As of November 11, 2012, I hereby declare Tokyo, Japan my favorite city I’ve ever visited. Seeing as this title has been held by New York City for the last 4 years, this is quite a big deal.
With a last name like Sugiyama, many people often guess Japanese correctly on the first try. Second most common guess is Mexican. Looking in the mirror, I don’t see it. My dad’s side of the family is Japanese, but unfortunately, I do not have any family left in Japan. Given my heritage, you can imagine what a huge honor and privilege it was to finally visit Tokyo, of all cities in Japan. I am proud to say that I am the first in my family to visit Japan since my great grandparents migrated to the United States back in the day.
I sat nervously on my last flight for what was a long travel day from Hong Kong to Beijing to Tokyo, next to a 22 year old girl dressed on the border of being a hooker and unaware of the definition of personal space. All I could do throughout the flight was worry about getting to my hostel before reception called it a night. I mean, have you looked at a map of the Tokyo metro lately? It’s a huge cluster of colored and numbered train lines that left my brain in a big knot. Trying to solve one piece of the metro puzzle at 11pm on my first night in town was the last thing I wanted to do. But despite all that was unfamiliar upon arrival, instinctually I felt right at home.
To be killed by kindness is to spend time with the Japanese. It sounds completely looney, but every time I interacted with someone on the street, in a restaurant, or riding the metro, I felt completely still. It was like my whole body went silent and my heart felt weak. Seriously. They’re so polite, kind, friendly, and respectful. It’s true what they say about the Japanese being very service oriented. They may not know English very well or understand your predicament 100%, but by God, they will bend over backwards to help you.
I have never been so impressed with a people. They’re so peaceful, and much like in Istanbul, I was pulled away from the computer to be with them, talk with them, and hear their stories. They really set the standard high in terms of compassion and humility. The rest of the world could really learn a lesson in good behavior and manners from the Japanese.
On a scale from New York to Paris, Tokyo is somewhere in the middle. They’re not going to the ball or lounging in sweats. Their style isn’t too chic, a mish mash of random pieces, overdone, sloppy, or trashy. Appropriately dressed to the nines in almost any scenario, they are a well-dressed breed with class and clothes that suit their body types infuriatingly well.
Each individual is a canvas, and when you see them done up, they look like a piece of artwork. It’s incredible to say the least.
Take a ride during morning commute hours, and you’ll find the men sitting elbow to elbow in tailored suits, ties, and black shoes so polished they look brand new. Even male students wear suits as their school uniforms. The women are so well-kempt they look like porcelain dolls in tights, heels, dressy blouses, skirts, and peacoats. It’s not too show-offy or conservative. Just like in the story of Goldilocks and the 3 Bears, it’s just right.
Traditionally, the majority have dark hair, but if you were to take a stroll through the Harajuku neighborhood, you’d find hair colors from every inch of the spectrum. There are so many people in costumes that it’s too well acknowledged to be considered strange.
Boy do they love their sushi and sweets in Tokyo. The only problem is that a meal will typically cost $10 and up. If you can find a meal for $10 in a restaurant, consider yourself lucky. The keys to your bank account’s survival are 100 yen shops (Japanese version of the Dollar Store), street food, bento boxes, small snacks, refillable water bottles, and cooking your own meals.
The most common foods you’ll find are rice and noodle based with some kind of meat and vegetables. Udon, soba, and instant ramen noodles are the most famous as is chow mein. Other meals include sushi, tempura, shabu shabu, and shrimp heavy dishes.
As for dessert, well you can find nearly anything your sweet tooth is craving from candies and ice cream to smoothies and artery clogging cake. My personal favorite is mochi with different fillings like custard, sweet potato, red bean paste, or black sesame.
Even Westernized foods can come in different forms. Ate at a breakfast cafe tucked away in Harajuku and randomly ordered the Green Butter Pancakes which came with guacamole, salsa, and cucumbers. You can imagine my glee after not eating guacamole for 6 months. Needless to say, it was super tasty.
If you’re thirsty, you can grab a drink from a vending machine at practically any street corner, and with coffee and tea shops every 2 feet, you’ll never be parched again.
Tokyo is all of Asia encompassed in one city (minus the scooters), but more polished and put up for show. It’s kaleidoscopic, vibrant, quaint, and there’s always so much going on, even in the quiet, off season. When you get to Tokyo, it’s best to adjust to a nocturnal sleeping schedule because it’s 10x more magical at night. Because it’s so colorful, I was drawn to every corner and often felt overwhelmed because I didn’t know where to turn first. It was also the first city on my travels where I was tempted to buy more souvenirs than my bank account could handle.
Everything in Japan is expensive. You’re not only paying for convenience but atmosphere and the authentic Made In Japan label on every souvenir. I mean, for crying out loud, they have toilets that wash your bum and have seat heaters. If that ain’t fancy, I don’t know what is.
Three other noteworthy characteristics of Tokyo are:
- A very creative and expressive culture exists in many neighborhoods of the city. Art lovers rejoice!
- They seem to embrace things as a nation rather than just different pockets of the country like Hello Kitty, Harry Potter, Lady Gaga, etc.
- Despite being a forward thinking nation, cash is still king. Your credit cards will have so sit on the sidelines when you visit.
Above all, it’s extremely clean, and it’s a land where traditions and new technology blend together quite well. To end, I’m going to reach for the most cliche quote because I feel it holds true. Tokyo is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.