My first trip to Tokyo was a sensory overload in the best of ways. At first glance, many aspects of the city seemed like typical quirks of urban life that I was familiar with as a New Yorker. But I quickly discovered that under every seemingly familiar facade was something new to unravel that was totally foreign to my life in the States. It was a constant lesson in adjusting my assumptions about what I thought I knew, and embracing the (amazing) uncertainty of admitting to myself that I understood nothing about how to navigate the culture of this overwhelming, new-to-me metropolis. All I could do was listen, learn, and commit as many moments as possible to memory.
I first visited Tokyo on a girls’ trip to visit an American friend who was living in Japan at the time, just a few weeks before Christmas (and just a few years into adulthood). I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. There was really no better way to get my first taste of the country than with two of my oldest friends—one of whom was a resident herself.
Of course, I barely scratched the surface of all there is to see and do, but I left with a lot of long-lasting first impressions. Below, a few things that might surprise you on your first trip to Tokyo…
1. The balance between the historic and modern
It isn’t rare to see a centuries-old structure alongside a towering skyscraper, and that same juxtaposition seemed to show up among local business, city dwellers’ daily habits, and how people related to each other.
2. The fashion
Harajuku, one of the visual highlights of a first trip to Tokyo. Need I say more?
3. The ramen
Tiny, flavor-packed ramen bars overflow with businessmen, students, and tourists alike.
4. The attention to detail
When strolling along the Tokyo Imperial Palace’s East Gardens, I came across crew of several city employees (or perhaps volunteers?) gathered around a small cluster of trees, meticulously trimming each branch. They were still there when I passed again hours later. I’ll never forget that display of care and attention, and those values seemed to spill over into many other facets of Tokyo residents’ lives.
5. The courtesy on public transportation
If you’ve ever relied on public transit for your daily commute, you know it’s not exactly unicorns and kittens—people are rude as hell. On the NYC subway, where I spend most mornings, the crowds and overall nastiness brings out the worst in people. At rush hour, people push and shove like bumper cars to squeeze their way onto crowded trains. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been waiting for ten minutes and they just arrived on the platform—everyone’s on a mission, and manners no longer apply.
This is not what I witnessed in Tokyo. Instead, the platform was painted with orderly queue, and—gasp—commuters actually followed those prompts by standing in line, and boarding the train in an orderly fashion. I thought I was hallucinating.
6. The kawaii
The cuter, the better.
7. The vending machines
Because you never know when you’ll need canned coffee, a cup of noodles, or a pair of socks on the go.
8. The 100-yen shops
These are a bit like dollar stores in the U.S., but with (in my humble opinion) far more fascinating merchandise.
9. The rhythm
Tokyo residents have a way of moving that’s all their own, and it’s mesmerizing to watch.
Crowded as the city may be, pedestrians seem to weave amongst each other in what looks like their very own form of choreography. Even packed intersections and train stations can take on a calming feel, because inexplicably, everyone seems to know exactly where they’re going, and nobody’s in anyone else’s way.