Getting around Tokyo isn’t exactly easy, especially for someone who has a very limited knowledge of Japanese. Officially referred to as a “metropolitan prefecture” rather than a city, Tokyo is more like a small country than anything else.
The population of Tokyo is around 13 million and has a size of about 2,200 sq km. The population of the Greater Tokyo Area, which is made up of Tokyo and the three neighbouring prefectures of Saitama, Chiba and Kanagawa, totals around 38 million. In other words, Tokyo has a heck of a lot of people living in a relatively small space.
Actually reaching my final destination in Tokyo took one car journey, two plane journeys and three train journeys. A grand total of just under 24 hours. The hardest part of my inbound journey was undoubtedly figuring out how the trains work. There are so many different train lines and the various number of train companies only makes things more confusing. Here in Tokyo I rely on trains everyday – it’s the most convenient way to travel around such a large city.
What I’m trying to say is that getting around Tokyo isn’t exactly an easy-going experience for your average tourist. Don’t get me wrong, the people here are so lovely and patient towards us foreigners. Hospitality is taken really seriously here, and the term “omotenashi” captures the essence of it. “Omotenashi” describes the Japanese approach towards customer service and hospitality, and it involves going the extra mile to make sure customers are satisfied. Rather, it’s just things like the confusing signboards that make it a pain for tourists to figure their way around the city. And when you’ve been travelling for almost 24 hours with 0 hours sleep, are alone in a country on the other side of the world, and are trying to get around one of the biggest and busiest stations in one of the largest cities on Earth, it’s important that you can get from A to B as smoothly as possible.
However, once I started the summer programme at Tokyo Metropolitan University, I found out that I wasn’t just here to learn Japanese. It turns out that TMU has been cooperating with the government of Tokyo in a project that attempts to make the city more international-friendly ahead of the Olympic and Paralymic Games in 2020.
A representative of the Tokyo government actually came into one of our classes and explained it all to us. They wanted to listen to our opinions and experiences as international students and use them to make Tokyo more accessible for non-Japanese visitors. We were asked to identify the things we found particularly difficult to understand during our time here and then make suggestions as to how we think the city could be improved from a tourist point-of-view.
A few students on the programme then had the chance to participate in a conference at the Tokyo International Forum, which dealt with the government’s efforts for a multilingual environment in Tokyo (it actually made an appearance on the Japanese News – how cool is that?!). A few solutions to the issues we outlined were discussed, such as a complete revamp of the signboards in stations and airports in order to make them more understandable. I struggled to follow the conference due to the language barrier but, from what I understood, the government was talking about inventing a robot that recognises the language you speak and then responds to you in said language. Whoa.
It makes me so happy that Tokyo is attempting to make foreign visitors more comfortable. It’s something I feel quite passionately about, seeing as I spent my Erasmus year away from home and understand that life in another country can be a daunting experience. It’s also one of the reasons I joined the committee for the University of Leicester Erasmus and Exchange Society – I want to help students feel more at ease during their transition into international student life. I love the whole idea of different communities and cultures joining together to cooperate for the benefit of everyone.
So let me conclude with a big shout out to Tokyo. We could all really learn a lot from the Japanese concept of “omotenashi“!!