In Tokyo, even the most mundane tasks sometimes can become weird, incomprehensible, or at times hilarious. Toilets have remote controls with buttons for ‘discreet flushing sound effects’ and other scary options. Pedestrian crossings play an entire tune while hundreds of people make their way across hundreds of lanes and there are vending machines for every possible eventuality.
Westerners bumble through this amazing world with no clue. They stomp into nice restaurants without taking off their shoes. They eat their noodles without a gratifying slurping sound. And they wander into department stores with a dripping, western-style umbrella (in Japan, everyone has the same style brolly so they fit into special bags provided at the entrances to shops).
Every step of the way, Japanese people are patient, understanding and helpful. They enjoy a giggle too when things really get ridiculous. Visitors need to make notes of the Japanese characters for ‘ladies’, ‘gents’, ‘exit’ and others to avoid mishap. Sign language and mime are also helpful.
Luckily for us, natives are always keen to chat to gaijin and practice their English. Even in this massive, sprawling, futuristic city, non-Japanese people are a bit of a novelty and are followed by curious eyes. On a recent trip, we were stopped by a group of school children who wanted to interview us about our country. While we chatted about the Queen and The Beatles, they sketched us like butterflies they had found on a nature trail.
Every random question or sneaky glance is done with such good grace it’s impossible to feel offended. Japanese people just do things differently. While the people of Britain are out on the lash, Tokyoites are nibbling sushi, singing karaoke, or playing a loud and baffling pinball-type game called pachinko into the early hours.
And as Londoners whine about their jobs and the daily grind, Tokyo workers are going about their day with the highest integrity, no matter what skills or wages are involved.
The same earnestness goes for inanimate objects, companies and establishments. A coffee shop sign says it’s waiting for you with delicious drinks. Your socks want to make your feet happy. Even a hotel room trouser press has a sticker explaining that it is its duty to serve you. No wonder you leave this crazy city feeling like a rock star.
Fly to Tokyo from £555 with British Airways.
Next time: Walking the Streets of Madrid…