Tokyo is the world’s most populated city with 38 million people. That’s thirty-eight million breathing, walking and talking bloodbags in one place. Now, unless you’re one of those mythical creatures who are unaffected by cramped spaces, noisy crowds and stress – you are bound to lose it at some point.
Having lived in Hokkaido (wasteland ruled by cows) and Nagano (bear-infested mountains), moving to Tokyo was somewhat of a shock. Yes, the big city was big – no surprises there. What caught me flat-footed was my own reaction to the endless hustle and bustle; at times, my brain would simply short-circuit and I’d wake up with blood on my hands. Okay, maybe not the last part, but I have done some pretty out-of-character things during my time here. Let me give you an example.
It was a rainy day
It was rainy, hot, humid and sticky – Japanese summer at its best. I was standing in the smack middle of a rush hour train, comfortable as an ice bear in Africa when it happened. An American backpacker couple crushed their way into the coach and ouch! I accidentally stepped on the guy’s foot. His 5ft 4 girlfriend bristled immediately.
“Excuse me, did you just step on my boyfriend’s foot?!”
“Uh…” I looked around self-consciously.
“Wow. U not even gonna apologize?”
Right. I’m Swedish. 99.9% of the time I’d rather eat moss than face conflict. But in that moment, something dark and spiteful hijacked my mind. To my own surprise, I turned to the girlfriend and put on an insincere smile. All teeth.
“Oh I am so sorry, I didn’t mean to step on his foot,” I said sweetly. Then in a very deliberate motion, I stepped on her foot.
Time froze for a few seconds as her jaw dropped to the ground (somewhere in the background, mine did too). Then she unleashed a level of crazy that would have made any reality-show producer bounce with joy. Of course, my brazen personality chose to depart at this point, leaving a flustered Swedish person to deal with the consequences. What did I do? I fled head over heels from the train with the loud cursing of a 5ft 4 American backpacker ringing in my ears. Glad to say I made it out alive.
Crazy is contagious
After a few more similar episodes (involving umbrella bumpers and slow walkers) I started fearing I was actually losing my mind. As it stands, I’m still not sure if I am, but at least I now know there are others who are much, much, worse than me. Last year alone, over 700 angry people used violence against railway staff in Tokyo. Not cool. There are also weirdos who crash into people really hard on purpose just for the kicks. Others see it fit to stab people who sit in priority seats when they shouldn’t. Not to mention the crazy sods who mutter perfectly audible insults to everyone around them, Gollum-style. Ah, what a relief it is to have these volatile strangers around. Puts things in a different light.
You are not alone
In fact, you are never alone. Ever. Maybe that’s what drives people to the edge. Either way, lots of people means lots of queueing, and queuing is the way of life here. Want to buy clothes? Prepare to queue for the changing rooms. Want to eat lunch at your favourite ramen place? The queue starts around the corner mate. No, not that corner. The corner after that corner. Want to go to that hyped-up fireworks festival? Great, but don’t forget 700,000 other people had the same idea. The particularly bold and daring might also try Tokyo Disney Land, where you can enjoy munching on caramel popcorn while queuing 1 h for a 5 min ride.
But Tokyo is so quiet and clean?
My friend, I take it you have never met the Japanese School Girl. Let me introduce you. These giggle boxes usually come in clusters of 4-8 and emit loud, surprised “eeee“-noises on top of their lungs between bouts of equally loud laughter. Be advised this may very well permanently damage your ear drums. Proceed with caution as soon as you spot them.
Come winter, you will have other things to worry about than your ears. Your life, for example. 80% of people on the tube will cough their lungs out during this season. And while you might think “but why don’t they stay home?” you have to remember this is Japan. Staying home because you’re sick is not a thing. To be fair, most people do use face masks, but you can bet that the one dude with the death rattle will not have one. Long live germs.
In Japan, machines talk more than people
Some days, you’ll find a school girl-free carriage with zero coughing people. Great! But this doesn’t mean you can escape the constant noise of Tokyo because everything, and I mean everything talks. On my way to work, I usually pass speaking car parks and trucks that loudly announce every turn they make. In the station, the escalators talk (“Please be careful when you get on the escalator. Please stay inside the yellow lines. Please hold on to the railing. Please be careful when you alight the escalator”). On the platform, the announcements never end (“Please be careful to not get your bag stuck in the doors. Please stand behind the line. Please be careful of the closing doors. Please do not rush into the train”). Every time a train arrives, a loud jingle followed by more announcements echo over the platform.
On my way home, I swing by the supermarket, where a radio is placed in every corner, shouting out offers at max volume on endless repeat. Afterwards, I stop by an ATM to withdraw cash, and it also speaks! Ahhhh! I try to flee into a public toilet, but even that has a voice (“This is the ladies toilet. Welcome to the ladies toilet”). As soon as I sit down, a speaker starts playing waterfall noises with creaking frogs, because god forbid anyone should hear my business. Finally, I dash past the area where I know the government has placed high frequency devices that emit high pitched piercing sounds. These can only be heard by people under 30 and are (officially) critter deterrents. Unofficially though, they are there to stop young people from loitering. Then 5 pm hits, and the 5pm chime is blasted through loudspeakers all over Tokyo. When I finally reach home, I’m battered. But at least I got my talking rice cooker to keep me company.
There is of course more to Tokyo than crowds and talking machines. Let’s not forget about the professional people pushers on train platforms, and the heroic employees who yell ”welcome” non-stop in shops. Essential parts of society, they are. But when you do need a break, there are so-called silent cafés, where talking is strictly forbidden and all communication with staff is made through writing. They are pretty neat, actually. If the silent cafés are not enough to break your stressful mood, you can always take a train to Nagano. Just make sure you don’t accidentally sit in the priority seat. You never know who’s watching.