in 20 m2, but still far from others.
Instead, what is cheap is the food: the average Japanese male does not know how to cook and does not want to cook (there are always exceptions) and the girls who live in the family either, since everything is always done by the mother (in this they are no different from the Italian families). So there are many who eat outside, both during lunch and dinner after work. The number of restaurants with its myriad of different types, izakaya (like Italian taverns or Irish pubs: alcohol is consumed but the food is also served), local restaurants, ethnic restaurants (or non-Japanese cuisine) is high and it’s easy to eat with little. Alcohol costs more or less the same as in Europe.
Shopping in Japan is quite expensive, especially in supermarkets. The local markets or the old fruit and vegetable shops are more accessible. Despite the quantity of rice cultivated and consumed in the Land of the Rising Sun, its price is definitely high: an average quality rice costs around 7-10 € per kg. But what surprised me most was the cost of fruit and vegetables in supermarkets, especially the first.
The fruit is not seen as daily food, but as something special: it is given as a present for special occasions. The fruit crops are mainly intensive (and not extensive), the fruits are treated one by one and often protected with special “paper hats” and above all the workers are not underpaid immigrants but local people with more than decent salaries. This almost obsessive care, makes every fruit have a perfect shape and a tasty taste but makes the price extremely high. Many of these crops concentrate exclusively on the best fruits of each individual plant, leaving out the others that are not sold.
Hearing the stories of the Cafè customers, one of the things that surprised me a lot is the cost of sports activities. Going to the gym, attending a yoga class in a studio, practising boxing, etc. requires a fair amount of money. The free trial lessons, as we do in Italy and in other European countries, do not exist, but on the contrary, they often cost more. A yoga test lesson (or a drop-in) can cost from 25€ upwards, while a package of ten lessons (to be used in two months) is 20€ per lesson (200€ in total) or more. Sports like boxing are even more expensive, while 70€ to 100€ a month is required to sign up for the gym.
Japan has an extremely capitalist mentality, which means that it is normal to pay for any service. The huts on Mount Fuji are ALL paid (and very expensive), just to mention an example. As well as many temples and shrines (and above all the prayers, the amulets that can be purchased or the rituals that can be performed): to make a simple prayer, you throw a coin in a special container and proceed to pray. There are shops where you can pay a person (usually a girl) to be hugged (no sex, just hugs). In many national parks, you pay admissions, as well as many bars, clubs and the like. It seems that in Japan everything has a price and you can buy everything (even the used underwear of female students …).
Except for the public baths, always taken care of and free, and the water in the restaurants (that however it is of the tap) all the rest have a cost. Health care has a system similar to the American one, but with more affordable prices. It is mandatory to have health insurance whose price varies depending on many factors (dependent or self-employed, student, income, etc.), which can be partially paid by the company and which covers 70% of the costs (but not of everything, for example preventive medicine is not included, in fact putting the brace on the teeth has prohibitive prices, for this reason, many Japanese have crooked teeth, or it only covers the implants or crowns of metal and not ceramic).
Work and stress
Japan is famous for the extreme dedication of its inhabitants to work. That is more than true: the Japanese work a lot, have very few holidays a year, they often do overwork without being paid. All this is given by culture, based on efficiency, dedication, a sense of responsibility, not being able to rebel and the rigid social and work hierarchy. All Japanese are stressed and many are dying from over-work or those who commit suicide due to stress or other implications related to work.
If it is true that unemployment is extremely low and everyone, more or less, has a job, there are many who do not like their profession. Most of those who are graduates end up doing jobs that have little to do with their university education. Further stress is given, in addition to the work itself, to the formal, rigid, full of rules work environment that does not allow working in a relaxed way. The superiors have considerable power over their subordinates. There are frequent cases of Japanese forced to go to drink and get drunk with their bosses after work (losing the last train to go home and then forced to sleep on the street and in the famous capsule hotel). I have also heard stories in which these alcoholic evenings ended up with prostitutes wanted by the boss and to whom the employees (no matter if married and with children) could not hold back.
Living in the area of Shinjuku, which together with Roppongi and Shibuya is the Japanese nightlife district, I saw literally everything. The Japanese drink a lot, at all ages. The evening is full of drunken men and women who hang out in the streets: male adults, females, young people, middle-aged, workers, disco-guys, punks, hippies, homeless, students, posers and so on. The fact is that genetically speaking, they have a very low resistance to alcohol, so they get drunk easily, and many do it until they are destroyed: there is a road, not far from where I work, that the evening is full of people who vomit every night. Tokyo offers a multitude of attractions for those who love nightlife, many of which are very expensive for males (usually women pay about less than a third compared to a man to enter a club) such as clubs, discos, bars, pubs, maid cafe, girls bar, strip club, language cafe, karaoke and so on.
The maid cafés, peculiar of Japan, are those places where you are greeted by these girls dressed in a showy way, like a sexy waitress, where all that is offered to drink or eat is kawaii (very cool, cute, pretty) and it is possible to receive gadgets (like cat or rabbit ears), get a kind of show to have a drink or eat an ice cream (ie the maids serve you and make you sing stupid songs with a dance before eating). You can also attend real shows from the girls. All at a substantial price.
Girls bars are particular realities. They are mainly frequented by men interested in meeting women, Japanese or foreign, and spending the evening with them. These are beautiful girls, chosen on purpose to attract customers, make them drink and entertain them as much as possible. There is no sex involved, just company. The young women, called hostesses, in addition to serving drinks, make this extra service obviously compensated. Knowing how lonely and lacking in satisfying social relations are the Japanese, these bars are very popular.
In areas like Golden Gai and Roppongi, there are many places frequented by Gaikokujin, or foreigners (Gaijin, the word most famous by us to refer to foreigners, is actually considered offensive by the Japanese, it is used when they address foreigners in a negative way, usually). Mostly American-style bars, with very small dimensions for our standards, they almost all have an entry cost, which is higher for the Japanese. This is to attract foreigners who in turn attract all those Japanese, male or female, who want to deal with foreigners (for sex, romance and so on).
These are just a series of ideas regarding my direct experience in this magnificent city. Read the other articles to learn more about the average Japanese, what are the oddities of the Land of the Rising Sun (for us Westerners) and about my experience at the Language Exchange Cafe.
I kindly remind you that it is possible to support my journey by making a donation, thank you!