For some, the perfect vacation involves nothing more than a beach and a cocktail, but many intrepid travelers (including myself) long for exciting new experiences and cultures completely different from their own. For western travelers, a trip to one of the many fantastic countries in Asia presents the chance to do something totally different, and Tokyo is no exception.
Tokyo offers an incredible amount of novel experiences for first-timers, and it is home to one of the oldest cultures in the world. Thousands of people choose to go to Tokyo every year for many different reasons. Whether it’s the food, people, trains, architecture, technology, or the pop culture, the city promises many things that will shock first-time tourists as special or unusual.
In this article, we’re going to discuss what those experiences are, which ones will make you do a double-take, and why they’ll make your trip to Japan all the more special.
Why Do People Visit Tokyo?
If you’ve been looking into visiting Japan yourself, you’ll likely think that’s a silly question – there are lots of interesting things to see in Japan! Surprisingly, though, many people don’t know much about the country at all. Depending on where you’re from, many people simply see Japan as a very distant place, or they see it through the lens of the stereotypes that have been portrayed in popular culture through the years.
Stereotypes aside, Japan is a world leader in fashion and technology and boasts a strong balance of historical sites and modern architecture. There are traditional experiences such as kabuki theatre, or the shrines and temples. Maybe you’re enticed by the more modern offerings like gaming and technology paradise Akihabara, or breath-taking architecture.
Whichever you prefer, Tokyo comprises all that and more as one of the busiest and most exciting cities in the world. No matter where you’ve been, most travelers have one thing in common, something they’re all looking for – unique experiences. Whether you’re just wanting to know a little more before you take the plunge, or you’ve planned your trip and you’ve started to get excited (or maybe even a little nervous), you’ll no doubt be wondering what your first few-days will be like. Hopefully, we can help answer that question by sharing some of the special, unusual or unique things first-timers will experience in Tokyo.
What Will Shock You While Visiting Tokyo?
1. It’s incredibly calm for such a busy place
Tokyo is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, and is home to around 30% of Japan’s entire population. It’s a hub of business, commerce, culture, and food and it’s one of the most popular destinations for travel for Japanese people and foreigners alike. Naturally, that makes it a very busy place FULL of people hurrying to their destinations, but they do so in a way that is foreign to most foreigners. When you step off your plane and onto public transport or into the stations you’ll likely be shocked at how quiet and calm everyone is.
My first few days in Tokyo were surreal, and this was one of the reasons why. Having been pushed and shoved countless times on public transport in the U.K., it was incredible to see thousands of people quietly and respectfully queueing for the next train, or calmly power walking through the busy streets during rush hour. I’d confidently say this will be one of the most memorable and unusual experiences for any visitor, all the more so when you return home and have to endure the pushing and shoving once again.
There’s a really important reason for this; something that’s known throughout Japan instinctively, but that visitors will need to take note of – the rules. Residents of Tokyo, and indeed Japan, live by a code of rules both written and unwritten that keep the place running in perfect order, and while nobody will call you out in public for breaking these rules as a tourist it’s polite to learn and abide by them if you can. Japanese people care greatly about manners and are incredibly considerate of others.
For example, talking on the phone while on public transport is an absolute no-no, as is anything that would inconvenience or disturb people during your journey. As I mentioned, you shouldn’t be too anxious about this as a tourist. You can pay attention to the people around you and follow their lead, and if that fails there are usually signs around with illustrations to help. Just enjoy the peace and quiet you probably won’t experience on your own morning commute.
2. The people are a breath of fresh air in an already clean city
One of the most special things about visiting any part of Japan is the people, and Tokyo is no exception. While I don’t agree with buying into stereotypes, I can confidently make the following statement from experience – Japanese people are kind, friendly, polite, and accommodating to tourists, especially if they’re of the younger generation.
Allow me to reinforce this with a personal experience (it won’t be very long, I promise!). When my husband and I arrived in Japan after a fifteen-hour journey we were very tired. We made it to Tokyo station from the airport late in the evening and stood quietly looking up at the enormous and intimidating map of all the train lines with panic – it was entirely in Japanese. Little did we know that there was an identical map in English just around the corner, but in our defense, we were very jetlagged! A well-dressed man approached us and asked if we needed any help – he was soft-spoken, and his English was excellent. I showed him the address of our accommodation, and he helped us choose the right line and money, buy the correct tickets, and then proceeded to walk us to the platform we needed. We made conversation as the train approached, wondering if he needed to go and help other passengers, at which point he proceeded to tell us he was also on his way home and didn’t work at the station. He simply saw us looking confused and wanted to help.
We were moved by his kindness, but during our trip, we realized that this was typical of the people in Tokyo, and across Japan. There’s a large amount of pride that the people have in their city, and most people we actually spoke to were very eager to know if we were enjoying our stay. I’m sure there were some people who might not have felt quite as welcoming to us as Gaijin (a sometimes-unfriendly word for outsiders), and maybe we were looking through rose-colored glasses while recounting the less-than-friendly nature of our own home country, but our overwhelming impression was one of the very welcoming people who were intent on helping us. You might have to ask for help, as the majority of Japanese people are quite shy and reserved. First-time tourists shouldn’t hold back from asking though, as most Tokyoites really are that kind and willing to assist you. And if you’ve managed to learn a little Japanese to greet them with? Even better.
3. Not everything is high tech, but the toilets definitely are
Japan has a long-standing reputation for being one of the most technologically advanced societies in the world, and Tokyo is at the pinnacle of its innovation. For the most part though, Tokyo looks just like a normal city…until you use a public toilet that is. I don’t know what public toilets are like where you are from, but where I’m from it can be a pretty dire situation. Stepping into a public toilet in Tokyo however, is akin to stepping into a bathroom at a spa. As well as being very clean, most toilets in Tokyo have high-tech features that make everything more pleasant – heated seats, bidet function, and even the soothing sounds of a babbling brook that make your call with nature much more private. You’ll find that most of the toilets you encounter here have some or all of these features, but even if they don’t, they’ll be far cleaner than anything you’re likely used to.
“Of all the things you could talk about in this article, why on earth should I get excited about using the bathroom?”, you might ask. It might seem like such a silly thing to look forward to, especially if you’re traveling all the way across the globe. There’s a fascinating article over at Medium.com that discusses why they’re so popular here, but in short? The high-tech toilets are quintessentially Japanese in what they offer – comfort, cleanliness, and lots of buttons that are hard to understand if you don’t speak the language (pressing them to see what they do is half the fun). While you’ll undoubtedly have many experiences that make it in the scrapbook during your time in Tokyo, heading to the bathroom as soon as you land will be a calm and comforting reminder that you’re far from home, and an exciting taster of things to come.
4. The streets are impeccably clean, but there are no trash bins in sight
Yes, you read that correctly, there are very few rubbish bins to be found out on the streets of Tokyo. Why is this? It stems back to an incident in 1995. On March 20th of that year, members of the doomsday cult group Aum Shinrikyo committed a terrorist attack using Sarin gas, using plastic bags wrapped in newspapers to disperse it. Sadly, twelve people died, and over 5000 were injured. The attack shook the nation, and in an attempt to minimize any possible opportunities and hiding places for future attacks, the Japanese government chose to eliminate most of the rubbish bins in the city.
For many first-timers the lack of rubbish bins will be something that strikes you as unusual the very instant you have something to throw away – you’ll walk along looking for a bin, get distracted by the fantastic city, and then realize you’ve been holding your rubbish for 5 minutes. Then, you’ll instantly appreciate you haven’t seen any rubbish on the streets in your search either. Why? Are Japanese people just cleaner than the rest of us? There could be some interesting psychology behind Tokyo’s clean streets.
Many long-time residents of Tokyo will tell you that 20-30 years ago there was plenty of garbage around, but the removal of most of the bins resulted in cleaner streets. The “broken windows” theory says that people are more likely to damage a house that already has broken windows, ergo people might be more likely to throw trash when they see a pile already on the floor. So fewer bins, less garbage? It’s difficult to determine undisputedly, but one thing is certain – the people of Tokyo care about keeping their city clean and their rubbish to themselves. So be prepared to keep yours in your bag or pockets until you get back to your accommodation, and just appreciate what it’s like to be in a city that is so incredibly busy, and yet so clean.
5. There’s more to Japan than manga and anime…
When you told your friends and family you were thinking of visiting Tokyo, what kind of reaction did you get? For us, one of the most popular responses was something along the lines of “Oh, you must be into all those weird Japanese comics, cartoons, fashions, etc?”. I mean, they were right of course, and hopefully the people where you’re from will be a little more open-minded than that, but it’s an unfortunate fact that most people don’t know very much about Japan at all, and their knowledge is comprised of a few stereotypes. Many people first dream of seeing Japan because of the way it has been depicted in popular culture and that’s what drives them to visit. Expectations aside you’ll be amazed at the vast and diverse wealth of experiences and culture on offer. What was initially a visit to see Japanese arcades or Harajuku girls (of which there are plenty), will become a world-expanding foray into interests you didn’t even know you had!
With fourteen different districts that are like small cities themselves, Tokyo has so many different things to offer. Many first-time travelers visit to see one or two specific things and then realize there’s more to see and do than they have time for in the short time they’re planning to be there. For example, you could head to Ginza district, a western-style shopping metropolis with fantastic boutiques and restaurants. If you’re a fan of history and ancient architecture, you could visit the Imperial Palace, a green paradise-like area that contains parks, shrines, and gardens. Or how about Ueno, which is home to a huge park, zoo, and some of the city’s coolest museums? Maybe you’re a night owl, in which case Roppongi district is the place to be since it offers trendy restaurants and fantastic nightlife. We’ve already listed a week’s worth of things to do, and that’s just four out of fourteen of the districts on offer. Whether you’re from a huge city or a small town yourself, you’ll definitely be amazed at everything you can do in Tokyo.
6. There are plenty of inexpensive restaurants
A common concern among people hoping to visit Tokyo is that it will be very expensive. In the last couple of decades, when the Yen was very strong and people chose considerably cheaper places in Asia to visit (like Thailand), Japan cemented a reputation as being kind of a pricey place to go, and for good reason – it definitely was one of the more expensive places you could visit around the world. Nowadays though, things have definitely changed. Yes, there are plenty of high-end restaurants and luxury hotels that will set you back a hefty sum.
There’s a 99% chance that those places are worth the cost if you can afford them too – when it comes to anything involving hospitality, Japan definitely leads the way. But Tokyo now has a wealth of affordable restaurants and accommodation that won’t cost you your entire holiday budget. Not only can you eat on a budget, but you can also eat extremely well on a budget since food in Japan is of the highest quality no matter how much you’re paying.
Many award-winning restaurants with meals priced at several hundreds of pounds even offer a cheaper lunch menu for those who want to try their food but can’t quite push to the evening prices. Unagi Hashimoto, for example, offers Michelin quality unagi (eel) at a much lower price during lunchtime dining hours, and it will be just as delicious as it would have been later on. Something else that will surprise Tokyo-newbies is the unassuming nature of Tokyo’s best restaurants.
Most of them aren’t flashy, and you could be forgiven for missing them even when you’re looking for them. Don’t let the humble appearance put you off – Tokyo’s best restaurants will be some of your most memorable and loved dining experiences.
7. The train system is scaringly efficient
Most people who’ve heard of Tokyo will undoubtedly have read or known something about the rail system there. Whatever you’re expecting, you’ll still be impressed when you use the trains. It’s really hard to believe that any rail system could be this precise and efficient, especially when you learn that out of the 50 busiest train stations in the world, 45 are located in Japan.
You don’t need to be a “densha otaku” (train nerd) to appreciate this; in fact, it really doesn’t matter if you’ve never had so much as a passing interest in trains, the smooth and punctual ride of every single train you use will astound you. The trains here are so efficient, they set off to the SECOND they’re scheduled to. You can trust me because I’ve timed several of them, and I’ve watched in amazement as the train started moving just as the minute hand reached the scheduled time (no, I’m not a densha otaku, just incredulous).
To illustrate this for you, in 2016 one train service went viral for departing 20 seconds earlier than it was supposed to, causing the guilty parties to release an actual statement of apology. Conversely, trains are so rarely late in Tokyo that drivers have to issue signed documents to workers they’ve inconvenienced on a couple of occasions that they are behind schedule (by minutes I might add). Amazed yet? If you come from a country where the train system is in any way inefficient, you probably won’t even believe it until you see it – I didn’t.
An Experience Different For Everyone
These are just some of the things that strike first-time visitors when they reach Tokyo, but one article certainly can’t cover all the wonderful experiences you’ll have here. What’s more, some things might strike you more than others depending on where you’re coming from and where you’ve already been. For somebody from the U.K. like me, the complete culture shift will be striking. For somebody from a small town, the sheer size of Tokyo will be unbelievable, not to mention the number of people living there. Maybe you’ve been to countries in Asia before? Even so, the organization and smooth operation of everything in the city will be impressive. And no matter where you’re from, the absolute abundance of things to see, do, taste, and experience will likely make your first trip to Tokyo one you’ll never forget, even if you travel back there time and time again.
Do you think we covered everything here? Let us know in the comments!