We walked out of the Hachiko exit from a dimly lit Shibuya station (half of all lights are still turned off to save power), into a sunny day at Shibuya. When my eyes adjusted, there were the screens, the signs, and more people that you’d see on Queen Street at rush hour. It was about 10am on a Thursday.
We spent some time wandering the tiny Shibuya streets, and had a gorgeous lunch in a sushi conveyor place. “All plates 120yen”, I think the sign said. The only part I could read was “120?”. This was the norm for us: I can’t read kanji at all, and have an incredibly sukoshi amount of Japanese. Still, we made our way with pointing, nodding, and plenty of “hai, domo!”.
The clichés are true: Tokyo is incredibly clean and polite. Sure, there’s tagging in Shibuya and overgrown vegetation beside the train tracks, but overall the place is spotless. I’m sure there are other cities with higher population densities, but Tokyo seems to have largely solved the problem of having huge numbers of humans in close proximity: everyone does their bit to keep it clean and civil.
Standing in a queue for the left-side of an escalator, I was reminded of being stuck in Auckland motorway traffic – except none of us were burning petrol, and there were more people on the escalator than in 50 cars. If I wanted to move faster, I could just step on to the right side of the escalator and start walking. I’m not sure if this behaviour is signposted anywhere, it just seems to be emergent politeness that makes a heck of a lot of sense in the crowded train system.
I get the impression that there is a lot of this in Tokyo. There’s a feeling that if you don’t do your own little bit to keep things tidy and polite, the whole charade might come crashing down.
Having 8.5 million people in a dense city is a remarkable thing. It brings about so many opportunities. Sunday evening in Tokyo station was, again, busier than I’ve ever seen a transport hub in New Zealand. It seems that whatever you want to sell in Tokyo, there will be enough traffic to support it. Be that a California burger joint in a mall, a vending machine in a stairwell, or a dedicated robot shop in Akihabara.
Ueno Park Zoo on a weekday was pleasantly busy, as was Tokyo Disneyland. In a way I’m sad that we couldn’t go back to those same places on a weekend to see what regular Tokyoites deal with. Then again, the gigantic car parks and queuing areas were perhaps more awesome in their empty state.
Another random fact: there are no tourists. We spoke to many hoteliers, shopkeepers and fellow travellers about the aftermath of the earthquake. Tourism numbers have more than halved. It’s pretty sad to see the empty hotels (our own hotel had shut two of four restaurants because of lack of patronage).
If you’re thinking of going, just do it. There are only two noticeable impacts of the electricity shortages on Tokyo: malls and shops have some of their lights turned off (e.g. one in every two fluorescent tubes are disabled); and many escalators (mostly the down ones) are turned off in the subway and train stations. Certainly nothing to be concerned about.
It was so much fun being gaijin in the city. I had no idea our little curly-blonde girl would attract crowds of (mostly teenage, mostly female) Japanese beaming and saying “oooh kawaii!”. Kawaii means cute. Think Hello Kitty and you’ll understand how much kawaii is a part of Japanese culture. So fun!
In return, Tokyo, and especially Ueno Zoo, had plenty of its own kawaii to share