10 things about Tokyo that will blow your mind

1. Trains, Trains, and Trains

Tokyo Station is a major hub of local trains, subway stops, and the famous high speed shinkansen. This train, if operated from the northernmost point in Japan (Cape Soya) to the southernmost cape (Sata), could take you across the length of the country in a little over ten hours, running at 200 km per hour.

Take advantage of trains by visiting the old capital of Kyoto, only two and a half hours away. The route cuts through the countryside, in and out of endless tunnels, with the occasional view of Mt. Fuji. Tourists have the opportunity to purchase the Japan Rail Pass, a ticket that provides unlimited access to nearly all trains within a given time.

If you stay within city limits, don’t fear – in Tokyo, you’ll never tire of watching people boarding the local lines for their morning commutes. If you think you’ve been on a crowded bus, or in a jam-packed rock concert, you have never seen anything quite like Japan Railways in the morning; staff are actually hired to be “pushers” – people whose sole purpose is to shove passengers into trains that are already at what westerners might consider full capacity.

Words just can’t do this justice:

With the exception of occasional suicides as people toss themselves on the tracks–a phenomenon that is actually quite common in Tokyo– this form of transportation is punctual to a fault: an 8:32 arrival means an 8:32:00 arrival, not one second wasted.

This year, construction will be starting on one of the world’s few maglev (magnetic levitation) trains to connect Tokyo and Osaka. East to central Japan in one hour. The speed? 581 kph. The price? One can only imagine.

2. Love Hotels

Japan, although conservative on many faces, maintains a very open-minded attitude about sex, whether this includes desensitizing youth to violent sexual activity in manga (Japanese comic stories), or creating a specific place for two young lovers to escape their parents and friends for an intimate rendezvous.

Love hotels provide quick, cheap, and sometimes automated love nests. Guests can choose to buy a “short rest” for a few hours, or book the room until 10 AM the next morning.

A variety of themes are available: the otaku (roughly translated… nerd) who wants a sci-fi adventure in the bedroom, the animal lover who might prefer to be surrounded by leopard skin, or vain couples who like to have mirrors covering 360 degrees of motion.

The largest concentration of love hotels is located just west of Shibuya Station, next to many less reputable shops… and upscale fashion outlets.

3. The Lights of Shinjuku

Impressive and monumental. The area surrounding Shinjuku Station exposes you to more square footage of advertising and media than anywhere else in the world. Just be careful not to cave to your consumer side!

4. A Sunday in the Park

You look around at all the things one might expect to see in a well-populated Japanese city – the schoolgirl in a tailored Prussian uniform, a no-smiles salaryman who is never in anything but a hurry… all this has vanished. In its stead, what you see in Yoyogi Park in Harajuku is nothing less than an outcry for expression, a shrugging-off of the rules and everything they stand for.

Every Sunday, and often, other days of the week, this area north of Shibuya is inundated with amateur musicians, street acts, starving artists, girls in Gothic makeup and black clothes, and jugglers, all joining young lovers looking for a quiet walk in a patch of green, and fathers tired from 18-hour weekdays but still able to enjoy playing catch with their sons.

Spend the day here, or stay for the afternoon – how many parks can say they have KISS cover bands performing on Sunday?

5. Various Views

One reason the movie “Lost in Translation” was such an effective example of the loneliness of being abroad (in addition to having Bill Murray’s charming demeanor and Scarlett Johansson’s stunning visage) was the recurring view of the Tokyo skyline.

From the Park Hyatt Hotel in Shinjuku (the location of most of the movie), one does get a sense of waking up in a strange place in a different world, and, from that height, no one can fool himself into believing home is just around the corner.

Although the city doesn’t exactly come across as having any major architectural sensations, the grey boxes that are the offices and homes of the multitudes of salarymen are quite the sight at night, or at sunset, or when Mt. Fuji can be seen to the west.

Try the expensive drinks at the New York Bar in the Park Hyatt, or check out the art exhibits perched atop Roppongi Hills. Although you may not find meaning in the expanse of lights that is the heart of Japan, it’s still enjoyable to share over a cup of coffee with a new friend.

6. The Attire

Even with the continued influence of Hollywood celebrity endorsements on brand-name clothes (Cameron Diaz and Brad Pitt are some of the more well-known sellouts in Japan), I’ve discovered Japanese keep their own standards on fashion and what’s “hot.”

You might see a girl from Tokyo University decked out in high-heeled leather boots, short dark jean shorts, topped off with a leather metal-link belt, a white long-sleeve shirt with an interesting Engrish phrase, and necklace upon necklace upon necklace.

On the other hand, there are those who prefer to don makeup until their faces seem as though plastic, wearing a simple dress with white lace… living dolls.

Men are no exception, some a close second to the ladyboys of Thailand, others “selling” themselves at host bars in seedy areas of this great metropolis. In Japan, men and women play the roles of hosts and hostesses for those customers who wish to pay for conversation. Talking, drinks, and perhaps karaoke. Nothing more. For a more detailed look at this life, you might want to check out Lea Jacobson’s Bar Flower.

7. The Homeless of Ueno Park

The homeless problem in Japan is completely ignored by those in any position of authority. In Ueno Park, location of one of the larger homeless populations, you might find yourself surprised.

If I could say one thing about the homeless in Japan, it would be: I believe they keep their dignity. These are not people begging on the streets, scrounging for one yen coins in a pile of garbage; often you will see them clean, reasonably well fed, and no different than any other Japanese citizen.

Why? Public baths for one: cheap, efficient ways to get clean. And the value the Japanese place on the freshness of food; convenience stores and supermarkets will usually toss out bento (ready-made meals) in less than a day, and might accommodate any homeless person who is willing to consume such “spoiled” goods.

Housing is not exactly cheap in the heart of Tokyo, and cardboard or sheet metal shanties can be seen in Ueno. Dignity triumphs over adversity, though; the owners typically remove their shoes at the threshold of the makeshift house, just as they would entering any other respectable establishment.

8. Store Fronts

In addition to being one of the more English-friendly countries, Japan makes it easy even for non-native speakers to find their way through the cuisine; whether you’re examining menus at sushi restaurants near Tokyo Station in or in one of the more obscure corners of Ueno, take note of the great care cafes will take to ensure you eat with them.

Wax models of some of the more popular dishes are available for viewing in glass cases at the entrance of these restaurants. It’s become such a standard around Japan that artists who create some of the better food sculptures can make a decent living.

And, just as you’d expect with places serving seafood, there might be tanks of live fish, which will shortly be sliced and served with wasabi; freshness is nothing less than a virtue in Japan (some fish are served cut, but with heart still beating to ensure the best possible flavor).

Of particular interest are the blowfish tanks, containing the expensive delicacy fugu, a fish known for its high concentration of poison in the internal organs. Although the dish is more of a novelty for tourists–it doesn’t really have too much flavor raw– the emperor remains the only Japanese forbidden to indulge.

9. Engrish
10. Pachinko

It’s like a drug – total oblivion, dissolution from reality, drowning in a mixture of red lights and deafening sounds. And, personally, I don’t think it’s all that fun, either.

Pachinko is the most widespread video game in Japan, available from almost any corner in Tokyo to the southern island of Yakushima. What is it? Technically, it’s a computerized version of pinball; a player launches multiple metal balls and maneuvers them into holes on the board, which, if they find their marks or achieve a certain sequence, activate a video screen slot game.

More winnings equal more metal balls. Metal balls equal prizes. Prizes equal money.

As one might expect, laws on gambling have simple loopholes. Just like in Vegas, there are 24/7 slot jockeys who spend entire days waiting for that one big payout to buy their next meal.

Stop by a nearby parlor for the experience (and maybe pick up a little cash), but be prepared to have your senses totally overwhelmed: flashing lights, painfully loud sounds, stale cigarette smoke…

This piece was originally published August 26, 2008.

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