Tuesday June 2, 2015
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Confused travellers are a common sight at train stations in Tokyo. – Pictures by CK LimConfused travellers are a common sight at train stations in Tokyo. – Pictures by CK Lim

TOKYO, June 2 – Ah, Japan – the land of cherry blossoms and Mount Fuji! First time visitors to Japan tend to head to Tokyo, its capital and a city of contrasts.

Here you will find Tokyoites bustling about in salarymen suits and traditional kimonos alike; where you might stumble on an old temple around the corner from a block of skyscrapers.

Enjoy the juxtaposition of modern and old-school by watching out for these five things about Tokyo:

1. The train stations are efficient… and confusing

Be prepared to navigate through the crowds to catch your train… at the right platform!Be prepared to navigate through the crowds to catch your train… at the right platform!

Getting into a train in Tokyo during rush hour can be quite a squeeze.Getting into a train in Tokyo during rush hour can be quite a squeeze.The Tokyo train system is one of the world’s most efficient – the trains are clean, quiet and very punctual (unless someone commits suicide by jumping onto the tracks, which can occur). What confuses most first-time visitors are the multitude of train operators running competing lines.

You will likely make use of the Japan Rail (JR) which runs the busy Yamanote and Chuo lines. But there are rival operators such as Tokyo Metro and Toei, as well as other private lines running out to the suburbs.

Each will require their own paper ticket, which can be a hassle. Purchase a pass card (either Suica or Pasmo) instead; these act like a Touch ‘N’ Go, enabling you to use all the lines, regardless of the operator.

The popular Iron Giant at the Ghibli Museum’s rooftop garden.The popular Iron Giant at the Ghibli Museum’s rooftop garden.Be prepared for crowds if you travel during the morning and evening rush hours. If you don’t mind the wait, the experience can be an inspiring one as the Japanese will politely queue in neat lines on the platform and wait patiently for the trains.

Another challenge is the multiple exits at most train stations. Watch out for the Japanese-English station maps which show which exits are nearest to your destination, usually close to popular landmarks. Do this before you exit the station as there aren’t many maps once you’re above ground.

2. Nothing’s more Japanese than waiting in line

The lines in Tokyo aren’t limited to the train stations. One way to experience true urban Japanese culture is to observe how there are neat and winding queues just about everywhere, whether it’s for the release of a new product or the opening day of a shop or simply for lunch.

The time spent waiting in line may prove daunting to first-time visitors to Tokyo. I remember queuing up for almost an hour to get into a ramen shop for lunch the first time I visited the city. If it’s a popular restaurant, a wait of two hours is not uncommon.

The interesting part is how no one complains and happily chats with their companions or play with their smartphones. There is no one trying to cut the queue or speaking too loudly. Everyone expects the wait – perhaps this might explain the stress-free and often “fun” experience for the locals… and visitors willing to give it a go.

Tokyoites are no strangers to waiting in lines for just about everything, from food to a new iPhone.Tokyoites are no strangers to waiting in lines for just about everything, from food to a new iPhone.

3. Feasting at the convenience store

If you’re famished, waiting in line may understandably sound like torture to you. A good way to circumvent the lines is to head to a nearby convenience store where you can select a delicious meal and experience another aspect of Japanese culture.

Convenience stores, or konbini, are huge in Japan. With more than 40,000 outlets owned by competing operators such as Lawson and Family Mart, there is an unbelievable range of food choices including bento lunch boxes, onigiri (rice balls filled with salmon, seaweed and other ingredients), instant ramen (some by famous ramen shops, rather than the bland cup noodles variety), and even piping hot oden (boiled fish balls and tofu, especially popular during winter).

Choose from a wide selection of meals packed fresh daily in a Tokyo convenience store.Choose from a wide selection of meals packed fresh daily in a Tokyo convenience store.

Microwave meals and some cold dishes such as onigiri can be heated for you by the staff. Most stores are open 24/7 and also accept the aforementioned Suica and Pasmo as payment. Some stores even have toilets (very clean ones, as per Japanese standards), which is one less queue you have to endure!

4. Marvel at magical museums

Cosplay fans congregate in popular meeting spots such as Harujuku and Akihabara.Cosplay fans congregate in popular meeting spots such as Harujuku and Akihabara.Museums and art galleries have a reputation for being dry, stuffy places. Not in Tokyo though! There is a plethora of innovative, fun (and some would say eccentric) museums to delight everyone.

One such creative and fun-filled museum is the Ghibli Museum located in Mitaka, just outside of central Tokyo. This is the home to the art and animation wonders of Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli, which has produced award-winning films such as My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea.

The whimsical space provides visitors with immersive experiences inspired by the studio’s films. Imagine looking up at a life-sized robot (from the film Castle in the Sky) on the rooftop garden or taking a ride in the grinning, fur-coated Catbus (from My Neighbor Totoro).

There are exhibits about the techniques of animation and a small theatre that shows exclusive short films by Studio Ghibli. It’s a wonderland for the young ones… and the young at heart.

5. Experience the cosplay capital of the world!

Ask nicely to take a picture with a cosplayer – most are more than happy to oblige.Ask nicely to take a picture with a cosplayer – most are more than happy to oblige.Is it any wonder that the country that produces manga (Japanese-style comic books) and anime (Japanese cartoons and animated films) will also inspire “live” versions of these creations by fans? Nowhere else is this more prevalent than Tokyo, the cosplay (“costume play”) capital of the world.

In the youthful district of Harujuku, you can see many cosplayers congregating. Possibly the most popular gathering spot for cosplayers is the Jingubashi bridge near Harajuku Station and the Meiji Shrine gate. Ask nicely and friendly cosplayers will acquiesce to posing for a photograph with you.

Elsewhere in Akihabara, cosplay restaurants have mushroomed where the waitresses are often dressed up as popular anime characters. At maid cafés, the servers are dressed as coquettish maids. Some cafés go one step further and have dominatrices instead.

If you photograph a cosplayer, you are known as cameko (literally “camera boy”), and it’s customary to give prints of your photos to the players as gifts. These days, with smartphones, it’s easier to text or email them their picture… and perhaps make a new friend along the way.

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