The Little Differences

It’s now over a week into the trip, and I’m definitely starting to feel like I live here. I’m tempted to say I feel like a local, but when you can’t speak the language except for thank you very much (oregato gozaimas), I don’t think I can qualify. But the neighbors in my apartment building know me and the hipsters at the funky clothing shop downstairs of my building wave to me at this point.

This weekend I got to enjoy some touristy and non-touristy things around Tokyo. Tokyo is so much larger than I ever realized. The city of Tokyo itself has over 13 million people (4 million more than NYC), and the metropolitan area has over 32 million; it’s the biggest metro area in the world! With so many narrow streets, the population density here is staggering. There’s masses of people everywhere, and not surprisingly, more restaurants per capita than anywhere else. In Tokyo, you could never be without food. Where it comes from or where it goes, I have not totally figured out.

As I walked around this past week, I got comfortable in knowing that they mostly have the same stuff here as they do in the United States, but there are some little differences. Here’s a few in no particular order:

Electronic toilet with bidet: Not only do almost all the toilets here have bidets, but they are all electronic. There is a control panel on the wall that covers all functions. That means 1) there needs to be an outlet near every toilet; 2) there is serious wiring for a toilet that I usually only save for installing surround sound stereo; and 3) with all this effort going into the toilets, everyone must use them, right? I still have not, and I’m fine with keeping it that way. Although the button to automatically raise the seat is much appreciated.




Sideways traffic lights, driving on the left side of the road, walk signals: I get driving on the left side of the road. I still have to look both ways when crossing, though, because I can never remember which way to look. Luckily, EVERYONE here waits for the crosswalk symbol, even if no cars are coming. The crosswalk symbols have very convenient countdown “bars” so you know when the light, which is always sideways, is changing.


This is one example. Sometimes there are configurations of five and six lights that I still can’t figure out.


Still got some time left before I can cross.

Stickers: So many shops have their own branded stickers to put on merchandise that’s been purchased. My guess is it lets the staff know that you paid, although crime doesn’t seem like too big of a problem here – at least not where I’ve been hanging out. Here’s a pic of the water bottle I got from Natural Lawson this morning with the sticker on it.


Narrow windy streets: The streets here have no rhyme or reason and they are narrow! You think you’re cutting through from one main dori (street) to another and you end up somewhere else. Turns out that narrow street wound the wrong way.

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A map of my neighborhood Jingumae. The star is where I live.



Katie walking down Harajuku St.

Department store basements: The department stores here have everything that we do in the US except one thing: Their basement levels are the food department. That includes a ton of desks (like cosmetic desks) selling everything from chocolates, sweets, meats, fruit, alcohol, prepared foods, unprepared foods, and a full grocery store to boot. It’s as much fun walking around down there as it is overwhelming. Ironically, with all the great food there is no place to sit down and eat it, and eating on the run or in a random place seems to be frowned upon. It seems people buy their food and take it home. No pic will even come close to doing it justice.

Smaller doors: Generally, standard door frames here are smaller. It feels like I’m living in a slightly shrunken world. Works for me because I’m kind of a small person. Here’s me walking into my apartment.


Cheering/Umbrellas at baseball games: I was able to score some great last-minute seats to see the Yakult Swallows play the Hanshin Tigers last week at Jingu Stadium, which is only a 10-minute walk from my apartment. First off, I got the tickets at the local Lawson (a Walgreens type store), which actually made a lot of sense. Especially if you’re the Mets of Tokyo. More access to tickets hopefully means more tickets sold. Baseball is as huge here as it is in the US, and I could go on about the little differences in style of play. But I’ll limit this one to my observations of the fans. Turns out my amazing top-dollar (¥4600) seats were actually kind of lame. I was really close to home plate but all of the action was happening in the bleachers. Left side of the bleachers was all Hanshin fans; right side was Yakult. Think college football student sections. Every time Hanshin was up to bat, their bleachers went crazy with chanting and singing the whole time plus a full horn section to back them (student marching band?). They took turns as their respective teams came up to bat. And every time Yakult scored runs, which was often (they won 13-4), they rose umbrellas in unison to celebrate. I found out that this is a Yakult thing but I think every team has their special celebration.


The dancing umbrellas


Hanshin fans in yellow in left field bleachers. Yakult fans in green in right field bleachers.

Trays to pay: Whenever you buy anything, there is a tray to put your money in. Or credit card. Don’t hand your money directly to the cashier or the taxi driver. Put it in the tray.


Taxi pay tray

Numbered subway stops and exits: I always thought NYC had a crazy public transportation system, and then I came here. There are so many different lines, lines that connect and turn into different lines, and almost none of them are owned by the government. They are all owned by various companies: Seibu, Tokyo Metro, Japan Railway Company, Tokyu, Toei, New Red Arrow, and more. Thankfully, you can buy a Suica card which is a refillable MetroCard of sorts that gives you access to all of them and they seem to connect and work with each other pretty well. Google Maps is still the best map app, and going anywhere on the subway is as easy as putting it in there. It will give you full instructions including which platform to stand on. But in case that isn’t enough, every subway line numbers its stops. I’m at G-11 (Nihombashi) on the Ginza line at the moment. Also, the stations can be so big that they have conveniently numbered the exits. It has been very helpful!

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Vending machines still reign supreme: Sure, we still have vending machines in the US, but they are everywhere here. Good thing too because I need a new bottle of water pretty often. The first week here it was 95 degrees, sunny, and humid every day.


Sliding glass doors: So many shops have sliding glass doors. Some are automatic and others you have to push a button, but this is definitely the door of choice here.

No trash cans: There are very few public trash cans everywhere, so I find myself carrying my trash around until I get back to my apartment. I would think this might make people litter, but the streets are very clean.

No napkins at meals – only tissues occassionally: This one kind of surprises me. There aren’t too many restaurants that give out napkins. They always give out a towel of some sort at the beginning of the meal to clean your hands. But what happens when I inevitably drop food on my lap?

Face masks: Many people here wear face masks just like your dentist wears. They are going about their normal daily business: going to work, out to eat, walking around, all with a face mask. I have been told that it is worn mostly by people who are sick so they don’t spread their germs. And yet, I see people driving alone in their cars with them on. Why wear them in your car too? I would expect to see that person with it around their neck.

Fun stuff on the other side of the world. Next post back to more serious matters.





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