I thought I had seen some big cities–Shanghai, Seoul, and even Moscow all have more than 10 million inhabitants. But Tokyo felt–and, according to some sources is–bigger than any of those. Maybe it’s the high-rises, the vertical shopping, the crowds of people on the metro, the tiny apartments, or the fact every square foot is made useful (and beautiful). It feels big. It was at times thoroughly confusing, but also completely impressive. I spent three entire days shopping, unable to tear myself away from all the shops. Every brand I’d ever heard of–and plenty I hadn’t–was there. There are Comme des Garçons, Hermes and L’Occitane cafes. Marc Jacobs bookstore with Marc Jacobs Sharpie? Why not. 12-floor Uniqlo flagship? Even better. But I find browsing through hundreds of stores in giant cities thoroughly enjoyable, so Tokyo is for me. And Kyoto is rather lovely too–it runs at a slower pace, and has the beautiful traditional streets of Gion.
Everything in Japan seems to have this secret logic to it that I don’t understand yet: ways to eat, ways to navigate train stations with 12 different exits, ways to flick on the lights in a high-tech apartment without clicking 25 buttons. I was a bit nervous about stepping out of line, culturally speaking, but I really needn’t have worried. Like everywhere else, foreigners often get a faux-pas pass:
Sumimasen: If you are committing many faux-pas, saying “excuse me” is an important phrase to know. It’s said to you when you come to a store, to get people’s attention, and when you inevitably bump into them. Its importance is only surpassed by “arigato gozaimasu” (thank you very much).
Umbrellas: Almost everyone carries the same kind: the clear plastic domey variety. They’re designed to be the kind you use for one downpour, then throw away, so everyone buys them from the ubiquitous konbini (convenience stores).
Black Suits: Are a uniform for the salarymen. Maybe you’ll see navy blue or a light (I mean light) pinstripe.
Women: Always look put-together, often with heels and nice makeup. Speaking of the face…
Skincare: Is sooooo good, just like Korea. But a bit pricier, and sometimes fancier.
Apartments: Are generally beyond me. Our posh-ish place in Kyoto locked not with a key, not with a card, but with a remote control.
Cute Haircuts: Are all around. Kind of making me want a natty bob like this girl.
Ginza: Is amazing. 10-storey Zara. Massive Uniqlo. Swoon.
The Metro: Is pretty confusing. Be sure you don’t attempt to help anyone who falls in, like this guy:
English: Is everywhere. You’ll be fine.
Cat Cafes: Hee!
Shinjuku Station: Is the WORST. If you have to go through here, plan ahead and leave yourself lots of time. I found it extremely confusing.
Prices: Are high, but not higher than London or Moscow. For example, a tall Starbucks matcha latte which I ordered, ahem, more than once, is ¥415, or about $4.50.
Shopping: As I alluded to, is hands down the best I’ve ever seen. Where to begin!? Omotesando, Shinjuku’s Isetan mall, Shibuya’s backstreets, all of Ginza. Just go.
Eating: Is generally done in a restaurant, at home, or on a long-haul train. It’s frowned upon to eat or drink on the street.
Children: Are the absolute cutest in the world.
Basement food halls: a.k.a. the depachika in most malls, surpass even Harrods for quality and beauty.
Rush Hour: Is an exercise in zen. People are rushing but no one is pushy or unfriendly. I didn’t witness it, but apparently it’s all true: white-gloved guards do come to squeeze you onto the train, asking nicely all the while.
Strange-flavoured Kit Kats: Exist! But pretty much only at the airport.
Money: When you pay for something you put your cash or card on a little tray for the attendant to pick up. But then they return the change to your hand. This happens in Russia sometimes too, but usually your change will be put back on the tray, not into your hands.
Shrines: Are really beautiful, but if you are lazy like me you will only make it to two. Make it count!
Trash Cans: Are almost non-existent. I heard that the reasons are twofold: security and cleanliness. I was advised to look for garbage/recycling bins near the source, meaning the convenience stores or beside vending machines.
Matcha: The best tea in the world, is ever-present. More on that soon!
(Oh! And you may like to read last year’s notes: 21 Things I noticed about China)