We spent a week in Tokyo running around like children in a giant, neon sweetshop. The city doesn’t stop, and neither did we.
Tokyo is the past, present, and future all rolled into one. Its ceremonial sumo wrestling bouts transport you into its past; it keeps you right in the present, demanding your full attention in the mad rush across Shibuya crossing; and it launches you into the future with robot cabaret shows.
No amount of time would have been enough to see and do everything, so we shortlisted a Tokyo Bucket List to try and cover as much as possible. We had a great Airbnb apartment in Shibuya which meant that just leaving the house ticked a box on our TBL. On our way to the metro station, we were swept across in the huge tidal waves of people crossing the mad crossing from all angles. Doing this every day let us discover good vantage points for touristy photos: from the window of the second floor Starbucks for a bird’s-eye-view, and, for a in-the-thick-of-it-view, stand at the halfway point on the one road that has a central crossing island.
Shibuya isn’t just about the neon lights and the crossing, though. Opposite the station, the area behind the crossing is packed with shops. We spent a rainy morning happily exploring Loft department store. Rebecca was prepared to throw out everything from her backpack to refill with it everything from the stationery and art supplies department. Timian advised otherwise and lured her away with the promise of lunch being delivered by a miniature monorail.
Needless to say, that worked. Just around the corner from Loft is a branch of Genzi Sushi. Everybody sits in rows with a screen facing each seat. Underneath the screen there is a little track that snakes out from the kitchen and around the whole restaurant. We chose our dishes from the menu on the screen and minutes later a tray zipped out from the kitchen along the track and glided to a stop at our table and then zipped back to the kitchen once we’d taken our food. After racking up quite a stack of empty plates, and after Rebecca’s momentous first try of seared tuna (fully raw would be one step too far), we went to explore some more shops and found the brilliantly named Gas Panic. Another brilliant discovery we made was Yakiniku. Less funny than Gas Panic, but much more tasty. Yakiniku is a cuisine where you barbeque your own choice of meats at an open grill at your table. We ended up choosing a place that didn’t have an English menu, so, after a lot of pointing and picture matching from a very patient waiter, we enjoyed a feast of bacon and some of the best beef we’ve ever eaten.
Shibuya is a short walk from Yoyogi Park and Harajuku. On a sunnier day we went for a walk around Yoyogi Park on the way up to Harajuku. As living space is generally so tiny in Tokyo, the parks double up as rehearsal spaces for all kinds of hobbies. We saw a few guitar players and a saxophonist practicing in shady spots under trees. We carried on to Harajuku to find Takeshita Street. This pedestrianised street is the home of Tokyo street fashion and was packed with both cosplay teenagers, and crowds of people looking for cosplay teenagers. It’s lined with shops selling every kind of themed outfit imaginable. And waffles. Lots of waffles. Waffles in a heart-shaped slice piled high with strawberries and mountains of fluffy cream. By contrast, nearby Harajuku Street dials down the cute-factor with lots of vintage shops and small boutiques.
From Harajuku you can continue walking up to Shinjuku; Tokyo’s skyscraper central. This is where we ticked off a big thing on our TBL: having a drink at the New York Bar of the Park Hyatt Hotel. This in itself doesn’t sound that exciting, and not even that Japanese, but everyone who has seen Lost In Translation will understand how essential this was! The views over the city at night were amazing and whilst you can certainly find cheaper cocktails elsewhere in Tokyo, it was well worth it for Suntory Time – Bill Murray style. Another great viewpoint over the city at night is in Roppongi Hills. After a meal with Rebecca’s colleagues we saw the Tokyo skyline, this time including the Tokyo Tower, from the 52nd floor Tokyo City View observation deck.
In search of those cheaper cocktails we headed round the corner to the Golden Gai. The Golden Gai is network of narrow lanes lit by red lanterns and home to around 250 tiny theme-bars. Some have been serving the same group of locals for years and don’t take kindly to newcomers. We’d read that a good way tell if tourists are welcome is to see if the bar a) has a sign and, b) if the sign is in English. Of those that qualify, we sought out the few that didn’t add a hefty cover charge.
NaNa is a tiny corner of Spain in the heart of the Golden Gai. It was founded by a Japanese woman who loved all things Andalucian. Her portrait is still on the wall and, apparently, Andalucian Flamenco artists still make pilgrimages there to this day
Sticking with the theme of teeny-tiny drinking dens, we also went to Tight Bar on Nonbei Yokocho, back in Shibuya. Nonbei Yokocho (‘Drunkard’s Alley’) is a small lane in the shadow of a raised railway line leaving Shibuya station. Tight Bar theoretically seats about 4 but, while we were there, in practice seated 9. Despite its size, it’s pretty grand with a polished bar-top, wall-length mirror and gleaming chandelier.
Tokyo is not just a capital representing the new global Japan. We found and loved plenty of ties to ancient Japanese culture.
We were lucky enough to be in Tokyo during one of the three top class Sumo wrestling tournaments hosted in the city. Although tickets sell out weeks or months in advance, we’d managed to book online before leaving home. This ancient martial art is steeped in ceremony and ritual. Spending a bit of time reading up beforehand was well worth it to help us appreciate the cheers with each handful of salt thrown into the ring, the posturing and limbering up before a fight, and to join in cheering for Endo, the beloved favourite. After the salt-throwing, stretching and posturing the actual bout usually lasts just a few seconds before one rikishi is pushed out of the ring. Sometimes with so much force that both wrestlers end up flying off the platform and onto people sitting in the front row! In other matches, though, the wrestlers get caught in a deadlock position. Then it gets tense. We were really lucky to see a top-class bout which, after a deadlocked standoff, ended with a surprise victory for the underdog and the crowd throwing their cushions towards the ring; something only reserved for the rarest of upsets.
By contrast with the intensity of the Sumo, we also spent half a day in one of Tokyo’s many onsen (natural hot-spring baths). This being our first time, we had no idea what to expect. The building was split down the middle and was gender separated. We compared notes, and each half seemed to be a mirror image of the other, with different pools, inside and outside, of different temperatures. The hot inky black ‘kuroyu’ (think liquid marmite), and cooler ‘gold’ mineral water, combined with 90 degree saunas and snoozing areas, were the perfect escape from the madness of the city. We chose a fairly small inner-city onsen, Shimizuyu, with just a small outdoor terrace, but apparently as you head out of town you can visit huge outdoor onsen theme-parks.
The Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku was top of Rebecca’s TBL and it did not disappoint. ‘Restaurant’ is a bit of a misnomer really; it’s more of a cabaret show with the option of food. The basic premise is that the Robot King and his army must be defeated by the gentle forest and water folk as they defend their homeland from invasion. Let’s be honest, though, nobody goes there for the fine dining or the narrative arc of the show. The ticket promised “kicking up the excitement” and “wildly swinging around”, and it more than delivered. If a robotic panda riding a robotic cow into battle against a robotic dragon with laser eyes is your thing (and why wouldn’t it be?), then stop what you’re doing and go there now.
They also serve sparkling sake which gave the final important tick on Rebecca’s TBL.