Tokyo 24h
© Agathe Marty/Unsplash
July 2018

Tokyo 24h

What’s it like to live in the world’s biggest city as a foreigner? Andreas Neuenkirchen, an author of numerous non-fiction books and novels relating to Japan, has been living in Tokyo with his wife and their child since early 2016. For “tomorrow” he captured a typical day in the metropolis with a population of 38 million.

​The stereotype is correct: In the morning rush hour, the trains in, under and above Tokyo are jam-packed so that additional passengers have to be pushed through the doors by the combined efforts of platform assistants – until you think this is as full as the train can get. And then it does get even a littler fuller. And after that a little fuller yet. And maybe, at some point, it’s really full enough and the train will depart. You get the feeling that all of Japan has just been crammed into a single cabin.

​​This, too, is Tokyo: ATMs with operating hours

Andreas Neuenkirchen

All of Japan? No, because I’m not on board. As a freelance writer I can personally choose when and where I’d like to work and decide whether I even have to take a train to get there. In any case, I first have to drop off my child at the daycare center, which happens around 9 AM. After that, I go to work. By that time, the really big rush on the trains is over, but they’re still packed enough. So, I’d rather go to the coffee shop around the corner.

Tokyo 24h© Leio McLaren/Unsplash
Laptops left unattended

First, I look for a place on the second floor that I reserve by depositing my laptop before returning to the first floor to place my order. The first time I watched how trustingly the Japanese mark their territory with unattended items of value I was impressed by their obviously justified trust in their fellow human beings but thought that, owing to my cultural background, I’d never be able to overcome my inclination to distrust humanity. But, surprisingly, I ultimately did.

Tokyo 24h© Oskar Krawczyk/Unsplash
Over 5 million

vending machines exist in Japan – for beverages, umbrellas, fish soup or even face masks for protection against the flue. The products – if at all – are only slightly more expensive than those bought at a store. The machines generate annual sales of over 50 billion euros. Since the nineties, customers wishing to buy drinks like beer or sake, or cigarettes, will have to identify themselves to the machines.

Although the people that have made themselves comfortable on the top floor aren’t likely to go anywhere anytime soon my seat neighbors are by no means idlers. Practically everyone – like me – is working. The availability of power outlets can be taken for granted in this coffee shop just like a free supply of water. There’s a number of companies in this neighborhood that belong to the entertainment industry in some way, so while sneaking a peek at someone else’s screen you may catch a glimpse of new Manga figures or video animations in their state of creation. There’s nothing to listen in on at the coffee shop, though. People in Japan tend to use other locales for social exchange.

Tokyo 24h© Pawel Janiak/Unsplash
Cashless access to trains

At times you have a need for something to read or would like to write something. My favorite place to hunt for new material is the bookstore of the Kinokuniya chain in the Takashimaya Times Square shopping mall in Shinjuku. The Yamanote railroad line untiringly circles the downtown area. A full circle takes 90 minutes, and from my station to Shinjuku just twelve.

Shinjuku is probably the busiest station in the world, serving more than 3.5 million passengers per day. There are no ticket inspectors or checks in urban transportation systems and on most long-distance trains as you can’t access the tracks without having paid in the first place. Today, though, you can hardly see anyone inserting a paper ticket from a vending machine into the slots of the access gates anymore. Even most tourists are sold on the rechargeable cash cards you just hold in front of a sensor at the beginning and end of your trip and that automatically debit the correct amount of the fare. If you don’t have enough money on your card you can locally recharge it. Now it’s even possible to have the credit on your cash card automatically replenished from your own bank or credit card account as soon as the balance drops below a specified amount.

Tokyo 24h© Frankie Guarini/Unsplash
Why we love Tokyo

Tokyo is huge. And full of variety. Above all, Tokyo is livable and lovable – a sentiment that these five Schaeffler employees living there as expats share as well.

  • We’re Natalia Pryakhina and Laura StuderWe’ve been living in Tokyo since April 1 ...
    We’re Natalia Pryakhina and Laura Studer
    We’ve been living in Tokyo since April 1, 2018
    At Schaeffler, we’re … doing an internship abroad for several months. Natalia is involved in working on innovative industrial products and Laura optimizes interface processes in the HR department.
    Tokyo is special … because it’s a city of contrasts. Directly next to the world-famous and very traditional Meiji Shrine you can find the craziest things on Takeshita Street in Harajuku. Subsequently, you’ll cross the world’s largest crosswalk in Shibuja. If our feet still support us after that, we’ll spend the night dancing in one of the countless small clubs in Roppongi. The city simply never sleeps. © privat
  • I’m Pierre LamotheI’ve been living in Tokyo since March 1, 2017At Schaeffler, I ...
    I’m Pierre Lamothe
    I’ve been living in Tokyo since March 1, 2017
    At Schaeffler, I work … in key account management for our customer Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi.
    Tokyo is special … because it has numerous excellent restaurants with Japanese as well as international cuisine. None of the izakayas has ever disappointed me – on the contrary, I keep experiencing extremely positive surprises. © privat
  • I’m Christiane TietzI’ve been living in Tokyo since August 1, 2017At Schaeffler, ...
    I’m Christiane Tietz
    I’ve been living in Tokyo since August 1, 2017
    At Schaeffler, I work … as a team coordinator in the communications department. At the moment, I’m on parental leave in Japan.
    Tokyo is special … because of its cleanliness and safety – like all of Japan. In what other international big city can you use the public restrooms without any concerns or briefly leave your cell phone or wallet unattended? Of course, at the moment, I’m delighted about the wealth of things available to mothers and babies. Hassle-free shopping? No problem. You can rent strollers at the malls and afterwards make your child’s heart beat faster at one of the numerous indoor playgrounds. © privat
  • I’m Christoph KlaarI’ve been living in Tokyo since December 1, 2016At Schaeffler ...
    I’m Christoph Klaar
    I’ve been living in Tokyo since December 1, 2016
    At Schaeffler, I work … in project management for transmission applications. In addition, I view my role as that of a bridge between the German and the Japanese side of our company.
    Tokyo is special … because you can be very relaxed about living in the city due to its good organization and the Japanese mentality. Where else can you wake up in the morning on the 41st floor on a man-made island with a view of the city all the way to Mount Fuji? Together with my wife I enjoy taking a boat to Odaiba, one of the neighboring islands. There we enjoy sitting in a café, shopping or just taking a walk on the beach. © privat

The Kinokuniya bookstore in Shinjuku used to offer books on several large floors of the building. Now the offering has been reduced to international books and the remainder of the space converted into a furniture store. Life is no longer easy for bookstores in Japan either. For my book search, I was able to use the on-site search computer that issues a small slip of paper with a map and number of the shelf for each title searched. I don’t need that, though. Although I may get lost in the streets of the city from time to time I do know my way around in its bookstores.

Tokyo in numbers
  • 1446
    is the year in which the city’s history begins when Edo Castle is built. Not until 1886 Edo is renamed Tokyo which translates into “eastern capital.”
  • 9.5 million people
    live in the city of Tokyo. In the metropolitan area, which includes the megapolises Saitama, Chiba, Yokohama and Kawasaki, the population is 38.05 million – more than in any other metropolitan area in the world.
  • 8.7 Mio. people
    per day use the Tokyo subway. During rush hour the trains are sometimes jam-packed so that oshiyas (“pushers”) push the passengers into the cabins from the outside.
  • Position 1
    is Tokyo’s spot in a comparison of cities by the travel portal “TripAdvisor” in terms of public transportation, taxi, cleanliness and safety.
Noodles between tracks

I probably spent more time at Kinokuniya than planned, so for lunch there’ll just be tachigui soba, literally meaning stand-up soba noodles. Today, though, the expression no longer needs to be taken quite so literally. There are soba fast food restaurants that offer other types of noodles as well and in some cases even seating. Common to all of them is that they’re located on the platforms of train stations, surrounded by the noise of trains entering and leaving on either side of the track. This way, business travelers in a hurry don’t have far to go when plagued by hunger pains. You order and pay for your meal at a vending machine before entering the small booth and giving the ticket to the waiter or waitress inside. The vending machine in front of the shop at my home station has a touchscreen and can be switched to several languages. I normally like trying my skills with the Japanese original but this time consideration for the other hungry people in the line behind me demands that I get moving. So, I give up and switch to English which prompts the machine to incessantly yell at me in a penetrating voice: “PLEASE INSERT YOUR MONEY NOW”! “PLEASE WAIT”! “PLEASE TAKE YOUR RECEIPT”!

A cup of coffee after the meal, but not at the coffee shop again? No problem. There’s a vending machine around every corner with a selection of canned coffee so extensive that it’s not conducive to making quick choices. Paying attention to the small labels posted in front of the cans is advisable to prevent nasty surprises: Red means scalding hot and blue ice cold. Both harmoniously reside in the same machine. Not surprisingly, following the natural and energy disasters in March 2011, shutting off the beverage vending machines was one of the first energy conservation actions taken.

100 yen shops

– besides the konbinis – are truly a shopping institution in Japan used by people from all walks of life. Any everyday item costs 100 yen (105 incl. taxes), in other words less than one Euro. The merchandise ranges from useful to quirky, from household to joke items. Japan expert Neuenkirchen recommends: “A visit will be most gratifying when you go into a 100 yen shop without any preconceived notions and allow it to dictate your wishes to you.”

My afternoon belongs to working in my office at home and more than likely is pretty similar to home office afternoons in other parts of the world. A commonly known home office rule is to never work in your pajamas because wearing PJs will make you think: sleep. I’d add the rule to never work in your living room because when sitting in your living room you’ll think: done for the day. However, before my work day actually ends I mustn’t forget to pick up my child from the daycare center. Once everyone’s at home, well-fed and the youngest family member exhausted and gone to sleep on the family’s futon, the relaxing part of the evening could begin. If you feel like chilling out over a drink and some nibble snacks you can stop by the next convenience store, colloquially called a konbini.

There are some 55,000 of them in Japan, one per about 23,000 people. A konbini is a supermarket, stationery and consumer electronics store, a liquor store and coffee shop, a drugstore, ice cream parlor, pharmacy, post office, a bank and social hub all rolled into one. This is where I scan, copy and fax documents as well. Why should I own a multifunctional device when there are at least six konbinis close by? So I’d rather use the space on my desk for one or two extra stacks of books. At a konbini, I can also pay for our orders from various online shops or pick up the merchandise, and at the automatic teller machines of the 7-Eleven chain I can even draw money around the clock using my German card. Neither of these conveniences can be taken for granted as most ATMs are not very accommodating of foreign banks. When using my Japanese card, though, I’m often faced with the problem that local banks have operating hours for their ATMs as well. Even when the night is still pretty young you frequently get the message: Please come back tomorrow.

Tokyo 24h© Alex Knight, Unsplash
Colorful and fancy

Once finances have been taken care of, snacks and drinks secured, it’s time to watch TV. Japanese television sometimes strikes me as if its makers had just invented color, still fascinated by the gamut of its possibilities. Yet as colorful and fancy as the sets and costumes may be, we tend to find content to pale by comparison with presentation. So, we prefer streaming our TV shows from less colorful countries. After all, we get to enjoy our fair share of Japan during the day – and tomorrow’s another day.

Andreas Neuenkirchen
Author Andreas Neuenkirchen
“Monocle” magazine has ranked Tokyo as the most livable city for three years running. Yet nearly every travel guide includes this warning: “Tokyo is not a beautiful city.” Even so, Andreas Neuenkirchen chose to stay with his wife and child and in a delightfully entertaining way reveals the secret of why the city he now calls home is one that makes people happy in its own unique ways. That’s also why his latest book is titled “Happy Tokyo.”