Sake barrels near the Meiji Shrine.
Navigating the culture, cuisine and maze-like streets of the Japanese capital’s busiest districts.
It's late spring and more than 30 degrees—stifling enough that the neighbourhood around me is, by Tokyo standards, relatively uncrowded. Yet even here there’s a lot going on.
I’m standing in front of what will become one of the most famous sites in the world: the New National Stadium, centrepiece venue of the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. Still hidden behind tall construction hoarding, the gigantic, spaceship-like structure nevertheless looms large over Shinjuku, one of Tokyo’s 23 inner wards and among the densest and tallest parts of an incredibly dense and tall city. Work is in full swing even though it’s a Saturday and unseasonably warm. Happily, I’m at my leisure, and can pause to cool off with a bottle of apple-flavoured spring water purchased from a nearby vending machine. (In Tokyo, there’s always a nearby vending machine.)
I’ve made the long trip from Canada because of an abiding curiosity about Japan and its people—though I’m not especially well versed in its culture. I have maybe 50 words of Japanese, hardly enough for a conversation. And while I’m aware that locals are keen observers of etiquette, the intricacies of those customs are not easy to parse.
What I do know is that nearly 98 percent of Japan’s population was born Japanese. Immigration is strictly controlled, and inbound tourism has only taken off in the past decade or so—meaning the presence of large numbers of foreigners, many of whom don’t know the language, is a relatively new phenomenon. The Olympics, however, will bring to Japan hundreds of thousands of outsiders, accelerating visitor growth for years to come.
Maybe I’m overthinking things, but I’m anxious about how I’ll be perceived. If I’m an obnoxious guest, will my actions reflect poorly on all those future western tourists?