Before I went to Tokyo for the first time, I was told what to expect. At least five of those things turned out to be flat-out lies. I was thinking of this as I was staring at the collection of ticket stubs, brochures and postcards still stuck to my refrigerator. It’s almost time to take them down. I went last November. So long ago, now. The trip was fantastic. Two weeks just in Tokyo. Walking for miles and miles every day, riding the trains all over the city…It really is an incredible, multi-layered, intense, wonderful place. But, before too much time passes and the memories fade or get colored too much by nostalgia, I wanted to remind myself that it is by no means perfect. So, here are some things that I had read, seen on shows, or had been told by friends that turned out, at least in my case, not to be remotely true. In fact, they were lies.
1. Tokyo is Amazingly Clean
Like hell it is. At least not in the Kubukicho part of Shinjuku that I stayed in. There was as much trash, vomit and general nastiness on many of those streets as there was in my lovely hometown of Los Angeles. Even as much as the MacArthur Park area in I live in, which is really saying something. Now, to be fair, most of Tokyo IS clean. Far, far cleaner than most American cities. And the Shinjuku area, the Kubukicho part, east of the subway station, in particular, is filled with massive crowds, day and night, of drunken tourists. But the fact remains, if you were expecting to be able to walk out of your hotel without fear of stepping into a pool of puke, think again. And don’t even get me started on this weird thing they have in Tokyo against public trash cans or soap in bathrooms!
2. Tokyo is Expensive
Not really. It’s certainly not any more expensive than L.A., New York or, God forbid, San Francisco. Like any big city it CAN be. You want to spend $300 dollars on dinner, no problem. You have plenty of internationally recognized, world-renowned, restaurants available to go do that in. But you can just as easily spend the equivalent of ten bucks and have the best ramen you ever had. Or get an insane variety of mind-blowingly high-quality takeout from the food halls of the luxury department stores. It’s up to you what you want to spend, from one extreme to the other. The same is true for hotel rooms, beer, transportation and just about anything else. Sure, you can drop a ton of money in Tokyo. Easily. But you certainly don’t need to to have a quality experience.
3. The Subways Are Great
Ok, let me be very specific here. The subways ARE great. They get you almost anywhere you need, quickly and cheaply. It’s the stations that suck. I mean, really. really, really suck. Shinjuku station is a nightmare. But the real problem isn’t even that. That’s just a symptom of a bigger issue. Like most subway systems, Tokyo’s was built piecemeal, line by line. Not as part of some comprehensive, grand scheme. As a result, it’s a patchwork of different, individual, lines which may or may not easily connect to one another. I can’t tell you how many times I ended up traveling for blocks, underground, through some temporary, maze-like, corridor trying to connect from one train to the other, only to never actually find it. And, this didn’t seem to be just a dumb tourist phenomena. I can’t tell you how many pissed-off, and, dare I say it, rude, Tokyoites I saw scrambling to find their way through the chaos of poorly planned and confusing line connections. It’s insane. It was so bad that it was not uncommon for me to spend more time desperately trying to find my way through one of the big stations or corridors than actually being on the train going from one place to another. Just ridiculous.
4. The (fill in the blank tourist site) Is Great!
Alright, every city has its tourist traps. But there was something particularly painful about going to parts of Tokyo that I read and researched about going to for countless hours only to find…You know the face. The disappointed “is that it?” face you see so much here in L.A. when tourists see Hollywood for the first time. I’m sure I had that look when I saw the Golden Gai. Actually, it’s still a very cool area. It’s block after block of teeny, tiny, little bars stacked one up right against the other. They hold as little as eight people at a time and all have themes to them that reflect their owner’s personalities. The problem is that it is ALL tourists. Like, everyone. The idea of traveling all the way around the world to sit squashed up next to some couple from Minnesota who want to complain about their flight all night is not my idea of a good time. The same thing holds true for a painfully large number of the “must see sites” in Tokyo. They might still be worth seeing, just be ready to get into a fight with drunk guys from Australia or surrounded by people pouring out of tour buses when you do.
5. Tokyo is the City of the Future
No, it’s not. The reality is that Japan, in general, and Tokyo, more specifically, have endured decades of a shit economy. There was a time when Americans really and truly feared that the Japanese were going to become so rich and powerful they were a threat to our national security. At one point the Japanese bought Rockefeller Center, for Christ Sake! But then their economic bubble burst and an entire generation grew up dealing with the fall out. And that harsh, economic reality is visible in the fabric of Tokyo. It’s in the faces of the temporary contract workers fighting their way through the crowds at rush hour. It’s in the half-assed infrastructure projects that corners got cut on. It’s in the air itself. Tokyo isn’t the city of the coming cyber age you saw in all those cool anime. It’s a city, ever so slowly, taking its place again as one of the great cities of the world instead of just being a reminder of a golden age, long gone, decades ago.
I can’t say enough how this is all just my personal take, from my own trip. And, in spite of all these grievances, I had an absolutely incredible time. I take that back, not the part of the the incredible time, the “in spite of.” It’s those very contradictions in Tokyo which make it so fascinating to me. A city of the future struggling to deal with the fallout of its past. A bright and shiny Disneyland blighted by occasional grime and chaos. An urban megacity that can be insanely intense and crowded or silent and lonely, depending on which part you’re in. It’s all these things and so much more. I know that I am only beginning to scratch the very, very surface of Tokyo. As a foreigner, I will never, ever, really know it. But, hopefully, there’s more that I can figure out. More to discover. More to see. I just really hope I don’t get lost in one of those subway corridors again trying to do it.