I spent the entire day on Monday sprawled on my friend Anna’s futon in the tiny town of Kakegawa. I didn’t see a single new thing or have any new cultural experiences, just watched Project Runway and uploaded pictures. It was heavenly.
I suspect it’s a bit early on to be experiencing burnout, but after 3 days of intense sightseeing in the overwhelming city of Tokyo, I needed a break. I can try to blame it on jet lag or on the rain, or the fact that I’m just not used to full-time travel yet. It was all of those things, but even on a good day I think I would find Tokyo to be too much.
Tokyo is Big
Like really, really big. Population wise Tokyo is the largest metropolitan area in the world, with 32 million people spread out around it. That is a LOT of people, and it seems to have dealt with this massive population not just by sprawling outwards but by building upwards.
The true enormousness of Tokyo was really driven home during our visit to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. If you are looking for a good view of Tokyo I definitely recommend taking the (free) elevator to the 45th floor of this massive building. On a good day you can see Mount Fuji, although the weather has not been on my side this week. Instead, Tokyo’s gray high rises sprawled as far as the eye could see in every direction.
Tokyo is Busy
There may be some quiet parts of Tokyo, but I never saw them. Instead people rushed about frenetically down every street and in every shop. The train stations in Tokyo are an amazing lesson in crowd control, as hundreds of thousands of people pass each other by on their way around the city. The giant crosswalk at Shibuya station is maybe the best place to watch thousands of people cross the street. It’s 30 seconds in a kind of organized chaos. It’s impressive, if intimidating.
The bustling young Edokko (that’s Tokyo-ites) can be seen up close on Sunday mornings in Harajuku. If you are like me you’ve probably only heard of Harajuku via Gwen Stefani, but it’s actually a famously outlandish shopping area in Tokyo. On the morning I visited it was crammed full of twenty-something Japanese women, some dressed stylishly, some flamboyantly. Walking down the main street was exciting, but slightly claustrophobic.
Tokyo is Overstimulating
The crowds and the sheer size of Tokyo I could probably have handled, if it weren’t for the completely overwhelming amount of noise, flashing lights and activity happening every single second of the day. You know that episode of The Simpsons where the family goes to Japan and has a seizure every time they turn on the television? I totally get this now.
This is particularly true at night, when the major downtown areas are awash in fluorescent glow. It’s kind of beautiful, in the way flashing Christmas lights are beautiful. Except it’s not Christmas, it’s Saturday night and the entire city is alive with electricity.
And people yelling. In a bizarre marketing tactic I don’t quite get, major stores station hearty lunged salespeople outside their doors to yell out the days electronics specials on repeat. This sound mixes in with the blaring omnipresent music and the hard clangs of the pachinko parlors to create a deafening cacophony. Coupled with the lights, the signs, the people, it’s all just so much MUCH.
After a little while my brain kind of fizzled out as I blindly let Anna lead me through the city. A long sit in a dark room was all I wanted.
Learning From Tokyo
If it sounds like complaining, I’m not. Tokyo was quite a sight, like no city I’ve ever experienced. The closest thing I could compare it to is New York on steroids. I was impressed and awed but I highly doubt I could live there. Anna tells me that the quieter suburbs are much less frenetic, and I’m sure this is true, but downtown is intimidating as hell.
I also think there was a lesson in here for me, on not pushing myself too hard. I was more than happy to let my excellent tour guide Anna rush me around to all of the major sights, but that sort of frenetic pace- in Tokyo or anywhere, it just not sustainable. Long term travel like this is a marathon, not a sprint, and I need to remember the importance of pacing myself.