New York has Broadway and the Yankees. London has Big Ben, the Queen and Harrods. Tokyo… probably has the hardest image to live up to. Can it really be that crazy? That busy? And at the same time be utterly organised, respectful and charming?
As a newbie in town, I try to blank out the clichés. Nonetheless, as my train pulls into Tokyo station, flashbacks from Black Rain merge into a lurid melee of Godzilla, Hello Kitty, tattooed yakuza (Japan’s organised crime ring) and the twins from Goldmember. Would 72 hours in this edgy, futuristic city be long enough to wipe them from my mind?
Compared with Paris or London, I soon discover, Tokyo is not a city full of expansive green vistas. Which is not to say it doesn’t take my breath away, it’s just the real fascination here is in the detail. Shoehorning themselves into the world’s most populous metropolis, Tokyo’s 13 million-odd residents have become masters of ergonomics. From foldaway mamachari bicycles and capsule hotels to pint-sized vending machines and fantastically complex robot toilets, much of Tokyo life seems to take place on a micro level.
In the end, my fondest memories of the Japanese capital are of random encounters in the most unexpected of places. The temples, museums and shrines are great, but some of the coolest and wackiest things (and people) are often to be found, hidden in backstreet cafes or tucked away on top floors.
Leave the commuters behind, as four million of them jostle their way through Shinjuku Station, and move on to Akihabara, the spiritual home of Japan’s thriving otaku, or ‘geek culture’. Also called Akihabara Electric Town, or Akiba, by Tokyoites, this shopping district is a mecca for young men (and a couple of women) with more than a passing interest in manga comics, video games and inflatable dolls, among other things. Akiba’s tech-focused boutiques are eye-catching, but the main attraction is the manifestation of otaku culture. “In Japan, people give the name otaku to anyone considered a geek or nerd,” explains Steve Parker, an expat tour guide.
“The word actually comes from the Japanese for ‘household’, which makes sense when you consider these guys don’t really get out too much.”
The elevators in most of Akihabara’s buildings lift occupants to ever stranger worlds. Second floors are home to comic cafes, anime arcade games and pachinko slot machines, packed with coin-feeding grannies and excited schoolboys. Continue on to the fifth floor and you’ll find businessmen with combovers rifling through discount bins of X-rated comic books and toys. And the top floor? Let’s just say cameras are strictly forbidden.
Posses of young girls in costume regularly patrol Akihabara’s streets, trying to attract punters to nearby ‘maid cafes’. Here you can order food and drink from themed menus and have your photo taken — for a price — with a waitress in a frilly dress, knee socks and pigtails. “It’s an Akihabara must-see, if only for the sheer Japan-ness of it all,” says Steve.
“I don’t hang out there every day.”
There’s nothing like a shiny new landmark to make urbanites feel proud, especially if it soars to a whopping 634m. The needle-like Tokyo Skytree is the world’s tallest broadcasting tower and visible for miles, usually surrounded by hordes of happy-snapping Tokyoites. Open since May, it whisks visitors up to observation decks at 350m and 450m, and houses numerous shops and restaurants. Skytree merchandise is hugely popular. Mascot Sorakara — described in promotional material as ‘a young girl with a star-shaped head who descended from the skies to the Tokyo Skytree’ — adorns everything from T-shirts to mobile phone straps.
To visit Harajuku is to turn up the dial on the Tokyo quirkometer still further. Perhaps the most fashion-conscious place on the planet, the big draw here is the pedestrianised shopping drag called Takeshita-dori. Come rain or shine, the goths, punks and cosplayers (costumed role-players) are always out and about, strutting their stuff with guys in tight leopard skin pants and girls in full Victorian-style regalia. Huge queues of people line up patiently for what must be the tiniest crepes outside of a French doll’s house, while clothing boutiques for pets jostle for space with bargain stores. Chief among these is Daiso Harajuku, Japan’s fascinating take on Poundland. Elsewhere, UT Store (a Uniqlo sub-brand) stocks funky T-shirts, while Kasuh Koubou boutique sells beautiful handcrafted silver jewellery.
Home to flea markets, electronics malls, glitzy department stores and all manner of shop in between, the central district of Shinjuku also happens to be one of the best places in Tokyo to indulge in some retail therapy. The Yodobashi Camera and Bic Camera stores offer great deals on electronics, while Shinjuku Mylord (pronounced ‘me-lord’) is a seven-storey temple of hip female couture. Studio Alta is also worth checking out, if only for the kitsch Hello Kitty cosmetics and dolls with eyelashes. Elsewhere, the Takashimaya Times Square complex has 10 floors of clothing and restaurants and is a sight in itself, although Steve prefers more subterranean haunts.
“I could spend hours wandering through the underground malls around Shinjuku Station,” he says. “It’s like a labyrinth down there. From cosplay to kitchen utensils, you can find virtually anything. My advice is to explore and enjoy it, and don’t worry too much where you are. Just head overground when you’re done for some reorientation. Either that or take a ball of string.”
Moulding exactly 18g of rice and 12g of raw fish using eye and hand alone would be a tough job for most of us. But producing 18 of these perfectly weighted nigiri (a common type of sushi: rice with a piece of fish on top) in just three minutes demands serious skill. Tokyo Sushi Academy trainee sushi chef Francisco Hervas smiles as he recollects numerous failures.
“You’re allowed a couple of mistakes, and then it’s time to start again,” the Spaniard tells me, ruefully. “It’s one of the hardest tests here, but also one of the most important to get right. Professional chefs have to make great-looking and great-tasting sushi muy rapido.”
Located in the Shinjuku district, the academy has a one-day programme that’s proving increasingly popular with tourists. “It’s all in English and it’s just a bit of fun,” says Kazuyo Yoshida, director of the academy’s teaching department. “You won’t get a black mark if you weigh stuff out wrongly.”
Tokyo lies at the heart of Japanese sushi culture — originally known as edomaezushi, as it used fish caught in Edo Bay (Tokyo Bay) — so there’s no better place to get to grips with this iconic fresh-fish cuisine, although it helps to know your uni from your ikura.
“Sometimes it can be a bit intimidating going into a really upmarket sushi restaurant in Tokyo,” says Yoshida. He advises cutting your teeth first at Makoto Sushi, run by the Tokyo Sushi Academy, whose cosy bilingual menu includes plenty of familiar staples, with prices starting at a mere ¥157 (£1.27) per piece. Even the staff speak English. Then check out a kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi restaurant, before progressing to a sushi temple such as legendary, three Michelin-starred, 10-seat Sukiyabashi Jiro.
No sushi odyssey would be complete, though, without a visit to Tsukiji Market — one of the world’s most captivating seafood bazaars. It’s through here that most of the capital’s sushi passes en route from trawler to table. About 2,250 tonnes of fish, worth over ¥1.8bn (£14.8m), are sold in the market each day. In January, a single 593lb bluefin tuna sold for a record ¥56.5m (£463,000).
“Whether you love sushi or not, Tsukiji really is a must-see,” enthuses Tokyo guide Keiko Nagamatsu. Because places to view the tuna auction, which starts very early, are strictly limited, he suggests getting there at around 4.30am to register. “It’s worth the early start,” Keiko assures me. Latecomers can console themselves with brunch at the market’s Daiwa Sushi restaurant, gorging on miso soup and maki rolls as the crowds ebb and flow.
Few cities come alive at night like Tokyo. In Shinjuku, giant TV screens of surreal width and clarity throw technicolour reflections onto the tarmac and surging traffic below, while crowds of students and salarymen file into alleyways, bright with pulsing neon. This is a vertical rabbit warren, where stairways and elevators lead to packed out pubs, clubs, bistros and bars.
“Shinjuku has always had a reputation as one of Tokyo’s pleasure quarters,” explains Steve as we down beers in one of the area’s many British-themed pubs. “Over 300,000 people live in this neighbourhood, so there’s plenty of scope for letting your hair down.”
Shinjuku’s myriad drinking dens include Western-themed bars and cheaper, traditional Japanese-style watering holes called nomiya. Pint-sized Bar Marone serves up some great food to an eclectic clientele, while Vagabond is a bustling little pub with regular live jazz on the second floor. Head for Casablanca to dance the night away with a predominantly local crowd. Hostess joints, where your tab can quickly reach the size of Japan’s national debt, are best avoided.
Shibuya is home to the statue of a national institution, a dog called Hachikō. It stands outside the railway station where he waited every day for nine years after his master died at work, never returning to meet his loyal pet — a true story as it happens.
The district is also home to manic street crossings and buzzing nightlife, centred on Dogenzaka, a street also known as Love Hotel Hill — packed with hotels where amorous couples can rent rooms by the hour, strip clubs and dance venues of all varieties.
Although Tokyo has a reputation for being hideously expensive, budget hotels do exist. Even at the lower end, you can expect rooms to be clean with a range of facilities such as showers, plus helpful staff — though whether they’ll speak English is a different matter.
In the heart of Tokyo’s otaku action, the Dormy Inn Akihabara is a favourite with those watching the pennies. Located close to the Tokyo Imperial Palace, Sensoji Temple and Ueno Park, rooms from around £70 offer free internet, while the rooftop swimming pool with sauna is a godsend after a long day’s sightseeing. Or why not bag an apartment from as little as £28 a night with Short-Term-Apartment-Rentals.com?
For those seeking luxury, Tokyo doesn’t disappoint, either. Many of the city’s best hotels may be characterless on the outside, but inside they’re oases of subdued simplicity where hospitality reigns supreme. The deeply trendy Conrad Hilton, set in the heart of the city’s hyper-modern Shiodome area, features glorious views over Tokyo Bay and the Tokyo Tower, and is convenient for pre-dawn trips to Tsukiji Market.
Close to the bright lights of Shinjuku, the Hilton Tokyo is another high-end favourite. “If you can afford to splurge, get a room on one of the executive floors,” Keiko Nagamatsu tells me. “Weather permitting, there’s nothing like eating breakfast while watching the sun warm the flanks of Mount Fuji.”
Finnair has daily flights to Tokyo from both Heathrow and Manchester via Helsinki.
Average flight time: 12h.
Most international flights arrive at Tokyo’s Narita Airport, which has numerous rail connections and the Airport Limousine Bus. The Keisei Skyliner is the fastest means of transport between Narita and Tokyo Station, and there are various bus and fixed-rate taxi services downtown. www.limousinebus.co.jp
Most destinations can be reached by using a combination of the JR Yamanote Line (a rail line), which loops around the centre, and the Metro. A prepaid rechargeable Suica card is valid on the subway, most urban JR services, and buses in the Greater Tokyo Area, and is more convenient than buying individual tickets.
Alternatively, spend an afternoon seeing Tokyo from a kayak. www.tokyokayaking.jp
When to go
The city can be visited all year round. Tokyo’s rainy season lasts from mid-June to mid-July. Although it doesn’t rain every day, umbrellas are essential. August can be extremely hot and sticky.
Need to know
Currency: Japanese Yen (JPY). £1 = 130.
Health: Tetanus shots and Hepatitis A and B vaccinations are necessary. If you’re planning on travelling elsewhere in Japan, check with your GP.
International dial code: 00 81 3.
Time difference: GMT +9.
Daiso Harajuku. Village107, 1-19-24 Jingu-mae. www.daiso-sangyo.co.jp
UT Store. 6-10-8, Jungumae. www.uniqlo.com
Kasuh Koubou. 155-0031, Kitazawa 2-26-8. www.kasuh.jp
Yodobashi Camera. Various locations. www.yodobashi.com
Bic Camera. Various locations. www.biccamera.co.jp
Shinjuku Mylord. 1-1-3 Nishi-Shinjuku. www.shinjuku-mylord.com
Bar Marone. No address in English. Off Shinjuku Dori.
Vagabond. 1-4-20 Nishi Shinjuku. T: 00 81 03 3348 9109.
Casablanca. J2 Bldg, 1-7-1 Kabukicho
Insight Guides: Tokyo Step by Step. RRP: £8.99.
How to do it
Travelbag offers seven nights in Tokyo, from £1,017 per person including flights with Virgin Atlantic from Heathrow. www.travelbag.co.uk
Inside Japan Tours has a range of small group and self-guided tours. Its nine-night Tokaido Trail costs from £1,250 and takes in Tokyo, Kamakura, Hakone and Kyoto, excluding flights. www.insidejapantours.com
Published in the October 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)