Despite the fact that I was born in Japan and have relatives here, it’s still somewhat daunting landing in the world’s largest city for the first time with only a hint of where you are going.
However you look at it; by either area or numbers, Tokyo – which incorporates the Yokohama metroplitan area- has 36 million inhabitants or about a quarter of the country’s population – is huge. You would think that statistics like that would make for a chaotic place but it moves like a Casio -with pinpoint accuracy or not at all..
Less proverbially though, Tokyo is a sensory overload and no guidebook can prepare you for the experience as light competes with sound and the action is everywhere—coloured, flashing, blinking, blaring. Add the machine-like music that shouts out from unseen speakers and you’ve processed enough information to last a week. And it’s your first day.
What is remarkable about Tokyo is how easy it is to find tranquil peace so close to organised chaos such as the Meiji Jingu Shinto shrine in the Shibuya district. Built in the ancient architectural style of Japan with curved tiled roofs, arches, gateways, with steps leading into another courtyard and then another where I watched Shinto monks stand at the shrine, bowing twice, then clapping twice—once to call up to the divine by way of their guiding spirit and a second time to focus on whatever righteous desire they sought.
In terms of parks there is also Ueno Park containing the Tokyo National Museum, The Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum and is also one of the best places in the city for Hanami parties (mini festivals under sakura trees when they bloom in early spring). There is the Ueno Zoo and The Kaneiji Temple, the site of what was one of the city’s largest and wealthiest temples though much of the temple was destroyed in the a power struggle and war between Japan’s Meiji Emperor and the Tokugawa Shogun. Moving on to a power struggle of my own, I realised it was time to tackle Tokyo’s subway system and make my way to the Harajuku district.
By now mostly everyone has heard of Harajuku Fashion or seen some of the fashions or trends coming out of this area either through films like Kill Bill or Lost in Translation as well as just about every social media channel going.
In short, Harajuku is happy cyber punk: smiling fluorescent pink skulls, ripped calico printed with cartoon fruit, Batman comics on mini-skirts, clip-on Mickey Mouse ears upholstered in bandana fabric and glowing jelly bracelets to cover both arms. It’s imaginative, very urban, and embraces the artificial like nothing I’ve ever seen before and in most cases the Harajuku kids were only too willing to pose for a photo. It’s hard to believe that merely an hour ago I was standing at the Shinto Shrine but now facing a veritable barrage of pop culture.
For a potentially hot dose of Pop-inspired-cultural-car-crash, head for Takeshita Street where bubble gum isn’t just a food stuff but a genuine design style. While the Swiss can take credit for Helvetica, Harajuku has a moniker of it’s own though it’s important to note that the true art of Harajuku Fashion lies not in the items but the combination of them. Much like a graphic designer uses line, tone, texture, balance and contrast to create an aesthetically engaging message, so too are these kids using them to create a layered canvas to rival any post-expressionist.
But now I need a drink. A good stiff one, preferably somewhere dark and cosy which is convenient because this is a city of hundreds, even thousands of the smallest, coolest little bars you’ve ever seen with most serving world-class food and painstakingly chosen drinks and many of them play great music to go with it. Tokyo is lauded for having the world’s best small bar scene for example: the izakayas: bars right throughout Tokyo that double as tapas-style restaurants, regularly visited by locals for a few flasks of sake or a cold beer with small plates of tantalizingly good food.
As this is Tokyo, some weirded out theme bar is on the to-do list and for that there is the Lock-up bar where the wait staff will gladly slap some handcuffs on you, place you in a cell then put your food through the door and similarly there’s Alcatraz found in Shibuya where you can be served dishes such as Dead Chicken (two chicken feet are clasped together in), Penis Sausage (in which a sausage is carved to resemble a severed penis) and Intestine . The place is meant to resemble a Psychiatric hospital so for all the ‘one flew over’ fans this is the place for you. You can catch your own fish at one or be served by Ninjas at another but only after they have given you a special password. See also Vampires, Wonderland, Jesus Christ… It’s endless.
There are also of course the bars with no theme-no name-tucked-away-tiny-alleyways-bars that are the real Tokyo gems from jazz bars with live bands to punk clubs in trendy Shimokitazawa and Gaming bars in Shibuya or Anime bars in Akihabara. The best place to find bars such as these is The Golden Gai district in Shinjaku, a network of tiny alleyways containing bars anywhere they can fit, though a few don’t like foreigners too much but these watering holes are sometimes a respite from the outside world. If your instincts are good you’ll know if you’re welcome the second you walk in.
There are no grand monuments or swish bars in Golden Gai. It’s a tiny fragment of old Tokyo that has miraculously survived the development of the 20th century and is a unique record of a way of life that has nearly been bulldozed off the map.The bars advertise themselves with an eclectic mix of artwork and enigmatic logos – ranging from cats and acoustic guitars to painted lips and nudes. A fascinating area to explore at any time of day but it really only comes alive after 10pm when the bars start opening.
Given the aural and visual stimuli found in Tokyo it’s easy to get caught up in the pace of Tokyo and not really get to see much of the rest of the country but by all means snap out of it man! The Japanese countryside is some of the most beautiful in the world and there are still vast tracts that haven’t changed all that much in hundreds of years. Likewise, various examples of well-preserved castles and historical buildings can be found throughout Japan. There is one notable place where undisturbed rural beauty combines with lovingly restored architecture to truly immersive effect – the Nakasendo.
The Nakasendo was one of five roads used by officials during the Edo period (1600-1867) to travel across the empire, most commonly back and forth between Kyoto and Edo (modern day Tokyo). The road survives today in a recognisable form, though not without the occasional intersection with a major highway and a small number of the post-towns have also been preserved with many buildings serving as living museums, many offering lodgings or Ryokan (similar to a bnb or inn offering outstanding hospitaility or omotenashi). Two such towns are Magome and Tsumago which are located about halfway between Tokyo and Kyoto. Separated by a pleasant 2-3 hour walk,Magome is easily accessible by bus and Tsumago is the the favoured option for an overnight stay.
Magome lies on a hill and takes the form of a single stretch of road with a near-unbroken run of homes, shops and restaurants on either side. The town was one of the original 11 stations on the Nakasendo road, a position that allowed it to prosper until it was bypassed by the Chuo railway line in the late stages of the 19th century. As you begin walking to Tsumago, the first thing you reach after leaving Magome is a plateau that overlooks Mount Ena, and it’s a beautiful view. There is space set aside for visitors to sit and marvel, but remember – this is just the beginning, and many equally striking views await you further down the trail.
Tsumago still looks like the sort of village you usually only see in samurai films with the Kotoku Temple and the Wakihonjin (19th century inn), though if you really want to experience authenticity an early rise it must be as the tourist buses arrive about 8.30am. There are a selection of ryokan available here and although they are slightly more expensive than you might find in the city, they are of uniformly high standard.
Its’s a shame I couldn’t do more in Japan as there certainly is no shortage of things to do. I’ve been told about the hot springs and the Sumos but mabye next time. Actually, definitely next time.