Nine reasons why I love Tokyo (and one reason why I hate it)

Filipinos and Japanese may both be Asians but it seems that is the only thing we share in common.   Our recent trip to Tokyo has shown me that although both our countries belong geographically to the East, psychologically and culturally, we belong to two different planets, or make that two different solar systems; heck, make that two different galaxies.

I went away with very strong and positive first impressions of the city and, as first impressions go, it may be broad, it may not last, it may not be entirely true, but it is what it is.  So here goes.

1.  Its innate respect for people

We know the Japanese bow a lot—but porters bowing to a tourist bus before and after it leaves?! Whoa. And not just a perfunctory bow, but a bow that says I’ve-done-my-job-to-the-best-of-my-ability-and-I-am-proud-of-it-and-I-wish-you-well-for-the-rest-of-your-visit.  A straight-to-the-gut bow.

People make room for others to pass.  Their sidewalks are designed to make people and bicycles pass—you don’t know how mind-blowing that feels till you visit the Philippines.  We know the Japanese love technology but to experience how they’ve used it to make life easier, for example, for travelers, made me fall in love with the people and their city.

narita-P1080503

Tokyo is a bicycle-friendly city.

2.  Its aesthetic

The big things:  the city is one big showpiece–neatly laid out ginkgo trees; modern architecture that blends well with the past and does not give a sense of an urban jungle; an urban sprawl that is well planned.  And the little things:  table napkins, –yes table napkins–that are artfully cut out; sidewalks that are embedded with artwork, beautiful restaurant facades that just stop you in your tracks.  The whole city is awash in an aesthetic that is deeply rooted and cherished and it permeates everything.  The beauty of the whole city spoils you.

A creative facade of a restaurant in the Asakusa Shrine district.

Nothing seems too lowly for the Japanese to showcase their art.

A subway mural

3.  Its food

As American or as Filipino as…sushi.  Just as pizza and spaghetti and hamburger belong to the world cuisine, so does sushi and other Japanese dishes.  We grew up with them alongside our local staples.   The current craze in our local gustatory scene is ramen, so to have it where it came from was a special delight.  Yes, Tokyo is expensive but when food tastes that good, it’s hard to complain.  Other memorable experiences:  the tamago sushi that went down like butter in the mouth—this is how tamago should be; and eating curry at the Asakusa shrine district.

4.  Its efficiency

Buses and trains that come and go on time, down to the seconds.  Buses and trains that come and go on time, down to the seconds. Buses and trains that come and go on time, down to the seconds.  Coming from a culture famous (or should I say notorious) for our Filipino time, I just can’t stress this enough.

To have to endure 4-5 hours on the road on a 30-kilometer stretch of “highway” on an almost-weekly experience is the very definition of insanity to most people.  And yet Metro Manilans endure it.  Yup, we do live in different galaxies.

Clean, mean, traveling machine their subways are.

5.  Its roads and transportation system

Trishaws, bicycles, electric scooter, motorcycles, sedans, vintage cars, sports cars, double decker buses, railways, subways, bullet train, maglev—I saw them all and I am envious, especially of the latter four.  Even more so, I am envious of their roads that had nary a bump or even a hiccup that marred its buttery smoothness.  The word or the concept of “potholes” don’t seem to exist in the Japanese dictionary or mindset.  The escalators have that extra three or four steps that make it safer to walk on or off.  The trains are unbelievably clean and many are still almost new-looking—how’d they do that?!  I tell you, the Japanese are not human.

When I become a little old lady, I want an electric scooter too.

Could this be anywhere but Akihabara?

6.  Its love for nature

We know that everything is expensive in Tokyo, especially land.  So to find so many parks in the city is a special treat and a wonder to behold and again, a nod to the innate respect the Japanese have for its citizens, its religion, its culture, and its heritage.  My husband and I were especially struck by the existence of the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in the heart of the city, this expanse of oasis and serenity in the midst of the hustle and bustle of a commercial district.  It’s enough to turn anyone into a poet.

A young couple engages in some light-hearted horseplay at the Shinjuku Gyoen Gardens. (One of my favorite photos from Dariel's Tokyo photo album)

The parks invite for long walks and meditation.

7.  It’s traveler-friendly

My late father-in-law had refused to travel in his last years because his prostate cancer made the constant availability of a toilet a necessity.  He wouldn’t have had a problem in Tokyo.  The city’s smallest toilets can put even our best malls to shame.  Not only are they clean, they are well stocked—even having two rolls of paper on hand—they are free, and they are everywhere.  And they are conveniently located—oh no, I feel a piss coming; oh look, here’s a toilet.

Again, the clean streets, clear and large signs, clutter-free and generous sidewalks (sidewalks in Manila?  What’s that?)  made touring on foot a joy and a breeze.

Joggers fill the sidewalks near the Imperial Palace garden in the late afternoon.

We hardly spoke Japanese (and what few phrases I had memorized went to my senior memory bank and was promptly forgotten) but it hardly mattered (but if you want to know more than just directions then knowing more than a few phrases is a must) because the subway and rail systems were easy enough to decipher and you’re bound to meet a friendly Japanese or two along the way who understood English.

It was a bummer that some parks didn’t allow tripods but they must figure, how many tourists come to Tokyo lugging around big, heavy, cumbersome tripods to go with big, heavy, cumbersome cameras?  (Okay, it’s now 2014 and big, heavy, cumbersome cameras for traveling is soooo 2013 :P).

The Shinjuku Gyoen garden is one place that allows tripods.

8.  Its discipline

I always wondered how much money we Filipinos would save by doing away with all those Walk signals that we’ve installed in our major cities? Hardly anyone follows them.  As with many rules in our country, these are only a suggestion.  Not so in Tokyo.  They have big badass stoplights and nobody dares to cross the pedestrian lane when the Don’t Walk signal is on.   It almost feels like the ginormous red glare of the sign can zap you out of existence if you dared as much as set a tentative foot on the street.

9.  Its cleanliness

No city can be this clean.  But I was hard put to find a discarded plastic on most of the streets or subways, and I tried.  Oh, there were isolated spots but the pretty fallen leaves of the ginkgo trees outnumbered the trash I saw.  Did I say the toilets were clean?  A few had wet floors, but clean, nevertheless.

There's art on the streets and along the streets.

And the one reason why I hate Tokyo is…

Smokers are allowed!

Oh the smell of fresh, winter air…cough, cough, gah!  How can they allow this…this abomination?  I know the smokers can only smoke in designated areas but it’s still an abomination.  It’s like emptying your trash bin in the middle of a clean street; it’s like pissing in a freshly chlorinated pool (ewww, okay it’s more common than we think, but still ewww); it’s like kissing someone full on the mouth after eating a load of garlic peanuts or garlic anything.  Yes, you’re right, it’s YUCK.   Is it a coincidence that the dirtiest spots in the city are right where the smokers are?

The smokers' area is a stark contrast to the overall pristine cleanlines of Tokyo.

And how about that gas chamber of a human aquarium in Narita where smokers go—it gave me the shivers.

The smoke escapes from the cubicle, tainting its surroundings.  If it's bad a few feet away, how much more inside the smokers' "lounge" and inside the smokers' lungs.

Maybe I feel this way because I live in Davao City where smoking in public is banned (probably the one ordinance in the whole country that is truly enforced).  We may have a  lot of pollen in the air but smoke from smokers in public is a distant memory.  In this area (ha!), Davao trumps Tokyo.  Now if only we can extend this discipline to more areas of our city and national life.  Give us 100, nay 200 years probably?

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7 thoughts on “Nine reasons why I love Tokyo (and one reason why I hate it)

  1. Thanks Cteavin! I think that little emphasis on road discipline is a small price to pay for road safety. If we can enforce even just that on our roads here in the Philippines, maybe this kind of discipline can have a ripple effect on other facets of our societal behavior. As they say, big things start small.

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