Tokyo is not Japan

Try and imagine everything centred in Toronto…I mean, e-very-thing. The population of Toronto double, triples in size and Toronto is now much, much, much larger than any city in Canada. Everything the federal government does in Ottawa is suddenly moved to Toronto and Toronto suddenly becomes the capital of Canada. Toronto becomes the centre of business in Canada with every major business relocating to Toronto; in fact, Toronto becomes the centre of everything in Canada.

Well, this is what Tokyo is to Japan. Tokyo is the largest city, the capital city and the centre of business in Japan. The population of Tokyo is, what, around 13 million (no one has an exact figure, it seems) with the outlying metropolitan area exceeding 35 million. With the population of Japan around 126 million, this means between 1/4 and 1/3 of the population of Japan lives in or near Tokyo. With such a huge proportion of the population living in this area, you would think that Tokyo is Japan or, anything associated with Japan probably resides in or near Tokyo.

This is a mistake. While it can be argued that Tokyo has a huge presence in Japan (and in the world for that fact), it is not the centre of Japan and spending your time in or near Tokyo and thinking that this is Japan is a mistake. In terms of history and culture and sightseeing, Tokyo is just one part of the Japanese picture. Don’t get me wrong, I love Tokyo and it is a wonderful place to visit and explore. However, if you want to discover Japan you have to get out of Tokyo and see what lies beyond.

Fast and Efficient

Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan

Shibuya, Tokyo

My sister once referred to Japan as being “the Swiss of Asia” and I did not understand what she had meant. When I got to Japan, I quickly realized she meant the country is efficient and on time and also moves at a very fast pace. The pace of life in Japan is fast, especially in the cities, and it feels like you are in the midst of a whirlwind of activity going on all around you 24/7.

Time is very important in Japanese society. It seems every clock you see is correct and almost every means of transportation runs on time. If a train or bus is late, for example, you know there must have been a very good reason such as a traffic accident or some other form of delay. The trains and subways, in particular, run like clockwork and you can literally set your watch to a train’s arrival at the station.

I lived in Osaka for many years and I noticed pedestrian speeds were very fast. People walk on the left and even on the escalators and moving sidewalks people continue to walk at a fast clip. I was told this was not the case so much in Tokyo but during my visits to the nation’s capital I still found people going to and fro in a very determined and quick manner.

Service machines such as vending machines and ATMs work and are rarely out of order it seems. I still lose money in vending machines in Canada and have to go into the store and ask for my money back but in Japan this was rarely the case. Vending machines sell everything and almost all the machines I used worked perfectly and I never had any trouble getting what I wanted from them.

Japanese cars, buses, vans, “k-trucks,” motorcycles, and scooters are small and fast. Roads and lanes are narrow but vehicles of every kind somehow seem to manage to go down them without destroying much in their path! I was always amazed how a truck could move down a country road, sandwiched between a wall and a cliff which dropped off into a rice field, and yet maintain to safely manoeuver its way to safety.

Namba, Osaka, Japan

Namba, Osaka

When I flew back to Canada and spent my first day in Vancouver I was always surprised by, a) the sparse population in downtown Vancouver and, b) the seemingly snail-pace crawl of the pedestrians in the downtown area. I was still caught up in the Japanese high-speed walk and would find myself whipping in and out between people as I made my way down the sidewalk. As I started to slow down and adjust to the Vancouver downtown pace it felt as though I was walking through jello as everything seemed to move so slowing and leisurely.

Personal Space

Kamogawa River, Kyoto, Japan

123 million people living on a chain of islands less than 1/2 the size of British Columbia, Canada. This is Japan…kind of…

When many Canadians think of Japan, they think of a country jam-packed with people, factories, and office towers everywhere. Japanese cities are very densely populated but the countryside is not. Once a visitor leaves the city there are farms, mountains, lakes, parks, shrines, temples, and lots of open spaces. I lived in two large Japanese cities – Osaka & Kobe – and city life was certainly crowded. However, on the weekends I would venture off to such places as Kyoto, Nara, Himeji, north to the Sea of Japan and west to Hiroshima and Miyajima and soon the country opened up and the crowded areas quickly became fewer and fewer.

Living space and land space are restricted in Japanese cities compared to Canadian cities, and they do not have the empty, open spaces to sit and relax and watch the people go by. City life in Japan is geared towards work, not relaxation. Cities are places where people work and when work is done then people return home. Relaxation occurs in the home or temporarily in the city restaurants and bars.

Kawaramachi, Kyoto, JapanThe biggest crowds occur during rush hour, and to be frank even after living there for over 17 years I never got used to it. I used to ride the trains during rush hour and the packed trains were something I never looked forward to riding. The busy parts of the city are also very crowded – in Osaka, it was Umeda and Namba and in Kobe it was Sannomiya – and again being a Canadian I did not find the crowded places particularly pleasing.

However, despite the crowds it is relatively easy to quickly escape the hustle and bustle of the city life for the gentle, peaceful quiet of the countryside. On weekends I used to take the kids venture off into the rural areas and nearby smaller cities to explore the historical attractions. The temples, shrines, gardens and castles are great places to escape and forget about the city crowds. It is surprisingly easy to leave the city and discover the beauty of rural Japan, and in my opinion these are the best places to “re-charge your batteries” and if you are into photography the best parts of the country to take photos and videos.

The contrast between city life and country life is stark, and as a visitor it is very interesting to observe these vastly different surroundings.