Working in Tokyo was an intriguing and unique experience for me. I’d taught English at universities before, and lived in Asia on several other occasions but Tokyo definitely has a je ne sais quoi (or masani ima sono jōtaidesuまさに今その状態です) about it. Here are some of the memories and peculiarities which stand out as I cast my mind back to those times.
Never before or since will rush hour ever be the same for me. As a home-working travel agent now my commute involves walking from the kitchen to the office. But even if I’d been a Londoner used to travelling by Tube I don’t think anything can prepare you for this. There is a job title for some who work within railway stations called a ‘pusher’ or ‘oshiya, 押し屋. These people are employed (complete with white gloves) to physically push and squeeze people onto trains so that the doors will shut. Below is a video which explains it as even if you have a vivid imagination I’m not sure you could quite imagine this.
I had to endure this for 90 minutes twice a day during rush hour. My boyfriend at the time, started and finished an hour later than me and got a seat, A SEAT!!!!, on his journeys so fear not, this will not be your typical Tokyo metro experience so long as you avoid busy lines at peak times. I once made the mistake of taking a banana in my bag – it was puree by the time I arrived. A colleague’s watch face cracked due to the pressure one day. There was no reading of books, I was lucky if I managed to rest my ipod between two of the many people surrounding me’s shoulder blades to read! Twice I lifted my feel up completely and didn’t even move an inch, there were that many people pressed up against me… it really is something else.
Me on the train | Pic I snapped while boarding a train.
I still crave real sushi sometimes after a hard day of work. There was nothing like (finally) getting off the metro and popping in for a few plates of sushi (my favourite local place had an elderly man in the kitchen which you could see into and I’d marvel at his seamless technique). I’d not eaten much sushi before going to Japan and Tokyo really does spoil you in the sushi stakes, so much so that I don’t each much sushi here in the UK. Seeing the chilled little plastic boxes with measely slivers and comparing that to the wondrous mouthfuls of my time in Tokyo I just can’t bring mysef to buy them here. But please, I beg of you, fill your boots on sushi while you’re there! If you’re an early riser try to get to Tsukiji (築地市場, Tsukiji shijō) to see where the process begins at the largest, busiest fish market in the world!
It wasn’t just the sushi I loved of course… The lightest tempura battered vegetables, the comforting udon noodles, the immune-boosting dashi broths… We’ll be here all day though if I go into all of these!
A waiter’s apron which I ‘acquired’ | sushi in it’s pre-sushi form
Karaoke カラオケ is a mashup of the Japanese words for ‘empty’ and ‘orchestra’ – kara oukesutora.
Forget pubs, karaoke nights are on an entirely different level in Tokyo, and it isn’t a public affair. I don’t think I recall any establishments where you’d go and sing in front of strangers… All singing is done behind closed doors with your own circle of karaoke buddies. The furnishing and amenities are variable – you may be sat on benches in a booth or you may be on tatami mats with cushions, your accessories could be the humble microwave and screen, but you may have supplementary instruments such as tambourines to accompany you and you’ll hopefully have access to a food and/or drinks service enabled by a magic button located within your booth which you can summon waiters with.
If you should find yourself friendless or in an unsociable mood yet still in desperate need of a sing-song then fear not, you can get individual booths or even find places where there are booths in acades the size of a passport photo booth.
Take your pick among the best from this guide:
With fellow English teachers at karaoke | singing with my beverage of choice – Lemon Chuhi
It’s not surprising that Tokyo has many different districts and things going on but Harajuku has to be up there as one of the most bizarre… It is the epicentre of teen fashion and they really do go to town experimenting! I highly recommend a stroll through the area with your camera at the ready to capture all the ‘must-have’ looks. If you venture into one of the trendy malls may I suggest ear plugs and no trace of a headache… I managed about 20 minutes but the high-pitched frenzy of sellers trying to get teenagers to buy their wares was just oo much for me. It was « Kawaiiiii » or cute for about three minutes for me and then I just wanted to be alone in a dark room!
I was a professor at a Women’s University during my time in Tokyo, and as you know universities are for adults. However the love of Disney and child-like or cutesy things is massive for girls in Japan. I found it quite astonishing how young they appeared within themselves in comparison to students of a similar age in other places. Each Monday we’d talk about wha the students had done over the weekend and so many went to Disney… every weekend! Obsession is an under-statement. Sometime I felt as though I was in a room full of six-year olds rather than with a group of young adults! Although this probably won’t be for you as a traveller there for a short time, it’s possible to buy a season pass to Disney. Personally I’d save Disney for another location with less things to discover but if you do go please ley me know how you get on!
One of my favourite things to do in Tokyo was to escape to a green space. In the UK we are reasonably good at parks, but these are often wide open grassy areas, with plenty of space but not much going on. Below is one of my favourite pictures, of a man painting in the park I was wandering through. The feeling of zen achieveable in these settings, despite being surrounded by skyscrapers, is immense and highly worthwhile seeking out. Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is stunning and Yoyogi (no Yogi bears) is well worth a wander.
I loved watching this gentleman paint | lily pads with city backdrop
Japan is well-known for being at the forefront of technological development, with huge smart phones being on the scene well before they were in Europe. One of my favourite brushes with techonology in Tokyo though was meeting Asimo, the world’s most advanced humanoid robot. Seeing him play football and walk upstairs took me back to memories of the Jetsons and iRobot but this is a reality I’ve seen with my own eyes, with no CGI or green screens in sight. It makes you think about automisation and how our world may actually look in the future, definitely worth a visit.
Asimo and his cousin
For a country that seems to have defied the onslaught of Americanisms very well, it is surreal to find a plethora of 7/11 convenience stores throughout Tokyo. The products which are sold are inherantly Japanese (Chu Hi, a lemon flavoured alcopop in a can being my purchase of choice) but just seeing the store fronts always made me wonder how this had happened and why a Japanese equivalent wasn’t there instead.
Correct me if I’m wrong but I don’t think there’s another country on the planet that does vending machines quite like Japan. The sheer variery of things which can be dispensed straight into your hands is formidable. Need a new shirt for work because you’ve worked until midnight and then slept in a ‘coffin hotel’? No problem! Craving sugar but trying to be healthy? No problem, go to the banana vending machine! In desperate need of sauce for your grilled meat… there’s a vending machine for that. And of course steaming hot bowls of noddles are aplenty. For some reason one of the ones I liked best was the ice cream vending machine. It seems so obvious and useful, but I’ve never seen one anywhere else. Check out more here:
Considering all my options…
One iconic image engrained in my memory is seeing the iconic diagonal crossroads at Shibuya station. I had to change metro lines there and so would see the hoardes of black heads rushing their way across every morning. It really is a sight to behold. You must of course partake in crossing yourself but after doing so I suggest you get higher up and watch the view from above, it looks like a highly organised colony of ants. There are several suggested vantage points, from Starbucks to the Excel Hotel lifts to a flowerbed on the Southeast corner!
The 100 Yen Store
This is like the pound shop and is great for getting all manner of things from stationery to teeny gifts, to household items. I just loved going in and seeing the variety of things on offer, it’s a tourist attraction in it’s own right. Pound shops are always a bit of an Aladdin’s cave but this is like an Aladdin’s Cave on steroids – check one out!
Shrines and temples
Nowhere in Japan is complete without shrines and temples. Shinto and Buddhism are Japan’s two major religions. Similarly to the green spaces, walking into a shrine always brought about a profound sense of calm in me. It’s strange that these spaces are so close to the hubbub of such a pulsating city and yet the sounds and chaos seem to melt away instantly. There are literally thousands to choose from but interestingly many were flattened during WWII and are therefore modern reconstructions. Head to Kyoto for the most authentic shrines but if you are unable to do more than Tokyo then I’d suggest Meiji-jingu Shinto Shrine set amongst the trees and the iconic Senso-ji Buddhist Temple. Why not purchase incense sticks to add a sense of authenticity too.
A lovely little shrine near our apartment in Fuchu, Tokyo | Loved these panels
I hope you enjoyed sharing my little trip down Japanese memory lane. I also visited Kamakura, Mount Fuji (which I climbed), Hakone spa town and Odawara during my time there and visited Kyoto, Hikone, Lake Biwa, Atami, Osaka, Hiroshima and Nagasaki after my contract finished. If you are thinking of discovering the wonders that this country holds for yourself, please de give Infinite Travel a call and we’ll gladly help put an itinerary together for you.
If you are interested in working in Japan, take a look at this article about being culturally aware when working abroad.
Me and all of my Otsuma Women’s University students