July 16 • 08:34 AM

The sparkling, safe streets of Tokyo

May 22, 2019
If I was to put my recent trip to Tokyo in a nutshell, I would bypass talking about the impossibly spotless streets or the clockwork-like public transportation system that I was lucky to experience, but rather mention the singing toilets in the 7-Elevens.

Well, not truly "singing." Navigating the buttons on the control pad that projects from the toilet's side, one can unleash the sound of running water and twittering birds throughout their stall as they sit back, relax and, well… Of course, those who anticipate this feature —along with the "spray" function, which you can intricately customize in terms of warmth, pressure and movement—can also expect the 7-Eleven restroom to be spic and span.

I can respect a country that respects its restroom experience.

This was a weeklong sojourn I undertook to Japan, and only within its capital city. Joining me was a pal from the US who is also currently bumming around Asia and is also named Andrew.

The first thing that hit me when I stepped off the train from the airport was the crispness of the sunlit air. It swirled through my lungs as I gazed at the metropolis around me. Vietnam at this time is boiling hot and enclosed in a coffin of vigor-sapping humidity, so the northern climate came as a surprise respite. It was a bit cooler than I had anticipated, too, and I had just barely packed appropriately for it.

Andrew and I stayed in a neighborhood called Ryogoku, which coincidentally happens to hold the national sumo stadium and training center. We never viewed a match, but we often saw the wrestlers themselves milling about the area, doing their daily chores; big, rotund men in kimonos and flip flops riding bicycles, looking for items in the nearby shops. One of them followed me into the bakery around the corner one morning. I counted four pastries on his tray.

Each morning Andrew and I took out the map and looked for whichever locality we hadn't explored yet. Shibuya, Akihabara, Sumida, Shinjuku… What weird and wonderful worlds hid behind those exotic syllables?

Each had their own eccentric characteristics. We passed through anime comic fantasy shops in one, were drowned in the pure, electrified throb of condensed humanity in a few others, and yet we were able to lounge in hip cafes in quiet neighborhoods elsewhere.

Of course, everything is expensive in Tokyo, but one way Andrew and I were able to cut down the costs was to constantly buy meals at convenience stores, which are a true culture of their own in Japan. Now, you probably wouldn't touch gas station sushi back in America, but in Japan, it's fine. In fact, it's great, along with all the other prepackaged meals they offer. Eating while standing on the street, however, is definitely not a thing there, and we stood out like a sore thumb as we hung around outside the door, fumbling with our plastic trays and disposable chopsticks

The blocky, grey architecture in Tokyo contains an austere character that mirrors that of the Japanese themselves. Andrew and I agreed that we walked amid a cityscape that felt like the concept of the future that people had in the '80s: undeniably sharp but still somehow dated. Retrofuturism.

Coming from Vietnam, wandering around Tokyo felt like walking within some sort of efficient and benevolent machine. Everyone actually waits at crosswalks until the green walking sign is lit, rather than blatantly jaywalking. Even the smallest of alleys are free of litter whatsoever. The subways and trains are smooth, comfortable and never late. Vending machines with various colorful beverages sit on every side street, unafraid of the vandalism and theft that seems to be nonexistent there. And, of course, the feature-laden toilets that are found in even the humblest of settings, exemplary of how technology permeates almost every moment of life there.

I mention the seeming lack of crime in Tokyo. Even in the dead of night, one feels perfectly safe, even bestowed with a sense of peace, as they stroll the streets.

What does it say for everyone else that the largest metropolis on earth has seemingly attained urban perfectionism, where every single thing is in its place? What about a city such as Detroit, which also lies within a developed nation? Does the whole of Japanese society just strive for the best that something can be, and we don't? I constantly mused about this as we wandered around.

There was the rain, too, which descended upon the city for a few days and transformed its atmosphere. A normal spring rain, injecting a freshness into the already-fresh air. It often soaked my leather walking boots through, but it was still pleasant in hindsight.

There was one afternoon when Andrew had to do some online work at a café. I was alone, and the rain was falling. I strolled with my umbrella through a nearby park to see one of the striking old temples in the city, and then I kept meandering on. At one nice spot I looked out at a fountain that gushed in the middle of a dimpled pond. A woman went by on a bicycle. Then I turned and kept on going.

Email Andrew at

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