So what brings me to Tokyo? I was there for business during the day and leisure in the night. I’m quite lucky that I was given this opportunity with my colleague and friend Gavin (Gav).
Tokyo has been on my bucket list of cities for a while, so I was quite excited by the trip. And I was recommended to watch the film Lost in Translation beforehand by Gav. And I could see why quite early within the first few hours of arriving.
We caught a cab from the airport to our hotel. Our driver was smartly dressed chap in his Toyota Crown, which was quite a retro looking car, much like the other cabs. It had doors that open themselves, which threw me at times. The interior was kitted out with doilies which would go down well with any grandma.
Upon arrival at our hotel, the staff all bowed in sync with each other, by the end of our trip we found ourselves bowing quite often too. They would repeat the action each time you passed the lobby and it always felt genuine. In terms of countries I’ve visited, the politeness of the people of Japan cannot be matched.
We arrived pretty early, so we were unable to check in till the late afternoon. So we dropped our bags, rejected the jet lag and took a stroll through Tokyo. With no sense of direction and feeling dehydrated, we stopped off at a 7-Eleven for a drink. We both opted for a green bottle out of curiosity, thinking it was related to tea. We got it so wrong. It was seaweed water! Not a great decision in hindsight, but it did the trick nonetheless on such a warm day.After taking a wander around the Tokyo Tower, reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower, we walked through the Imperial Palace East Gardens. It’s quite a pretty area and has good views of the city. Gav snapped away with his camera, which was often the case. It’s a very photogenic place, so I can see why. We walked into a building nearby which we thought was a museum. However, curiosity led us through a few doors and we ended up gate-crashing a school samurai tournament. This was totally unexpected and we darted for the doors once we got noticed.
You will never be hungry in Tokyo. There’s hidden basements and gems floor-upon-floor when you’re looking for an eatery. What’s off-putting is the fact a lot of the places have cling film wrapped display food outside, which doesn’t really whet the appetite. Ordering food can be quite challenging too if you’re not down with the lingo. But if in doubt, you can always draw pictures or point to the menu. Gav opted for the former. He drew a chicken and a pig to confirm what the noodles contained. On another occasion, he clucked like a chicken. Mad as it sounds, this strategy genuinely works. Although on one evening we were determined to have decent katsu. But after walking for a while, we asked a local for a tip and she muttered in Japanese and gave us a map in return, leaving us speechless. Clearly we were ‘lost in translation.’
I’ve mentioned before that I’m being more daring with food. I’ve never fully embraced sushi till now and using chopsticks doesn’t come easy for me. I’m used to eating with my hands most of the time. We went to a sushi restaurant in Shinjuku and it was educational, from what I was eating to how to eat it too. We also got familiar with a traditional teppanyaki restaurant where the chef cooks for you on an iron griddle. It’s highly recommended and was arguably one of our best meals. Breakfasts were a different ball game. I’ve never been served squid, rice or black bread before at 8am! But what was clear to me, the Japanese can eat well in the morning – where do they put it all?
Sussing out the Tokyo Metro map is also quite a task. Luckily once you’ve navigated the coloured spaghetti hooped map, the ticket machines are in English. The trains are efficient and the carriages have ample space. At peak times people are tucked in like a sardine tin. On one occasion, I saw an elderly man shove a young woman so hard; she let out a little scream. But that was the end of it. She just accepted it. Imagine that happening in London…Back to the spaghetti map, one evening we boarded a train which wasn’t stopping and passed through all of the stations. We both became quite nervous and slowly realised that we were heading far out of town. We managed to resolve the situation once we stopped, but it was a quick reminder how you can get a map wrong!
Misunderstanding maps is one thing, but taking a wrong turn in Roppongi is another. We were recommended to head there by a friend. But we were soon set upon by various kerb ‘promoters’ from the local bars. We found out what their game was when we entered what we thought was a normal bar, but it turned out to be a place where ‘everything’s for sale.’
That’s the bad bits out of the way. On the flipside the Asakusa area was really nice. There’s a big traditional street market littered with tourists and surrounded by giant lanterns. You could sense this was a historic place. Once you’ve negotiated the people traffic, you come to a giant cauldron where many people bow and perform Buddhist rituals. It was quite fascinating to watch and by its side there is a sacred water fountain where you can wash yourself. Again, it seemed like it was part of a ritual. Once you’ve got past this, the Sensoji Temple stands here and it is pretty impressive.
In Odaiba we discovered the DiverCity Tokyo Plaza – a giant mall. However, we were pleasantly surprised by the views from there. I felt like I had been transported to New York. There was a ‘Statue of Liberty’, a pretty skyline and the impressive Rainbow Bridge, which mirrored Brooklyn Bridge. Once you get close to the water, it’s a very peaceful spot and occasionally large fish leap out to surprise you. Being by the bridge, it also gave me a familiar feeling to being by the Sydney Harbour. I just felt really relaxed after taking some time out here to recharge the batteries.
The infamous Shibuya Crossing was quite the contrast. The front of the station here is known as ‘The Scramble’ and you can see why. Even in the rain with people armed with umbrellas, it’s quite a spectacle. There are bright neon lights, video screens, music, traffic and people everywhere. We were pretty awestruck and crossed many times for the experience and also for picture opportunities. It didn’t get boring. Not one umbrella touched another and people darted around like ants. We liked it so much we watched the crossing from a nearby Starbucks, which is one of the best spots to ‘people watch’.
The neon lights are a key feature to the city. It’s a place that really comes alive at night. It felt like a 24/7 city and amongst all the mayhem, you’ll always find a ‘pachinko’ (pinball) joint nearby. People of all ages are tapping away for the Yen. It’s a child’s playground once you’re inside. We managed to roll back the years for an impromptu Mario Kart battle which was great fun.
The timing of our trip coincided with the Grand Sumo tournament, which was lucky for us. I grew up watching these big lads grapple on Eurosport in the 90s and now I had the chance to see it first-hand. It was worth queuing from 7am for a ticket! Once we got inside, we stood out among the natives. It seems sumo wrestling is a family occasion, with people of all ages in attendance. For all the tradition, history and heritage it’s sad that a typical bout lasts less than a minute. We were fortunate to see one wrestler fly from the ring into the audience, which was quite a sight. He took a while to get up obviously!
But the two standout moments on this trip for me were following in Bill Murray’s footsteps. The first took place on the 52nd floor of the New York Bar at the Park Hyatt Hotel. This is the very place where he laid eyes on Scarlett Johansson. It was just like the film with the live band in place with breath-taking views of the city. It’s a renowned place for its cocktails, but I was mind blown by the toilets. I walked into the cubicle and the seat lifted itself – how cool is that? Forget the remote controlled booty shower, which is pretty impressive nonetheless.
The second installment of our interpretation of Bill’s story was a session at the Karaoke Kan, where you can rent your own private booths. To my surprise, this is where our inner divas were unearthed. We buried a few tunes but our rendition of ‘Circle of Life’ still brings tears of joy. The staff attempted to eject us twice, but we didn’t budge until we’d fully lost our voices. It was the best party I’d been to that only contained two people!
All in all Tokyo is a very cool city and a bright one too (at night). I like the vibe and as mentioned, the people are extremely polite. They also have individualistic style, which is unrivalled from what I’ve seen so far. I’ve never been anywhere where people can leave their bikes unlocked and not worry about them being stolen. I’ve never had a waiter chase me down the street to return a tip you left for him either! It was a good taster trip for me and I definitely want to explore Japan further in the future. Arigatou gozaimasu Tokyo!
You can also read more about my pal Gav’s adventures and check out his cool photography here