As someone who has visited 14 countries before turning 21, I know I should have some wise words about the world. But the truth is, many many people of my generation have travelled or studied abroad. And how many of us have really delved into the culture of the place, rather than walking the tourist walks? Perhaps I have not learned as much from my travels as I would have if I had time to live in the culture longer. That said, having stayed in Tokyo for longer than two years, I do know some small facts:
1. Go by train, not car
In Tokyo there are many trains, underground and overground. The local trains stop at dozens of stops but the express trains or the shinkansen travel long distances with very few stops. While in cities such as New York the train can be very daunting, in Tokyo the maps are all bilingual in English and Japanese and the different trains are color coded. It is a good idea to get over any initial anxiety about the trains as fast as possible, as the trains can get you most places faster than any car. In fact, a lot of people in Tokyo do not own cars and do not have driver's licenses. This is because there is very little space for parking and the highways have high tolls.
2. Eat out, not in
It seems like a luxury to eat out all the time, but in Tokyo it can be cheaper to eat out. Buying meat or fruit at a grocery store can take a lot of money out of your wallet. And if the dish you plan to make requires many ingredients the cost can go up fast. Whereas, if you go to one of the thousands of restaurants in Tokyo you can dine on fantastic cuisine. There are literally thousands of restaurants to choose from and not just Japanese food choices; there are Italian restaurants, Korean barbecue, TGI Fridays and even a few Indian restaurants (although the rice is Japanese, as the country controls for imports). My advice for packing a lunch is to go to the local convenient store and buy some pre-made snacks. In particular, I recommend buying onigiri, the rice ball wrapped in seaweed. But there are also sandwiches and crackers and noodles... Convenience store items have range from about a dollar to about 12 dollars but are usually pretty cheap.
There is one main reason why it is good to listen carefully in Tokyo; each train station has its own jingle. Originally designed for the blind, this is an easy way of recognizing if the train has reached your stop, by listening to hear if the music playing is familiar to you. It may seem like it is easier to wait and look for signs or announcements about which station you are arriving at, but when it is late at night and you do not know exactly where you are coming from, your brain will unconsciously remember the music. Another reason to listen is to notice how quiet and polite the people are being. For example, on the train, the only noises are the rattling of the tracks and the announcements of approaching stops. In elevators, the only sound is the wooshing of the tiny box bringing you and your 12 fellow passengers up to the next floor. While Tokyo is the biggest city in the world, it is a peaceful, quietly crowded place.
4. Miscellaneous tips
Do not ask for to-go bags. In Japan, the portion sizes are usually manageable and there is no culture of taking food home. Speaking of which, do not eat while walking. It is deemed impolite to eat outside or on the go. Do not wear shorts. As hot as it gets in the summer, no one seems to wear anything that would expose their legs to the public eye. Do not tip. Usually the tip is built in to the restaurant bill. If, for some reason you disregard the advice about not traveling by car and you take a taxi; do not open or close the door. The driver will automatically operate the door.
Try to learn the language and the writing system. It can seem daunting but it is entirely possible to learn, perhaps using an app or podcast class. If you wish to learn about a different culture and not just tour around, Tokyo is a wonderful place to begin.
Thank you to Nancy Allbrooks Urbanas and Suzanne Geaney for inviting me to write about this topic!