Since the first time I visited and totally fell in love with Japan in 2012, Tokyo had been on my to do list. Normally, I tend to gravitate more towards ancient ruins and the like, but there was something about the Japanese capital that kept calling to me. I don’t know if it was the lights, the anime, the technology, or the weird subcultures, but once again Japan has managed to amaze me and completely threw my preconceptions out the window. Here are five things I expected which surprisingly were not so. Let’s get started!
Tokyo is NOT …
#5 Megacity One
For those who don’t know, Megacity One refers to the Judge Dredd comics (and movies) in which the dystopia of the future has consolidated into a hand full of unruly megacities, with ‘one’ containing 800 million people.
The official population of the metropolitan area of Tokyo is 36.9 million people, or a bit more than the entire country of Canada. Think about that for a second. Despite having so many people, I didn’t find Japan uncomfortably overcrowded. Minus the chaos of looking for the locker where I left my bag in Shinjuku Station (the busiest train station in the world) in the final hours before my flight (more on this later) and the crossing in Shibuya station (video above), there seems to be enough going on throughout the city to spread out that enormous population. On the contrary, I have found Seoul and Mexico City (ranked #2 and #3 respectively) to have more of a crowded feel, so it was a pleasant surprise.
Tokyo is NOT …
#4 All About the Fish
One of the big scares going into Japan is the tainted fish after the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster. Believe it or not, if this really bothers you (it doesn’t me), fish can be easily avoided altogether in Japan. One of the problems with this misconception is our very limited scope of international foods as Japan is not all about sushi and sashimi.
Japanese alternatives can be takoyaki (octopus balls), okonomiyaki (mixed pancake), udon (thick noodles), yakisoba (dried noodles), a ridiculous amount of donburi bowls, ramen, and probably dozens if not hundreds of other dishes that I haven’t even heard of which don’t involve fish.
Tokyo is NOT …
#3 That Biased in its Museums
I am not one of those super prideful Americans that wear shirts with the stars and stripes, but it there is one thing I think we do better than pretty much every other country, is keep neutrality in our museums (weird thing to be good at now that I think about it). These days, I take foreign museums with a grain of salt because they are always full of inappropriate language, coming off as bitter, angry, or trying to push a political agenda instead of just focusing on the facts.
Japan has been making the news a lot lately with the prime minister visiting the shrines of war criminals, the NHK leader playing down the use of comfort women during WW2 and by unveiling a clearly offensive carrier ship which seemingly violates its own constitution. With all this, I thought that my visit to the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park was going to be full misleading opinions masquerading as fact. I was pleasantly surprised!
The Tokyo National Museum keeps it real and in many cases concedes to claims by its neighbors where the truth is still a little hazy. For example, the Korean museum at Buyeo blatantly states that Korea’s Baekje Kingdom spread Buddhism and ‘culture’ (seriously, direct quote) to Japan, insinuating that it was borderline backwards before its influence. On the flip side, the Tokyo museum acknowledges how helpful Korea was and gives further nods to China for their influence in architecture and design. There are no undertones of emotion, rage, backhanded compliments, or anything of the sort, which in my opinion, is how a museum should be.
Tokyo is NOT …
#2 All Glamorous and New
Try this: Go to Google and do an image search of “Tokyo.” What you will find in the first 100 images or so show exactly what I expected of megacity one, a skyscraper, concrete haven similar to many other huge cities around the world. What I got was that and much, much more.
While Tokyo IS definitely a megalopolis, it is also an ancient city dating back to the third millenium BCE. With a little research before my trip, I discovered that there are plenty of green zones which make you feel like you were just transported back in time.
The Senso-ji Temple for example was founded in 645 CE and features a beautiful 5-story wooden pagoda and is the oldest temple in Tokyo, surviving the devastation of WW2. Further cultural stops care found in the Meiji Shrine, the rebuilt Imperial Palace (right next to Tokyo Station) and Ueno Park just to name a few. While everything that is new in Japan is quite mind-blowing, take a second to get to know the history of the city in these places and you won’t regret it.
Tokyo is DEFINITELY NOT …
#1 That Expensive
The number one reason that people avoid Japan is the illusion that you will have to pay through your nose just to get by in Tokyo. Even though I had visited Okinawa and Osaka/Nara/Kyoto in the past, “Tokyo is definitely more expensive” people kept telling me. It is simply not, but let me explain why the myth exists.
- First off, in east Asia, you have China and Korea, clearly cheaper destinations. If you go further south, you will find South-East Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, etc) which are probably the cheapest places on earth. By comparison, Japan does seem extremely expensive, but if you put it in the context of the rest of the world, it’s not. I found Europe, the US and Canada to be more expensive than Japan in terms of food and accommodation (the two necessities).
- Secondly, people try to do the whole country on a single trip. Japan is not tiny, and just like you probably wouldn’t consider visiting New York and Miami on the same trip, Tokyo is far from southern Japan. When it comes to local transportation, the subway/JR starts at 110 yen and increases with distance. The most I ever paid was 260 yen with the average about 160 yen. By comparison, the NYC metro single ride is $2.75 or about 280 yen.
- Thirdly, you’re probably not good at calculating tax, tip, or exchange rates. When you go to a restaurant in Japan and it says 500 yen, you can come in with 500 yen and be fed. When you go to a restaurant in the US and it says $5.00, expect to pay around 7ish (and really, good luck finding good food for $5). Japan along with Korea and most civilized nations include tax in the price (usually). Furthermore, it is strictly a non-tipping country, which if you consider 8% tax and 15% tip, actually 23% cheaper than a seemingly equally priced meal. Add to that, it is now 102 yen per dollar, adding 2% to that value. So a $5 meal is actually 25% more expensive than a 500 yen meal. It is my experience however, that you can’t get anything decent for $5 (value menu anyone?) but there are TONS of great 500 Yen-ish foods around.
- Fourth, you probably drink and party too much. Beer in Japan gets expensive as even draft goes for 350-550 Yen. Again, looking at point 3, that isn’t that expensive, but it definitely adds up. In addition, it seems that the concept of a free venue for clubbing is unheard off in Japan and you can expect to pay 2000-4000 Yen at the door (a bit steep for me). This usually gets you a drink or two though, which is more than I can say for their American counterparts.
- Fifth, you were told to get the JR pass. The cheapest JR pass is around 28,000 Yen/ $275. This gives you 7 days to use JR rails which could pay for bullet trains from Tokyo to Osaka. Now, in what universe it is a good idea to visit both of those in 7 days is beyond me, but if you do need to take more time, it is 45,100 Yen/ $440 for the 14 day pass. Say you are a crazy person and INSIST on seeing it all, there are better alternatives. Fly into Tokyo, buy a single pass to Osaka, and fly OUT of Osaka to go home instead of returning to Tokyo. A single pass is around 18,000 Yen and less if take a bus (14,000 Yen). While I have looked at the JR Pass before, I have never felt there was a situation when I would use it enough to make it worth it, but if you have, please let me know. Personally though, at least for now, I definitely do NOT recommend the JR pass.
Tokyo is a wonderful city with visual stimulation all around. If you had any of these pre-conceptions yourself, you can put them aside now and book your first flight to this amazing country. It is definitely one place you won’t stop talking about anytime soon.