I’m not a city person, but I love Tokyo
Like a lot of writers, I’m a bit of an introvert. Although I love spending time with friends and family, I'm also happy enough to spend time on my own; just a nice bit of peace and quiet. I much prefer living in the middle of the countryside than the midst of a large urban area.
So why do I love Tokyo? It’s a city that’s home to more than 37 million people (if you include the greater metropolitan area) and it’s the largest metropolis in the world - 1.5 times bigger than the next (which is Seoul in South Korea).
Streets of Shinjuku
With that many people trying to go about their business, you’d think that I’d loathe the crowds and detest the cramped streets. Well, actually… no. There is a buzz and, yes, there will be crowds in the most popular places. But, to be honest, I’ve never found it to be any busier than your average British high street on any given day. Maybe it’s because I’ve never experienced Tokyo in the height of summer, or in the middle of a significant event, but I’ve never found it to be unbearable.
The department stores can be very different to what I’ve become used to at home but, even then, they’re something to enjoy; they’re experiences on their own. Stores like Yodobashi Camera are usually on a tourist’s to-do list and, with the wide variety of very different items to pick and choose, you can buy souvenirs and any other Japanese wares you wish to get. Don’t expect any relaxing, calming music in all the stores or even in each department: in some, the tunes can be quite loud. It sounds like (quite literally) the opposite of the peace and quiet I prefer - but you know what? I think it’s fantastic.
Club Sega, Shinjuku
One thing you’ll get in some stores you won't really get anywhere in the UK are gashapon machines. Yes, you could - at a push - say the machines in the supermarket with the capsule toys are almost the same thing; but they’re not. And you don’t get whole rows of them, either. Or, for that matter, whole floors or outlets; there are (seemingly) hundreds in the Yodobashi Camera store in Akihabara, for instance. There are many other places that have gashapon machines, too.
It’s not just the larger shops that can have a kaleidoscope of colours: they're in the smaller ones, too. I’m thinking of the kawaii stores with different cute characters, such as Hello Kitty, Miffy, and Moomins (check out my brief history of kawaii to get an idea about this genre). You very rarely get anything like that in the UK.
Hello Kitty ice cream in DiverCity, Odaiba; Moomin Bakery and Café, Tokyo Dome City
Japan’s known for its anime as well, but how often have you seen statues dedicated to these characters? What if they lit up? The character Gundam is an icon, so you can visit the life-size one in Odaiba and even dine in one of the Gundam-themed outlets in Tokyo - maybe even get a burger, or drink with Haro. If you go to the café in Akihabara, make sure you have a toilet break: I won’t spoil the surprise, but this gives you an idea of what to expect.
Gundam at DiverCity, Odaiba, in November 2015; Haro-themed hot chocolate
I won’t lie: the bright lights and loud sounds can get a bit overwhelming for me. But that offers you the opportunity to go and experience the beautiful gardens and temples that are scattered throughout the city. Many people, for instance, head for the ever-popular Yoyogi Park in Shibuya (you can get to it by heading for the train station in Harajuku). You don’t feel like you’re in the middle of the largest city in the world, even if it can get a bit busy. Wandering around the expansive tree areas shields you from the tell-tale signs you’re in a metropolis - but it all feels just so, well, peaceful. You can contemplate your time in Tokyo so far while you’re at the shrines, and learn more about this part of Japanese culture.
Yoyogi Park; Tokyo's April cherry blossom
There are some other places where you can get some peace and perspective: high up in the skies. No, I’m not talking about catching a plane - but more like going up the skyscrapers for which Tokyo is famed. There is a strange serenity when you’re tens of floors up: you could be in a hotel bar on floor 40-something, or one of the viewing platforms at sites such as Tokyo Tower (which looks like the Eiffel Tower in red and white) or Tokyo Skytree (the world’s tallest tower at 634m). Night or day, you’ll get a beautiful panorama of the city.
Tokyo Skytree at night; View over Shinjuku
And everything just works. That’s the thing that amazes me about this vast urban area: on my two visits to Tokyo in 2015 and 2017, I can’t remember there being any huge problems, such as delays or problems navigating my way from one place to another. I was based in Shinjuku on my first trip, not far from the rail station - and watching this documentary on it recently really brought it home how easy it is to get around, how it isn’t overwhelming to navigate or how I didn’t find it to be any more busy than a typical regional hub during rush hour back in the UK.
So despite the bright lights, the noise and the great number of people who live and work in this vast city, I love Tokyo. Everything points to me hating it but, it reality, it’s the complete opposite. It’s bold, exciting, different.
Hopefully I’ll be back there soon to experience it all over again.
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All photos in this article are the author's own.