All countries have their quirks and idiosyncrasies. Little peculiarities written into the national psyche that make them so different to our own and make the point of travel. But nowhere seems so utterly different to our western world as Japan. On one level its vast cities appear much the same as any other car-clogged canyons of concrete, glass and steel. And yet, in so many other ways, it is utterly distinctive. And as its largest city nowhere are those differences more apparent than Tokyo, which is just fantastically bonkers.
While Kyoto is spiritual and historic; and Hiroshima a symbol of both tragedy and hope; Tokyo is where the extremes of consumer culture meet the quirkiness of some truly eccentric folk. I’m sure it has its spiritual side and the normality of the salary-man’s life, but who wants to see that when the neon is beckoning, cosplay is everywhere and Elvis is jiving in the park?
Tokyo is also widely regarded as being criminally expensive. Which means space is at a premium and accommodation premium-priced. Hotel Niwa in the Suidobashi district, our home for three nights, is very nice indeed. Tastefully decorated, reasonably well located and good value for money, it gives a new meaning to the word ‘compact’. It’s a marvel of miniaturisation from the three-inch deep wardrobe to the micro-fridge with room to chill, well, nothing. If either of us so much as rolls over in the middle of the night, we’ll be out of the bed and on the floor. If we can find any floor space that is.
And of course the largest feature in the miniature bathroom is the gigantic throne of a Japanese toilet. Seat warmer, bidet, spray, stop/start buttons, modesty flush, music; it’s like the flight deck of the Starship Enterprise in there. For the British, and our obsession with toilet humour, it is an endless source of amusement. I’m surprised it doesn’t tell crap jokes.
And as a Brit, we sadly expect to be able to communicate in the Queen’s English wherever we go. And that simply does not work in Japan. Whether it is due to centuries of isolationism, a stubborn resistance to the West, or that they simply don’t care, English is not widely spoken at all. When myself and Brendan Murray were here over ten years ago, getting something to eat was so challenging that we ate at McDonalds half the time.
But then we didn’t stumble across another great Japanese invention, the izakaya, a pub-style eatery, where the famously reserved Japanese supposedly let their hair down and get on the lash. Pull up a stool at the bar, order a few dishes, wash them down with liberal doses of draught beer, order more food, more draught beer, and so on until you’re either stuffed or can’t walk. Or both. What is there not to like about that?
The izakaya we find in the Ginza charges ¥294 for a pint of draught Asahi. Hang on, that’s just HKD23, or £2. We reconfirm this with the waiter, neck the first, order a second and get through several more over the course of a lengthy and excellent dinner. The whole meal must have been less than HKD500, or £42. And I thought Japan was supposed to be criminally expensive?!
But we’re not here only to drink beer and some sight-seeing is required. In the Asakusa district in Northern Tokyo, we squeeze our way along the bustling Nakamise-dori, a shopping street full of tourist tat and street food, to arrive at Senso-ji, a Buddhist temple dating back to the 7th century. Mind you, given Japan’s history of internecine fighting, earthquakes and the fact that their oldest buildings tended to be made of wood, not all structures are original, or as old as one might like to think. But it’s certainly atmospheric, popular and very photogenic.
A short walk from Senso-ji and we’re confronted by the Asahi Beer Hall, one of the buildings of the Asahi Breweries headquarters. Atop the Beer Hall is the Asahi Flame, an enormous golden structure, said to represent both the ‘burning heart of Asahi beer’ and a frothy head. Except that it looks less like a flame and more like something to be found in one of their state-of-the-art toilets, and is indeed often referred to as “the golden turd” – and the Asahi Beer Hall itself as “poo building” – by many Tokyo residents. How’s that for gratitude? Asahi spend millions of dollars on a Philippe Starck-designed futuristic building and the locals call it the poo building. Brilliant.
Asakusa is also the centre of Tokyo’s shitamachi, literally ‘low city’, where many of its older low rise neighbourhoods still exist, so we take a stroll around a few side streets in search of olde worlde Tokyo. Find little or nothing olde worlde and meander over to Ueno-koen, one of the city’s number one cherry blossom viewing (hanami) locations. And it is indeed very popular. Very popular. So popular that despite how beautiful the uniformly-pink cherry blossom is we move quite quickly through the park, come out the other side into the Yanesen district and wander round more shitamachi style streets. I don’t think we find the main sights – Yanaka Ginza and Yanaka Cemetery – but do find some nice quiet side streets, a smaller cemetery and no end of small, local shrines. It’s a lovely, peaceful, under-stated neighbourhood.
An evening dinner in the Ginza is unremarkable save for the sushi chef bearing an uncanny resemblance to Matt Le Blanc. With no English menu and no prices we order conservatively for fear of being in a credit-card melting situation, only to find the final bill remarkably modest – less than HKD1,200 (£100), for four of us.
Day three in Tokyo and this time we’re heading off west to Harajuku and Shibuya. Begin with a stroll down Tokyo’s ‘Champs Elysee’, Omote-sando, chock full of the same high-end brands that adorn the Ginza. But the back streets immediately behind Omote-sando are far more interesting with lots of small, independent boutiques and vintage clothing stores.
Walk up Takeshita Dori (there’s lots of shits and fuks in Japanese place names which provide no end of titillation for those of a childlike disposition like myself) which is described as the symbol of Harajuku and birthplace of many of Japan’s fashion trends. And so it may once have been. Nowadays the influx of tourists makes it about as edgy as Marks & Spencer. Even the “original” punk shop was rather nice and clean. And the eccentrics who used to hang around Harajuku Station dressed in a cross between the Addams Family and Hello Kitty-on-acid appear to have moved elsewhere. We take a walk round to Yoyogi Park to see if the dudes dressed as Elvis are still there, and there are a few, but the cold weather would appear to have dampened both their numbers and their jiving.
Cat Street offers more small, independent stores, and leads us down to Shibuya, site of the famous Shibuya crossing, a confluence of roads and pedestrian crossings reputedly traversed by around 100,000 people every hour. When the lights turn red, they do so in all directions, stopping the traffic entirely, and turning the whole intersection over to the pedestrians. It has become a tourist spot in its own right to the extent that the second floor Starbucks with a prime viewing spot reputedly serves only tall coffees (no grandes) to prevent people lingering too long. It’s a crazy demonstration of extreme urbanisation.
Tokyo has one final dose of insanity as we take the subway to Shinjuku where the neon lights typify your vision of Tokyo and make Causeway Bay or Piccadilly Circus look positively dim. Although the neon is not what we’re looking for. We duck down an alley into a rabbit warren of tight alleyways housing over two hundred tiny bars. And much like our hotel room it’s a new definition of tiny. Most seat only four or five people and probably cater to the same four or five people night after night. They’re so small it feels like you’re intruding – like stepping into someone’s living room, sitting yourself down and asking for a pint. The one we honour with our presence, the Albatross, is positively gargantuan – it must accommodate at least a dozen, albeit at a squeeze. They are the diametric opposite of your super-sized, straight-out-of-the-box, standardised chains, and a wonderfully kooky place to have a last late night beer in this wonderfully kooky city.