Summer diaries Part 5.1: Tokyo Drift


Yesterday I arrived in Tokyo after a rather short train ride with the bullet, or Shinkansen as it is called officially. While the train indeed is quite fast it is not as spectacular as one might think – effectively it is the same as a German ICE. Upon my arrival in Tokyo (or Tokyo-to) I was quite surprised to realize that Tokyo and Kyoto are so different. Kyoto feels much more historical, smaller, and dare I say, provincial (in the good sense!). In fact, there seems to be quite some french influence here in Tokyo and the fashion is more on the crazy and aggressive side. Kyoto on the other side is much slower and balanced. Also the food in Kyoto is much more diverse and traditional I guess.

Unfortunately, getting an accessible and stable internet connection in Tokyo is quite a challenge, as you either need to be with one of the big cell companies here, pre-register on the internet, or you need to cram with gazillion people into tiny spaces. Also one more disclaimer about my experience so far: If you intend to buy some electronics stuff, e.g., say a camera, then think twice. I needed a second body and lens and went to BIC camera which is one of the major stores here and the first lens severely back focused so that I wanted to return it. I had a two hour discussion to finally get a replacement because the “Nikon expert” (yes the t-shirt makes him an expert) knew better and we had to shoot 100 pics or so of price tags to “identify” the obvious. They did under no circumstances give my money back. So keep this in mind. In fact, my feeling is that these stores are no better than Best Buy in the US or Saturn in Germany: there you do not expect competent salespeople either.

Tokyo is, being pendantic, not a city but it is a Metropolitan area which is made up of several special wards and smaller towns. Wikipedia says:

Tokyo (東京 Tōkyō?, “Eastern Capital”) (Japanese: [toːkjoː], English /ˈtki./), officially Tokyo Metropolis (東京都 Tōkyō-to?),[4] is one of the 47prefectures of Japan. Tokyo is the capital of Japan, the center of the Greater Tokyo Area, and the largest metropolitan area in the world.[5] It is the seat of the Japanese government and the Imperial Palace, and the home of the Japanese Imperial Family. Tokyo is in the Kantō region on the southeastern side of the main island Honshu and includes the Izu Islands and Ogasawara Islands.[6] Tokyo Metropolis was formed in 1943 from the merger of the former Tokyo Prefecture (東京府 Tōkyō-fu?) and the city of Tokyo (東京市 Tōkyō-shi?).

Tokyo is often thought of as a city but is commonly referred to as a “metropolitan prefecture”. The Tokyo metropolitan government administers the 23 Special Wards of Tokyo (each governed as an individual city), which cover the area that was formerly the City of Tokyo before it merged and became the subsequent metropolitan prefecture. The metropolitan government also administers 39 municipalities in the western part of the prefecture and the two outlying island chains. The population of the special wards is over 9 million people, with the total population of the prefecture exceeding 13 million. The prefecture is part of the world’s most populous metropolitan area with upwards of 35 million people and the world’s largest urban agglomeration economy with a GDP of US$1.479 trillion at purchasing power parity, ahead of the New York metropolitan area in 2008. The city hosts 51 of the Fortune Global 500 companies, the highest number of any city.[7]

Tokyo has been described as one of the three “command centers” for the world economy, along with New York City and London.[8] The city is considered an alpha+ world city, listed by the GaWC‘s 2008 inventory[9] and ranked fourth among global cities by A.T. Kearneys 2012 Global Cities Index.[10] In 2012, Tokyo was named the most expensive city for expatriates, according to the Mercer and Economist Intelligence Unit cost-of-living surveys,[11] and in 2009 named the third Most Liveable City and the World’s Most Livable Megalopolis by the magazine Monocle.[12] The Michelin Guide has awarded Tokyo by far the most Michelin stars of any city in the world.[13][14] Tokyo hosted the 1964 Summer Olympics and is currently acandidate city for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games.[15]

One reason why this is important is because Tokyo naturally decomposes into several centers, which often are the center of a special ward:

The special wards (tokubetsu-ku) of Tokyo comprise the area formerly incorporated as Tokyo City. On July 1, 1943, Tokyo City was merged with Tokyo Prefecture (東京府 Tōkyō-fu?) forming the current “metropolitan prefecture”. As a result, unlike other city wards in Japan, these wards are not conterminous with a larger incorporated city. While falling under the jurisdiction of Tokyo Metropolitan Government, each ward is also a borough with its own elected leader and council, like other cities of Japan. The special wards use the word “city” in their official English name (e.g. Chiyoda City).

The wards differ from other cities in having a unique administrative relationship with the prefectural government. Certain municipal functions, such as waterworks, sewerage, and fire-fighting, are handled by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. To pay for the added administrative costs, the prefecture collects municipal taxes, which would usually be levied by the city.[37]

I am staying in Shinjuku, one of the special wards, which is pretty much in the smack middle.

Shinjuku (新宿) is one of the 23 city wards of Tokyo, but the name commonly refers to just the large entertainment, business and shopping area around Shinjuku Station.

Here is a map of the area to put things into perspective. If you plan to visit Tokyo you might want to check out the Japan guide which has some useful tips.

Screen Shot 2013-06-24 at 11.40.16

Let me talk a bit about my first impressions.

The streets and atmosphere. Tokyo is very packed. Much more so than Kyoto. In fact, in several places you virtually float through a sea of people. It is extremely clean, bordering on sterile, although you will often have a hard time finding a trash can. Tokyo reminds me quite a bit of London, Paris, and New York. It has a lot of small streets with shops and extravagant stuff. While there are several skyscrapers, they are by far not as high as those in New York. Also, walking between the trenches of buildings is not as dark as in New York. It has quite some charme from Paris with its Tokyo Tower modeled after the Eiffel Tower and I heard that in general there is a strong french influence in Tokyo.

The fashion. A very brief summary could be roughly like this. Extremely colorful. Expensive designer clothes: yes. Skirts: as short as possible. High heels: as high as possible. Handbags for guys: definitely ok. Clothes in general: as transparent as possible. In a later post I will talk about Harajuku, one of the major fashion district with several small designer boutiques and outrageously expensive stores. There is also quite some puzzling thing going on with the “caucasian type”: almost all fashion or clothing stores exclusively have advertisements with caucasian girls/guys. The same for makeup: caucasians only. If you would take away the people and the language that would give the japanese location away, these stores could easily be in New York or Paris (you can see this on some of the shots below but also later). In fact in Harajuku there is a british store that hired two caucasian males to play british in front of the door.

The nights. The hot district in the evening is, among others, Shibuya, and especially the Center Gai, which is the area branching of north-west of the metro station. The district is very colorful, very loud, and very packed – not just with people but also with bars, restaurants, shops, etc.

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9 thoughts on “Summer diaries Part 5.1: Tokyo Drift

  1. another great post. I’m really enjoying reading through the posts. I skip the wikipedia bits because I like reading about real experiences of real people on ground. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Being a Chinese student living in the US, I’ve always been fascinated by the cultural differences between different countries. This, together with the facts that I’ve been to Japan and that your photos are awesome, makes me enjoy reading your recent posts very much. Before going to Japan, I thought the cultural difference would be nothing for me since cultures in East Asian countries share a lot of things in common. But it wasn’t until I was standing on the street in Tokyo that I realized I was TOTALLY wrong. Among many other things, the lacking of free public wifi in Tokyo was a total shocker.
    Great work! Look forward to seeing more posts and photos! I hope you can get to go to China one day and it would be interesting to see how you feel about it.

    • Hey Tony, thanks a lot for your comment. I fully agree, I have been to some other asian countries myself (although maybe not east enough) and the culture is very different between all of them.

      For me, the lack of public wifi is also pretty striking. Not because I cannot live without internet but I believe it indicates a certain predisposition in terms of openness that you will find confirmed in many other situations. In New York for example (which I would compare Tokyo with) you would find a public wifi at every corner. Here you need to preregister or you need a local cell phone (which is nontrivial to obtain – even prepaid). Also, for being such an international metropolis I would have expected better accessibility via english. In fact, I believe I probably did not see more but the very surface because it is impossible to go deeper without speaking japanese. Some restaurants (actually not too few) will simply send you away or tell you that they do not have any availability.

    • Would have been interesting but I guess as a foreigner one won’t gain any insight beyond stereotypes. I have a friend who is studying here and who lived in the US beforehand. He told me quite some interesting stories in terms of hierarchy and setup etc. In general I think the system is pretty much modeled after the German university / college system.

  3. Pingback: Summer diaries Part 5.2: Tokyo nights | Terence S Jones - a guy with a camera

  4. Pingback: Summer diaries Part 5.3: Harajuku | Terence S Jones - a guy with a camera

  5. Pingback: Summer diaries Part 5.4: Tokyo – a not so common perspective | Terence S Jones - a guy with a camera

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