Five things Tokyo is NOT!

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

Sushi - Tokyo is NOT
Contrary to popular belief, the sushi is also reasonably priced. This dish was 100 Yen, so you could get full for under $10.

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

Tokyo National Museum -  Tokyo is not
The Tokyo National Museum is actually quite massive and takes the better part of the day to see all of it.

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

SensoJi - Tokyo is NOT
The pagoda in Senso-Ji Temple is  beautiful and definitely a must see in Tokyo.

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

Yen - Tokyo is NOT
Took 50,000 for 6 days and was left over with almost 20,000. $50 a day is not bad at all.

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.

Follow Me

Julio Moreno

Julio is a California native who has lived abroad since 2009 as an expat in South Korea and New Zealand. He is especially passionate about experiencing other cultures and visiting as many UNESCO World Heritage Sites as possible.
Follow Me

Latest posts by Julio Moreno (see all)

7 thoughts on “Five things Tokyo is NOT!

  • February 17, 2014 at 9:57 am
    Permalink

    It really frustrates me when people think Japanese cuisine is all about sushi. It has so much more to offer. I spent a day in Tokyo trying different food – from cakes and seafood to dumplings and pancakes.

    Reply
    • February 17, 2014 at 11:12 am
      Permalink

      Totally agree. I don’t even like seafood that much and love Japanese food. I actually referenced the “Tokyo under $25 post” on your blog before visiting Tokyo :).
      By pancakes, I take it you’re also a fan of okonomiyaki?

      Reply
    • February 17, 2014 at 6:26 pm
      Permalink

      Indeed, there are so many other foods… like takoyaki, gyoza, mochi…
      In fact, Japanese cuisine is so sophisticated I got lost trying to understand what is what. But weird, almost everything tasted the same!
      But sushi is still “the king”, I reckon.

      Reply
  • October 27, 2015 at 6:56 am
    Permalink

    I agree that Tokyo was not that expensive as people were saying. Yes, fruit prices were crazy, but well they were more or less the same in different Japanese cities. Fish was cheaper, I agree!
    Agness recently posted…Tokyo Skytree Tower – Is It Worth It?My Profile

    Reply
  • December 31, 2016 at 10:51 am
    Permalink

    “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.”

    Everything in this quote is true, with the exception being the very tenuous use of “culture”. Buddhism first became known in Japan because of a gift from the Baekje Kingdom. The use of “culture” though is a stretch. After the Baekje Kingdom fell, it is true some remnants of that kingdom, primarily refugees made their home in Japan.

    The current Japanese Emperor has acknowledged, “I, on my part, feel a certain kinship with Korea, given the fact that it is recorded in the Chronicles of Japan that the mother of Emperor Kammu was of the line of King Muryong of Baekje,” he told reporters. (Kammu, reigned Japan from 781 to 806 AD, while Muryong ruled the Baekje Kingdom in Korea from 501 to 523 AD.) While the Emperor is not a historian, he seems to be very aware of the current historical narrative widely accepted in academia. In fact, Akihito acknowleded that much Confucian and Buddhist teaching, as well as court music, came via the peninsular. “I believe it was fortunate to see such culture and skills transmitted from Korea to Japan,” he said.

    “Cultural” traits were surely spread, certain examples of pottery and architecture heavily influenced from Korea and China first spread to Japan during this period. Yet, to claim Japanese culture was primitive, inferior, or even replaced would be disingenuous. A fusion of cultural development occurred in Japan between the 5th – 7th centuries, and Korean and Chinese dynastic kingdoms were a major influence.

    Reply
    • January 1, 2017 at 2:28 pm
      Permalink

      I think my main issue was with the tone, not the facts. Japanese museums had a neutral tone while Korean museums had a tone of self-aggrandizement. The word ‘culture’ was the issue and the actual museum continues further than the quoted bit. Totally didn’t mean to downplay the definite influence Baekje had on ancient Japan.
      Nice to see you around the blog again. Thought you forgot about it during the Hiatus. I finished my master’s now and will cut my working hours in half in March so hopefully, I will post more.
      Julio Moreno recently posted…Gunung Mulu National Park – EvaluationMy Profile

      Reply
    • March 9, 2017 at 10:17 am
      Permalink

      Hi Michelle, I would love to be entered in to your blog candy contest. Th1ta#82&7;s so cool of you to do that. I’m just starting my blog out, so I’m not sure how to do a blog candy. Do you give away your own products, or is it from the companies? Good to know. Thank you so very much. I love your work!!!Alena in Northern CA.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge