This is part two in my observations of Japanese culture and society.
7. Self-lit witches’ hats
Continuing on the theme of the little differences: in Japan, the witches’ hats directing traffic on roads are not your average, dull, orange things. The ones in Tokyo glow in the dark, serving as a helpful (and eerie) presence alerting drivers to changed traffic conditions at night time.
Or more accurately, there’s warm air that streams into your legs from vents underneath the seats on the metro. Japan is fully of lovely surprises like this that makes you go “mmm why haven’t other countries thought of it yet??”
9. Days of the week are designated as elements
Random, but cool. As someone who still clings to the vestiges of my Chinese upbringing and with a rudimentary ability to read kanji (they are identical to Chinese characters), I noticed that the Japanese have an imaginative way of denoting days of the week. The seven days correspond to the five elements that are associated with the visible planets (eg, Tuesday is 火 which means “fire”, 火星 is Mars), as well as the Sun (日) and the Moon (月).
Imagine if we did this in English-speaking countries: “So when should we have our business meeting?” “What about 10am on the Day of Fire?” Cool.
10. Intrepid (and sometimes irresponsible) cyclists
I have a thing for cycling. It’s wonderful. I’ve pedalled in many a city and I’m really heartened by renewed interest in and regeneration of this classy mode of transportation. Many of the places I have cycled in are relatively small, such as Barcelona, Copenhagen and Amsterdam. Tokyo, as a dense, tall, sprawling megacity of 30 million daytime inhabitants, is a completely different beast.
Nevertheless, cycling is very popular in Tokyo. It is ubiquitous. I went during the winter time and there would be intrepid riders braving the elements, many with umbrellas in hand. For the tricky uphill sections there’d be bums off seats as they step into the pedals. What I found most perplexing, and something I didn’t witness in any other city, is that cyclists regularly ride against the flow of traffic. Often I’d be in the bus or the taxi, and lo and behold: a cyclist comes barrelling towards the vehicle going in the opposite direction, hugging the sidewalk.
11. Every eating place is patronised, every time, everywhere
This was one thing about Japan that I really took notice of — a case of the more you look, the more you confirm it. Japan (and especially Tokyo) is big and dense. You’d expect to find bars and restaurants to be teeming with people, and you’d be right. What surprised me was how robust this phenomena was.
(1) On my first night, I arrived late and my aunt took me out to a sushi place in the “suburbs” at 11pm. Patrons filled every seat and cigarette smoke hung thick in the air.
(2) In the middle of the afternoon in Akihabara my friends and I were lured to a maid café by an insistent promoter. Let’s just say our visit to this cultural oddity — through an obscure shopfront and up six floors in a service elevator — was an interesting one. Somehow, at this time and in this place there were people already inside. A couple was sitting on a stage at the centre of the colourful room, the signature V in their outstretched hands, posing for a photo with a cheerful maid (it comes with the set menu). Meanwhile an anxious-looking man with long greasy hair and chubby cheeks surveyed the perky surroundings with seeming detachment. Japan is a strange place.
(3) After going out and pulling an all-nighter in Shibuya, my friends and I stumble into MOS Burger at 5 in the morning. A slight young man in a sports jacket sat hunched over with his chin on his chest, the remnants of a greasy meal splayed out before him. He was out cold. As we settled down with our own little bundles of caloric joy we spotted a young woman tucked away in the corner. She had her coat wrapped snugly around her as she dozed.
12. Shibuya Crossing
On the topics of crowdedness and Shibuya, one of my favourite places in Tokyo was Shibuya Crossing. It is a large four-way intersection, overlooked by enormous, loud TV screens and a Starbucks café. Every couple of minutes the traffic lights turn red, paving the way for a human tide that rushes in from all four directions, combining into a seething mass in the middle, then dispersing in the other four directions. A few stragglers make the bold dash as the pedestrian bar counts down, often holding up traffic with their audacious bid to get to the other side. It was truly mesmerising to behold — I spent a good hour transfixed by the flow of humanity before me. Have a look for yourself here.