If you’ve used the Underground system in London you’ll know that it is frowned upon not to stand to one side on the escalator. This is something that first time visitors are often unaware of and I have to say I am easily irked by those oblivious to the Underground escalator etiquette – but then I’m just a head-down-no-time-for-anyone escalator-walking Londoner! Here in Japan I’m delighted to report that they have the same system, except they stand on the left whereas we stand on the right. This at first led me to be the ‘irker’ on the escalator but, of course, the Japanese are so polite that nobody would dare say a word.
By the time I reached my hotel in Tokyo, about an hour and a half by plane from Sapporo, I had the whole Japanese subway ‘thing’ sorted. This is no mean feat, especially with the sheer number of lines which criss-cross their way underground and overground through the largest city on Earth. I’ve been to a fair few big cities in my time, indeed London itself is not insubstantial, but the Japanese capital really is HUGE! There are various definitions for what constitutes a ‘city’ and although the city proper (i.e. the administrative boundaries), is not the largest, the combined metropolitan area is by far the largest in the world with a population exceeding 35 million people – just take a look at the satellite view on Google Maps. That’s over half the population of the United Kingdom and almost the same as the whole of Canada! As well as this, Shinjuku Station (the closest to my hotel) is the busiest in the world with over 3.5 million passengers a day. It has over 36 platforms and more than 200 exits! In fact Tokyo is one of those places which has the highest, biggest, busiest, longest, you name it -est, of many things. It is also home to over ten percent of the Fortune Global 500 companies, the most of any city in the world. The city is a major global financial centre and has been described as one of the three command centres of the global economy, along with New York and London.
On a smaller scale, the konbini, or minimart, is very much a part of the urban makeup in Japan and I seem to have developed a daily ritual of buying a chocolate croissant from one of these every morning, be it a 7 Eleven, Lawson, Family Mart, Circle K or Sunkus. If you’ve been to or live in Japan you’ll know what I mean! Anyway I’ve started to get used to the idea that I will never understand the Japanese language because this daily ritual of buying a croissant involves a LOT of talking but with no words from me. It’s quite comical really. I have no idea what they are saying or why the transaction of a simple bread product has to entail so many words but I just do as they do and bow my head slightly with a smile, and often a light smirk as I realise the ridiculousness of it all! What doesn’t help matters is that the word ‘hai’ means ‘yes’ in Japanese and I always instinctively say “Hi” to someone whenever I meet them, even here, so there’s often much confusion all round.
I had no such problems when I visited both National Azabu and Nissin however. These two shops are THE places in town to get all those imported Western foods that many expats here might crave. The Nissin store is so well known among the expat population in Tokyo that even Arnold Schwarzenegger was given a guided tour of the shop once when he was in the city. They have proudly hung photos of the occasion on the walls. Even though you can get products like Cadbury’s chocolate and Barilla pasta there are still aisles and aisles of local products which I have to confess I have no idea about. I mentioned this in my previous post and there are pictures of some of these items in the slideshow above. I’d love to find out what they are, so please let me know!
One aspect of daily life which a stranger like myself can’t help but notice is that so many people walk around wearing surgical masks here in Japan. My first thought was that maybe the locals are a bit paranoid about picking up a virus or such like but I looked into it and it seems quite the opposite. Most people actually wear them to prevent themselves giving anything to other people. Once again, that Japanese politeness is evident all around.
Now, I love a tall building (see my previous post on skyscrapers) and I love an observation deck so whilst in Tokyo I couldn’t resist going up 451 metres to the viewing platform of the Tokyo Skytree. I’m sure the view is amazing but to get to the top to be able to see nothing was rather disappointing – or maybe I should have chosen a day when the cloud level wasn’t so low! Still, at least I managed to get a decent view of the metropolis at night from atop the Park Hyatt Hotel where, for a few minutes, I transported myself into the movie Lost In Translation, since this was where much of the film was set.
I’m sure the world will be hearing a lot more about Tokyo over the coming years as the city is set to host the 2020 Summer Olympics. And based on what I’ve seen I’m sure they will be a roaring success.