Thursday, 21 August 2014

A Tokyo Tale

Tokyo is one of the cities that you see all the time on television and in the movies. But it’s hard to ever really know if a place is going to be what you expect from a romanticised vision built up over years of gradual silver screen indoctrination. Before I landed I was hoping to see a city full of life and culture which glowed with neon at night. Happily, it seems the image in my mind was a pretty accurate one.

Although Tokyo is a city of around twenty-five million people it doesn’t really feel like it unless you get stuck on the underground in rush hour. This is because the city is split in districts such as the fashion and electronics areas. This means people with various interests are drawn to various hubs based on what they want. This in turn allows for some wonderfully eccentric and colourful individuals to inhabit their preferred areas surrounded by like-minded people. 

The first one of these areas I found myself in was Akihabara or electric Town as it’s otherwise known. Here you can get laptops out of baskets on the street and just about any electronics you can think of. The place hums with neon lights and the noise of game arcades and grabber machines fills the air. Shops are crammed into every tiny corner and on a quest for Japanese computer games I ended up in a shop which was actually in someone’s front room. There’s a wonderful buzz around the place and it’s somewhere the youth of japan go at night to hang out. It’s also where a lot of the drift racers come to park up their cars for people to stare at and teenage girls dress as maids and hand out flyers (a little odd to say the least). 

However, the neon on show is no match for Shinjuku. This district is famous for featuring heavily in Lost in Translation and is the area where Yakuza like to hang out due to the many pole dancing clubs and bars. Don’t let that put you off though as it’s not dangerous at all and is where most of the night life of the city is. The neon on show here is staggering and is probably the image of Tokyo that you have in your mind. It has a great party atmosphere and many people simply wander around the streets looking at the lights and taking in the glow (as I did).

The fashion district of Tokyo is the place to go to find people dressed in some of the most stunning cos-play costumes you’ve ever seen. Takeshita Street is where people come to show off their latest creations and while wandering down the street in 35 degree heat I was amazed to see girls dressed in full Victorian outfits. There are also an awful lot of imitation school girls walking around which is another sign of how very strange Japan can be at times. Even stranger perhaps are the amount of shops which sell costumes for dogs. If you ever wanted your dog to wear a shark or Pikachu costume then this is the place to get it.

As well the as the glittering neon skyscrapers there is also a lot of culture and tradition to be found around Tokyo. The Shinto Meiji shrine provided some much needed relief from the noise and heat of the city and is a remarkable oasis of calm for those looking for shade and tranquillity. The Asakusa district, though very busy, also provides a view of some of Tokyo’s more traditional houses and is filled with shops and narrow streets just begging to be explored.

Tokyo really is a city for everyone. I normally don’t like big, busy, cities but there’s something about Tokyo that sets it apart from places like Shanghai. It has a great atmosphere to it and the general friendliness of the Japanese makes getting around it a real pleasure as you’ll not be being barged into. I spent four days here and it didn’t feel like enough. It’s just the sort of place you want to go out into at night and just take in. you’ll always find something new and you’re bound to have a great time doing it.

The Hotel

The hotel I stayed in was the rather wonderful New Otani. It’s situated near a metro station and several streets of restaurants. The hotel itself also has numerous shops and café’s inside it as well as four different places to eat breakfast. It’s a grand hotel and I normally felt under dressed returning from a day in the searing heat but it’s also very friendly and not as expensive as you might think especially if you book ahead. The cherry on the cake is that it also has a 400 year old garden complete with waterfall within its grounds which is beautiful. The restaurants are as expensive as they look though.

General Advice

The city can seem imposing at first but once you realise how easy it is to use the metro system things soon fall into place. There is normally an English translation for each stop and all you need to do is pay a one way fair to your location – the most expensive of which is just 200 Yen. Though not many people speak English the Japanese are incredibly friendly and polite and will go out of their way to help you. It’s also a good idea to plan your train journey on the underground map before you get on the train. Most carriages have maps and electronics arrows but not all of them do so it’s a good idea to know when you have to get off before you get on. The trains are generally air conditioned which in the summer makes things a little more bearable.

The metro system shuts down at midnight so make sure you know how to get back or you could be out on the town for a very long time. Narita airport is a long way out of town so if you’re flying into it you’ll also need to get grips with the overland train which is a bit more complex.

There is also next to no crime (not even pick pocketing), and police are normally at the end of just about every street so if you get lost there is no need to panic. Always remember to take a card from hotel with you as well, if it’s in Japanese all the better.

Food in Japan can be as cheap or as expensive as you want it to be really. There are numerous 7/11 shops but small noodle houses offer up good food at cheap prices as well. Fruit is very expensive though with apples often coming individually wrapped and things like melons clocking in at about thirty pounds. There are also lots of vending machines as far as the eye can see so you’ll never be short of a drink if you need one. The water is generally safe to drink as well.

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