A Trip to Tokyo is as stimulating and intriguing as you would expect, as Manveen Maan discovered on her recent visit to the pulsing capital of the land of the rising sun.
Japan. The word itself conjures images of samurais, geishas, cherry blossom trees, scenic landscapes, and delicious cuisine. Tokyo, its capital city, is a spectacular mix of modern living and old-fashioned manners, slick high-tech gadgets and cute cartoon mascots. It is home to the most glaring dichotomies in the world: understated and wacky, crowded and quiet, age-old traditions and MTV. Beyond its fabulous food and unparalleled mass transit system, this city boasts shrines and stone lanterns, swanky shopping malls and hole-in-the-wall noodle shops.
The trick to enjoying the essence of Tokyo, is to sample all that it has to offer. And I don’t just mean the culinary delights.
A good place to start is the Tsukiji Fish Market. Famed for its early morning starts, the world’s largest (and busiest) fish market has long been a favorite destination for jet-lagged tourists wanting to catch the 5am live tuna auctions. Entry is highly sought after and on a first-come, first-served basis, hence I decided it was essential to gain a spot in the auction hall during my trip to Tokyo.
Fatigue was replaced by fascination once we stepped into the auction area, filled with behemoth Bluefin tunas that were the size of sharks. The auction began relatively calmly but developed into a roaring event, with restaurateurs and chefs pulling out all the stops for the fish of their choice. Although the smell of fish may not be completely welcome for some, all is forgiven when you head to the restaurants in the outer market area to get some succulently thick slices of fresh sushi.
Getting on a train may seem like the most mundane thing in the world but when you are visiting a foreign country, every ride is an adventure. Tokyo’s intricately-designed subway map, complete with colour codes and numbered lines, makes the often-daunting journey around this metropolis a walk in the park. Not to mention silent. Phone etiquette is huge in Japan, so when my Pitbull ringtone sounded off between stations, my fellow commuters were quick to shoot some disapproving stares in my direction as I hastily suppressed the tech culprit.
Shibuya is Tokyo’s version of Times Square. The major crossing, close to the railway station, has been the location site of numerous Hollywood blockbusters (The Fast and The Furious and Lost In Translation) recently enough to make consumers of popular culture (yours truly included) squeal with delight at being amongst famous landmarks. Although encompassing an entire suburb, the word ‘shibuya’ is often associated with the area around the crossing itself, filled with big-name international fashion brands, quirky vintage shops, exotic cuisine, and some of the hottest nightlife in Asia. Based on those four reasons alone, a Shibuya trip is guaranteed to be an exciting experience.
As the green oasis amidst the hustle and bustle of Shibuya, Yoyogi Park is a welcome relief from the non-stop action of the city hub. Green and serene, Yoyogi is one of the largest parks in the country and probably the most eclectic. With living space so tight in this city, Yoyogi is the hotspot for meetings, picnics, and play rehearsals and draws all sorts of talent – from horn players and hip-hop dancers to fashion-crazed teenagers, complete with poodle skirts and Elvis-inspired hairdos. Keep an eye out for rhinestones and denim-wearing terriers or chihuahuas dressed like cheerleaders on the dog trail.
Although Tokyo is filled with thousands of restaurants and shops serving top notch fare, izakaya dining is by far the most convenient and affordable way to satisfy your hunger and thirst. Traditionally a drinking establishment, izakayas are the kings of casual dining in the country, and I visited a wonderful one during my trip. Once past the red lanterns that typically front izakaya entrances, I ordered a glass of traditional Japanese umeshu (plum wine) and pored over the so-vast-it’squite-intimidating menu. Dishes are served tapas-style and made with some of the freshest ingredients I have ever tasted, and the menu encompasses everything from outstanding sushi and sashimi platters, to crispy karage and juicy yakitori. My izakaya dining experience was both long and relaxing, filled with outstanding cuisine, great banter, and the stellar service Japan is famed for.
To complete my cultural quota, a trip to the Sensoji Temple, one of Tokyo’s most popular and colourful temples, was in order. Although the Asakusa-based Buddhist temple can be a bit of a tourist trap, a visit guarantees a glimpse into age-old religious customs and some jaw-dropping Oriental architecture. Built in honour of the goddess Kannon, the temple has attracted thousands of visitors through its Thunder Gate entrance. A shopping street – Nakamise – leads to the temple’s second gate, the Hozomon, and is filled with vendors selling typical Japanese souvenirs and delicious local snacks. Steeped in history, the cobblestoned streets around the area lead to markets, shops, and hole-in-the-wall noodle joints with some of the best ramen in the world.
Once I had my fill of culture and tradition, I decided to put Tokyo’s much-hyped nightlife reputation to the test. The hip and happening areas of Harajuku and Roppongi are on the hit list for anyone seeking Tokyo’s premier clubbing areas. Expect slick furniture, colourful cocktails, pumping beats, and beautiful people. With so many types of establishments handy, you will be hard-pressed to find a spot that doesn’t cater to your tastes.
Toilets are not usually a highlight of anyone’s travels, but Japanese bathrooms are so outstanding they deserve a mention. The country’s restrooms are not spared from the exceptional levels of cleanliness upheld everywhere else, which I discovered to the joy of my inner germaphobe. Squeaky clean and always smelling minty fresh, Japanese toilets are equipped with a whole host of gadgets and gizmos. Bidets, seat warmers, and wireless remotes all feature quite commonly, while automatic deodorisation and music to drown out *ahem* questionable sounds can make a visit to the throne a much more comfortable experience than you expect.
My time in Tokyo ended far too quickly, and as I walked down to the train station with my suitcase in hand, ready to board the airport express, I noticed a grandmother walking hand-in-hand with her school-aged granddaughter. As they descended the steps to the park, the granddaughter helped her elderly grandmother navigate her way to the bottom, put her in a cab and bowed ever so slightly to bid her farewell.
As the doors of the cab automatically closed (like magic!), I was reminded that, as Tokyo’s modern gears keep turning, the basic machinery of this intriguing city remains true to its age-old origins. It truly is a spectacular place.
Source: The Expat July 2013
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