Tokyo, the capital of Japan and is one of the world’s most commercial and busiest cities and a prime destination for tourists. In was previously called Edo before 1868. In the 16th century it was a small castle town before Tokugawa Ieyasu turned it into the center of his feudal government in 1603, while the country capital was located at Kyoto. During the 1868 Meiji Restoration, the capital was moved to Edo, which was given the name of Tokyo, which translates to “Eastern Capital.” Major parts of Tokyo were destroyed during the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake and in the air raids during WWII.
Now Tokyo is one of the most developed locations in Japan, with almost unlimited choices for shopping, dining, culture and entertainment. It’s got plenty of lounges and bars, grand shopping arcades, major industries and tall skyscrapers. Still, despite it ultra-modernity, you can still see traces of its tradition and culture, in its museums, ryokans or guesthouses and shrines and historic temples. It’s got beautiful green spaces as well, which are particularly attractive come autumn, with their varied colors.
Tokyo presents so many facets, from the traditional to the latest trends and visitors to the city could have a culture shock or embrace everything with an open mind, because there are so many quirky, weird, entertaining and fun things to see and do in Tokyo.
First let us take a look at language. English is not widely spoken in Tokyo, although locals are extremely helpful. While Japanese or Nihongo is the official language, modern Tokyo has its own Tokyo dialect, which is called Tōkyō-go, Tōkyō-ben or Tōkyō hōgen. The Tokyo dialect is considered as the standard Japanese. However, it also differs from the standard Japanese that is spoken by several societal classes in other areas.
In downtown Tokyo there used to be two groups of traditional dialects: the Shimatachi dialect and the Yamanote dialect. The latter was where the standard Japanese was based during the Meiji period and was spoken by the old upper class people from the area where it got its name.
The dialect of the working class is the Shitamachi dialect, which preserved the feature of the Edo Chōninspeech, therefore it was also called the Edo dialect. A good comparison that illustrates the difference between the two dialects is to compare Cockney English and British Received Pronunciation (British accent), both of which are used in very particular areas in London.
The Tokyo dialect was established when Tokugawa Ieyasu came to Edo. At that time the Kyoto dialect was the de facto standard, but there was massive migration into Tokyo of several groups of people speaking their own dialects. Kyoto dialect heavily influenced the Edo dialect, which eventually metamorphosed into the Tokyo dialect.
The traditional Tokyo dialects are almost obscured by the standard Japanese that people in Tokyo use today, with the previous distinctions between the Yamanote and Shitamachi almost non-existent. Still, the Tokyo dialect continues to evolve, as many people still come to Tokyo from other regions of Japan.
But for foreigners who do not speak Japanese, the language barrier is still a big hurdle. Tokyo is a crowded city, which is home to 12.5 million people and while the city is a favorite destination in Japan, shop names, menus and signs are not tourist-friendly. They are all written in Japanese. If you must ask for directions, the best thing to do is to ask the younger people because they have studied English in school. Here’s a trick – write down your questions in English, and you are likely to get a good answer because the emphasis in schools is on written English.
If you are having problems with the oral language, you will have more problems with the written Japanese language, which is a combination of hiragana, katakana and kanji. Japanese language existed only in oral form and later borrowed Chinese characters (kanji), which became the basis of their own written symbols – hiragana for words not written in kanji, and katakana that is used for foreign words. While some of the Japanese and Chinese characters might have the same pictographs, which both parties may recognize, the Japanese and Chinese would not be able to verbally communicate.
One good thing to know is that about 20 percent of the modern Japanese language is peppered with English words, like terebi (television), rajio (radio), konbini (convenience store) and koohi (coffee). Here are a few more examples of gairaigo or Japanese words that were based on foreign languages that you will probably hear when you’re in Tokyo, which are often mistaken for English words. When you think about it, they do sound like slang-ish English:
- afutāsābisu after service
- aidoru idol
- aisu ice
- aisukurīmu ice cream
- apāto apart(ment)
- arukōru alcohol
- bāgen bargain
- baiku bike
- bukkukabā book cover
- batā butter
- bijinesuhoteru business hotel
- bōrupen ball(point) pen
- burezā blazer
- chiketto ticket
- korabo Collab(orations)
- konpyūtā or konpyūta computer
- daburu double
- depāto depart(ment store)
- desuku desk
- donmai don’t mind
- doraibā driver
- dorama drama
- eakon air conditioning or air conditioner
- erebētā elevator
- faito fight
- gurasu glass (drinking)
- gyararī gallery
- happīendo happy ending
- hottokēki hotcake
- jūsu juice
- kurabu club
- mēru mail
- miruku milk
- ōbā over
- pantsu pants
- raibaru rival
- ramune lemonade
- sābisu service
- serebu celebrity
- sumāto smart
- taimuōbā time over
- tīn’ējā teenager
- toraburu trouble
But then again, hopefully you will keep your laughter to yourself when you see some of the written English in Tokyo. You are likely to find many English words that are either used in unusual context (always a guessing game) or see them delightfully misspelled.
Did you know?
- The Japanese Emperor resides in Tokyo.
- There are 23 wards that comprise the City of Tokyo, making it one of the world’s largest cities. The Greater Tokyo Area constitutes Tokyo as well as Saitama, Kanagawa and Chiba. The area is the world’s most densely populated place.
- Tokyo, like London and New York, is a finance command center of the world.
- Five of the 25 greatest amusement parks in the world are located in Tokyo, according to a consensus done in 2010.
- For a city, Tokyo has the world’s largest metropolitan gross domestic product.
- Aragawa, a restaurant in Tokyo that specializes in Kobe Beef is one of the most expensive in the world. You could spend 35,000 Yen or roughly US$282 for a meal for a single person here. Moreover, Tokyo has the most number of Michelin-starred restaurants compared to any city in the world.
- From 1992 to 2006, Tokyo has been rated as the most costly city to live in by the Economist Intelligence Unit. It was again named in 2012 as the most expensive city for expatriates according to the Economist Intelligence Unit and Mercer.
- The Tokyo Skytree is the tallest tower in the world and is next to BurjKhalifa as the world’s tallest structure.
- Mount Fuji is a Tokyo icon. However, due to the smog and dust in Tokyo, it is only visible for about 180 days a year.
- With 100 universities and colleges in Tokyo, it ranks first in the world as the city with the highest concentration of institutes for higher learning.
Fun facts about Tokyo
- Tokyo is too cramped with people that there’s very little space left. In Tokyo you will find a “capsule hotel,” which is just like a box or a capsule that is about the size of a large refrigerator that comes equipped with WiFi, TV as well as electronic console. You’ll still manage to get a comfortable sleep in it, although only men use these.
- Tokyo is a fashion-forward city. Harajuku is a colorful and fun district, popular as a fashion capital, where you will find the most unique street fashion worn by teenagers. The district becomes a haven for photographer on Sundays, as cosplayers come in droves. They even have a big street party every two months, dubbed as the Harajuku Fashion Walk.
- You can find healthy, cheap and delicious food anywhere in Tokyo. You’ll find the cheapest sushi if you venture out into the Tsukiji Fish Market.
- In Tokyo, almost all people are obsessed with their mobile phones, which even business executives love to personalize.
- The Tokyo Tower derived inspiration from the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It is repainted every five years. Painting the entire tower takes one whole year.
- Tokyo’s railway stations are too crowded during rush hours that they have to employ “oshiya” or (people) pushers. These attendants literally push passengers into trains.
- Convenience and speed is a big thing in Tokyo. The city has several vending machines that sell various items from fresh eggs, to cigarettes and canned breads.
- According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Shinjuku Station is the busiest rail station in the world.
- Most toilets in Tokyo have heated seats. They also make white noise to camouflage embarrassing sounds, have spray and bidet with adjustable water pressure and also a drier.
- The Shibuya branch of Starbucks is the second highest worldwide income generator. It overlooks Shibuya Crossing, the busiest crossing in the world
- Tokyo’s Golden Gai district, located in Shinjuku is famous for its 257 bars. KomagataDozeu on the other hand is a restaurant that had been in operation since 1801.
- The Ritz Carlton Suite in Ritz Carlton Tokyo charges US$25,000 per night. Located at the 53rd floor of the hotel, it gives the most impressive view of the Imperial Palace.
- RyogokuKokugikan is a Tokyo stadium for sumo wrestling. Unbeknownst to many, there is a secret yakitori factory under the stadium.
Weird things in Tokyo
- Citizens of Tokyo love their manga, anime and cosplay. Blood donors in visiting the donation clinic in Akibahara are comforted by the presence of image characters. They are also given Akibahara-themed tissues afterwards.
- Tokyo has several themed restaurants. Aside from the ubiquitous Kitty, there is a Ninja-themed restaurant in Akasaka, called Ninja Akasaka. True to its concept, it is like entering a secret ninja fortress, with staff wearing traditional ninja costume/uniform. The Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku is not famous for its food but for its out-of-this-world futuristic entertainment amidst bright and kaleidoscopic neon and laser lights, with dancers and other performers delighting the mostly tourist crowd. The huge robots appear during one part of the performance. Photo ops are allowed without any charge. The Lockup has a branch in Tokyo. Here you will be served by staff dressed as police officers and seat in you a table surrounded by bars, serving you food prison-style.
- The Ranse no Koshitsu Sengoku Buyuden is a Samurai-themed restaurant in Shinjuku. In Ginza, you will find the Alice’s Fantasy Restaurant (Alice in a Labyrinth). Also in Ginza is a Vampire Café. You can enjoy lip-smacking good food at the Kyoto-themed Shibuya Kyoumachi Koi Shigure. If you are into ghosts (yurei in Japanese), there’s a ghost themed restaurant in Minimachi called YureiIzakaya.
- With about 160,000 restaurants operating in Tokyo, competition is fierce. Hence owners go for themes that could be weird, bizarre or wacky. There are Maid Cafés frequented by male otaku fans, Gundam Café for fans of Gundam, about 50 Cat Cafés where patrons can have coffee in the company of beautiful felines, a Capcom bar (iconic video game-themed bar), Thunderbirds Café (classic British cartoon in the 60s), Alcatraz E.R. (prison hospital theme), Kamen Rider The Diner and Hibari-tei (male maid café). There are a lot more, but one of the most bizarre is the Modern Toilet Restaurant, which has lavatory themed plates and seats.
You’ve just had a quick glimpse of what makes Tokyo such a fun yet quirky and at times, weird place. Plan to visit Tokyo on your next vacation.
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