Monocle Magazine (yeah, that’s right, I start off a post about the best city in the world with a reference to Monocle, whaddaya gonna do about it?) recently declared Tokyo, Japan, as the city with the best quality of life in the whole world for 2015. I haven’t lived there. So I don’t know. Perhaps I can’t pass judgement on this matter. One reason that Monocle seems to focus on is that Tokyo is a place that is not only great to live in, but is also a place that welcomes strangers into it’s chaotic rhythm without skipping a beat. Am I a stranger to Tokyo? Not now, I should think. I’ve been there ten times now. Surely, that counts towards something. Alas, claiming this is similar to claiming that one’s knowledge of music is complete at age 16. I knew that at the time, but every day that passes now merely extends the depth of music that I do not know. Every time I visit Tokyo, I realise how much of Tokyo I do not know, and the exponential volume of culture that is still to be absorbed.
I first came toTokyo as a necessary port of call on the long trip to Niseko, the high-powder snow resort on Japan’s northern island, Hokkaido. I was 17. I’ve been back at least once per year since. Back then, I didn’t know much about Tokyo or Japan. I knew it was an Asian country and a big city; I was not aware of the nuances both obvious and subtle that set Tokyo apart from every other city, and Japan apart from every other country; in Asia and indeed the world. I had an assumption – although I knew high quality things came from Japan, and that Japan was the origin of samurai and ninja, karaoke and karate; that it was not significantly different than China, Korea, Taiwan. It only takes one brief visit to shatter that assumption. Tokyo is a playground for adults.
As a teenager, I read James Clavell’s novel, “Gaijin,” a tale of the history of Japan & Tokyo during the Edo period, Meiji restoration, and Japan’s opening to the world. It tells the story of how in the 1850’s and 1860’s, Japan was closed to outsiders; a powerful military nation that could hold it’s own against any other nation (at least until this point), despite being a feudal country when Europe was undergoing it’s capitalist transformation, deep in the industrial revolution.
Japan granted the British and the U.S a trading outpost, Yokohama. No foreigner (Gaijin) was permitted outside of Yokohama. Of course, in that era, the United Kingdom and the United States both were not in the habit of submitting to any other country’s rules, especially not whilst vast wealth awaited in their grand schemes. Various events transpired, until the culmination in 1864 when the United States and the other European powers forced Japan to capitulate to it’s will, the first time. Around this time began the era of Emperor Meiji, who began transforming Japan from a sophisticated feudal society to arguably the most advanced, and at times the most economically powerful nation in the world. This happened less than 150 years ago. Smoke and swords, to Shibuya and Shinjuku. No other country to my knowledge has undertaken such a complete and comprehensive transformation in as short a time as Japan. It is a testament to the national character of the Japanese people – in which pride, power and perfection are valued most highly.
Apologies for the lengthy preamble, but I feel some setting and reference is required for a discussion of Tokyo. This story is about what my friends Dan, Lou, Ben, Matt, Ivan and I got up to over about a week in Tokyo, and maybe I might convince you why Tokyo is worthy of the title of the best city in the world.
Our flight landed around 8pm at Narita airport, at the new Terminal 3 that had opened a month earlier. Our JR rail passes scored us a Narita Express train ticket straight to Shibuya station, the beating heart of Tokyo. The trip is about 90 minutes, and we ended up arriving in Shibuya at 10pm.
One of our traveling companies, Ben, had never been to to Japan before. I thought it fitting that his very first experience of Japan should be walking out of the Hachikō gate at Shibuya station, straight into the madness of Shibuya crossing, the busiest scramble crossing in the world, apparently.
It had been a long day of flying and we were all pretty tired, so finding our hotel was a bit difficult in our fuzzy mind state. The Shibuya Granbell Hotel was pretty damn close to the stationthough, so we got there eventually.
The plan was to dump our gear, freshen up, and go out for dranks with the squad, as well as another friend already in Shibuya, Jesse. Our hotel was in a great location for a decent price, comfortable too.
That night descended rapidly into a blur as alcohol washed over exhaustion. We all met up at the statue of Hachikō at Shibuya station, next to the crossing. For those who don’t know, Hachikō is the dog who accompanied his master to the station in the morning to farewell him off to work, and welcomed him there on his return. The master died suddenly one day, but Hachikō continued to wait for his master another 8 years until his own passing.
A fulfilling ramen was had across the crossing, along with the first of the beers for the night. More were harvested from the nearest Family Mart, to enjoy whilst wandering around. Midnight by this time, we started walking up a boulevard in the Dogenzaka district. Of course, we had our hearts set on a Karaoke joint. After rejecting a few candidates due to language barriers or drunkenness, we found the one. ¥600 ($6) per person, per half hour, drinks included.
Needless to say, this night turned messy. We spent hours in there. Trays full of beer & coloured drinks continually revolving through our doors. The racket of seven gaijin screaming and 14 tambourines rattling must have been horrible. We stumbled back to our hotel around 5am for a few hours sleep before we left Tokyo for a while to visit the Kansai region, Osaka and Kyoto.
On our return, 6 of us lived for five days in a three story Airbnb apartment in the quiet alleyways of my favourite Tokyo suburb, Harajuku. Harajuku desu, I can still hear the train-voice announcing. What a place. Harajuku is a place of contrasts. Leaving the station, one can walk the beautiful parisienne boulevard Omotesando with it’s granite tiles, Zelkova trees and haute couture; or one can walk through Takeshita-dori, a bustling maze like street filled with over the top Harajuku fashion, créperies and loud music. Both streets cross Meiji-dori, a wide road that leads to Shibuya on one side, Shinjuku on the other. Over the Meiji-dori you’ll find the realest Harajuku – a rabbit warren of tiny laneways alleys crowded with super cool boutique fashion brands, sneaker stores, delicious food. It was in this labyrinth we found our apartment.
As Ivan mentioned, we were lucky that Ben cooked us delicious breakfast every morning. We ate out the other meals, as you should do in Tokyo where food is cheap and delicious. Our apartment also came with bikes, so we became a bike gang. I’ll never forget the surreal feeling of late night bike cruising through the alleys of Harajuku, blasting Kendrick from a bluetooth speaker, eating ice cream. One of these cruises was down “Cat Street,” all the way to Shibuya. It’s a fifteen minute walk, a three minute bike ride. We went to see if the fabled Whoopi Goldburger was open. Alas, it was not, to our supreme dismay. We had Freshness Burger on the way back as a consolation prize & forgot our woes when we realised that Freshness Burger is. So. Amazing. Whilst chilling at Freshness Burger on Cat Street, a real actual Tokyo bike gang roared past, watched over by a bike cop who looked like he was straight out of Akira.
The back streets of Harajuku are real quiet at night. One rarely sees a soul. The houses are beautiful, all types of architecture displayed. The contrast between day & night in Harajuku is as stark as.. day & night. Once packed streets turn into deserted residential wonderland.
Sitting at Freshness Burger devouring an amazing burger, I noticed a graffiti tag on the short wall opposite me. It read “Tokyo Is Yours.” It made me smile, as I realised it was true. I don’t live there, but I had always felt like it is mine. You don’t see much graffiti in this city, but apparently you can spot this tag quite frequently, if you look around.
One night, four of us decided to visit the famed “Robot Restaurant” in the Kabukichō area of Shinjuku. This area is known as a Yakuza hang out, with lots of late night bars, restaurants and strip clubs. I’d first heard of the Robot Restaurant from Anthony Bourdain’s Tokyo episode of Parts Unknown. It looked fucking over the top, but the two minute clip didn’t really explain it well enough. Well, I can tell you now that the Robot Restaurant show is the most amazing, over the top thing you will ever see. It’s called Robot Restaurant, but that’s a misnomer; there’s no restaurant involved. At the streetside entrance, you line up to buy tickets to the show, at ¥7000 ($70) each. I thought this was a bit much, and didn’t have very high expectations. No expectations at all really. Ten minutes into the show though, I knew it was the best ¥7000 I’d ever spent.
Whilst buying tickets you also have to pre-purchase food & drink vouchers, anticipating how much you are like to drink. Obviously, not wanting to run dry mid show, we bought about four drinks each. Food we skipped; popcorn & chicken karaage was not looking too appetising.
Tickets in hand, filled with trepidation, Ivan, Ben, Matt & I descended the never ending psychedelic staircase to the show room deep underground. The staircase was covered in mirrors on every surface, with fighter planes, dinosaurs, monsters, babes and colour affixed to the walls & ceilings. Strobe lights flashing, neon glowing. This was but a taste of what was still to come.
We were shown to our seats, which were tiered rows facing each other across a 5m wide, 20m long strip of bare floor. The walls behind either side were entirely made of LCD screens, already showing whacky visuals. We decided to opt for a few Strongs (chu-hi) to get the night started. Then the show opened, with a troupe of traditional drummers on a rotating moving platform, dressed in traditional yet fluoro dress mixed with an Akihabara vibe. Weird. This turned into an intense song with monsters shredding metal on their guitars. There’s no point trying to make sense of what happened, much less trying to transcribe to words, for the rest of the show. It. Was. Intense. And so good. So good. It was a barrage of light, noise, singing, dancing girls, robot sharks, monsters, pandas, snakes, neon, strobe, alcohol, and some kind of storyline thrown in for good measure. You’ll have to watch the video I’ll compile one day soon, words don’t suffice. I guess you could consider Robot Restaurant Tokyo’s answer to the Moulin Rouge.
Ninety minutes later, in a daze we were ejected back into the midst of Shinkjuku, which is basically a larger version of the disorienting madness we just experienced. Looking to further get our buzz on, we hit up Family Mart for some XL Strongs, with fluorescent cans that seemed to indicate they had weird high energy chemicals in them. They did. We waltzed into the mega Sega gaming arcade around the corner, and spent a few hours there with our dranks; playing Mai Mai, Street Fighter, Tekken, all the classics. Properly sauced, by now we were starving. I saw a sign pointing to a basement with Yakitori written on it, so we descended, sans Ben who had bailed. Here, they did not seem to care too much for drunken westerners, putting us in what I dubbed the “gaijin booth,” where we could neither be seen nor heard, away from the general patronage. That didn’t stop me trying to communicate by hand signal with nearby tables.
Gyoza, beer, chicken skin, &c. Somehow we got out of there, and before I knew it we were in a karaoke room at Big Echo, with numerous cans of Sapporo & Strong.
I think we got a cab home, struggling with the directions. Omotesando kudasai! Konbanwa.
Hangover. Wow. The squad split up this day, leaving us karaoke warriors (Ivan, Matt & I) to wallow in our self pity. We went to J.S Burger, which is the burger joint outpost of a fashion brand, Journal Standard, in Harajuku. Wow. Maximum oishii, super greasy, hai! Just what we needed.
Later on that day,
my homie Dr Dre we walked Cat Street to Shibuya, went to the Bape store and a few others, and then found the best store in the world, Tokyu Hands. The store spirals up ten sotries, each with three sub levels. Starting from the top we made our way down, often feeling like passing out due to hangover. They sell everything here, and if I lived in Tokyo, Tokyu Hands would send me bankrupt. It is a must in Tokyo. If you want the highest quality product in any category, go there.
Food is not hard to come by in Tokyo, and it is cheap. At a sushi restaurant in Shibuya, I was full for less than ¥2000 ($20), and that was high quality delicious sushi. A small ramen shop with dark lighting, jazz playing, and industrial exhaust venting the steam from huge pots of ramen broth in a little alley in Harajuku had some of the best ramen I’ve ever had, for around ¥1000 ($10). Around the corner, Gyoza Lou has a perpetual line that is worth the wait. They only make gyoza, delicious gyoza. 12 were had. Maybe 16. Nearer to our apartment, Ivan introduced me to Abura Soba. It was amazingly delicious, even though I ordered the “wrong” one which was topped with cheese (weird).
You want something? Get it in Tokyo. It may be a similar price, but by god, the selection, the quality. On Kappabashi-dori, known as the kitchen town near Asakusa, I picked up a awesome damascus steel Japanese knife. At Kicks Lab in Harajuku, a pair of Jordans, down the street of sneakers, a pair of Janoskis. In Shibuya I discovered Japanese brand Nesta, a well designed rasta inspired brand that I am now pretty fond of. I this same store, the super cool Japanese guy serving Matt & I marvelled that we both were wearing Nike Janoskis, as if we hadn’t coordinated who was going to wear what. I told him that my friend Ivan was also wearing Janoskis, and he let out a long “ooooooohhhhh….” and called his friend over to share the news in Japanese, at which they both chuckled heartily at our expense.
In Ochanomizu they have at least twenty music stores, most selling all range of guitars. There is a bass guitar store. There is a Banjo & Mandolin store. Any effects pedals, any musical gear you want, they’ve got it in Ochanomizu. This same suburb is miraculously also home to an equal number of ski & snowboard stores, one of which sold me a pair of snowboard boots.
The entire suburb of Kōenji is filled with vintage clothes, record stores, and tiny bars. I picked up a good haul here, but given an infinite budget I would have gone nuts. Everything is just so.. cool.
Now is Forever
Back in Harajuku, we walk past a giant wall mural that reads “Now Is Forever” on the way to our apartment. True, I suppose. Each day that we regroup in the evening we go through our respective hauls to see who captured the best pieces of Tokyo, glass of Hibiki in one hand, BB gun in the other. Who took the best photos, who bought the coolest clothes, who ate the best food, who had the most weird, quintessential Tokyo experience. Matt spent time at a Shibuya skate park with his new deck, Ben spent sunset on top of the Skytree taking panoramic shots of Tokyo. Dan & Lou went shopping for fake Japanese display food. Ivan got a T-shirt with Charles Barkley fighting Godzilla. You see, everyone collects stories when they visit Tokyo.
This trip had a first for me; my first visit to the Tsukiji fish markets, the market that feeds Tokyo daily. We arrived at around 11am & everything seemed to be packing down, yet it still seemed super busy. I was glad, as I think Ivan mentioned, that we did not come earlier. We got enough looks from the vendors that seemed to say that although we & other tourists were tolerated, we should not linger or interfere. Still, it was a great experience. The markets are huge long narrow cobblestone alleyways, under a giant rooftop. Lining the alleyways are hundreds of small purveyors specialising in a specific type of fish, or a range of them. At this time all we saw were guts & heads & knives.
Afterwards we dined on sushi, at a small shop in the markets. It was damn good. We made that place; there was no line when we arrived, but when we left it was huge. That’s the accepted wisdom in Tokyo, the food is best where the line is longest.
Homeward bound, farewell Tokyo for another time. Tokyo’s airport is in Narita, which is a town 60-90 minutes away by train. It is actually a charming village style town, with long windy hilly streets filled with feudal style houses & restaurants, leading down to “Narita-san,” one of the largest temple complexes in Japan. Entry is free and it’s worth a walk around; there are parklands, forests, lakes and pagodas. And lots of turtles. For my final meal in Japan this time, I opted for a ramen at Ramen Bayashi in Narita. My mum used to eat here every time she flew in (Narita is a very airline staff town), and always swore by it; now so do I.
Tokyo Is Yours
Thus wraps up my Japan stories, for this time anyway. How long will it be until I go again? Not too long I hope. Hopefully with more language skills. If you haven’t been, why? You should go to Japan, you should spend some time in Tokyo; perhaps it will remind you that now is forever. Tokyo is yours, afterall.