It’s easy to be overwhelmed by new surroundings. Stepping into a Tokyo subway station is like stumbling off an elevator onto a casino floor. A sudden flood of lights and sounds and signage. Mostly foreign, all insistent. Exposure to such an intense sensory environment also initiates a kind of flight or fight response: what do I do? where do I go? I’m already lost! And let the panic roll. This is of course due to unfamiliarity. With a bit of time and repetition, the station noises would fade out, relevant information would take center stage, and things would start making sense (although this fact does very little to help first time visitors in places as intimidating as Tokyo).
It’s also an understandable human tendency to draw conclusions and make potentially crude generalizations, a habit that most likely (see what I did?) has a biological explanation. But, generalize I must. As mentioned, Tokyo is well lit. It is a very bright place. It is also covered in signs of every conceivable type. Instructional, directional, advertorial, informational, prohibitional – Tokyo is probably the diagrammatic, public-posting capitol of the planet.
Tokyo is a procedural city, lacking any visible hint of the ad hoc atmosphere found in places like, say, Beijing¹. Traffic is organized, the sidewalk is conspicuously divided into pedestrian and bicycle halves. Trains and subway cars are clearly and redundantly marked with points of entry and egress – everyone observes this information and acts accordingly. Cellphone use is prohibited on the subway – everyone also observes this. Lines form and function smoothly. People do not jaywalk, or litter really, turning vehicles do not try and out maneuver pedestrians with right-of-way. I assume all of this is the result of both legal and cultural expectations.
Judging by the train ride from the airport and views from the 350m tall Tembo Deck of the Tokyo Skytree, the city appears almost infinite. A horizon to horizon sprawl ending only at the edge of Tokyo Bay. This is obviously hyperbole, but, the fact remains that Tokyo is a massive place (the largest metropolitan area in the world actually, with 31 million people) making it all the more strange that it isn’t actually very tall. Unlike Hong Kong or Singapore that stretch out vertically in breathtaking ways, it is a horizontal city. Its buildings do no blot out the sun and divide the streets and sidewalks into the shaded bottoms of concrete canyons. These two things: the lack of a coherent, high-rise “center” and the sheer vast expanse of it all lend Tokyo a kind of vagueness, a nondescript quality reminiscent of an urban version of the Siberian wilderness, and enhance the intimidation one feels upon first arrival.
These observations are obviously and admittedly based on a fleeting 24 hours of experience. Following some more sightseeing and rambling exploration some of this will most likely be rendered obsolete and at least partially incorrect. An opinion that will probably not change though: Tokyo is the most orderly, clean, polite city I’ve ever been in.