Asia is easily a top contender on any travel bucket list. Japan, which reached a record of 24 million tourists in 2016, proves as testament. This was a 21,8% increase from the previous year. While it hosts travellers from across the globe, it was travellers from as close as China, South Korea and Taiwan that dominated the pool of the recorded influx.
Trevor Crighton shares his experience with getting to grips with Tokyo’s oddities and extremes – and how it was all worth it.
A polite cough at my shoulder draws my attention from my phone. Gesturing at it, the woman looks at me and smiles, expectantly. Unfurrowing my brow, I point out the street corner we’re hoping to reach on the map on my screen. She beckons us on and leads the way. A left away from the exit of the Shinjuku Metro Station and a right, pausing before leading us across a busy intersection. She leads us down a tree-lined street and pauses at a break in the canopy. She points up and we glance skywards to see the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building looming above us. A bow of the head, hands steepled together and she’s gone – back in the direction we’ve just come from.
Experiences like this sum up a visit to Tokyo – despite not being able to speak the language or read Kanji, we find our way around one of the world’s vastest cities, thanks to help – often unbidden – from friendly locals, 99% of whom spoke no English. Nothing’s asked, offers of thanks are politely refused and people return to their lives, having helped a lost-looking pair of tourists find their way, as a simple matter of course.
Alighting from the lift in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, 202m above street level, we’re confronted by a jaw-dropping – and free – perspective of Tokyo’s sprawl. The population of the “wards’” which make up the Tokyo metropole exceeds 38 million – it’s the world’s most populous metropolitan area. To me, one of the greatest gifts of travel is the perspective it affords me, like contemplating the blip that human existence has registered on the cosmic scale when standing before a million-year-old natural wonder. Or staring out over Tokyo and trying to comprehend how one city. which houses the equivalent of 90% of SA’s population within its bounds, manages to feed, house and transport all those people every day – and flourish while doing so.
More than 3,5 million passengers pass through Shinjuku’s Metro station, every day – in fact, of the world’s 51 busiest railway stations, just six are outside Japan, with more than half on the list situated within the borders of Tokyo. Those millions of people need to be fed every day and the array of options available to them is staggering: economy of scale dictates that prices of all but the most specalised foods are accessible. From R4 000 per kilogram of perfectly-marbled Wagyu beef to R25 of combini (“convenience store”) cold rice balls stuffed with fish and wrapped in crisp nori (seaweed), the food’s plentiful, fresh and largely affordable. The rice balls become a staple on our trip – I brave a number of options and am only been disappointed twice: once by a bizarre, glutinous, floral violet filling which I still can’t comprehend and another which turns out to be a ham and cheese-filled version, politely whisked from my basket and nuked in a microwave before I have a chance to query it.
Experiencing the culture of sushi in Japan is worth the trip alone. Whether visiting a formal restaurant or popping into a hole-in-the-wall conveyor belt establishment, the fish is beautifully fresh and the rice soft and deftly flavoured with different vinegars, depending on the variety of fish perched atop it. The bulk of “standard” sushi is what South Africans identify as sashimi or nigiri – there’s not an avocado or a crab stick in sight and the idea of battering and deep-frying a delicate piece of tuna would probably reduce a sushi chef to tears. Don’t expect to get a dish of soy sauce, either: a thin layer is applied to each piece by the chef with a small paintbrush before being placed reverentially in front of you.
Trusting in the expert chef and opting for omakase (“the chef’s choice”) broadens my sushi horizons immeasurably. The idea that there are over 50 different flavours to be coaxed from a single tuna fish is alien to Westerners. Here it’s a skill attained after decades of practice by a dedicated chef. A piece of tuna in the hands of a sushi master is a beautiful thing, giving new meaning to “melt-in-the-mouth”, with a hint of tongue-coating fattiness which allows the slightly salty soy and rich fish flavours to linger a moment before your next bite.
Izakaya are a breed of “gastro-pubs” where hard-working, everyday folk go to socialise and enjoy an after-hours drink, paired with tapas-style food. Often at basement level, izakaya can seat three people at a counter or 100 at tightly packed tables. The language barrier is a challenge: few menus feature any English and even fewer include pictures, but in the absence of a specific order, the chef will send you whatever he thinks you’ll like and the waiters will pour you sake until you raise your palms in defeat. At one, which I regret I’ll never find again, no matter how hard I try, our waiter places a selection of stunningly fresh sushi plates before us. Explanations thwarted by our mutual language barrier, he returns a few minutes later with a carefully transcribed, translated description for each simple, beautiful dish in English. “Google,” he says, with a bow and returns to the kitchen.
Golden Gai, close to the eastern exit to Shinjuku station, is a great lesson in local food culture. This tiny cluster of six alleyways – some only wide enough to admit one person at a time – is home to over 200 restaurants. If you agree that meals should be an experience for all the senses, then visiting Golden Gai is almost overwhelming. Restaurants are crammed into every corner, perched atop each other and sometimes even sharing the same tiny space. The soundtrack is “sizzle”, with the speciality at many of the clustered restaurants being yakitori – dazzling arrays of flame-grilled chicken – washed down with crisp Suntory lager or sneaky rice spirit shochu. One plate can contain as many as five different, expertly grilled chicken elements: a skewer of perfectly crispy, zig-zagged skins, another of marinated thighs, a row of incredibly tender hearts, a line of livers and simple, but incredibly tasty cubes of chicken breast. Generally, if there’s an English(-ish) menu posted outside, it’s OK for tourists to venture in. With others, there’s a strict – but polite – “locals only” policy where the only way for even a Tokyo resident to get a seat is at the invitation of the chef. Trust me, you’ll know from the looks you get when you step in the door whether you’re welcome. Spoken language may be a barrier, but body language is universal! Golden Gai looks like a ramshackle mess waiting to burn down at the lick of a greasy flame, but it’s remarkably clean, crime-free and offers a great insight into a quintessentially local experience that’s survived centuries of high-rise development around it.
With space at a premium, hotels in Tokyo can be expensive. Our cliché dreams of emulating Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson’s Lost in Translation stay at the Park Hyatt Tokyo are quickly extinguished when I’m upwards of R11 000 per night for the hotel’s most basic, 10m2 room. There are loads of cheaper options, like Airbnb apartments, which will set you back less than a decent South African hotel and give you the chance to experience local life – often thanks to excellent recommendations from your host. Many Airbnb properties come with free, portable wifi routers that you can pop into your backpack to help you navigate and stay in touch. One even has us connected on high-speed cellular while at least 10 storeys underground, on a rushing metro train.
While there’s plenty about Japanese culture to admire, there are many elements that can only inspire slack-jawed wonder in gaijin (“foreigners”). One is the kawaii movement, with its epicentre in Harajuku. “Kawaii” means “cute” and the locals love testing the limits of the word. In Harajuku, anime comes to life as people dress up as popular comic fiction characters, or even their own creations – often just for the fun of it.
At the Kawaii Monster Café, the psychedelic carousel directly inside the entrance is just the tip of the iceberg. The waitresses have candy-floss hair, fright-show make-up and elbow-length gloves. The food’s multi-hued and served with rainbow sauces, desserts sprinkled with glitter and served in cat bowls. Since it’s her birthday, the waiters gather around my adventure partner and serve her a massive slice of rainbow cake, to the tune of a death-metal rendition of Happy Birthday, while the strobe lights flicker and flash around us.
Tokyo is the epitome of “weird and wonderful” – and the balance may make it just about the world’s most perfect city.