Prejudice about Tokyo

In November Aneta, Emili and I visited Tokyo. It is a fascinating city with so much to discover. Its neighborhoods are diverse and offer everything from streets packed with people to serene parks and temples. Instead of writing about what we did and what we saw, in this article I will focus on some common prejudice that we Westerners have about Tokyo and Japan, and how incorrect our trip showed them to be.

Tokyo is a city from/of the future

I guess that the perception of Tokyo as a city from the future was formed back in the 80s and was repeated enough for it to become a part of popular culture that nobody questions anymore. And it may very well have been true back then, however now other cities have caught up. There are futuristic buildings in Tokyo, but nothing that one does not see in for instance Dubai. The public transport is vast and impressive, but again nothing that cannot be seen elsewhere. Probably the most futuristic part of it is the driverless Yurikamome line, but other cities also have driverless public transport. Then there is the popular belief that trains are notoriously punctual in Japan. On average they may be more punctual than in other places, but I sat on several delayed trains during my week in Tokyo.

Japanese toilets also have a cult status in popular culture for being futuristic. Yes, they are high-tech in comparison to toilets in the rest of the world, but none of this technology is ground-breaking anymore. There are parts of Tokyo with a lot of flashing neon, but I don’t perceive that as a sign of a futuristic town either. The omnipresent vending machines are also mostly very old models.

Himiko ferry
Himiko ferry – probably the most futuristic thing we have seen in Tokyo

In general, I cannot think of anything that made me feel like I am in a (utopian or dystopian) city from the future. For the most part, it felt like a very pleasant and familiar city, with some strange aspects here and there. But these had nothing to do with how futuristic they are. Rather, they were peculiar to me because this was my first contact with Japanese culture.

Sushi is best in Japan

I have read in several places that average sushi in Tokyo is better than high-end sushi outside of Japan. During our visit to Tokyo, we tried sushi at a couple of restaurants and also at a “depatchika” (the deli floor at a department store). Granted, we have not tried high-end sushi, but neither have we done that in Sweden. So the comparison should be quite fair and I really cannot claim that the sushi in Tokyo is better. It was (at best) on par with the sushi in Sweden.

Yakiniku Japanese grill
Beef in Tokyo may be better than beef in the rest of the world, but this does not apply for sushi

Japanese people are kind (ok, this one is mostly true)

Many Tokyo travel guides state that Japanese people are very polite and will do their best to help a lost tourist. And this is mostly true. But the general knowledge of English among the population is quite low. Most will try to help regardless. Others will flee, which could seem quite rude. The best example of this was when we tried to enter a restaurant which either was full or we were not welcome for some other reason – we got the door shut in our faces. Of course, one could claim that not knowing Japanese myself, I should not expect the locals to know English. And that is true, but never before have I had a restaurant door shut in my face. So yes, in general Tokyoites are kind and helpful, but I was quite frustrated by the language barrier because it made conversation about complex topics impossible, and it made some people come across as rude. I think the language barrier was our biggest disappointment with the entire trip. Of course we had known that there would be a language barrier even before we came to Japan, but we did not know that it would be this big and this frustrating.

English in Japan
The language barrier – on the rare occasions when you find something written in English, it is of this quality

What about another visit to Tokyo?

Yes, I agree that my rant against common prejudice about Tokyo does sound a tad negative, but that definitely does not mean that my general experience of Tokyo was bad. I am still mesmerized by the place and I feel that in our week there we got to see and experience a lot. At the same time we only managed to scratch the surface and would love to come back. This feeling I often get during our trips. But there is something more about Tokyo. I have not been able to get my head around the impressions the city left on me. When my friends ask me how the trip went, I find it difficult to find words. When I look at the notes I took during the trip (I always take notes during our trips to make sure to remember where we went and what we did there), it almost feels like I am reading about somebody else’s trip. The city is just too big and diverse and mystical for me to be able to summarize it in a couple of sentences. Therefore I don’t feel that a simple return visit would suffice. Instead, I would like to learn Japanese, move to Tokyo and live there for at least a year. This is probably the only way to truly experience this megacity and to have any chance of understanding the fascinating Japanese culture. Until Emili grows up I don’t see us living anywhere other than Sweden. But after that… who knows?

Leave a comment