Ohayo gozaimasu! Tokyo is a sprawling cosmopolitan city a polite and orderly culture steeped in traditional and culinary arts it also has a history of mixing tradition and innovation and although I’m half Japanese, like any other country, Tokyo can present some fun culture shock for travelers like myself.
Tokyo Culture Shock!
19 Things Which Will Shock you about Tokyo
1. Tokyo’s Dense Crowds
I’ve always assumed China and India would have dense crowds due to the outstanding size of these countries and measured populations. But upon arrival what really surprised me was Tokyo’s dense crowds. Tokyo and its prefectures has a population of up to 13 million people and while there’s plenty of space per person, these are some of the biggest crowds I’ve seen in a city, let alone crossing streets. If you ever want to see how bad it can go to Shinjuku Station just before midnight and you’ll see Japanese converge upon the station to make their last train.
2. Vending Machines
Vending machines are ubiquitous in Tokyo. They’re virtually everywhere which is good when you’re looking for a cold drink. The going range for these type of drinks are probably at roughly around $1 USD, but they even have vending machine restaurants and I think this has to do with Tokyo folks being busy and needing quick convenience. Despite the fact this is fast food, food in these restaurants are still prepared by hand and made with care. Some has pictures on the buttons, so that you can see what you’re ordering or what the the dish is. Meanwhile, others may have a display case of numbered plastic food which correspond with a numbered button.
3. Toto Toilets: Japanese luxury throne
Japanese luxury toilets or Toto toilets are something you might find in public restrooms. They’ve got a remote on the side , where each button has a feature, such as bidet, front or back… there’s even a button for flushing sounds, so you can have a bit of privacy when you do your business.
4. Motherhood, Seniors and Family Priority
What I loved is that Tokyo seems to think about motherhood. In Tokyo, you’ll occasionally find mother and child stalls with special seats for the child. Sometimes they even have their own private family bathroom. On trains, you’ll see seat reserved for seniors, handicapped and pregnant mothers and while you might find that in other countries, Japanese folk do reserve that for those categories and will only use it if there is no one of that category there.
5. Rush Hour Traffic
As part of Tokyo’s dense crowds sometimes pedestrian traffic during rush hour can be a challenge. When you’re arriving early in the morning when all the businessmen or the business folk are like passing through the Metros, it’s kind of hard to cross. You have to wait to kinda like zig your way, zagging through. Um, like joining the pedestrian flow in a metro is another thing I found challenging. It’s almost like trying to figure out when to jump in when you’re skipping rope, because the flow can be pretty continuous and in one direction. It’s almost people streaming in a line. It’s a fairly organized line. One directional stream. I’m gonna have to either wait for the flow to die or I’m gonna have to zip!
A lot of my initial excitement happening in Tokyo metro stations because you’ll need them to get around. Yes i think i’ve got the stream of traffic right now, because I was coming in and a lot of people were coming towards me. If you’re going counter traffic I think you just hug the outside. That’s what I’m getting. The people who are going counter (traffic) just kind of hug to the outside or I don’t know… maybe that’s the flow of direction. Okay, let’s let’s just merge… just like a little tadpole swimming… merging with the pod.
Another thing about Tokyo and Japanese culture is that it’s very orderly. Take for instance standing in line while waiting for your train. There’s definitely no pushing and shoving.
7. Escalator etiquette
Escalator etiquette is an unspoken etiquette you’ll find in other Asian countries like Taiwan and Korea. The left side is for standing right side is for passing. Do not stand in the passing lane. In cities such as Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe, the reverse is true- left side is for passing and right side is for standing.
8. Pedestrian culture and walking
Tokyo is a pedestrian culture and you can get around by foot, bus or metro. If you ride the Metro be prepared to walk, stand and climb, as escalator and elevators can’t always be relied upon.
9. Signs, Directions and Large metro stations
In Tokyo you always find directions and signs. The only problem is sometimes, it can get to be a bit much. Okay, so this is going to Akihabara. You’ve got that side that’s going down. You’ve got this side that’s going up. It’s also color-coded to some level.
Some metros are big… like, really big. You can almost certainly get lost, due to the fact they’re hub stations with many connections. The most famous station for getting lost is Shinjuku Station, which is the largest station in Tokyo. The station has over 200 exits with subterranean walking paths which connect to nearby stations. If you get lost, take a deep breath. Even locals can get lost in some of these large metro stations. Whether you’re looking for trains, a JR line or an exit just to get out… large metro stations can be confusing. If you need to get anywhere in a timely manner, factor in time to find your way to the correct exit. You can also enlist the help of information booth guards, who will point you in the direction you need.
10. JR trains may have same names as local trains
One thing to always check is whether your train is a regular train or a JR station. JR stations and trains are owned by a private company. So they may have the same stop name as a regular train/station, but their location may be separate from the local station. If looking for directions or asking for help, always check if it’s a JR first.
11. Jobs for Smaller Details
In Akihabara, I saw a patrol man helping guide the crosswalk intersection but it was for a very small and tangential intersection, which barely held legitimate traffic. Even though there was a crosswalk and a traffic light nearby, he was still there to direct small traffic. Some folks have mentioned Japan finds odd jobs for the unemployed people and this may be true, as I’ve also seen uniformed trash pickers walking down the sidewalk scooping up small street trash to keep the neighborhood clean. In either case, there are jobs for some of the smallest details of society.
12. Public Restrooms but not trash bins
Very similar to Korea, metro stations in Tokyo have restrooms! This is handy to know. So while you might not find many trash bins commonly available on the streets, you’d at least know that there’s restrooms that are in the train stations. I feel like in the United States, it’s a different story. You’ve got a lot of trash bins everywhere and no restrooms in sight. Note: Paper towels and soap can occasionally be hard to find in the restrooms.
13. “No smoking on the streets”
In Tokyo culture, there’s no smoking on public streets ,except for where smoking is actually allowed. Fine for getting caught is 2000 yen or $20 USD.
14. Clothing Store Dressing Rooms
I was very excited to visit one of my favorite clothing shops- Uniqlo which originates in Japan. But there are some cultural differences… Shoes are left outside the rooms and when trying on clothes in Japan, they give you a cloth mask to protect their clothes from makeup.
15. Japanese Sizes
Although we have a Uniqlo in the West, it doesn’t mean our sizes run the same as Japan’s. The sizes in Japan run small.. very small. In Tokyo, I was between a large or an extra-large blouse, whereas normally in the U.S., I’m a medium-small.
16. No public seating
In a pedestrian city like Tokyo, sometimes you just want to sit. Unfortunately, one of the challenges of Tokyo is finding free public seating. In Tokyo, seats are generally reserved for patrons. Aside from parks, restaurants and cafes are the only establishments you’ll find seating and to use it, you’ll need to be a patron. If you’re with a partner and think you’ll purchase a snack or dish and share the cost so you can have an excuse to sit in an establishment, think again. Some of these places enforce a ‘one order per seated patron’ rule. Whether the dish is big or small, you each need to buy one if you both want to sit.
Furthermore, in establishments where there is limited seating, one is expected to eat and leave. Dilly dallying around or leisurely splitting your time between chit chat and bites is seen a bit as rude. This is because while you are wasting time, the establishment is losing money when it could be ushering in the next patron.
17. Kawaii culture
From cute animal mascots per prefecture to being the makers of Hello Kitty, anime and just cute-cute things, Japan has a strong kawaii (aka cute) culture, holding innocence in prized regard. You’ll even hear the word kawaii as a catch-all word when expressing sentiments like pretty, beautiful or cool or nice, etc..
Read Japan Culture Shock
18. Japan is a polite culture
Most Japanese will keep to themselves and if they speak, most of what is said is polite. Gomen-nasai and Sumi-masen which both sorta mean- “excuse me, I’m sorry“. If you are their guest, they will be very hospitable, thoughtful and attentive to the details of your stay.
19. Sick masks
Often you’ll see Japanese walking around wearing sick masks. This happens for a couple of reasons: 1) Either someone is sick and wants to avoid infecting others, 2) It is spring and one wants to avoid pollen.
Watch Culture Shock Tokyo! 15 First Impressions of Tokyo
Looking for travel insurance?
American travelers often pay a premium on travel insurance. World Nomads offers economic solutions for travelers who seek security and peace of mind. It covers 150 countries.