Postcard From: Everyday Tokyo

One of my favorite activities, whenever we visit Tokyo, is to look for and experience the “everyday” of the city. I always enjoy visiting famous places and sites, or visiting famous shopping districts, but most of all I like to find and observe the small parts of daily life that often get passed over or go unnoticed.

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In the hustle and bustle of busy Tokyo, there is beauty to be found in everyday objects. Even the manhole covers in Tokyo are works of art.

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Although the city is very crowded, and space is at a premium, residents find creative ways to expand and enhance their environment.

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A typical narrow residential street in central Tokyo. Learning how to park in some pretty tight spaces is a necessary skill for Tokyo living.

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A new residence includes a garage on the lower level. This home, small by U.S. standards, is probably valued at more than $5 or $6 million dollars, mainly due to the location and value of the land.

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Outside of most restaurants is a display window with realistic plastic models of what’s on the menu as well as the prices. Inside, the menu is often posted on a board on the wall, and often people decide what they want before they go in. If you don’t speak Japanese, the waiter will come outside and you can point to whatever you’d like to order. A typical meal set at this tonkatsu (pork cutlet) restaurant costs between $10 to $18.

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Many people choose to pick up bentos and other foods at convenience stores, which are ubiquitous throughout Tokyo. The meals are tasty and very affordable (my favorite is always fried chicken and potato salad, around $5; the girls love onigiri – rice balls – for around $2 each). The store will heat your food for you. The drinks cooler and especially the ice cream freezer in convenience stores also have a large variety of affordable and interesting items to choose from.

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A typical Tokyo view of a residential area. Cars drive on the left side of the road. You can tell whether a building is apartments or commercial by whether there are balconies or not. An apartment will always have balconies because many residents still hang out their laundry and/or bedding each day, and a balcony gives each resident a small amount of personal “outdoor” space.

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There is an amazing amount of green space within Tokyo. Some areas are local parks, but there is also often green space around temples or shrines. The areas are always clean and well-tended.

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Crowded neighborhoods always contain small parks with play equipment for children. You can hear loudspeaker announcements in the early evening reminding parents and children that it’s time to go in. Announcements throughout the day also warn residents when there’s some public safety concern, such as high temperatures or increased air pollution.

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There are many ways to get around Tokyo, but trains are the most common and affordable. Japanese trains are punctual. If the schedule says the train will arrive at 9:12, but your watch shows the arrival at 9:13, it’s time to get your watch fixed! There are markers along the platform for where to line up to enter the train cars, and passengers always queue up – there’s no pushing or shoving, and everyone quickly finds a place inside so the train can depart on time. Department stores, restaurants, and other shops typically surround stations, so they’re great places for shopping, eating or people watching. There are many signs in English in and around stations and in the trains, even more so now that the Olympics will be held in Tokyo in 2020. You can also easily grab a taxi at a train station – for short distances they’re very affordable. There are also many buses available, but in my opinion they’re much more difficult to figure out, and offer little to no translation for those who do not speak Japanese.

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Everyone walks in Tokyo. The streets or directions might seem confusing or overwhelming at times, but if you feel lost you can ask for help, or just stand there and someone will eventually come to help you find your way. Even when it’s very crowded and hurried, people remain polite, and will apologize if they bump into someone else. The man on the right of the picture is wearing a face mask; he probably has a cold and is wearing a mask to protect others from infection. If you have a chance to sit and watch for a while, you can often determine the social relationship between two people by seeing who bows lower to the other.

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Bicycles are yet another very common form of transportation for both men and women. The above are mama char or “mom’s chariots,” battery assisted bicycles used by housewives for taking kids to school, and doing the grocery shopping and other errands. They take up less space and are much easier to manuever than a car, and use far less energy.

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Tokyo is clean. There’s no trash on the street, and recycling centers are placed throughout the city. On trash days you will see carefully separated bundles out on the street – the Japanese are master recyclers. Almost everything is recycled – the actual trash produced by each household is quite small.

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Old mingles easily with new in Tokyo. It’s common to walk down a street of newer or modern buildings and suddenly come upon an old wooden home, shop, temple or shrine. The older building above is a small bakery selling traditional Japanese cakes. The cloth banner over the entrance is a noren– its presence indicates the shop is open, and is a sign of welcome. Other banners on the side advertise what’s for sale.

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A small cemetery found among the hustle and bustle of Tokyo’s busy Roppongi Hills district. Every square inch of space is utilized in Tokyo – nothing is wasted.

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Although it doesn’t look like much, this picture says volumes about modern Tokyo (and Japan). Someone has left behind a cheap, plastic umbrella in a stand outside a convenience store, the kind of umbrella that can be found for around $3, the kind you buy when you’ve forgotten your umbrella at home and it starts to rain. First, every business in Tokyo, no matter how small, sets out an umbrella stand so you don’t have to drag your dripping umbrella into a store or office building. Second, you can leave something or forget it or set it outside and it won’t be stolen, or immediately thrown away by a store owner if you leave it behind. If you forget something on a train or in a taxi, your camera or purse or computer for example, there are numbers to call and odds are outstanding that your item will have been turned in and is waiting for you to claim it. You can walk the streets at night and not worry about being mugged or attacked. If you’re lost, there are police boxes in every neighborhood where you can ask for help. You don’t need to count your change when it’s returned to you (in fact, it’s considered very impolite) – you won’t be cheated.

More than anything, this is why I enjoy slow travel versus taking a tour with a busy schedule. I like to have the time to veer off the main path or roadway, get away from the crowds, and take a look at everyday life in a city, to notice the small things that can speak volumes about a country or a city, its culture and the people who live there. It’s the everyday that shows us how things work, and why and what is valued.

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10 thoughts on “Postcard From: Everyday Tokyo

  1. JJ says:

    I was in Tokyo in June, 2015 and I learned a lot from reading your post. I was on one of those tours with a busy schedule so they can’t cover everything, but that was the only way I could visit Japan since I don’t know anyone there and don’t speak the language. What I liked the most in Japan were…the toilets! I was so spoiled when I came back home, lol!! I also couldn’t get over how clean it was there and how polite everyone was. And I never felt unsafe. There was one night my friend was tired and I went out for a walk alone and felt very safe. I would never do that in the US. I took the bullet train from Kyoto to Tokyo and that was another amazing experience. Like you said, it was right on time and very clean. One day I had a candy wrapper in my pocket all day because I couldn’t find a garbage can anywhere! The tour guide said there are only garbage cans in certain areas due to the sarin attack in 1995. I was also amazed at how active they are. Most people walk or bike everywhere. I hope I get to go back someday.

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    • Laura says:

      I love the fancy toilets in Japan too, although the control panel for the one in my son’s condo was a bit intimidating at first (actually, everything electronic in Japan is intimidating).

      I always lose weight when I go to Japan because I walk so much. I could settle into Tokyo life very easily – I feel very comfortable there. Even though I don’t speak Japanese, it really is fairly easy to get around and figure things out. Buses are the only thing that make me nervous. Every time I climbed on a bus, I felt a little like it could be taking me anywhere and I’d never be able to figure out where I was.

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    • Laura says:

      Greg – I first started noticing the manhole covers during our first tour to Japan in the early 80s, and on our second tour I seriously thought about doing a book about them – so creative, and very culturally Japanese, to take a purely utilitarian item and make it beautiful. They’ve even gotten more fancy now, and many have added color, etc. But, even on out-of-the-way streets, they’re still interesting. I think “collecting” manhole covers would be a fun thing to do in Japan!

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  2. Laurel says:

    I love this post! It’s so interesting to me to see your ‘inside’ view of Tokyo. I’m not sure I’ll ever get there, but I feel like I’ve learned a fair amount just reading this, and I love your pictures. Thanks!

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    • Laura says:

      Thanks! As I was writing I kept thinking, “I wish I had a picture of this.” Japan always amazes and fascinates me – every time I’m there it’s an adventure, even when I’m just walking down some non-descript street. I never know what I’m going to discover, or finally begin to understand.

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  3. Vivian Gibson says:

    Before I read the answer I thought that some street artist had created the circle on the street. wow, a manhole cover!. It’s too bad that the U.S. is not as interested in the aesthetics as the Japanese. Great post on Japanese culture.

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    • Laura says:

      Japan is all about aesthetics. Everything is made with thought, not just of the item but of who will be using it or seeing it. Even the crazy inventions they come up with, or some of their silly cute items. Sometimes their aesthetics can be a little strange for Western sensibilities, but even then they’re at least interesting and thought provoking.

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  4. Hawaii Planner says:

    Loved the post, as I was just there last week – it’s all fresh in my mind. 🙂 You’ve described it very well! One day when I’m no longer working at my current company, I will share a fabulous bowing story from my trip last week. My team is still in hysterics about it. 🙂

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    • Laura says:

      I can’t wait for the bowing story! I have a few myself, but my favorite is to also watch people talk on the phone in Japan. Bowing is so ingrained that they bow to the person on the other end of the line, while they talk!

      I cant wait to go back to Japan again!

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