#TBT THE NON-NEUROTYPICAL’S GUIDE TO JAPAN

That above quote might not mean much to the average joe but for people like me who have Aspergers Syndrome or those out there on the autism spectrum, it defines the reasons behind our struggles with the hustle and bustle of everyday life. The mind of an autistic person is wired differently to that of a ‘normal’ person and so the world is perceived in a different, and often more overwhelmingly negative light, manner – pleasant or ordinary lights, noises, smells, tastes and tactile impressions become terrifying or overwhelmingly unbearable; mixed signals in communication become more apparent and thus the mind begins to shut down in utter confusion. The urban metropolis of the 21st century can be considered the biggest offender of being an enemy to the autistic – New York City, Los Angeles, London, Sydney, etc. contain a variety of sights and sounds that will appeal to the average tourist nicely but overload and wreak havoc on a non-neurotypical mind. Those cities I mentioned earlier, however, are (at best) forgiving to you and I who can speak and read English; put us in a foreign mega city like Paris, Rome or even Tokyo, however, and the metaphorical mountain becomes trickier but not impossible to climb. Language and cultural barriers become even more difficult to navigate, unusual sensations lead to more chaotic thought processing, and the unnaturalness of the environment makes anxiety levels climb high. However, if the right places are visited at the right times with the right people, then the experience of visiting a foreign nation may not be all that bad.

My name is Thomas Mitchell Friend, I have Aspergers Syndrome, and this is my take on what it is like to travel in Japan – more specifically the Tokyo/Kanto area, inside and outside the cityscapes.

INSIDE THE CITY

An obviously common fact about large urban centres like Tokyo is that they are densely crowded. With swarms of Japanese citizens and foreign tourists walking around, it can be easy to become distracted and lose track of where you want to go. Furthermore, in such a foreign metropolis like Tokyo, there are bound to be plenty of billboards, department stores, skyscrapers, busy motorways, busy railways and other such bells and whistles that will confuse, excite and unnerve you. Thus, it is important that, before going straight into exploring the city, that you do careful research about the places that you want to visit – study every map of every transportation system and city street as best as you can because otherwise, navigation will become a key issue.

         The railway system infrastructure of Japan is more complex than the Australian one owing to its larger amount of lines and stations – one wrong boarding and you could find yourself not only wasting time trying to find the right platform going the way you want to go but also wasting money as there are multiple ticket/transit card gates to navigate as well. On the plus side, at least Japan’s trains are more reliable than CityLink and more informative too. Street addresses in Japan aren’t read very easily either (as I have found out when the family tried to locate the AirBnB accommodation) – it must be read as town or suburb, the district it is in, the block number then the unit number; there are named streets if you look on a map but locally they do not use the unit-street-suburb format we are all familiar with.

With that little detail out of the way, I can now tell you what to expect from the cities of Japan or at the very least the tourist trap locations within it – places such as Akihabara (the anime capital of Japan), Tsukiji fish markets and Shibuya (where the famous crossing is found) to name a few; and what an experience it was to go through all of them.

Again, I must stress that Tokyo is a very crowded city and one thing I want to note is that in almost any film featuring Tokyo city life will always have the Shibuya Crossing as a setting – if you go to it in person, you will see why. The crossing itself isn’t special – it’s just a six-way pedestrian crossing – but if you note the amount of people that cross it every hour, day and night, you will get the sense that the film-makers choose the crossing because it goes to show how places like it are built to accommodate the rising population. Other than the Crossing, Shibuya presents itself as a very chic marketplace – though it might not be chic enough to grab your attention if you have been there after a restless amount of walking. In a similar vein, Akihabara presents itself as very chic but in a different way; as mentioned before Akihabara is renowned for its status among anime otakus as the capital of the anime and manga world so it comes off as rather fun and playful. This status can be further seen when one goes there and discovers the multi-storey arcade galleries, like the one sponsored by Sega if you notice the big sign, and the ever-so revered novelty cafes featuring such wonderful items as cats, cosplay and maids. If you love your anime and manga, then Akihabara is the best place to be to go exploring, shopping and playing with your mates; otherwise if you like to go around and buy chic without going over the budget then Shibuya is your best bet. I mean there is an even fancier district by the name of Ginza but when you go there, you will be surprised at how dear and luxurious everything is.

Other unique shopping experiences can be immersed into if one visits the suburbs and market areas of Harajuku (located next to Shibuya) and Tsukiji (located next to Ginza) and believe me your senses will be overwhelmed. The market area is Harajuku consists of two long streets and those only, and the biggest commodity being traded in there – clothes and merchandise, lots of it ranging from your everyday items (T-shirts, trousers, shoes, etc.) with unique Japanese prints on them to the specific cosplay items. Cafes are a rare find so the food that you will be most likely getting is street food – and what better street food to get than crepes topped with either sweet ice cream (that surprisingly doesn’t melt) or savoury ham and mayo. And speaking of food that brings me to the other very crowded market place that is the well-renowned Tsukiji fish markets of which only one portion is accessible to the public. In here you can find all sorts of food being peddled – seafood, vegetables, fruit and meat; and not only that there are restaurants with outdoor seating situated close to the street. With a lot of people roaming around and not a lot of space to traverse through, it’s not only easy to get lost but also harder to end up buying the kind of food you want there – lots of window shoppers trying to calculate the cheapest options and vehicles passing by every minute; an orgy of sight, sound, smell and taste that can either be worth beholding or abhorring.

One other city landmark that is worth mentioning that could be worth the experience is Tokyo Tower, the second tallest tower in Japan at over 333 metres tall located in the business district of Minato. From a distance, it should be reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower in Paris and in fact it is modelled slightly like it as a tourist attraction – the view from the observation decks is more awe-inspiring than frightening and one can actually look out of a window directly at the bottom floor. Unlike the Eiffel Tower, as far as I am aware, there is plenty of room in the Tower for food, shopping (especially for souvenirs), receptions and museums. Unless you have vertigo or acrophobia, the Tokyo Tower is a must-visit attraction that will reward you with breath-taking panoramas to cherish.

OUTSIDE THE CITY

If being in the city makes you feel a bit jumpy and unnerved, then the best antidote I can possibly recommend is going to those places on the city outskirts or suburbs where the more peaceful connections with nature (both within yourself and within the non-urban landscapes) and serenity are present – Mount Fuji, Tokyo Disneyland and the parks in Ueno and Chuo (aka the Hamarikyu Gardens).

As you all know, Mount Fuji is Japan’s tallest mountain and of course its most iconic natural landmark. To get to it as a tourist, it is highly recommended you go with a tour guide – they might not take you to the mountain itself but they can take you to a spot where the best view can be seen and subsequently photographed. If you do want to go climb the mountain, then you may need to fork out some extra cash for the privilege but I think seeing it is good enough. On the tour I went on, not only did we stop at a place near Mount Fuji but we also got to walk around the nearby village of Hakone and take some scenic routes: one via ferry, the other via cable car to the top of a nearby mountainside (not Fuji of course but it feels just as high). Just sitting back, soaking in the environment whether it be the cool crisp breeze or the fresh odour of lake water can be a real relaxing treat. Furthermore, there will be times when you will look at old Shinto shrines and just be amazed at how solemn and majestic they are – and they can be found in most natural places so don’t just pass them by without second glance.

If you happen to visit Tokyo during the spring months of March, April and May then a visit to the gardens, parks and zoos of the city is a must. For one thing, the parks contain cherry/rape blossom trees with petals that fall off and look pretty when you approach them (an image that is too often associated with Japan in addition to the Shibuya Crossing) in addition to all the other majestic trees and flowers. The reason why they look majestic in the first place? Because before they were public parks, they were palatial gardens designed during the era of the shoguns (e.g. Ieyasu Tokugawa). The zoos, sadly, are not like the gardens in heritage but when you visit them, you will be in for a treat – understandably, it will feel like you’ve entered Taronga again but when you see all the exotic wildlife on display (including the polar bears, eagles and macaques), it will definitely feel new and enjoyable. The one in Ueno certainly was like that for me and even though it was not as interactive as Taronga, I still felt like I was one with the animals as most people do in the zoo.

Perhaps the best place of all to get that feeling of wholesomeness, as well as that of youthful bliss, is Tokyo Disneyland where you will feel like a kid again. It is shaped in some ways like the Disneyland parks of all the other locations like Anaheim or Hong Kong but it doesn’t feel that repetitive – it’s like the magic of Walt Disney and his friends has charmed its way into your heart all over again despite the foreign culture that has shocked you beforehand. Understandably, some rides from other parks might not appear in this one but who cares? It’s Disneyland, go out there and be the biggest and happiest kid of the family once more for a laugh no matter if you understand Japanese or not.

And with that I would like to highlight one last thing about being in Tokyo that could possibly be of benefit should you go travel there – yes the foreign culture and language may catch you by surprise; but as a city appealing to tourists, Tokyo is also the most forgiving when it comes to helping English speakers go on tour; most of the time you will hear and see Japanese but English, as a second language, is also commonplace (on the trains, for example; locals too will speak it if you ask nicely). So, for a mega-city that is crowded and overwhelming, the experience may be harsh at times but it is rewarding in the end – and the city, metaphorically speaking, does its best to be accommodating so as to maximise the pleasure of all who visit, even the non-neurotypicals like me.

By Thomas Mitchell Friend

Photo: Thomas Mitchell Friend