What’s it like living in Tokyo?

This is a question I always get asked “What’s it like living in Tokyo?“. I would like to answer this questions in more detail as follows:

But before I answer that let me first tell me more about myself and my background. I’m originally from New York. As a child while growing up I was really fascinated about Japan and Japanese culture. For as long as I could remember as a child, my lifelong dream (goal) was to somehow (By hook or by crook) make my way to Tokyo, Japan. Many people have asked me why I was so interested in Japan as a child. And to tell you the truth, to this day, even I don’t know. As a child I had a kind of stereotype image of what Tokyo ( Or Japan in general) was like. Whenever I heard the word “Tokyo” images of Geisha would come to mind. As a child growing up, Japan was this really exotic and mysterious place that only a special or select few could actually visit.

Well, fast forward 10 years later in 1990 when I’m 20 years old. I’m at SFO (San Francisco International Airport) waiting to board my flight to Tokyo. At the time thousands of things were rushing through my head. I was filled with excitement. I really couldn’t believe that in a little while, I was about to embark on a journey that would totally change the rest of my life. And if it wasn’t for that decision I made to visit Japan 27 years ago, I probably wouldn’t be here writing this blog post today.

Thoughts and Impressions back in 1990

At that time a cloud of mystery hung over me. Although I’ve heard rumors and stories about life in Japan, at the time I couldn’t really fathom what kind of an adventure was waiting for me once I got off the plane 12 hours later at Narita International Airport. Back then in 1990 my intention was to visit Japan for one month. That one month paved the way for what would be my destiny 27 years later.

As a person travels to a foreign land that is very different from his or her home country, experiencing culture shock is inevitable. First let’s talk about what kind of culture shock I experienced back then. I would have to say that my biggest most memorable culture shocks were as follows:

1) Trains in Tokyo are jammed packed during rush hour!

I vividly remember the first time I tried to get on a train in Tokyo during the morning rush hour. I was standing on the platform while the train was pulling into the station. After the train came to a stop and the doors opened my jaw literally dropped to the ground. There were so many people on board! There wasn’t any space between passengers. Now I’m from New York and the trains and subways are crowded in the morning. However, no matter how crowded it gets, there is always some space between passengers.

So at the time I thought I had better wait for the next train. After the next train arrived and the doors opened, it was the exact same thing!! I thought to my self “How on earth can anyone get on?” It was at that moment that I got pushed from behind into the train by the passengers behind me. In addition, there are actually station staff whose sole job is to help to push passengers into the crowded train cars in the morning. Riding on a train during morning rush hour is like being packed in a can of sardines! During my first few years living in Japan I thought that it was rather interesting. However, 25 years later, let me tell you that I now dread having to get on a crowded train in the morning.

You can hardly move inside a crowded train during rush hour!

Below is a quick photo I took inside Shinjuku Station in Tokyo. The station gets 3.64 million people per day. It is the busiest station in the world and is listed in the Guinness Book of World’s Records as such.

Crowded Shinjuku Station

2) The food portions here are much smaller than in western countries!

I often hear from Japanese who visit the USA tell me that the food portions there are much larger than in Japan. Well, in my experience it was quite the opposite. I remember when I visited a grill it yourself barbecue restaurant in downtown Tokyo. I ordered some meat. And after it arrived, I was really surprised! There were four small thinly sliced pieces of meat on a plate.

I was expecting the portions to be larger. After eating everything after around ten seconds I paid the bill and walked out still feeling hungry. Another example is when you walk into a fast food restaurant here and order a large soda. A large size soda here is the equivalent of a small size soda in the USA!! If you are overweight and move here then you will definitely lose weight!! I remember I returned to America a few years ago. I was there for one month. During that time I gained about 5 kilos or 11 pounds!!

Tiny Cup

3) Space is scarce in Tokyo!

On thing that will be quite noticeable right away for someone visiting here is that space is scarce in Tokyo. Everything seems to be crammed into small spaces just like crowded trains during rush hour. If you are claustrophobic then I suggest you visit some of the prefectures outside of Tokyo where there is a bit more space. Some examples are as follows: many of the elevators here can only hold a few people at a time. Hotel rooms in business hotels here are about half to one third the size of hotel rooms in western countries. I previously wrote a post on capsule hotels and how you are basically sleeping in a space a little larger than the size of a coffin!! You can check out that article here.

Very narrow passageway

This toilet stall is only about three feet wide! An overweight person would have a hard time getting inside!

4) People here are extremely honest!

I vividly remember the time when I went to a restaurant in Kyoto back when I first came here in spring of 1990. After eating I paid the bill and walked out. A few moments later the waitress ran up to me and handed me 1000 Japanese Yen. She then went on to explain that I dropped the money from my pocket. I was totally surprised by that. I’m from New York and if the same thing would’ve happened in New York then I’m sure the waiter or waitress would have stuck the money in his or her pocket!

I’ll give you another example. About a year ago I was walking home from the train station. There was this fence on the right hand side of the street. I noticed that there was a little coin purse tied to the fence with a note above it. The note stated that someone dropped their coin purse. Well this particular person found it and attached it to the fence so that the person who lost it can easily notice it and retrieve it!

Basically, you can drop your purse or wallet on the street or forget it on the train. I would confidently say that over 90% of the time, someone will pick it up and take it to either the lost and found office or to the police station who will then in turn contact you.

respect and courtesy are important aspects of Japanese culture.

5) You can walk the streets at 2 AM and not have to worry about your safety!

I grew up in New York in the 1970’s and 1980’s. During that time, New York wasn’t exactly a very safe place to live. Walking through Central Park, down a dark street or on a subway late at night was basically an invitation for trouble. Heck, there were areas where you had to watch yourself even during the daytime!

But here it’s a whole different story, a whole different world! You can walk down the streets late at night and not have to worry about anything. The chances of thieves in dark alleys waiting to pop out and mug you are very very slim. There have been some cases of purse snatching but these are very rare incidents. Many people sleep on the trains here during rush hour which is something that no sensible person in New York City would do! In addition, guns are banned here so ordinary citizens aren’t allowed to carry any which makes it even safer.

6) You will find lots of strange English on signs, merchandise and clothing here!

When I first arrived here back in the early 1990’s I noticed that there was lots of strange English words and sentences everywhere. Many people wore t-shirts with English that made no sense whatsoever. I could also find notebooks at stationery stores which had weird English on them as well. Even at train stations the English on sign boards were either difficult to understand or just plain funny. Now, I’m in no way making fun of the Japanese people’s attempt to use English. My Japanese is by no means perfect and I’m sure I’ve said some things where a Japanese person thought what I said was funny.

Now there were a few times when I saw someone wearing a t-shirt that had very dangerous English on it. I will give you two examples. The first was a woman wearing a t-shirt that read “Too drunk to F*ck”!! I couldn’t believe my eyes. I really doubt she understood the meaning of what was written on that t-shirt. Now if she were to wear that t-shirt only in Japan then she’ll probably be fine; however, if she were to wear that overseas in an English speaking country, I’m sure she would get lot of stares.

The second example is a man who was wearing a t-shirt that read “White Power” and had a swastika symbol on it!! First of all I just had to explain to him the meaning of what the English on his t-shirt meant. I told him he should never wear that shirt overseas otherwise he might end up in the hospital (if not dead!)

I have often wondered who comes up with the English that is written on clothing, merchandise, signs, etc… One thing is for sure and that is, I would never wear any type of clothing that had foreign writing on in which I didn’t know the meaning of. I strongly suggest you don’t as well.

Care for some Blendy Stick Coffee with Creaming Powder?

I’ve always wondered what food operated in English meant. At least the sign tells us to Enjoy ourselves!

This is a food court area with some small restaurants inside. I guess the area is small enough to fit in your pocket!

The Odakyu Railway recently came out with a new style Romance Car! An interesting name for a train. I’ve been on it; however, I didn’t find it romantic at all.

7) Karaoke is one of the main pastimes here!

After I moved here and started to work for a Japanese company, I quickly learned that in addition to going drinking, karaoke is another main pastime over here. People of all ages go to karaoke. In addition to being entertaining, it is also a good way to relieve stress after a hard day at work here in Tokyo. Now there are two types of karaoke. There is what is called a “Karaoke Box” and the other is called a “Snack”. A Karaoke Box is basically a building with many private rooms where customers can sing along to their favorite songs. A “Snack” is a type of Japanese bar consisting of a bar counter and a few tables. Here too customers can sing karaoke while enjoying some conversation and drinks with friends or other customers. I wrote a post on “Karaoke” a while back. If you missed it click here. 

A typical Karaoke Box in downtown Tokyo

And now I have a special treat for you. Below are two videos of me singing at a Karaoke Snack near my home. The video was taken about 10 years ago. I apologize for the video quality and very bad singing but I wanted you to get an idea as to what a typical Snack looks like on the inside.

I hope you enjoyed today’s post on “What’s it like living in Tokyo?” The next post will be part two and a continuation of this post.

If you missed the last post on Ueno Park click here.

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