I am not sure what I expected when I moved to Tokyo seven months ago from a sleepy little village just outside of Zürich.
Of course, I knew I would eat amazing food and feel super tall and give up my business. I knew that our children would go to an international school and gain exposure to a life they couldn’t imagine and, sweetly, grow up too quickly. And I knew that Johan would join the Salaryman-culture and drive me crazy about skiing in Hokkaido and become rapt with all things Japanese.
But there is so much more to living in Tokyo. It is complicated and fascinating,
The Japanese culture is something I am just scratching the surface of with my observations. But, the day-to-day life here is otherworldly.
The service in Tokyo is meticulous and thoughtful
The attention to detail in wrapping a pastry, the delicacy in handling a bundle of flowers or the appreciation expressed for purchasing a lipstick is touching and considerate.
Whether you buy something at a bakery, a clothing shop, the supermarket or the Hyaku En Shoppu (100 yen shop) you should expect a level of customer service that doesn’t always match the price tag.
It is not a stereotype, Japan is a “society-first” based culture. They have a deep respect for people, especially the elderly, for food and its origins, for nature and for making others comfortable. The hospitality and the gratitude shown to the customer is unrivalled. You will often leave a restaurant and everyone shouts “ ありがとう”arigato! (thank you!) as you are escorted out by your waiter.
Tokyo is a gentle, safe city
In the same vein as the thoughtfulness of the service and the respect for the society, people take care of one another.
Kindergarten children walk to school alone.
Our kindergarteners walked alone to school in Switzerland. But, here, in a city of thirteen million people, I was amazed to learn that they do too. It is not uncommon to see groups of young children happily taking the buses and the trains without adult supervision.
You can leave your bags on your table at Starbucks, go fetch your coffee and come back to – wait for it – your bags.
Crime rates have been actually decreasing for over 10 years. Japan has one of the lowest gun-crime rates in the world. It is safe to say that life in Japan, not un-like our Swiss home, is protected.
The possibilities for instant-gratification are endless
In Japan there are some fifty thousand convenience stores, or konbini. Most of them are open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. You can get a hot meal, a magazine, a packet of smokes or a stapler.
If you have no time to fly into a konbini, rest assured that there is a vending machine within meters. You find them in schools, at train stations, in alleys, parks and any other public space you can dream of. And, one thing that surprised me the most? The bottled water is ice-cold and the bottle of green tea is piping hot. From the same machine.
Of course you can buy more than drinks in a Japanese vending machine. You can also get a meal (from a toasted sandwich to udon to frozen convenience foods heated-up), canned carrots, natto (fermented soy beans), a Buddhist charm, a floral arrangement, an umbrella, fresh eggs, a necktie, batteries, a bag of rice, a crepes with chocolate sauce, pantyhose, a draft beer, liquor, sushi, fishing bait and the list goes on and on.
If you want it in Tokyo, chances are you can find it within minutes.
For every rule, and there are many, there are (sometimes little-known) contradictions
It can be confusing, navigating your way through Tokyo the first few months. There are many, many rules but almost as many exceptions. For example:
Many / most restaurants will allow customers to smoke indoors. But, smoking on the street is considered rude and is not done.
By law, you are not allowed to ride your bicycle on the sidewalk. But everyone, even the police and city workers, do it. As long as you don’t crash into a pedestrian it is totally accepted.
This is the land of robots and crazy games and technology. But getting a bank account, a mobile phone or (massive sigh from me and every other expat who has been through this) a driver’s license is not for the light of heart. (Or for anyone with any other plans for the day.) The paperwork and the waiting mean a daylong affair.
For us this has been a real source of comedy! We almost always get it wrong!
There are many little surprises
The best example of this is, if you can believe it, the toilets. They are fascinating. Not only do they pop up when you enter (so you don’t have to touch them), flush automatically and then pop back down, but they also offer some other fancy functions. Those can be a surprise to you when you sit on one! But, the nicest things about them – the seats are warm!
Life can be squishy.
Many of the thirteen million Tokyo-ites tend to move to the office at the same time each morning, making the metro a bit of a tight squeeze. There are literally attendants shoving the people inside, cramming them together, herding everyone towards their desks.
Another famous and spectacular site in Tokyo is the pedestrian scramble in Shibuya. Here, traffic flow is suspended for minutes to allow hundreds and thousands of walkers across the street – from all directions. Said to be the busiest crossing in the world, it is a source of amazement for visitors and locals alike. And easily represents one of the most vibrant, save thronged, locations in the city.
I am coming from Switzerland, which is well known for its high quality of life. We lived there for twelve years and called it home. And, I will admit that as a mother of three, who is always on the go and almost never arrives on time, with everything I need, it is both a source of frustration and admiration when the shop keeper is wrapping those cupcakes so sweetly and delicately.
But, over the weekend I was shuffling bags and kids, etc. and accidentally left my wallet in the basket of my bicycle, which was parked along side our building. Hours later, Johan came home, spotted my wallet, still intact. It is a pleasant surprise with thirteen million people living together, in a relatively compact area!
“You can’t get into any trouble in Tokyo”, our real estate agent told me. At the time I thought he was a nut. But I am beginning to wonder if he was actually right.
Tokyo surprises me almost every day.
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