Ahh, Tokyo. It’s big, busy, and full of people. 37 million of them in fact, which is more than Canada (gosh). The whole Tokyo area is the most populous in the world, though I’m not sure all of this is strictly part of the city. So it’s really more like 12 cities rolled into one.
In Shibuya staid business people in understated suits move en masse across acre wide pedestrian crossings, or onto rush hour subway trains, squashed into each other and the windows and walls, but remaining politely quiet. Teenage girls in sugary sweet make-believe outfits flock to Harajuku’s clothes and candy shops, queuing up for sweet treats. Akihabara is bright and in your face, full of teenage (and not so teenage) boys stocking up on manga and anime, or on their way to a maid cafe to be served by obsequious girls in bunches and short skirts. In Ginza the well to do cruise down the over clean streets in impossibly swanky cars, stopping off to drink tea that costs more than a pair of shoes.
And so, so much more. The never ending spread of the brightly lit cityscape at night, bustling temples fogged with incense but fringed with commerce, absurdist architecture and sleek sky scrapers next to old wooden shop houses, old timers sat drinking sake on plastic crates, who’ve lived here since before the city began climbing into the sky.
Tokyo (or Edo as it was then) first topped the biggest city chart in the early 18th century, though it swiftly lost its spot to Beijing, London, and then New York. It was only in the 1960s, recovering from the second world war, that it began to grow into the metropolis it is now.
We stayed in Ryogoku, the home of sumo. Tokyo’s sumo stadium was just across the railway line from our hostel, and most ‘stables’ where sumos live and train are in this area. On our first night a sumo on a bicycle passed us on our way to the supermarket.
Our hostel had bar seating looking out on the street. which was always busy with people flocking to and from the station down the road. Perfect for people watching. The railway tracks on the other side of the road were made cheerful with murals (spot the sumo) and bike parking.
After a morning chilling (and blogging) at our hostel, we spent our first afternoon checking out the streets around Harajuku. This is where teenagers show off, and shop for, the super stylized street looks you might imagine when you think of Tokyo. It was all a bit kitsch on the main street, with candy shops and dessert cafes taking up most of the space, alongside the occasional shop flogging anything and everything kawaii (cute). Think Hello Kitty, ankle socks, baby animals decorating anything, and lots and lots of pink.
Obviously we had to eat one of these ‘crepes’ that every second shop was selling. Stuffed with cake, ice cream, chocolate sauce and mostly whipped cream, they were sugary sweet and devoid of any real substance. Unsurprisingly.
The side streets were calmer, and reminded me a bit of the lanes in Brighton. Lots of vintage shops and the occasional designer place. We weren’t shopping, so we tired of it pretty quickly, but enjoyed the vibe none the less.
Next day we took a day off from each other, and I headed to Ueno for a walk through the park and some older parts of the city. In the park I checked out a temple, ambled past the amusement park, wandered by the zoo with its panda post box. While I sat merrily eating a giant custard filled profiterole in the autumn sun, nearby a lady with a balloon animal on her head enthusiastically banged out Hey Jude on a massive xylophone.
As I left the park an army of boiler suited men swarmed up and swept leaves into sacks, clearing a huge area in no time at all, like so many leaf eating ants. Organised, well equipped and eye wateringly fast, the contrast with the slow and futile street sweeping in Russia was stark.
Next I rambled through some older streets, past a museum housed in an old sake shop (closed, as it was Monday), then through a huge graveyard, where I found several cats basking in the sun.
The children’s playground nestled amongst the graves didn’t seem incongruous. The cemetery was a sleepy oasis of calm in the frenetic city, not creepy at all.
On the other side of the cemetery I followed the railway tracks a way to Nippori station, then turned down into Yanaka, a district known for its old time atmosphere of a Tokyo long gone elsewhere. On the main pedestrianised street shops sold baskets, ceramics, fruit and veg, and all manner of random tat. I had a great time browsing and choosing some gifts and souvenirs, and nabbed a giant bag of grapefruits for a steal.
I enjoyed the hubbub of an old fashioned market street so much that I brought Arthur back the next day. We grabbed ourselves some street food and a plastic crate outside the sake shop, and ordered some drinks.
On our last day in Tokyo I got up early to catch the mayhem at Shibuya crossing, one of the busiest pedestrian crossings in the world. The lights stop all of the traffic at the junction at once, and people flow across in all directions. It’s pretty famous, it was even in Lost in Translation. Alas, it wasn’t all that busy at 8 am on a Wednesday morning. Too late perhaps? Or maybe the evening is better, when workers and shoppers are both on the move. But I had a nice chat and a coffee with my fellow Shibuya adventurer Emma, who we met at our hostel, so all was not lost!
The rest of the day was a bit of a mad spin round the city, first to Asakusa to check out the Asahi building and Sensoji temple. The headquarters of Asahi brewery were designed by Philippe Starck in the 1980s, and are topped with an enormous gold… thing. This adornment is supposed to resemble a frothy head.
Locals call it the golden turd.
There was some other nice architecture in between here and Sensoji. Tokyo isn’t short of interesting buildings.
Sensoji is Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple. It was founded in the 7th century when the city was still a fishing village, and seems to have been packed ever since. It was very very busy, with hordes of people clamoring around the stalls which line the street inside the complex.
Once we’d fought our way in, we went to get our fortunes told. This involved a very high-tech self service station.
My fortune was good (it helpfully tells you this).
Arthur’s was bad, so he had to tie it to the rack provided.
Lots of other people were getting fortunes (mostly giggling teenagers). Others were taking the temple more seriously, wafting incense over themselves and paying their respects at the main altar, but the atmosphere was still fairly holiday-like. The temple complex is vast, it even has a tea garden, but it’s not open to the public, so we had to make do with a green tea kitkat.
From Sensoji we wandered through the surrounding neighbourhood, past catering supply shops which were great fun to browse. Who knew there were so many possible shapes for aluminium molds? Other highlights were some attractive stacks of stuff, including cars.
As night fell we hopped on a train to Ginza, the classy (expensive) district, for a quick wander through the shiny lights and cars.
Then there was just time to pop back to Shibuya for dinner, and to check out love hotel hill. Dinner was very very cheap and very very good. It was a bit of a punt, but the only reasonably priced place in the area, so we went for it. In neon lit Shibuya the tiny old fashioned shop front stood out in its inconspicuousness, with a mill wheel obscuring the view through the little window. Inside there were a handful of seats lined along each wall, one side looking across the pass into the kitchen. The room was corridor narrow. Near the door stood the portal to ordering: a vending machine with 30 or so large buttons, each labelled in Japanese, no pictures. Lonely planet recommended the noodles with sesame sauce, and gave the symbols to press for them, so we stood there for a while trying to find them on the buttons, but to no avail. Eventually a staff member took pity on us, and by reading out what we wanted, and saying beer enthusiastically, we got there.
A plate of cold noodles, with spring onion, wasabi, and delicious sesame dipping sauce (hidden under the plate of greens), and a great big cold beer, all for about £2.50. Yum.
Round the corner was love hotel hill, a (hilly) street where rooms come by the hour. This is less sleazy than it sounds, since most of the custom comes from couples who don’t have any other privacy available to them because they still live at home. It’s all very Japanese, with separate entrances and exits to minimise opportunities for embarrassment.
And that was our Tokyo finale, and very nearly the end of our time in Japan.
I could have spent weeks in Tokyo, there are so many things we didn’t see. Museums aplenty, shopping, restaurants and night life we couldn’t afford. Whole districts we didn’t get round to visiting. Alas, Japan isn’t ideal for budget travel, so move on we had to. From there we were onto a night bus and back to Kyoto for round two, then another night bus back to Fukuoka.
And from there, Korea…