A visit to Japan is for many an unforgettable and slightly surreal experience for many and I am no exception. My visit to Tokyo was one whirlwind of colourful impressions, amusing incidences and not a little bewilderment. In a fortnight of exploring, tasting and exhilirating discovery, these are just a few of the strongest impressions I took back with me just from one short visit to the famous Shinjuku area of Tokyo:
The first cultural observation I made was, God, there are so many people here! I’ve lived in big cities all my life surrounded by crowds but the sheer press of humanity I encountered just stepping out of Shinjuku train station was breathtaking. A few months after that trip, I read somewhere that over 2 million passengers pass through Shinjuku station on a daily basis and that particular day, it felt like I ran into them all!
After some general wandering around, I found myself at the iconic ‘five way scramble crossing’ of Shinjuku, where five streams of foot-traffic merge into one unbelievably crowded pedestrian zone. There were huge television sets glaring down at the crowds, huge neon signs plastered over everything and fashionably dressed people everywhere. Like most people, I was familiar with this particular spot from seeing it countless times in movies, music videos and practically every guidebook on Tokyo, but television and photographs can’t capture the amazing vibe and energy of the reality. I almost expected to see flying cars buzzing around the buildings – it was definitely like a scene out of Blade Runner!
Just before venturing out, a friend had given me some general directions about the sights in Shinjuku, which rang in my head as I studied the map and might be helpful for other lost tourists to know:
“…To the west of the station was the skyscraper district, with the city’s tallest buildings, good for a panoramic view…, ” Hmmm, better save that for later, can take in the view with my meal in one of the restaurants in the towers.
“…To the north-east was Kabukicho, Tokyo’s famous red-light district…, ” …Ahem, maybe not…
“Surrounding the station on all sides were over a dozen huge department stores and electronics stores…, ” Right, that’s my next stop!
Shinjuku is known for its many, many, shopping centres – there are over a dozen within easy walking distance. Some of the names are world famous, such as Takashimaya and Isetan, while others are better known in Japan – Mylord and Keio. They all had one thing in common though– all had at least 10 floors and every floor was crammed with knick-knacks and jewels and clothes, oh my! There was everything from Gucci to Totomaru to Nikes to some strange green gadgety things. I was in shopaholic heaven!
The electronics stores were even more amazing. I stopped into Sakuraya Yodobashi Camera, one of two big discount electronics retailers in the area and was stunned at the sheer wealth of gadgetry on display. There was everything from high-tech entertainment systems to underwater cameras, but I won’t even try to describe three quarters of what I saw – for the simple reason that for the most part, I really have no idea what I was looking at! I’ve heard it said that when it comes to consumer electronics, Tokyo is a decade ahead of the rest of the world and after checking out some of the mid-range phone models on display, I have no doubts whatsoever. Some of these Japan-only models had more functions than my entire desktop computer seems to have!
During all that walking, I came across my second cultural phenomenon: the ubiquitous vending machine. As practically every guidebook told me, there were hundreds of them around, dispensing everything from snacks to comic books, stationery to new underwear (apparently, the story about the vending machines dispensing used girl’s underwear is only an urban legend, thankfully!). The vending machines were there all right on practically every street corner, but despite my mental preparation I was shocked by one thing: The vending machines selling. It wasn’t what they were selling which shocked me, but the fact there was no graffiti. No bars on the glass displays. Not a single sign of vandalism, no indications someone had tried to break the machine to get to the booze. That was when it really hit me – wow, this is really Tokyo!
These are just a few of the impressions I brought home with me from one short episode of my trip. There were plenty of other memorable happenings – going on a bar crawl in Roppongi with a bunch of colleagues who didn’t speak a word of English; forgetting my wallet in a park and returning to find it still sitting untouched and perfectly intact two hours later; and a visit to a public bath which proved most entertaining for the other bathers. Fortunately, there’s no time or space to tell them all, so the best advice I can give is to go visit Tokyo and bring back some interesting memories yourself!