Thirty-eight million people live in the city of Tokyo Japan which covers 8,500 square miles. That’s a population density of 10,000 people per mile, and that’s a lot of people crammed into a single urban area. All of which begs the question, “What have the Japanese got against single-family homes and cul de sacs?”
Tokyo is the biggest city in Japan (and the rest of the world, too).
Some 38 million citizens of Tokyo Japan clearly prefer the amenities of city-life to the horrors of suburban sprawl—and I get that. I, too, love big cities for a lot of reasons—the art, culture, activities, and jobs. But a city the size of Tokyo really puts that love to the test. There’s an old adage that goes, “Too much of a good thing…” and Tokyo is waaay too much of a good thing. It’s the difference between a glass of wine and a fire-hose of wine.
Though the city covers an area roughly the size of Los Angeles County, Greater Tokyo has almost four times as many people crammed in that area. And the only reason the city hasn’t imploded yet is that very few of those Japanese people are from Los Angeles—no metropolis could survive hosting four times more aspiring screenwriters, filmmakers, and actors than LA.
Planning a trip to the world’s most monster-prone megacity?
As the world’s largest and most densely populated city, no other place in the world offers a kaiju more carnage per square foot, or rather, webbed foot. So Tokyo’s frequent kaiju attacks present a real dilemma for travel planning: Do you book before an attack while Tokyo is pristine and pricey? Or do you wait until downtown is decimated to score killer deals in the smoldering aftermath?
Just think how affordable the city’s upscale hotel suites will be after two-thirds of the building has been crushed underfoot? The price of airline ticket prices will crumble faster than Tokyo’s electrical grid. Plus, crowds won’t be a problem since the locals will have already fled for their lives, and you’ll have what’s left of the place all to yourself.
Seeing this megacity from a macro-level.
Viewed from SkyTree Tower (US$20), the city’s tallest structure which soars 1,000 feet above a six-story dining and shopping mall, Tokyo Japan appears jam-packed with nothing but tall buildings, towers, skyscrapers, and high-rises. But that’s only because of all the tall buildings, towers, skyscrapers, and high-rises—it’s a common mistake that’s easy to make.
By way of comparison, the previous tallest structure in the city, Tokyo Tower (US$25), is a structure—reminiscent of, and about as tall as, the Eiffel Tower in France—which tops out at a similar 1,000 feet.
Unfortunately, Tokyo Tower requires climbing stairs to an observation deck some six-hundred and fifty feet above sea level. So the SkyTree offers a vastly better view because it’s 350 feet higher, and your eyes won’t be bleeding from climbing all those damn stairs.
Seeing the city of Tokyo at street-level.
Down on the ground—where the buildings look a lot bigger—Tokyo is surprisingly sane and subdued considering the tens of millions of Japanese each going about their daily activities, all the while suppressing their blinding rage, agonizing isolation, and crushing despair.
Instead, the streets of Tokyo felt no more harried or hectic than other major cities when hosting a Zydeco Music Festival, Cheese-Rolling contest, or the World Toe Wrestling Championships. The city isn’t depressing or gritty either, quite the opposite, in fact. Tokyo is Singapore-esque clean and unexpectedly orderly for a city of its size and number of kaiju attacks (see inset above).
While we were never alone on the street, we never felt crowded, either. Frankly, we were only reminded of Tokyo’s status as the world’s largest megacity when we approached a cross-walk. There, you could see the fact that the city is very pedestrian-friendly reflected in the infuriated faces of drivers waiting for the @#$!%ing stoplight to change.
Shibuya Crossing is an agoraphobics’ personal hell.
Often referred to as the world’s busiest crosswalk, Tokyo’s Shibuya Crossing is The Large Hadron Collider of people accelerators. At peak times, thousands of local pedestrians and foreign tourists diffuse themselves across this famous intersection like particles in an interference pattern, changing course only when observed, or when someone sees a wagashi sweet shop.
While waiting at this intersection, we could sense a growing mosh-pit of people stacking up behind us on all sides—the tension was palatable. When the light finally changed, we were swept up by that sea of humanity and spirited across the street. The crowd then deposited us on the opposing sidewalk and dispersed, leaving us wondering what the hell had just happened and, more concerning, where our pants went.
Places we visited while in Tokyo Japan.
Harajuku is where you shop when you’re under 25 and still trying to decide if you’re goth, Victorian, punk, industrial, or jail bait. Littered with trendy retail stores encouraging conspicuous consumption and crippling debt, the Harajuku area also has a bunch of vintage shops that we, being in our 50s, just thought were normal stores with clothes we really liked.
Ginza (meaning “silver mint”) is Tokyo’s upscale, shopping district, and one of the most expensive city districts in the world. Though the area has shops that date back a hundred years, it’s mostly lined with modern department stores, luxury brands, and fashion boutiques for Western tourists who like paying full retail for merchandise they can get cheaper back home.
The Tsukiji Fish Market outside Ginza is the world’s largest seafood trafficker—or, at least, it was. Started in 1935 and world-famous for its tuna auctions, the wholesale side of this seafood business moved to Toyosu in 2018, leaving only the Outer Market to carry on the Tsukiji name (and smell). Adjacent to the former site, Tsukiji’s Outer Market consists of street kiosks and restaurants selling sushi and other seafood to disappointed tourists who didn’t get the memo.
Sensoji is the oldest Buddhist temple in Asakusa, Tokyo. Founded in 645 CE, but rebuilt several times, it’s now a popular tourist attraction. While we were there, they had to lock the garden area with the pond due to too many noisy, selfie-taking tourists who clearly didn’t understand the concept of respect, much less, zen. PRO TIP: Try not to inhale too much incense—the place is choked with it, and I’m pretty sure it’s cancerous.
Amey-Yokocho is Tokyo’s lively “black market,” located on a backstreet just outside Ueno Station, where you can find amazing bargains on cheap shit because it’s probably counterfeit. There are also numerous restaurants, cafés, bars, and stalls selling street-food and E coli. Noisy and chaotic, Amey-Yokocho is a must-see for anyone who likes saving money and getting trampled by crowds.
Ueno Park proves that Tokyo Japan isn’t all concrete and rebar.
Ueno Park is Tokyo’s answer to the frequently asked question, “Yo, are there any freakin’ trees around here?” Japan’s most popular city park has 8,800 trees, not all of which lose their leaves every autumn, I would hope. But the park also has a lot of birds, cherry blossoms, ponds with weird plants, and coi fish, as well as paddle-boats shaped like cartoon ducks—because Japan.
Ueno Park is much like NYC’s Central Park, except that no one panhandled us, pushed their self-published rap CD on us, or offered to let us fondle “Elmo” for five bucks. Tokyo’s city park was created during the Meiji period and features a bunch of nice museums, shrines, and even a Dahlia exhibit while we were there. But be warned, the place is a maze, so it’s easy to get lost. In fact, some homeless people you’ll see there are just folks who can’t find their way out.
Tokyo’s Imperial Plaza is a lot of nothing to see.
The Imperial Palace is a vast, half-mile square compound located in the Chiyoda district of Tokyo Japan. Yet almost none of it is viewable from the street. The palace was used as the Emperor’s residence, so it’s not really a “palace” in the Euro-centric Disney® sense of the term. There are neither spires, battlements, turrets, nor an intractable mouse-infestation.
Instead, the palace’s outward-facing views more resemble a gated-community—or, to be more accurate, a moated-community. The entire compound is surrounded by a very wide “water feature” to deter attacking hordes, revolting peasants, and marauding Jehovah’s Witnesses. Plus, the front of the palace has a paved public plaza so large, you could safely land a blimp there.
Tokyo Japan is the home of high-tech.
To say that the citizens of Tokyo are comfortable with electricity is like saying that Parisians are tolerant of butter—it’s not just a part of their national identity—it’s in their DNA.
Back in the 1950s, companies like SONY, Panasonic, Fujitsu, Toshiba, Hitachi, and a host of others, transformed Japan into an economic powerhouse. These cutting-edge companies produced the sophisticated, high-end electronics that, in many American homes, still flash “12:00.”
Tokyo “after dark” is a lot like Tokyo during the day.
Walking around downtown Tokyo at night is like walking around downtown Tokyo during the day—only brighter. Every vertical surface in the city is a flashing video screen, blasting your eye’s rods and cones with advertisements for epilepsy medication and Visine®.
The visual noise and optical chaos of modern-day Tokyo immediately reminds you of the 1982 sci-fi thriller, Blade Runner, starring Rutger Hauer.
Ridley Scott’s depiction of a dystopian nightmare—where advertisements saturate downtown Los Angeles in the far-off future (2019)—would’ve been freakishly prescient had the film been set in Tokyo, instead of LA—damn, so close!
Gettin’ your drunk on in Tokyo Japan.
Shinjuku Golden Gia is a few minutes’ walk from Shinjuku Station. Originally known for prostitution, the still popular Golden Gia neighborhood is, today, more dedicated to boozing than boning. The area now has over two hundred, tiny shanty-style bars, clubs, and eateries wedged into it, some of which are capable of holding up to five patrons who don’t easily get claustrophobic.
This dark, seedy corner of Shinjuku is a network of six very narrow alleys—each connected by even narrower passageways—through which only a single drunk person can stagger at a time, yet it didn’t smell as much like urine and vomit as you’d expect.
Roppongi is another nightlife hotspot in the central part of Tokyo, and it’s the perfect destination if you’re young, rich, and/or a total douchebag.
Made up almost entirely of bougie nightclubs, smoky cigar bars, faux-“jazz” lounges, and Konami Games HQ, this part of Tokyo Japan will leave a stench in your clothes and a stain on your soul that won’t ever wash out.
The Japanese food in Tokyo is very authentic.
After eating in some of Tokyo’s finest eating establishments and several acclaimed holes-in-the-wall (Ramen Nagi), I can safely conclude that I greatly dislike Japanese food.
Yes, even ramen, udon, and soba. I’m also not super-fond of tempura or teriyaki, nor do I love sushi. Why such loathing for arguably the 5th best cuisine on the planet? Because everything in Japan tastes a bit fishy like kelp, or to be more specific, dashi.
This awful flavor is the foundation of too much Japanese cuisine, including miso soup, clear broth, noodle broth, and many other disgusting dishes. Dashi gives those foods an “unami” or savory flavor that is, to be blunt, not helping.
Unlike the cuisines of India, Thailand, Korea, Malaysia, Burma, and other Asian countries, the cuisine of Japan doesn’t make me hungry as much as heave-y. In fact, the only dish I truly enjoyed was the Kobe® beef, because it tasted much like a popular American dish known as, “steak.”
Dining out in Tokyo Japan.
Mercifully, at least ordering food at restaurants is simple in Tokyo. Most menus have photos, so you just point to the food item you want, then use your fingers to indicate how many of that item you want. This helpful approach reduces the likelihood of accidentally ordering barbecued fish sperm, honey-baked jellyfish with extra tentacles, or something worse.
And while “something worse” is widely available in Tokyo, you can find the more edible Japanese dishes like katsu, sukiyaki, and teriyaki at restaurants with the respective style in their name. And that’s my biggest problem with eateries in Japan.
Unlike Friday’s or Applebee’s, where you can get a variety of different food options—like burgers, salads, pasta, or seafood—Japanese restaurants tend to specialize in a single type of food or cooking style.
For example, a sushi restaurant only serves sushi; a ramen restaurant, only ramen; and it’s the same with katsu, Kobe, ramen, sushi, tempura, etc. It quickly became a problem, as my wife and I rarely eat the same type of cuisine. Thankfully, there are at least two Hooters® locations in Tokyo. That’s right…two.
Quenching your thirst in Tokyo Japan.
In addition to most of the food, I don’t care much for the taste of many Japanese beverages, either—except for beer and sake. Sake, or Japanese rice wine, is one of the best things about Japan because, while it doesn’t make the food taste any better, it does make you not care that you just ate skewers of chicken skin.
Matcha, a beverage made from bitter, green tea powder, has become an important part of Japanese culture, but hopefully for something other than imbibing, because it is horrendous. Likewise, Kombucha is a tea made from seaweed kelp which “may” help your immune system, but to get any benefit you have to drink that vile stuff.
By far, my favorite Japanese beverage is called, Coca-Cola Zero Sugar. The drink is a lot like Coke Zero back home in the States, but this one is made with stevia because the Japanese have banned aspartame. It’s surprisingly hard to find, however, and when you do, you need a credit score above 740 to afford it.
This megacity has a lot of mega-weird shit.
Japan has a reputation among the world’s weirdo community for being especially weird, and that’s really saying something coming from the likes of Balloon Fetishists. So how did the Japanese get this dubious rep?
I think it comes from the fact that the Japanese people are just too polite to tell an aspiring entrepreneur that opening an echidna-themed eatery isn’t normal or particularly sanitary. As a result, you can now eat lunch surrounded by spiny rodents over at the Hedgehog Café, if that’s your thing.
Is that your thing? Because you should know that it’s a pretty weird thing. Is it weirder than paying good money to pet some strange felines at a Cat Café? Probably, yes, I would say it is weirder.
But neither of those picadillos is as perverted as going to a Maid Café. While I assume Maid Cafés are far more sanitary than the other cafés—the place is full of maids, after all—they are definitely more deviant than chillin’ with rodentia. But you do you, ya freak.
We didn’t see a single ninja while we were in Tokyo because those guys are good.
Japan is known for many things: sushi, neon cars, electronics, Hello Kitty®, manga, anime, and many other quixotic trends and inexplicable objects that defy all logic and reason (see the disturbing “Face Bank”).
But, as a child of the ’70s, Japan has always been the mythical home of just three things: kung fu, ninjas, and samurais.
Needless to say, it was fairly disappointing to visit the capital city of Kung Fu and see most dudes wearing business suits rather than black belts and Tosei-gusoku. (I mean, sure, we found Tokyo’s Ninja Restaurant, but I hardly think it’s certified by the Bansenshūkai Guild of Shinobi Mercenaries.)
I mean, where were the Yakuza settling scores in back alleys? Where were the revenge killing vendettas? Where were the college cheerleaders/go-go dancers who use their martial arts skills to save their sensei from mafia kidnappers? The whole time we were in Tokyo, we only heard one police siren, and it wasn’t because some guy had a ninjatō sticking out of him. Lame.
Japan makes other so-called “civilizations” look like garbage people.
Unlike emotionally adolescent Americans who are easily and instantly outraged about everything, the denizens of Japan act more like mature adults. They’ve all collectively agreed to live by their rules of refinement, and they do it.
That’s probably because it’s better to over-correct towards courtesy when you have tens of millions of people living right on top of each other (both figuratively and literally).
Prioritizing politeness means that the Japanese are extremely deliberate and precise about everything they do and say.
For example, when you hand them a credit card, they accept it and hand it back to you using both hands. It’s a small gesture, but it really makes you feel like you were raised by apes.
Tokyo Japan makes you reassess how you’re living your life.
Visiting a civilized city like Tokyo Japan can be more than a little disorienting if you’ve ever been thrown out of a Denny’s, gotten into a shouting match with a store manager, or had loud pipes installed on your motorcycle.
The city lays bare your lack of refinement and exposes it for all to see. Tokyo’s citizens are the Gallant to our Goofas; the Tony Randall to our Jack Klugman; and the Alex Trebek to our Rush Limbaugh.
By merely existing, the city sets a bar for civilized behavior that’s too high for most Americans to pole-vault over without pulling a hammy and swearing a blue streak.
So before I ever go back again, I’ll need to take some kind of etiquette bootcamp to stop me from belching in public, cursing every fourth word, and repeatedly forgetting to shower.