Living on Tokyo Time

By rights, life in this city should be impossible. And those who’ve never seen it usually assume that’s how it is. How can so many people manage to live in such a small area and thread their way through such narrow streets? No doubt, life in Tokyo is challenging, but it’s not impossible. In fact, as the heart of Japan’s economic miracle, the city functions remarkably well.

The secret? Tokyo runs like clockwork – and its mainspring is the urban rail system, which runs to the second and handles 72% of all journeys in the metro area. Its schedules order the rhythm of Tokyo life – and in the city that invented just-in-time delivery everything follows the clock.

Watch the Clock Tick

Catch the same train each day and you’ll soon see how it works. The same people will be on the platform each morning. Walking to the station you may even encounter the same individual scurrying round the same corner at the same time every day. You’ll then know you’re living on Tokyo time – and the realization can be distinctly eerie.

Everyone aims to get to work at the same time. They go to lunch en masse and line up at the bank together. We could find no law, but there also sees to be a national dog-walking hour: 7 to 8pm. And just as a city engineer in Toledo, Ohio, discovered in the ’50s that water pressure dropped during the break in I Love Lucy, Tokyoites probably do flush in unison.

Somehow it all works. But unless you’ve grown up by the Tokyo clock, you may find that the lock-step movement it dictates impairs your quality of life. So to survive and thrive, observe how the clock ticks – then learn how to beat it.

Do It Wrong

Mastering the Tokyo system can also send your personal productivity soaring, but remember: sanity is the primary goal. So set your own personal time zone and reduce your stress level.

Strive to do everything wrong. If your colleagues arrive at 9:30, reach the office at 8:00 or 10:00. If they eat lunch at noon, have yours at 1:00. You’ll have a seat on the train each morning and the restaurant to yourself.

If your co-workers ask where you’re going at Golden Week, reply: “My, it’s the third week in May! Where does one go at this time of the year?” Should the reply be: South to Izu, of course, to watch the dandelions blossom,” head north to avoid the crowds.

You can also avoid weekend traffic jams by leaving early and returning late. Saturday mornings are hopeless, but leave at 5pm on Friday and you’ll have clear sailing. Coming back, Sunday afternoons are bad, so wait till late evening before hitting the road.

At other times there are dozens of theories that purport to explain Tokyo traffic jams. For instance, everyone supposedly takes to the roads on any date divisible by five (i.e. 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30) and the first and last days of each month. Known as gotobi, these days are apparently ordained by accountants.

The first quarter of the year is also seen as particularly bad because this is when the government customarily dumps surplus budgets on grateful contractors. Every road in Tokyo is thus dug up just to see what’s underneath.

Set Your Own Pace

Grasp these essential facts of Tokyo life and you’ll be able to work your day, month and year around them. Set your own pace and you might just achieve the intangible value that Japanese call yutori, or (loosely translated) “elbow room.”

Unfortunately, most foreigners moving to Tokyo must make the critical decision – where to live? – before they have a chance to figure it out. Location has an immense impact on your ability to overcome the Tokyo obstacle course.

At Century 21 SKY Realty, that’s where we come in. We’ll help you to plan ahead and spot needs that may not arise until well after you’ve moved into your new home. That’s what finding your niche is all about!

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