First Impressions

Tokyo Dreams Meet Tokyo Realities

by Leslie Long
Photo by Jezael Melgoza / Unsplash.

I’d long wanted to travel to Japan. So when my good friends Jun and Kazuko, a Japanese couple who’ve lived in both Japan and the United States, offered to take a few friends for a visit, I immediately signed on.

As a longtime Japanophile in love with Japanese fashion, food, and culture, I had certain expectations of Tokyo. So how did the real things measure up? I was often surprised, but never disappointed. Here’s what I learned when my dreams met reality.

1. Modesty is modern.

I’d seen photos of Tokyo’s teenagers hanging out in Harajuku in colorful cartoon regalia and costume-like outfits. I’d also long been a fan of the asymmetrical beauty of Japanese clothing designers like Rei Kawakubo of Commes des Garcons and Yohji Yamamoto, whose designs often remind me of origami, and I thought this look might be fairly common among fashionable Tokyoites.

What I saw on the city streets was so simple in comparison. Women of all ages dressed in lovely, billowy cotton skirts, loose dresses, or wide short pants. Everything was below the knee, and bare arms were rarely seen despite the hot May temperatures nearing 90. Most clothing was in solid, subdued colors, excepting large polka dots, a repeated theme. According to Kazuko, women who work in offices don’t wear short skirts, sleeveless tops, or dresses, preferring more of a uniform similar to a man’s blue suit. She also said most Japanese women feel comfortable looking similar to one another, not standing out in a crowd.

I saw a variety of hats on women, shields from sun exposure. Some were cotton bucket hats and, in the fashionable areas, many wore beribboned summer straw hats that reminded me of the 1940s street photos of New York. Straw hats were so popular that they were sold in kiosks along the street. If arms were not fully covered, they were often clad in something akin to a cotton arm warmer that slipped on the hand, protecting the lower arms from the sun. Next level were the bicycles with built-in rigid sleeves on the handlebars to shield the riders’ arms. Protecting one’s skin has long been a concern in Japan. Parasols with built-in UV protection are not uncommon.

Men dressed conservatively in simple suits. Large groups of school kids filled the stations, streets, and schoolyards with an array of uniforms, often in sailor style — girls in dark pleated skirts and middy blouses; boys in simple black pants and white shirts.

Hair was simple and well-tended, rarely dyed. (I’d been tipped off that the pink hair Minnie Mouse days had passed.) Similarly, shoes were sensible and flat. (My last-minute packing deletion of bulky platform sandals turned out to be wise.) Most Tokyo residents don’t have cars. Bicycles, many electric, were very visible, often with young mothers toting two little children. With so much bicycle riding up hills (who knew Tokyo was so hilly?) and walking down into the public transportation mazes, high heels simply wouldn’t work.

Even in the Harajuko district, things were pretty low-key. The high school kids working in stores dressed in colorful costumes and wigs, clearly for tourists. For the most part, the shoppers were dressed as they were in the rest of the city: simply, nicely, conservatively. The sock and stocking stores were about as wild as things got, offering a huge range of styles, colors, and patterns, all at low prices.

A dip into the Commes des Garcons flagship store, where I wanted absolutely everything, was the one place I saw the Japanese style I’d expected. Not on the customers, but on the sales staff who were perfectly and beautifully dressed in Rei Kawakubo’s finery, and wore creative makeup, hair, shoes, and jewelry. These spectacular people were selling a look, and while I loved observing them, they were not typical of Tokyo street style. The occasional women who stood out because of their clothing were few and far between.

Japanese tourists had long been wearing face masks around New York. But during my visit, well before Covid, masks were a common sight on residents of all ages, even teenagers. At an age when looking good feels so important, I was amazed at how many opted to wear masks. I heard explanations ranging from general protection from city air and allergens to concern for others if the wearer had a cold.

Simple style on a subway commuter. Photo by Leslie Long.

2. Where’s the sushi?

Sushi is everywhere in the United States. Once high-priced and exclusive, it’s now inexpensive and ubiquitous, as at home at a bar mitzvah buffet or grocery store as it is at the countless Asian fusion restaurants across America. For sure, it would be a Japanese mainstay.

After a few days in Japan, I realized I hadn’t seen one sushi restaurant. Jun explained that it was considered more of a special occasion treat here and that dedicated sushi places were quite expensive. Days later, we visited an understated older restaurant where the sushi was indeed artful, amazing, and much pricier than any other meal.

It takes more than ten years of training to become a true Japanese sushi chef, and this expertise does not come cheap. Additionally, high standards for the freshest fish mean that sushi restaurants need to be located near a large city fish market, ruling out sushi in smaller towns and cities.

There was one exception in Tokyo: conveyer belt sushi spots in airports and train stations, where everyone sits at a counter and color-coded plates of sushi ride by. You take what you want, stacking empty plates that get tallied at the end. These counter-only restaurants are lower priced and a lot of fun. I saw low sushi and high sushi, and not much in between.

Noodles, however, were the everyday food. Every neighborhood had small noodle shops — some specializing in udon (thick white noodles made from wheat flour, originally from western Japan) and others in soba (brownish buckwheat noodles from eastern Japan). The inexpensive noodles were usually made on site and were incredibly good, sometimes served in soup with other ingredients, sometimes topped with vegetables, meat, or fish. I didn’t see office workers eating takeout food outdoors. Like the good old days in Manhattan before Dig Inn, Pret a Manger, and Sweetgreen took over the city, those who wanted to go out for lunch went to a restaurant, even if was just for a quick bowl of noodles at the counter.

Sometimes we ate in casual, inexpensively-priced yakitori places, often filled with college students, that served small skewers of grilled meats and vegetables piled high on family-style platters. This food was served with pitchers of beer. Not what I would have considered to be typical Japanese fare before my trip.

3. Clean as can be, but it’s on you.

Yes, Japan has a reputation for extreme cleanliness, but some aspects of this were unusual. While one does not see litter, that’s not because things are tossed into garbage cans. Because there aren’t any. The first time I found myself with tissues or papers to discard, I looked and looked for a receptacle to absolutely no avail. It wasn’t long before I realized that in Japan, your trash is your problem.

Apparently, the lack of garbage cans in cities and train stations is a lasting effect of the sarin gas attacks that occurred in the Tokyo subway system in 1995, harming 5,000. Afraid of further attacks, trash cans that could potentially hold terrorist weapons were removed, never to return.

The extremely clean streets attest to the fact that no one is littering. Without food carts and takeout food, there’s a lot less to dispose of. No plastic clamshells lined with salad dressing, no plastic utensils or piles of too many napkins and condiments.

Toilets in Japan are little miracle machines. Most are made by Toto and perform a wide range of functions, many of which I’d never even imagined. Often futuristic in design, they have panels of silver buttons that allow you to select various options.

First of all, the seats are heated. I never really considered cold toilet seats a problem until I experienced such warmth. Once settled, you can choose pleasant gurgling sounds for privacy from bodily noises. You can choose a perfectly-angled burst of warm or cool water to rise up and rinse you from the front or back. You can turn on a warm, drying breeze and choose where it hits you — and more.

I might expect similar high-end bathroom pleasures in a five-star hotel, but these toilets are just about everywhere, including homes and businesses of all descriptions. It’s how toilets are in Japan. But despite all this fanfare within the stalls, public bathrooms rarely had towels or hand-dryers. Sinks, yes. After that, you’re on your own. At first, I found that odd, but when I think about the public restrooms in the U.S. with overflowing garbage cans, it does make for a more pleasant atmosphere. To say nothing for the paper saved without anyone using paper towels. A few shakes in the air, and my hands were clean and dry. A practice I’ve continued after returning home.

Japanese children bring their own towels to school, so maybe they’re programmed not to expect towels in public restrooms. Many Japanese carry a small, reusable towel or handkerchief with them every day.

Pick a floor, find a restaurant. Photo by Leslie Long.

4. Up in the air.

I was prepared for a busy street life in Tokyo, but I didn’t expect it to rise so high above street level. At many of the restaurants our friends took us to, we’d enter at ground level to find a large directory, much like in an office building. Except the entire building, all 10-15 floors, would house only restaurants, all different, mostly high-end and unrelated.  

On a high floor with a view of Tokyo, one common balcony might welcome guests from all the floor’s restaurants. Other floors had large picture windows with a view and a few places to sit and take it all in. Every floor had luxurious common restrooms. Similar buildings were filled with floors of karaoke bars.

In the Golden Gai district of Shinjuku, more than 200 tiny bars, seating from three to ten patrons at a time, fill the meandering alleyways. These rickety and charming little buildings in a former red-light district have three floors — a basement, ground floor, and second story, often reached by a steep ladder or staircase, each with its own miniscule bar, all under different ownerships.

5. Controlled chaos.

I’d long seen images of white-gloved pushers packing commuters into Tokyo’s train and subway cars. I’d also seen the huge moving masses of humanity at Shibuya Crossing, the world’s busiest intersection. I was fully prepared for oppressive and crushing crowds. And knowing Japan’s technology was at a high level, I expected everyone to be talking on their phones or taking endless selfies and photos.

What a pleasant surprise to find something completely different. Yes, there are a lot of people on the streets and trains, but they are quite practiced at keeping their distance, so you never feel hemmed in. No matter how crowded the subways or trains, they’re virtually silent. So quiet I could read a book without ever once getting disturbed. Yes, many are looking at their phones, but whatever they’re doing, they’re doing it quietly. Which means all cars are virtually quiet cars. (A few lines had women-only cars.) The few times I noticed a voice above a whisper, it belonged to one of my American friends.

Photo by Leslie Long.

6. A feeling of safety.

When we first arrived and started traveling on the subways, we’d notice very young children in school uniforms alone on the trains. We’d look for a parent or caregiver but not find one. Children who looked as young as five take public transportation to schools completely on their own. Calmly awaiting the train, getting on board with their little backpacks and just as seamlessly getting off, we got used to seeing these adorable little commuters.

Similarly, once we settled into our absolutely beautiful Tokyo Airbnb in the Meguro neighborhood, we saw very young children playing alone outside. I particularly recall passing a small apartment house of five stories with a side yard and seeing a girl of around six dreamily bouncing a ball by herself. Perhaps she was being watched through the apartment window, but maybe she wasn’t. She didn’t appear nervous, and the passersby kept passing. 

My Japanese friends said that because people still feel that the country is generally very safe, many aren’t afraid to let their children play alone outside or stay home by themselves when a parent runs an errand. Observing these relaxed, independent young children behaving like children did in the U.S. in the 1950s was both charming and curious. It is surely different in my helicopter parent world.

7. Nothing lost.

On our final night, we visited one place that was exactly as I’d imagined – the rooftop bar at the Park Hyatt Hotel where so many scenes from Lost in Translation were filmed. An aficionado of the film, I had to go, and it didn’t disappoint, down to the female jazz singer and patrons who looked extras in a James Bond film. All that was missing were Scarlett and Bill.

My insider trip to Japan provided me with a true feeling of how calm and cohesive the Japanese culture is — and I was touched by the respect the citizens seemed to have for one another and for their surroundings. I may not have found what I imagined, but I found so much more.

Want to know what else is great in Tokyo? Check Fathom's Tokyo Guidefor secret gardens, top hotels, and cutting edge design.