Tokyo Guides: Tokyo Highlights
Tokyo Virgin 東京
As my gleaming Hikari shinkansen train pulled effortlessly into Tokyo Station, punctual to the nanosecond, I wasn't quite sure what to expect from the Japanese capital. Having come from Nagoya and Fukuoka, both of which turned out to be interesting in a sterilized, low-key kind of way, it was probably time to rein in expectations. After all, I'd seen the big boys before - Shanghai, Seoul, Singapore. Hectic traffic, blazing neon, labyrinthine subway systems. Urban Asia had all become a bit meh.
Still, it's hard to rid the mind of stereotypes. Flashbacks from Lost in Translation, Blade Runner and Black Rain merged into a mish-mash of anticipated people and panoramas. Wall-to-wall weirdness and wackiness. Vending machines, yakuza and ganguro. Hard-drinking salarymen and hi-tech gadgetry. Bushido and seppuku. Suntory whisky and the twins from Austin Powers' Goldmember. Would three days in this dark, edgy, futuristic metropolis be long enough to fit them all in?
At that point the only thing Tokyo seemed to have in common with Blade Runner was incessant drizzle. Walking into the Shinjuku Hilton, pulling an embarrassingly ropey-looking suitcase, I inserted my plastic umbrella into a special plastic sheath and placed it in a big plastic bag.
They seem to like plastic in Japan. In fact, it can often take the best part of a week to open a packet of biscuits from the nearest Lawson 24/7. Still, it was good to be out of the rain. On the 33rd floor I stared out over grey skyscrapers under a grey sky, and worked my way through the complimentary fruit platter. Not a sign of Mount Fuji.
A little later I took a stroll down to Shinjuku for dinner. Jostled by the occasional umbrella, there's nothing quite like a solitary wander through nameless neon streets to bring on a sense of urban anonymity. Under a fine rain that softened the commercials playing on screens of surreal width and clarity, I half expected Harrison Ford to charge through the crowd chasing Rutger Hauer. The Japanese sure know this about television - supersizing makes even the most mundane objects look pretty cool.
One screen was playing a video of a Japanese superband called AKB48, which I learned later has over 90 members. How could I have missed them? They were prancing around on stage in shiny, frilly outfits so bright and cutesy they made contestants in American beauty pageants look like kids from the barrio. I made a mental note to add cutesiness to plastic packaging and toilet technology on the list of national Japanese obsessions.
The following morning, after an excellent buffet breakfast, I hit Shinjuku Station at rush hour. And a rush it is. Only the dangerously insane would do this with a camera on a tripod, a sopping umbrella, and a dilapidated suitcase. Astounded by the people who break their headlong charge to let me pass, I was struck again by just how incredibly polite the Japanese are. Carrying this kind of gear on the Tube in London I would have been kneecapped after five minutes.
It was time to reacquaint myself with AKB48 (short for Akihabara 48), as I headed for the spiritual home of Japan's thriving otaku or geek culture. Also called Akihabara Electric Town, or Akiba by local Tokyoites, this shopping district is a favorite subject for photographers due to its vivid color palette. It's here that some of the AKB48 troupe perform every day in their own geek-infested theater.
Akiba is eye-catching and easy to find, but for me the main attraction was the manifestation of otaku culture. This neighbourhood is a mecca for spotty young men with unwholesome interests such as anime, manga, video games, dolls and a whole lot of other stuff that may or may not be sexually deviant. This isn't an area for prudes.
There are elevators in most of Akihabara's buildings. In this world of vertically-related perversion, the higher you dare to go in these lifts, the more strange your world becomes. Floor five and you may end up with nothing more than near naked anime girls. Continue on to floor seven and you find businessmen with comb-overs searching through discount bins of naughty comic books, toys and costumes. And the top floor? I didn't have the nerve.
Akihabara offers thrills outside the walls of its shops too. Despite the rain, I watched young girls in maid costumes trying to attract customers to their "maid cafes." At these "cosplay restaurants" - a kind of soft porn Disneyworld with a menu - customers can order a variety of overpriced drinks and desserts, and pay extra to have their photo taken with a maid in knee high socks and pigtails. Unsurprisingly, most of the patrons are male.
Moving on from Akihabara, it's time to ratchet up the dial on the Tokyo weirdometer. I'm off to Harajuku, the most fashion conscious place on the planet, where the big draw is the pedestrianized shopping drag called Takeshita-dori. This may be the place where fashion starts, but after a few minutes I soon realized it ends here pretty often too.
Despite being a bit touristy, Harajuku provides a delightfully weird and wonderful Japanese experience. The Elvises, the goths, the punks and the cosplayers were all out and about, girls clip-clopped along in outrageous heels and miniskirts, and teens ran around dressed like robots and burn victims. Bargain stores jostled for space with shops selling clothing for pets, while people seemed to queue for hours for the tiniest pancakes. After an hour or so, everything in this Bizarro world started to seem normal, and it was time for a cappuccino.
New York has splendour and the hustle. Paris has art-deco cafes with impatient waiters. Tokyo. probably has the most difficult image to satisfy. Can it really be that crazy? That busy? And at the same time be utterly organized, polite and downright nice? Yes, it can, and then some. I hadn't yet seen Harrison Ford or met a yakuza, but I had seen some fresh, funky and thought-provoking stuff.
I think my fondest memories of Tokyo are the random encounters and friendships made in the strangest of places. A word of advice. Don't do everything the Tokyo guidebooks suggests. Temples and shrines are great, but some of the coolest and wackiest things in town are often in basements (or on top floors). Even if you can't read the kanji on the sign, take a punt. This is, after all, an incredibly safe and polite city.