I’m surrounded by the sound of slurping. Businessmen in suits are either side of me, tucking in noisily to generous bowls of ramen with a cup of green tea on the side. The restaurant staff shout a chorus of greeting to every customer who enters the door.
We select our lunches via a machine with photographs of the dishes and descriptions in Japanese, which I can’t read, so choose one at random. A ticket is spat out and handed to the only server. I take a stool on the bar overlooking the open-plan kitchen, like a spectator at a theatre-in-the-round.
The ramen arrives promptly. It is hot and delicious and huge. Paper-thin seaweed garnishes the soup; a large dollop of wasabi is on the side. Patrons don paper bibs to protect their smart attire. I’m in Akasaka, the heart of Tokyo’s business district, feeling jet-lagged and only slightly out of place. Having landed a couple of hours ago, I’m already starting to fall for this city.
Japan had been on my hit list for a few years since my first foray into Southeast Asia. A couple of things put me off getting there, mostly the distance, cost of flights and the cost of travelling once I got there. So when an old friend of mine moved to Tokyo and I found a too-good-to-be-true flight deal, the stars seemed to have aligned and all of a sudden I had booked a two-week trip to Japan.
Tokyo was less expensive than I thought it would be. Yes, I got a steal on my flights (£360, return from London via Amsterdam) but so could anyone who’s savvy and signed up to the right travel alerts. I ate some of the most incredible food in my life at half the cost of a similar restaurant in London. Getting around Tokyo on the Metro was easy and affordable. I barely spent a penny on entry fees. My favourite thing to do, simply wander around the different districts, cost absolutely nothing. I think the most money I spent was on an all-nighter in a private karaoke booth.
True to form, I didn’t plan my week in Tokyo. There were a couple of things I wanted to do and see, but mostly I let the Metro and my feet take me from place to place each day. The first thing I did was visit the viewing platform in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (free entry) just as sunset began. It was a clear, blue-skied day and I could see all the way across the city to Mount Fuji in the distance. Seeing Fuji was special and unexpected, but what really captivated me was the size of this mega-metropolis. Just like the bowl of ramen I’d had that lunchtime, the scale of Tokyo was slightly overwhelming. You could surely spend years living here and only scratch the surface. I couldn’t wait to get back down to street level.
Akihabara district is one for your inner geek. Famed for its many electronics shops and arcades, there is a lot of fun to be had here. You don’t need to be a keyboard wizard to enjoy the games either – the most popular when I visited seemed to be a drumming game where you had to match the rhythm played out on screen with a real pair of drumsticks. Some kids had possibly been banging the sticks a bit too often, as they noisily played through more and more advanced levels in a visual blur.
If you long for a touch of familiarity in what is a hugely strange city to a westerner, head to Roppongi district. This is where the ex-pats hang out; where the bars are geared towards travellers and English is more widely spoken. Tokyo’s nightlife is at its most lively here, a fact I can attest to after my friend and I got chatting to a Japanese local in a bar and ended up singing our hearts out in a karaoke booth with him. These establishments provide free fancy dress costumes and a ‘beer phone’ in your booth where you can order drinks without leaving the music. Only the next day did I question the sensitivity of our innocent-at-the-time choice of dressing our new friend up in a banana costume. I blame that beer phone.
You will know Shibuya district even if you’ve never heard of it – it’s home to that photo-famous road crossing (actually quite hard to get a good picture of due to the risk of becoming road kill). Shibuya is a shopping precinct mainly, but don’t overlook it. The 10-course set menu I ate at seafood restaurant Kaikaya by the Sea was outstanding. The cost of dinner and drinks between three came to less than £40 each, unbelievably. My love of seafood is one of the things that has taken me to Southeast Asia so many times, but nothing prepared me for the tastes of Japan.
Having heard Gwen Stefani go on about it in her first solo album, I felt I had to visit Harujuku and check out those girls. It’s just as colourful and wacky as I had envisaged, but more full of people. As you might guess, Harajuku is a retail haven and the shops are concentrated along Takeshita Street (amusingly). There I purchased a sweater decorated with a range of different sushi made of cats, which brings me much joy.
Tokyo has a population of over nine million, a fact that’s hard to escape in most places. This became apparent when I went to Shinjuku train station one afternoon to collect the Japanese rail pass which would take me by bullet train around Honshu island. I couldn’t quite get to grips with the station’s maps as I tried to locate the ticket office. I couldn’t stand still long enough in the throngs of people moving in waves from one platform to another to ever quite get my bearings. After giving up and returning to my friend’s apartment, he informed me Shinjuku is the busiest train station in the world and I’d just been trying to find my way around it at rush hour. My mistake.
There are shrines and gardens hidden amongst the functional parts of Japan (the most famous being the Meiji-jingu shrine), which are both beautiful and a tonic from the busyness of the streets. However, there is such an order and status quo to Japanese culture that it wasn’t really something I ever felt the need to escape from. Locals are largely polite and do everything by the same book, bringing a feeling of calm order to streets which in many other large Asian cities would feel chaotic (Bangkok and New Delhi, for example). This makes Tokyo an easy city to spend time in. I valued visiting the temples of the ancient old capital, Kyoto, much more highly.
The big smoke of Japan captivated me and almost immediately become my favourite Asian city (a title previously held by Bangkok). And it all started with a big bowl of ramen.
Classic Tokyo highlights:
- Visit the world’s largest Uniqlo, where you will be greeted by a robot and 12 floors of clothes.
- Have a cocktail at the ‘Lost In Translation’ bar, aka the New York bar on the 52nd floor of the Park Hyatt hotel. Tip – go early in the evening to avoid a hefty cover charge. I recommend the martinis.
- Nintendo fans can live the ultimate dream by playing real-life Mario Kart. Dress up as a character from the classic game and zip around the city streets in a souped up go-kart.
- Vending machines are everywhere and sell all manner of drinks, including beer. Try a few at random – you might find something amazing.
- Drink sake, cold in summer and hot in winter. Or, if you’re feeling fancy, try the sparkling version.
- Enjoy every comfort break with the high-tech Japanese toilets. In public bathrooms, some will play music to cover your blushes.
- Karaoke, in a private room where no one will hear you if you don’t hit that high C.
- Make your own matcha green tea. It’s all in the wrist action as it requires a lot of whisking.
- Go into any open entertainments building, get in the lift and choose a floor at random. You’ll nearly always find something cool like a speakeasy bar or a glow-in-the-dark bowling alley.