Tokyo vs Shanghai – first impressions

July 10, 2008

in experience, photography, sabbatical

Don’t expect some serious philosophical or sociological analysis here! This is just a brief report of the first impressions I have after being for a bit more than two weeks in Tokyo and a similar time spent in Shanghai some years ago. I know that chinese and japanese cultures and societies are very different. I just wanted to post some interesting points of contact and difference between both cities. For short, in the text I will use T for Tokyo and S for Shanghai.

Points of contact:

  • Both are the most international cities of the country, home of the strongest stock exchange and usual business destination.
  • The international airports (Narita for T and Pudong for S) look the same, with good signage in english and clean broad spaces.
  • Starbucks coffee shops are present all over the city and products & quality are mostly the same you find everywhere. It’s always a point of reference if you’re a bit disoriented. Actually, during my last trip to NY I confirmed that the quality of Starbucks in the US is falling rapidly while in other places I’ve visited (Madrid, Berlin, Edimburgh, Lausanne, Shanghai, Tokyo, etc) quality of products and service is definitely higher.
  • You see very few westerners and they are concentrated in particular neighborhoods or venues (Roppongi area in T, the Bund in S).
  • You can lunch and dine for little money (if you want). Eating is not necessarily expensive (of course you have very high class and money sucker places in both).
  • Either in T or S english is not widely (and well) spoken, except for touristic places and some hotels… and even in this cases the kind of english they use is not what you’d call “received pronunciation“.
  • Both cities are huge and full of people!

But the real motivation to this post were the main differences I’ve experienced between T and S.

Shanghai, Nanjing Lu area
Nanjing dong lu at night


  • Well, first of all Tokyo is Japan’s capital city while Shanghai is not China’s.
  • Shibuya area (T) vs Nanjing lu area (S): both are very touristic. Shibuya is chaotic and crowded but at the same time ordered. Cars do not honk endlessly and there’s no “selling harassment” to tourists/westerners. In S there were hordes (er.. ok, let’s say many) street-vendors that jumped on you to sell fake stuff (I remember they starting with “shoes, watches, dvd” and after some time “…massage? ah… sexy massage!” while they grabbed my arm and tried to pull me into some place of dubious aspect). In T they don’t care, ignore or just aren’t aware of your presence. Nobody notices you until you ask for directions or something. In this situation japanese citizens are very polite and try to help by indicating the way or even walking you somewhere near your destination. In S people talked to me very often, asking in english “Hello, where are you from?”. In many occassions they just wanted to practice their english. In others it was just the begining of a selling scam: first we talk and then you offer me a drink or buy some of my *fake* artwork.
  • In T cars don’t try to kill pedestrians as they cross the street. Bicycles are not so present as in S and they behave “well”. In S the first threat while crossing the street were cars and buses. After that, bikes!
  • In T women take a lot of care of their image. Clothes, style, makeup, shoes and the combination of them all are very important. This is probably the reflection of a strong middle class and many years of consumistic/capitalist lifestyle. Japanese women are very pretty and probably this is enhanced by how they dress up. I didn’t have such a positive image in S (except in places full of expats).
  • Shanghai’s metro is ok, seemed efficient and was easy to navigate. Tokyo’s metro is spectacular with more than 15 lines and a highly efficient, clean and ordered service. The only con is that the service ends shortly after midnight, making this a “cinderella” city… at midnight you have to rush to catch the last train or pay for an (expensive) taxi. The other alternative is to party until 5am so as to then catch the first train back home.
  • In T almost everybody has an iPod! In the subway they are all kind of alienated, listening to their music players (many with HUGE headphones), playing with a Sony PSP or Nintendo DS and messaging on the mobile phone. Each person is immersed in his own universe, eons away from the other passengers.

Tokyo, Shibuya area
Street crossing

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