Tales from abroad: Tokyo

Tokyo’s many wards are popular tourist attractions. Shibuya, a vibrant shopping district in downtown Tokyo, is especially popular with the youth. (credit: Isaac Jones | Comics Editor) Tokyo’s many wards are popular tourist attractions. Shibuya, a vibrant shopping district in downtown Tokyo, is especially popular with the youth. (credit: Isaac Jones | Comics Editor)

In my youth, and by that I mean two years ago, I embarked on a mad scheme to free myself from the pressures of classwork and the annual job hunt for one blissful summer. In order to do this, I decided to study abroad, to leave the comforts of home and spend as much time as possible in the furthest place from home. In this delightful frenzy, I lighted upon Tokyo, Japan as my target. Though it factored somewhere in the back of my mind that I did not know Japanese, that slight drawback was completely overshadowed by the fact that I would be eight full time zones away from my home and my place of study.

Unfortunately, reality came crashing down on me when, after disembarking from the plane and exiting the airport to the nearest subway station, I found that I had no idea how I was going to get from where I was to where I was supposed to sleep that night. It became obvious very quickly that not being familiar with the various ways to transliterate the Japanese kanji into the English alphabet was going to be a problem.

Tokyo’s subway system can be generously described as labyrinthine. It is run by two major companies, and a multitude of other companies run smaller above-ground lines near the edges of the larger system. To make things more complex, the largest line, one encircling the downtown area, is run by a third large company. This made navigating the subway system overwhelming and intimidating, especially since the only other system I had experience with was the one in Washington, D.C., a small system by anyone’s standards. However, thanks to a helpful bystander, I was able to get directions to the district in which my hostel was located.

Begging bystanders for directions quickly became a theme on my trip. In general, residents were very helpful. In particular, young people were more than happy to point me in the direction of whatever building or store I was searching out. In fact, some of them walked me to the locale in question and peppered me with questions about where I was from and why I was in Tokyo. I was told later that this was an attempt to practice their English language skills, which explained why I had some trouble understanding their questions.

As for studying, my classmates and I were exposed to an accelerated program in two courses of our choosing. This allowed me to cram an entire semester of sociology and history into about a month of study. Though we were required to attend classes on Saturday, we had the entire afternoon off every day. This allowed me and my classmates to explore a large number of the more popular districts of the city during our studies.

The actual city of Tokyo is broken into 23 special wards, which are further subdivided into chome. Each of these chome has a different feel, though some of them tend to run together as an area gains popularity for a certain type of entertainment. For example, Akihabara, the “Electric Light District,” is famous for being home to every piece of electronics you could ever want, from tabletop-size dishwashers to personal robots and everything in between. There is even a store devoted entirely to robotics and personal robots. In the side alleys, you can buy any electrical part you could ever desire from vendors hawking their wares from street carts. However, it’s not all about electronics. One store named “Don Quijote” (complete with an animated knight attacking a windmill), is an eight-floor shrine to everything you could possibly want. I had not previously suspected that my 6’5” classmate could find a Hello Kitty costume in his size, but he reveled in his discovery.

There is more to Tokyo, however, than technology and six-foot-tall Hello Kitty costumes. Those of you with a penchant for pop culture may remember that Gwen Stefani was once popular for a song entitled “Harajuku Girls.” The Harajuku mentioned in the song is, in fact, one of the chome of the Shibuya ward of Tokyo. The Shibuya ward is famous for its high fashion, and many of our afternoons were spent browsing through clothing stores to find outfits that not only fit us, but were sufficiently absurd that our friends back home would no longer speak to us. Unfortunately, none of our choices could top the elaborate costumes worn on Sundays by aspiring performers lined up and down the main street in Harajuku, belting out their best tunes in an attempt to land a record deal and become the next pop idol. If that wasn’t strange enough, all of this is located directly next to Meiji-Jingu, the largest shrine in Tokyo, and one that nearly everyone, native and tourist alike, comes to visit.

Though Tokyo is an ever-changing landscape, with stores and shops constantly changing their stock or even going in and out of business, the one constant is that there is always more to see. A study abroad trip would be incomplete without some glimpse into high culture, and it was certainly provided. Regardless of one’s intent, Tokyo continues to surprise and delight its visitors. I can safely say that I will be back to Tokyo, hopefully for an extended time.