Tokyo Through Expat Eyes

A recent post on Damyanti’s blog Daily (w)rite got me thinking about the city which, for better and worse, has become my second home (Toronto will always be my first – it’s a long story). “Writing about where you stay often becomes your favorite pastime,” Damyanti writes, “if you are an expatriate.”

Couldn’t agree more. But then, I’ve always enjoyed writing about places real and imagined, almost as if they were characters in stories…. In any case, inspired by Damyanti’s observations about Malaysia and Singapore, I thought the following thoughts about Tokyo – or The Big Sushi, as I like to call it:

  • Tokyo is big. I mean really, really big. Flying over the city, you see a great circuit board of roads and buildings pushed up against Tokyo Bay. Depending on how you count it, there are over 30 million people living in the Tokyo area.
  • You feel the weight of all those people when you travel Tokyo’s trains, especially at rush hour. I mean, according to Wikipedia, Shinjuku Station alone sees almost 4 million passengers per day. That’s more than the entire population of Toronto moving through one station. Every day. Shinjuku has 36 platforms, and over 200 exits. No wonder that, even after 11 years, I still got lost there sometimes…
  • Never mind the crush, Tokyo’s train system has gotta be one of the wonders of the modern world. The trains run on time. On time. Day in and day out, barring severe weather and the occasional suicide. I suspect that the popular image of Japan as an ultra-efficient country (hint: in many ways, Japan is anything but; this isn’t necessarily a bad thing) comes in large part from visitors’ encounters with the trains.
  • All those on-time trains means you can easily live in quieter parts of the city, such as my semi-rural neighbourhood in the west end (my neighbour has a goat! I sometimes wake to roosters). Every day I commute to my school downtown, by which I mean close to the Yamanote Line which circles the heart of Tokyo. Oh, yes: prefectural Tokyo has countryside within its borders; also mountainous national parks and even a chain of islands, some with active volcanoes, which stretch a few thousand kilometres south of here.
  • Still, most expats live, work, and play in certain neighbourhoods: Kichijoji, Ikebukuro, and Shinjuku  in the west end, Ebisu-Hiro-o, Roppongi, and Azabu south-central, Shinagawa to the east. This concentration of gaikokujin – the polite term for foreigners – can make the city feel much smaller, more like a cluster of villages or towns linked by rail than a megalopolis. It’s possible to spend your entire time in Tokyo in a few foreign-friendly parts of town, and see familiar faces every day. Many gaijin – the casual, sometimes rude term for foreigners – do.
  • Those who don’t can find Tokyo an alienating place. Partly, and unlike in other parts of Japan, it comes down to reserve on the part of Tokyoites. Some take this as rudeness, but really, if you live and work in a city with 30,000,000 neighbours, how could you not tune out without becoming totally overwhelmed?
  • Despite that reserve, and the every-man-for-himself commute experience, people in Tokyo are often downright friendly and helpful. Sometimes just looking like a stranded tourist is enough for someone – usually a younger person – to lead you in the right direction. Sometimes literally, going out of their way to make sure you get to the right address, bus stop, or train platform.

5 thoughts on “Tokyo Through Expat Eyes

  1. Been to Tokyo twice, and I can attest to your last observation. Folks really help out stranded tourists.

    I’ve taken trains from Shinjuku — I stayed not far from there. It is a marvel, you’re right…so many people, yet so polite as they go about their business.

    So glad my post prompted you to write this one– maybe we can catch up the next time I’m in Tokyo 🙂

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