Tokyo’s Tidy Chaos

Japan’s neon-lit capital is the most populous city in the world (almost 38 million people call it home), yet it doesn’t share the same problems found in other major metropolises. Repeatedly named the safest city on the planet, Tokyo’s immaculate streets are virtually crimeless. It’s also a mecca of civility. Passersby, cognizant of the crowds around them, are careful not to bump or cut off fellow pedestrians. To see some Westerners—those with little knowledge of Japanese social mores—brutishly navigate the streets helps to partially explain the country’s xenophobic and nationalistic tendencies.

The shiny streets of Shinjuku.
East Shinjuku

Polite or not, the sheer number of people in areas like Shinjuku or Shibuya is still suffocating at times. But it’s surprisingly easy to escape the melee via the city’s quiet side streets, many dotted with cherry blossoms, bonsai trees, and stone temples.

Across the city in Sumida.
Zen space in Shibuya.

A couple years ago, I wrote about my first impressions of a very different part of Asia home to the second most populous city in the world: Delhi, India. My time there offered a window into the future, how overpopulation has exacerbated the country’s crime, pollution, poverty, and a sweeping sense of hopelessness.

After my third trip to Japan, I can say that it, too, offers a potential—and contrasting—glimpse into the future, a way to live together as populations rise. It’s a view that’s rooted in collectivism. You see, in Japan, people mold their behavior according to how it affects others.

One memory from a previous trip to Japan is emblematic of the country’s collective consciousness. I was frantically running through Tokyo Station, Japan’s most frenzied and largest ground transit hub, when a handful of coins bounced out of my pocket and flew through the air. Everyone in the vicinity stopped; time froze. Reacting in unison, each person kneeled down, collected the coins off the ground and delivered them to me. For the Japanese,—even in a bustling train station—to stop and help was simply intrinsic.

This indelible experience gave me pause when I returned to the states. Living in a fiercely individualistic society like the U.S., I wondered how many people would stop to help me gather my change at, say, Grand Central Station or LAX.

Moments like these have compelled me to pack up the kindness I experienced there and take it with me wherever I go.

OK, now for more Tokyo.

The tallest free-standing structure in the world, Tokyo’s Skytree (634 meters) dons a purple glow at night.
Inside the Skytree: dazzling views of Tokyo and anime screenings projected onto the windows.
A quiet moment in the otherwise bustling Harajuku area.
The pedestrian only Takeshita Dori in Harajuku is lined with cat cafes, crepe shops and super kuwaii (cute) boutiques.
Now for a quick lunch break at a Shibuya eatery: Pork with kimchi and egg.
In front of the Shibuya train station.
The ancient Buddhist temple Senso-ji in Asakusa offers respite from the city.
Before entering the temple, people waft incense smoke on themselves for its purported healing effects.
The gardens of Senso-ji and Japanese women donned in kimonos, embracing Japanese tradition.
Buddha time at Senso-ji.
A culture of cute, even when it comes to street signs.
Hooray for Japanese kitschiness. What my niece Iris declared “one of the best experiences” of her life: Robots and bikini-clad warriors duking it out at the Robot Restaurant. Judging by the audience’s puzzled looks, I’m not sure everyone there agreed.
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A delicious bento box with various sushi and sashimi, and sake to wash it down, all purchased at Tokyo Station for our lightning fast journey on the bullet train to Kyoto.

Stay tuned for more Japan tales. Up next, the post-war vibes of Shinjuku’s “Piss Alley.”


  1. A friend told me that a friend of his friend once lost his wallet in Tokyo. Apparently someone picked it up and took it to the local police station, which then forwarded the wallet to the police station where that person lives. When he finally got his wallet back, he checked, nothing is stolen. Even the money looked tidier than when he lost his wallet. This can only happen in a society where such value is taught and practiced from early age.

  2. What a beautiful post! Your photos are glorious — but I loved your narrative especially for your take on the culture in Tokyo. My husband has been wanting to go for several years, but I’ve demurred so far because I’m not a fan of crowds. But if they are this considerate and polite, why not? Thank you so much for sharing your perspective … I look forward to reading more of your adventures!

    1. Thank you, Heide! Japan is absolutely a place I recommend, and not just for Tokyo. I’ve also traveled to the mountains of Hakuba and the quaint temple oasis of Kyoto (I’ll be writing about both soon), and they are perhaps even more worthy of your time. Let me know when you decide to make the trip and I’d be happy to offer some ideas!

      1. What a kind offer! I will make a note of your expertise in my travel organizer — and in the meantime will very much look forward to your posts about Hakuba and Kyoto. Both sound very intriguing, if you recommend them even above Tokyo!

  3. Your dialog and photos always offer a comprehensive view of the featured locale, along with unique and thoughtful insights. A pleasure to read and view, while exploring the world through your well-seasoned adventures. Thank you for virtually taking me with you to Japan. Can’t wait for “our” next trip!

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