“You always bump into someone you know here,” Daniela Baggio Morano exclaims, waving to a passer-by. She’s walking me from Kōenji train station into a kaleidoscopic flurry of vintage clothes shops, secret vinyl stores and lantern-lit laneways wafting with smells from early evening izakayas (pubs).
It’s Saturday afternoon, daylight is dipping and neon signs are sparking to life, cooking up a weird, electro-sunset that makes everyone look like the cocktail party version of themselves. Passing beneath a bridge, we pause to watch a young band of buskers bash out their take on W B Yeats’ poem Down by the Salley Gardens. A JR Line train thunders overhead. And Daniela keeps spotting people she knows. It’s the last thing I expected in Tokyo — a sprawling super-city that’s home to 37 million souls.
“Kōenji is really alive,” Daniela chirps, whisking me from the candy-coloured rails of a kawaii clothing (cutesy, Lolita-esque) store to a shoebox-sized Okinawan restaurant for snacks. A guide with personalised tour company CityUnscripted, she’s half-Japanese, half-Italian and 100% Kōenji — a natural ambassador besotted with this hip suburban hood since moving here several years ago.
High-rise Roppongi (the entertainment district), it ain’t. Right up until the 1920s, Kōenji was a quilt of rice paddies. Communities began to sprout here after the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923, but it avoided the Second World War bombings that levelled much of Tokyo, and so retains its low-rise, lived-in, shitamachi (old town) feel. Kōenji has a bit of grit, too — it was the birthplace of Japanese punk in the 1970s, and even today, you’ll struggle to find a single Starbucks. Wearing black jeans, T-shirt and Docs, Daniela fits right in.
“There’s no distance between people here,” laughs 75-year-old Kamura Chigusa, another local, who serves us plates of crispy katsu (panko-coated cutlets) and mountains of cabbage at Gourmet House Baratei. She and her husband — who hides away in the kitchen, reading the paper and dodging my camera — “embody Kōenji soul”, Daniela says, before Kamura swallows her up in a big hug. It’s the only one I witness over a week in this famously reserved country.
“Just because you’re old doesn’t mean you can’t be young,” Daniela says, emerging from the embrace. And Kamura certainly plays the part — she wears fake yellow roses in her purple hair and the walls of her restaurant are a scrapbook of her life — pinned with everything from tiny dolls to newspaper stories on sumo wrestlers.
Lost in translation
I knew there’d be surprises in Tokyo. “Get ready to see the future,” a colleague told me before I left. A few days later, I surfaced from Tokyo Station to a scene of teeming rain, salarymen swarming under skyscrapers, and thunder pealing over the Imperial Palace East Gardens.
I had my Bill Murray moments, too. I got stuck in a cat cafe, trying to back out of a tiny room full of vending machines without tripping over a rare breed of kitty. I marvelled at tourists in superhero suits taking selfies on go-kart tours, and contrasted the souped-up, neon-splattered cityscapes of Shinjuku and Ginza with the manicured city parks and polite-but-firm signs requesting commuters not to talk on their phones on the subway.
Veering between Japan’s ancient cultural concept of wa (‘harmony’) and its mind-blowing, hypermodern virtual-reality show is a rite of passage — as a multitude of international visitors will discover during the 2019 Rugby World Cup and 2020 Summer Olympics. It’s like playing an Xbox version of a city break.
But too many people leave Tokyo still ‘Lost in Translation’ — I want a sense of its neighbourhoods, and the people that call them home. One way to do that is to join them for as many meals as possible.
“The quietness comes from traditional Japan; the chaos from now,” Kaede Ose tells me. I’ve met up with Kaede and her mother, Yuko — a culinary expert and author of recipe books on everything from bento boxes to fermented miso — for a shopping trip in another of Tokyo’s off-radar neighbourhood, Yanesen.
We’re soon off on a shitamachi safari, learning about sake, scoffing crunchy mentchi katsu (a deep-fried, breaded meat patty) and rummaging through food stores for myoga ginger and sticky manju (steamed cakes filled with bean paste). Not long into the journey, Yuko stops to swap her heels for a comfier pair of tabi (split-toe) shoes she’s carrying in her handbag.
“My own mother was very good at cooking and I loved it,” she tells me. “My favourite was a rice ball, onigiri, with cod roe. She made it by hand and it was particularly tender due to the force of her hands. You know, a good sushi restaurant is not just about the fish. It’s about how the sushi chef handles the rice.”
Later, time-honoured skills like this come to life beautifully over a traditional, multi-course keiseki lunch at Wadakura, the Palace Hotel Tokyo’s Japanese fine dining restaurant, in Chiyoda. An indoor waterfall trickles near the table, and I’m served by a gently shuffling waitress in a kimono. The food is a symphony of meticulous, seasonal courses that seems a world away from the casual eats of Kōenji and Yanesen.
Lunch starts with a sip of the hotel’s own sake paired with cool slivers of sashimi and tart petals of ginger. Then the centrepiece, a shiny wooden ‘lunch box’ whose drawers reveal a suite of delicacies, including the most deliciously sweet, miso-marinaded piece of salmon I’ve ever tasted.
“I started this job because I love eating,” the hotel’s affable executive chef, Keiji Miyabe, tells me as he shows me around his kitchens. He previously worked at a boutique hotel in Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, and says time flies by amid the thrills of Tokyo. Still seeking a handle on the place, I wonder, if Tokyo were a person, what type of person would it be? The chef pauses a moment, rubbing his thumb and forefinger together as he thinks.
“Maybe a person that owns what you and I don’t have,” he muses. “Maybe one that has everything, that has certain strengths we don’t, but is also very gentle and kind to you.” Tokyo has more Michelin stars than any other city, but Keiji loves the fact you can find every type of cuisine here — “from the high end to the soul food; everybody loves ramen!”
A bowl of soul
Ain’t that the truth. Ramen’s the great leveller, a bowl of soul that unites everyone for a couple of hundred yen. I was gunning for one great example in Tokyo, and I knew the man to help me find it.
“Like most Westerners in this city, the first thing I got hooked on was the tonkotsu, which is the creamy pork soup,” Brian MacDuckston tells me over coffee near his flat in Honmachi. Tall, smartly dressed and far thinner than I expected, Brian is the man behind Ramen Adventures, which offers private ramen tours of Tokyo — a business that evolved out of a move from San Francisco over a decade ago; he’s also a prolific blogger on all things ramen. In his former life, Brian tells me, he was a burnt-out computer guy. He moved to Tokyo for a reboot, and his eureka moment came not long afterwards, when he finally decided to see what all the locals were queueing for outside a ramen-ya in Ikebukuro.
Brian talks me through ramen’s origins as a ‘new’ food whose popularity was aided by cheap imports of American flour after the Second World War; a dish with its origin in Chinese-style wheat noodles, but which the Japanese made their own with mind-bendingly good, umami-rich broths. It’s Japan’s pasta — a comfort food that amounts to way more than the sum of its parts, and whose shops tie neighbourhoods and people together.
“You don’t sit and chat with ramen,” says Brian. “You go in, stop talking when your order comes, eat and go. Ramen nerds say that it takes just eight minutes for the noodles to go bad.”
I’m almost afraid to ask him to recommend just one or two ramen shops, but eventually we settle on a neighbourhood joint near my hotel, a place Brian rates for its creamy broth with a spicy kick — which customers request on a scale of one to five for kara (chilli heat) and shibi (a numbing, Sichuan-style bang). What should I order? “They only have one dish,” he replies. A couple of hours later, I’m standing outside a ramen-ya called Kikanbo, near Kanda Station, punching my order into a vending machine. Inside, the room is black, the stereo plays a taiko drumbeat, and three chefs are busy at work.
I shoot for a spice rating of three on both kara and shibi, and it takes just a couple of minutes for the bowl to arrive. Its broth is miso-magical, the noodles have bite, and slices of roast pork pull apart with a tug of the chopsticks. I watch the clock, but soon run over the eight minutes; not that anyone notices. All the customers are united in a Y800 (£5.45) slurpfest.
Tokyo can be a dizzying, disorientating city. “Even though I live here I feel like a traveller,” one local tells me. As I chew and chat my way through several neighbourhoods, however, I find a fleeting sense of equilibrium.
I join shoals of salarymen gobbling yakitori (skewered chicken) under the railway arches of Yūrakuchō. I take a tour of Tsukiji Fish Market with sushi chefs from The Prince Park Tower Hotel, where we slip through the melee of forklifts, seafood fridges and styrofoam crates to watch an expert slice and dice a 167kg scarlet-fleshed tuna. “It’s pretty much the same as cutting a diamond,” smiles the knifeman, Nobuhito Okado, wiping his blade clean.
Afterwards, we stop by the tiny Yamato Sushi where chefs pluck out different cuts of tuna, squid, eel and sea urchin to place on small boards in front of us. It’s chaos outside. Carts are honking, tourists elbowing and the glass towers of Shibuya pumping out their neon razzle-dazzle.
Inside, however, there’s a moment of zen. It’s not quite like bumping into someone I know. But the chef’s rolling of sushi rice between his thumb and palm triggers a recognition. He’s doing what Yuko said he should, and for a split second, I feel connected to some kind of invisible current.
Call it a Tokyo minute. Just as quickly, it’s gone.
Getting there & around
British Airways, Japan Airlines and ANA fly direct to Tokyo from Heathrow. Finnair flies there from Heathrow via Helsinki.
Average flight time: 11h40m.
The best way to traverse sprawling Tokyo is on the impeccably punctual trains (signs are translated into English). Prepaid Suica and Pasmo travel cards work on both subway and overland JR Lines (top-up as you go). Taxis are reliable but expensive.
When to go
Spring and autumn have the most comfortable climate with temperatures in the low 20Cs (July and August can be very humid), but remember that April means cherry blossom season — and a serious spike in prices. The 2019 Rugby World Cup takes place in Japan from 20 September to 2 November.
How to do it
Inside Japan Tours runs self-guided adventures and small-group tours in Japan, including Tokyo. Its nine-night Golden Route includes four nights in Tokyo, as well as visits to Hakone and Kyoto, from £1,690 (excluding flights).
Published in the October 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)