January 13, 2016

First stop: Tokyo!

Every journey begins with a single step, and I wanted my first steps to take place in Tokyo.  It’s a city I’ve visited before and love, and it’s the perfect home base for planning the first leg of my adventure.

Tokyo is densely packed with more than 13 million people, but it’s the most calm, orderly and obsessively clean big city I’ve ever seen. There is no litter — anywhere. Everyone is so earnestly polite and gracious. It’s also very safe. You could drop a wallet filled with cash, and someone would either catch up to you to return it, or turn it into the police (who would do their best to find you).

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All aboard the best train system in the world!

It’s also incredibly easy to get around in Tokyo. The city’s spectacular train system reaches into every nook and cranny, and it’s always on time. I’ve never boarded a Tokyo bus or sprung for an expensive Tokyo cab. There’s no need. Anywhere I want to go, there’s a train line to take me there.

Fun fact: On the rare occasion that your train is late, they’ll give you an official note to take to your boss.  And, yes, the rush hour trains can be so crowded that people are jam-packed into the cars. I made the mistake once of forgetting the morning rush hour and got onto a train in bustling Shinjuku station. Quietly and calmly, people inched forward into the car to make room — eyes straight ahead, elevator-style. It was such a tight squeeze, my arms were pinned to my sides!

I never get tired of Tokyo. While it usually doesn’t make the travel writers’ top ten lists, to me, it’s a magical place. Plus, there’s the whole “only in Japan” part that charms you. There are things you’ll see here that you’ll never experience anywhere else:  eating sushi for breakfast, eel flavored ice cream, wasabi flavored Kit Kats, cat cafes, capsule hotels, and the (in?)famous Robot Restaurant. And do you know what’s the most popular entrée for Christmas dinner? It’s Kentucky Friend Chicken. Only in Japan!

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Here are some things that a first-time visitor to Tokyo will notice:

  • Only major streets have names, and even the ones that do are often poorly marked. Not having some sort of mapping app on your phone will lead to much confusion and many tears.
  • People don’t talk on their cell phones or have loud conversations on the train or in public places.
  • Walking and eating in public — or eating/drinking on public transport — is considered rude.
  • Blowing your nose indiscreetly in public is a no-no.
  • Littering … another no-no!
  • Cash is king. You can use a credit card for costly items (e.g., hotels, department store purchases, etc…), but for a lot of transactions, cash is preferred, and sometimes the only thing merchants will accept.
  • Speaking of cash – it can be hard to get! Your American ATM card will probably only work in ATMs at the post office  or 7-11 convenience stores. And there are convenience stores EVERYWHERE.
  • Convenience stores also sell fresh, quality prepared foods vs. American-style nachos or leathery hotdogs
  • No tipping in restaurants.
  • When paying for a purchase, place your money on the tray by the register vs. handing it directly to the merchant.
  • There are vending machines on just about every block.  Most are stocked with drinks … soda, coffee, even beer! … but never the mythical live crabs or used schoolgirl undies (wut???) widely reported by the Western press.

I could go on and on about this fascinating city, and hopefully I’ll have the time to do just that.  For now, here are some great resources for further reading:

Japan-Guide.com’s Tokyo City Guide.

“Pretty Good Number One” – my favorite blog-turned-book about Tokyo!

Getting Around Tokyo Pocket Atlas and Transportation Guide – great info about Tokyo transport, plus how to get to popular day trip locations.