Tokyo: What We Learned in the World’s Largest and Safest City

Travel Features Tokyo
Tokyo: What We Learned in the World’s Largest and Safest City

“Get Out There” is a column for itchy footed humans written by Paste contributor Blake Snow. Although different now, travel is still worthwhile–especially to these destinations. Today we travel to Tokyo.

Tokyo has no business being this tidy, orderly, and convenient. After visiting for 10 days, I saw exactly one pigeon (aka “flying rats”), zero cops, and only a smattering of litter. Seriously. It doesn’t make any sense. 

But if anyone can accomplish that remarkable feat in a metropolis of 37 million—that’s three times the size of New York City—it’s the Japanese. Which is partly why Tokyo is so beloved. The other part is that to Western tourists, it doesn’t get any more exotic than this—making this the ideal place to lose your perception, bearings, and native tongue without ever putting yourself in harm’s way. 

This spring, my family was part of the first wave of tourists to visit after three long years of closed borders. We came for the cherry blossoms but stayed for the food, colorful aesthetics, and sea of Japanese people. As one diplomat told me, “Welcome to Asian utopia.” 

Everything in its proper place

As America becomes increasingly informal (and that’s okay), it’s refreshing to be in a country that’s incredibly proper, clean, and uniform, without the stuffiness or judgment of other formal societies. City workers, for example, wear vests, white gloves, hard hats, utility belts, suspenders. The subways are filled with ties, dresses, and dark business suits. Nothing was out of place. 

Except on the third night when I heard a distant baby crying for a few brief moments. Which, in a place this crowded, is shocking that it took so long. Besides that, I didn’t see or hear anything out of place for the rest of the trip, which makes for a remarkably reverent, peaceful, and quiet society. Which, in turn, explains the very loud, colorful, and crazy “escapist” media that greater Japan is known for, in spite of all its buttoned-up formality.

Lost in isolation 

Psychologically at times, Tokyo can feel like The Great Wave off Kanagawa, the most iconic piece of Japanese art, which depicts a tidal wave crashing down upon wary boaters. I felt similar weight on several occasions. The inability to book trains and return buses in advance, easily transfer between subways, pay with credit cards (only sometimes), negotiate workarounds, or navigate several floors of food courts just to find a desired restaurant, can be mentally draining. So much so that we spent two extra day trips outside of the city just to decompress. 

I’m not being melodramatic. Tokyo’s cultural disorientation and displacement is, of course, a major draw. But it can also be a negative, especially while you witness the public lack of interaction that is sometimes extended to visitors. In other words, a relaxing beach this is not. Tokyo wears on you, albeit in a good way. 


Getting around is easier than you think

With mandatory special driver’s licenses, limited parking, and expensive Ubers and taxis, maneuvering Tokyo is best done by subway and on foot. That said, the trains are generally slower, and the most notable neighborhoods are spread out. So getting from place to place can be a bit of a slog. But all of Tokyo sounds like a Nintendo game, and the majority of it is incredibly easy on the eyes. 

To help you along your way, you’ll encounter English-speaking “Information Centers” and helpful signage all over town, an abundance of hyper clean restrooms, and friendly locals that will assist even when they don’t speak your language. It might be hard to fathom, but you don’t need to know Japanese to successfully get around. To bridge the gaps, Google Maps and Translate made subway transfers and complicated requests possible, as did taking photos of the dishes we wanted while placing our order. 

ProTip: Wear comfortable walking shoes—this city and subway is BIG. 

Fast foods are mostly healthy

Because we were traveling as a family, I had neither the budget nor accompanying stomachs for expensive sushi. Instead, we dined at traditional fast casual joints that rate well among Japanese. Standouts include Marugame Seiman for udon noodles, CoCo Ichibanya for curry and rice, Tendon Tenya for tempura, and Fuji Ramen for you-know-what. You can find dozens of each throughout the city. 

But we also enjoyed regular visits to the closest grocery store to feed on rice triangles, giant yellow apples, fresh strawberries, drinkable yogurt, low cost but still way better than expected sushi, melon cream soda, and Meiji mushroom and tree crackers topped in chocolate. In between meals, we enjoyed lots of soft serve, especially the “milk,” grape, and chocolate. 

Best things to do are mostly free

With the dollar up (and yen down), visiting Tokyo has rarely been this affordable. Nevertheless, many of the best things to see and do are free (or just a few bucks). Those include the sprawling skyline from the Tokyo Municipal Observatory, towering torii gates and shrines at Meiji Jingu and Senso-ji, stunning cherry blossoms at Yoyogi and Chidorigafuchi parks. For $3 per adult (kids are free), don’t miss the Shinjuku National Gardens. 

For the best views of Fuji, head two hours west to Arakura Fuji Sengen Shrine. To see one of the most iconic Tokyo sights, with many of its people in a single intersection, check out the 10-way Shibuya Crossing. Like the city itself, it is surreal and something you will likely never forget. 

Blake Snow contributes to fancy publications and Fortune 500 companies as a bodacious writer-for-hire and frequent travel columnist. He lives in Provo, Utah with his adolescent family and two dogs.

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