Think of Tokyo as a playground. For fashionistas, for industry, for pop culture vultures, for innovators, for brands and for foodies. It's a big city, 12 million living in the metropolitan area with sightseeing spread far and wide but a phenomenal train system that does a lot, lot
more than just take the strain.
I loved Tokyo and its quirkiness. People watching must rival sumo wrestling for the national sport. You could not make up what young people wear on the streets. Love Hotels
offering rates for different blocks of time often (I read) including karaoke machines for those, er awkward moments. It is said there are over 6 million vending machines across Japan selling everything from tea to underwear. In most American states walking in the street with a can of beer is illegal, in Tokyo and other cities you pick your poison from a machine on the side of the road. The place is spotlessly clean, the people are so polite and affable and crime is almost non-existent.
But Tokyo does not come cheap. Until recently it was for ages rated the most expensive city in the world, a badge of honour now taken by Moscow. Everything is expensive and despite the huge array of designer shops, one will not find many bargains. The other downside and it doesn't become apparent until you travel to other parts of the country is that Tokyo doesn't do old. I mean Japan according to archaelogical evidence dates back 6,000 years but it would be hard to find anything particularly ancient. Wars, earthquakes, the rapacious demand for land and its ardour for modern architecture has all led to a modern city with a short memory for its history.
Tokyo was previously called Edo and only became the capital in 1868. It was said to be the world's biggest metropolis in the early 18th century and it has lived through numerous shogun empires and American occupation after the war but you would hardly know, the Asakusa area aside.
Asakusa was once t
he place to hangout in Tokyo. Sensoji
is Tokyo's oldest Temple (circa 628) and it lies at the end of a lively thorougfare of stalls selling traditional garb and food called Nakamise Dori. It's not hard to miss, just look for the distinctive oversized red lantern just minutes away from Asakusa station. Across the Sumida River near Azuma Bridge is the Philippe Starck designed Flamme d'Or bar, known as the 'turd bar' locally but I wouldn't let that put you off grabbing a Asahi from its beer hall.
The home of Tokyo sumo is also here at Ryogoku
. Three 'grand tournaments' are held here annually but check before you get there as the sumo contests tour the country and were not taking place in Tokyo when we were there.
Earlier that same day before we were at Asakusa we went to geeky Akihabara, an area designated as consumer electronics paradise. Large stores such as Akky and Laox are places to head for (tax free) purchases of the latest gadgets, although I personally found it dull, more of an interest was the hunt for new fangled Maid Cafés
, with drinks served to you by young ladies dressed up addressing patrons as master. We found one, but it was not open until later, probably after school-hours. Shame. The tiny streets here probably could have been fun in the evening but we moved onto Ueno Park.
The massive Ueno train station is the gateway to the North of the country and alongside it Ueno Koen
(Park) circles a temple and three cemeteries as memory to its Shogun past. Uenu was Tokyo's first ever public park opened in 1873 and offers a slew of attractions including a zoo, the Tokyo National Museum and the most attractive bit, Shinobazu Pond. The pond is tucked away deep inside the park. The Bentendo temple sits in the middle surrounded by freshwater fish, a boating pond and infinite lotus flowers, which must have been quite a sight earlier in the summer.
For Temple watching head north of the park to Yanaka but just across the road from Shinobazu Pond is history of another kind. Ameyoko Market
sidles up to the railway tracks and after World War II, under occupation this area became a massive area for black market goods. Now it is the capital's liveliest market with hundreds of stalls selling dodgy football tops to whole frogs. It is most definitely worth a mooch.
To give you a
n idea of how much running around we did, we started this day by getting up at 3.45am to get to the absolutely must-see fish auction at Tsukiji Market
. There has been a fish market in Tokyo since 1590 and at this site since 1950 (it will move to a larger location in 2012). The market at 4.30am was a chaotic cacophony of sights and sounds. I loved it, while people slept wholesalers and restaurateurs haggled.
At 5am the tuna auction takes place, get there early to watch potential buyers hurry
around huge tuna laid out on slabs, checking quality and taste. Then a whistle goes, a little man stands on a stool and all hell lets loose. Imagine Sotherby's and an oversized Billingsgate as one. If you hate fish don't let it put you off, the goods are so fresh there is no distinct stink and the market is home to an array of other foodstuffs and kitchen goods. Breakfast at one of the tiny and I mean tiny restaurants is compulsory. Raw tuna, pickled vegs and rice at 6am, don't knock it.
The Tsukiji fish market is ideal for jet-lag although our first day was Sunday and that is the one day it is closed. So we headed for another good Tokyo starting point, the Mori Art Museum
in Roppingi. The museum itself was ok, but the building offers spectacular views from the 53rd floor of the city. One ticket gets you access to all areas.
Roppingi was once more Soho than Tokyo but an upmarket urban development brought Roppingi Hills
, a city within a city with restaurants, shops, cinema, classy apartments, a television studio, hotel and of course the Mori Art Museum. Before embarking on this little oasis for a taste of what Roppingi was once like walk under the elevated motorway, but not before stopping at the Almond pastry shop for a coffee. Not far from here you will find Tokyo's most striking attraction from distance, and particularly at night, the Tokyo Tower
. The spitting image of the Eiffel Tower but taller than its French cousin at 1,091ft.
Another glossy new development can be found at Shiodome
. A former Japan Rail goods yard, they have done a nice job with this mini-Canary Wharf. Home to many large Japanese corporations, skyscrapers cosy up with as you would expect plenty of nice restaurants and shops as well as the Old Shinbashi Station, a reconstruction of one of Tokyo's first railway stations. Not far away the Hama-Rikyu gardens will take your mind of the modernity.Ginza
always was and still is the apotheosis of shopping extravagance. Men and women saunter the wide streets of Harumi Dori, Ginza Dori and Sotobori Dori dripping in luxury brands. I have never seen Cartier, Hermes and Gucci shops so big. Expensive bars, restaurants and cafés spill out onto the street to give it a Parisian feel.
The Japanese love to shop. I was once in Hawaii and got mowed down by small people with big bags. Now don't get me wrong but New York, LA and Chicago are up there for shopping but to my mind they don't get the department store thing right. Macys is not Selfridges and Barney's is no Harvey Nichols and Bloomingdales is not John Lewis. If like me you love wandering aimlessly around department stores, let me introduce you to Mitsukoshi, Matsuzakaya and Wako. Beautifully laid out, vast historical buildings, credit card damage at every turn and the most stupendous food halls.
Ginza Dori is pedestrianised at the weekend and on each side street you can watch or join in tea ceremo
nies or sado
. Art galleries, Japanese paper specialists and clothes shops stuff the side streets. Ginza is people watching extraordinaire.
The 8 storey Sony Building
was a disappointment but some of the other architecturally touched shops were not. Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Chanel were all photo-ops but my favourite was Mikimoto (left). Grab a hot chocolate in the top floor cafe there. Other Tokyo shopping destinations are at Harajuka
Tokyo is a shoppers paradise but more for window shoppers than 'holics. The Marunouchi neighbourhood has its very own Bond Street, Naki Dori with the Marunouchi Building
at it's epicentre. This area is also home to many financial institutions and the Tokyo Stock Ex
change is here as well as many serious looking political department buildings and museums, including the Yasukuni Shrine
and War-Dead Memorial Museum. Worker bees each dressed immaculately own the streets around here, often wearing face masks to protect them from ailments and smokers.
Marunouchi has an avant-garde edge but just around the corner from designer handbags is Tokyo's Imperial Palace
. Directly in front of the European looking Tokyo Station, the moat, stone walls, ancient gates and beautiful outer gardens divide it from the city. It was closed the day we were there (Monday) but you can stroll the Imperial Palace East Gardens. The Palace itself is out of bounds except for 2 days (January 2nd and December 23rd) but you can get close enough to it to get a good feel for history. A walk around the whole park, avoiding joggers, is a nice thing to do peering at old residences, crossing little bridges and guessing embassy flags.
Our first few nights we stayed at the Park Hyatt
in Shinjuku. In the west of the city Shinjuku is cosmopolitan, busy and home to the cities government. There is another big railway hub at Shinjuki and was our introduction to the city and its famed notoriety for non-existent street names and signs in Japanese only.
Shinjuki is big and has two distinct sides. The east side is home to shops, watering holes, and more than is normal sex parlours, well unless I have lived in strip-club free Chicago too long, whereas the west is much more clean-cut. The Park Hyatt's skyline bar called the New York Bar
was made famous by the film Lost in Translation
. On our first night we sipped on drinks after a long journey and got excited looking into the night sky from the 52nd floor for our week ahead.
We initially stayed in Tokyo for 3 nights and at the end of the holiday we came back for 2 further nights and stayed at the brand new Peninsula
. The Park Hyatt was nice but the Peninsula was something else. There is no shortage of nice hotels in Tokyo but there are also many Minshuku
(B&B's), basic business hotels, traditional Ryokan's
(more on them when I write about Kyoto) or of course the Love Hotels, if you have just an hour to spare!
A famous landmark hotel in the city is the Imperial. Frank Lloyd Wright created a masterpiece on the site of the original in 1923 and it famously survived the Great 7.9 magnitude Kanto earthquake on its opening day and then the war but like a lot of 'old' buildings the locals lost their patience with it and built a new tower block looking one in its place in1976. The original Lloyd Wright designed bar
remains though and is a great place to grab a cocktail.
I love sushi and sashimi and used to think I could eat it all day, I was wrong. Towards the end of our holiday a breakfast of miso soup, tofu, boiled rice, raw sea urchin and salmon roe was one too far. Japanese food is not easy to survive unless you don’t care what you eat and when, or are able to decipher from models or pictures what you are about to eat with chopsticks. In most restaurants the language barrier is a problem, English menus are not always in an English language that I ever learnt or a cheese and mushroom sandwich is not actually a cheese and mushroom sandwich.
Hotel restaurants tend to be easier to navigate but your wallet might be less impressed. We had dinner one night in Kozue
at the Park Hyatt and it cost us 4 arms and 6 legs, and I still came out hungry, which was good because I have no idea how much it would have cost to fill us up.
is an art in Tokyo and there are many fine restaurants but try to seek recommendations, however even the hole in the walls can be trusted as hygiene standards are faultless. Department stores are a good place to find cheap(er) food and for the adventurous raw fish including unagi (eel) and tuna, tofu, tempura, horse, duck stew, deep fried pork and noodles are major features on menus, although restaurants tend to specialize in one type of cuisine. For a bit of a show Teppanyaki restaurants are fun. The chef cooks various meats, fish and vegetables on a hot plate in right in front of you, normally with some fancy knife work and juggling thrown in for free. By the way tipping is considered rude, don’t do it.
The Japanese love to drink, it is said that they can’t drink, but they do like to nevertheless. Bars of allsorts can be found in Tokyo, including endless karaoke and whisky bars. Sake is another must-try and less well known is the quality of Japanese beer. Sapporo
are the four major brands and each a damn more tasty than their American equivalents. Cheaper brews are the low malt beers, brewed to avoid paying tax to the government; these have less malt and less taste but are worth a stab.
Shaken by the economic collapse in the 1990’s, Tokyoites tend to have their priorities right. They live in small houses, drive small cars, but spend big on themselves. They like to go out, the streets are very busy in the evening, often filled with grey suited men holding the train timetable up working out their next train, a woman’s role I'd imagine is very different now to what it once was and younger people are pushing the boundaries, and not just in what they wear. However you sense that these courteous people have real respect for each other and their elders.
Fashion, eating and drinking line up alongside music, theatre and sport as great Tokyo pastimes, oh and newspaper reading. The Japanese are considered to be the world’s biggest readers of daily newspapers. In fact the English language papers are excellent. One more thing, grown men read comics and openly. Their fascination with animated characters is very strange.
Coinciding with America’s baseball ‘world’ series, with Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka starring for the Red Sox, was Japan's very own conclusion
to the summer season. Baseball is huge in Japan, brought to the country in 1872 by an American professor. There was no place in the final for Tokyo’s Yomiuri Giants and Yakult Swallows but on the back page of newspapers it was nice to see football wrestle space with baseball. The J League
is very popular with 31 teams in two league with decent crowds (20,000 odd). Tokyo has two J League teams. FC Tokyo
and the recently relegated Tokyo Verdy 1969
. They share the Ajinomoto Stadium
in the south of the city.
Traditional Japanese theatre comes in many different formats. Kubuki has been around for almost 400 years. Women were banned form performing in the early days and men play all the roles including those of women. These 'women' actors are specially trained for
playing female parts and the best ones are national heroes. We went to see a play at the Kubukiza
and paid for just one act, which is about the 2 hours long. The whole play lasts 5 to 6 hours and people young and old packed the theatre bringing in their bento boxes and shouted the names of their favourite actors when they entered the stage. It was a unique experience and worth the Y800. You can listen to a simultaneous English translation which allows you to keep up with the spectacle. In Kyoto we also saw Bunraku, whose origins date to the 10th century. This is where puppets two-thirds human size are operated expertly by three people in unison. It was a magnificent spectacle.
We took the bullet train to Nikko
one day a hundred or so miles north of the capital. Nikko is considered a place of great beauty and spiritual significance. We wanted to get up to the Kegon Falls at Lake Chuzenji
where waterfalls plunge over 300 feet into a rugged gorge. An elevator takes you down lower into the falls. Lake Chuzenji is almost 4,300 feet above sea-level and sits at the base of a volcano. This is one of Japan’s most popular tourist resorts, as we found out with the bus taking 3 hours to climb the volcano known as Nantai-san. Our guide book estimated it at 40 minutes. It was worth doing but curtailed our day somewhat so avoid the weekends unlike us.
Our time at the 17th century shrine called Toshogu
was limited as it was at the Sacred Bridge, built in 1636 for the shoguns visiting the shrine. The Tosho-gu area includes 3 UNESCO World heritage sites. Nikko itself is a cutesy town with tourist trappings such as antique shops and cafes. It is said that if you haven’t seen Nikko, you haven’t seen Japan and I’m glad we did before heading back to Tokyo.
Tokyo was a spectacular place, with a train system map that looked like a plate of coloured spaghetti emphasizing its mass. We tried to cram a 3-week trip into just a few days, it was very tiring but the cities stimuli is constant with its people, its history, it quirkiness and its modernity. Tokyo would take a lifetime to explore and I would love to go back in mine.