|Imperial Palace in the heart of Tokyo|
We arrived in Tokyo full of eager anticipation yet also with a bit of trepidation. Although we've been to places where English wasn't the primary language, most of the time the locals did speak English so it was never a hardship. This would be different, though, since only a small number of Japanese speak English and even more so the fact that the writing, unlike say Spanish or French, is completely unintelligible to the likes of us.
So we did our best to learn a number of Japanese words and phrases to help us get by. And wow was that ever a good thing. Not only do they appreciate the effort of saying "thank you", "hello", "excuse me", "good morning", and even "do you speak English?" in their own language but I really think it helps establish an instant rapport. We found every single Japanese person we encountered to be friendly, kind, and helpful - even if we could barely communicate. So great!
Tokyo is massive in every sense of the word. Huge in size and huge in population - the biggest city in the world with 35 million people. Wow! So would walking around Tokyo be like the "Girl in the Red Dress" scene from The Matrix? Shoulder to shoulder masses of people everywhere? Well no. But sometimes yes. :-)
It's not hard to find areas with the quintessential neon, skyscrapers, packed subways, and masses of people that visions of Tokyo conjure up. And we immersed ourselves in some of that. Could hardly say you've visited Tokyo without doing that! But it's also quite easy - QUITE easy - to find parks and temples and small quaint streets with just a handful of people around. At no time did the city feel overcrowded to me. Very unexpected! And quite lovely.
So many things are just so happy and jovial like this sign for an electronics store. Or the little sing-song electronic melodies that play when your train is about to depart.
The subways and trains in Tokyo are remarkably efficient and always on time (would you expect any less?) and because the signage is always in both Japanese and English it meant getting around the city was a snap. Well OK it really helped having a pocket map, but still - it sure made getting around one less thing to worry about.
One often difficult thing was finding a restaurant listed in a guidebook. Sure, there are 160,000 restaurants in Tokyo (!) so finding one isn't ever going to be hard. With Anne's gluten-free needs, though, there were times we wanted to seek out a particular place because perhaps they had gluten free soba noodles or something and were highly regarded. Since Japanese addresses are very different from ours it's hard enough finding a place - but then factor in that if a building is kind enough to put the address up well it's written in Japanese of course so no help there.
The guidebook would tell you the English name of the restaurant, the description, and a dot on a crude map. So off we go, we manage to find the street and general location, and of course every single sign for every single business is in...you guessed it...Japanese. Ugh. So the best we could hope for was someone coming out of where we thought it might be and asking in very rudimentary Japanese if this was so-and-so. And well...it did actually work! Or one time there were so many other restaurants around that we threw up our hands and said, "Let's just choose this one." And then after being seated we saw in tiny print their website URL and lo and behold it was the one were actually looking for! Nice.
Tokyo is known for being expensive - and it certainly can be. Hotels especially. But it's actually not too hard to find very reasonable yet lovely places to eat. Or to find things to do/places to visit that cost very little. So that was really nice.
The marvellous differences in age and feel in different parts of city was fascinating. Our hotel, for example, was in a very modern area with a very sort of "futuristic" vibe - levels upon levels of walkways, trains, and roads. Then walk for 5 minutes and you feel you are back in time with charming streets, lanterns, and cafes. Pretty cool.
How was it being so exceedingly tall in a land of generally short people? Not too different, really. Ducking wasn't needed all that often. I fit (barely) into the subway cars. I got some looks but you know, there are plenty of taller Japanese people, too. None as tall as me, but then that usually seems to be the case. So it didn't really feel all that odd or different. Or maybe everyone was taking surreptitious photos of the "freaky Caucasian". Hard to tell.
The weather as a whole for our entire trip was AMAZINGLY good. Just wonderful, warm, pleasant sunny summer days with highs around 80F/27C most days. However there were 2 days where we got wet (both were Sundays oddly enough) including one day in Tokyo. It literally rained all day but we made the best of it for as long as we could. We still saw a lot but by 2pm we were soaked through and had enough. That's OK - the next day was idyllic and it was a good excuse to visit a Japanese version of an English pub and have a nap.
Tokyo gave us a great introduction to Japan and I enjoyed it quite a lot - certainly more than I might have thought. And there was much more to come. Next up would be three different locales in and amongst the Japan Alps, about 2.5 hours by train west of Tokyo. Small charming cities and no-cities-around mountain immersion. More on that in part 2.
In the mean time, you can see more photos of Tokyo here.
And here is a short clip highlighting Shibuya - an area that does in fact have LOTS of people, all the time. Plus a little bit of Tokyo Dome and neighboring middle-of-the-city roller coaster. Very Japanese. :-)