Sunday, 8 February 2015

Tokyo - Blade-runner City

I once lived in Tokyo (30 years ago) for a couple of years. I have been back fairly regularly since then, so I know it pretty well by now. It is probably still my favourite city and the place I first saw the epic film Blade-Runner on the big screen. Like the city, the film has had a lasting effect upon me.

West Shinjuku. High-rise defines the Tokyo Skyline.

Sumo is still a big part of Japanese life

The Culture 
Tokyo has of course changed vastly since I first lived there, but mostly for the better. The people are more accessible -they actually express opinions now and travel far more than they did back then. The Americanisation of the culture is still apparent, but it seems to be tailing off. Young Japanese now realise that their own traditional culture has much to offer and to be proud of without assimilating someone else's. 

Greater Tokyo is the world's largest city. Unless you take one of the legendary 'bullet trains' or fly, it seems to take forever to get out of the city. The concrete and shopping-mall street-scapes seem to go on forever before you get to anything remotely rural. There are parks, but they are few and the visitors to those parks are many. Watch them politely competing for a place to picnic in. 

Tokyo city is made up of many distinct historic areas. There are few really old buildings that are not reproductions. This is due to the tendency for earthquakes which may be the catalyst for the Japanese liking for all things new. It is perhaps contradictory in a culture with such deep reverence for their ancestors. 

Japan could not be said to be a religious country but the people certainly value a strong spiritual centre to their lives. Temples and rituals tend to be either Shinto or Buddhist. This lends itself to a liking of minimalism in visual arts and to the commissioning of some superb and courageous examples of modern architecture that so many visitors are impressed by. 

For me, probably the biggest attraction to Japan, and especially to Tokyo, is the cuisine. It is simply exceptional. Their own cuisine is generally subtle, sophisticated and meticulously prepared. Few leave Japan without falling in love with Japanese food. The vast variety of international food one finds in Tokyo can be overwhelming at times and the Japanese tendency to try do everything really well (if you are going to be bothered to do it at all) provides great rewards in the way of foreign dishes. I dream about Japanese food all the time I am away from Japan. 

Where To Hang Out 
Tokyo centre is generally accepted to be around Nihon-Bashi (Japan Bridge) /Tokyo Station area. In fact, like many larger cities, there are many centres depending on what you are looking for. Tokyo Station area is a business area but is also full of bars, restaurants (the still ubiquitous 'salarymen' have to go somewhere after work) and is close to some key museums as well as the historic and surprisingly tranquil Royal Palace.

The young flock to Harajuku for teenage fashion shops, fast food etc and to nearby and slightly more mature Shibuya, where the big fashion houses intermix on Omotesando Dori with the usual Irish Bars, Sushi Restaurants, Chic Coffee Shops and Ferrari dealers. Just east of here is Hiro-o and then Roppongi, both well known for trendy night clubs and Karaoke bars. Try 'Smash Hits' in Hiro-o for a great Karaoke bar with an incredible menu of western music and a seedy atmosphere possibly aimed at somewhere like Liverpool's original Cavern Club. It stays open until around 03.30am and has a proper stage with banked seating. 

Not far to the North West of Shibuya lies the truly Blade-runneresque Shinjuku (it is said to be Ridley Scott's inspiration for the movie setting). This is a busy shopping, bar and cafe area with great street food. Unfortunately the older area behind the station where the best street-food could be found has been redeveloped. Shinjuku has a young hi-tech feel like Shibuya. It is busy 24hrs a day, but then so is much of central Tokyo. The more traditional area of Shinjuku is Kabukicho, which is one of my favourite areas of Tokyo with small cafes, bars, cinemas etc. This area has changed relatively little in the last few decades, which is fairly rare in this city of constant change. 

I am particularly fond of the area around Tsujiji wholesale fish market. This is a very traditional area bordering onto Ginza and not too far from Tokyo station etc. They have been threatening to move it to a new modern location since 30yrs ago when I lived there but something keeps it where it is. Superstition is common in Japanese culture. In the fish market itself one will be astounded by the quantity and size of fish. You need to be there in the early hours to see it although you will make yourself unpopular if you get in the way of the frenetic trading and logistics of shifting such enormous quantities of fish in so little time. Nearby, however, you will find plenty to interest you in the street markets selling (unsurprisingly) fish, seafood and cooking equipment. There are some excellent restaurants around here and all reasonably priced. Needless to say the big selling point is the freshness of the ingredients.

Within easy reach of Shinjuku lies Ikebukero to the North and Nakano to the West. Both are vibrant areas to hang out, shop, eat, drink etc. In between lie smaller characterful areas such as Okubo and Takadanobaba (another of my particular favourites). 

These are just a taste of some of the more vibrant central areas that I know best. There is as much to be found in most of the other Tokyo areas like Ebisu, Kanda, Akasaka, Ueno, Otemachi, chic and somewhat traditional Ginza, Meguro, the latest electrical gadgets shops and the "Maid Cafes" of Akihabara, before you venture any further out. City life extends a long long way and you can experience it even without going to a single one of the places I have mentioned above. 

Food and Drink 
As I have said above, Japan has great traditional food, but Tokyo caters for international tastes and you can find the best quality in most of the world's cuisine here. There are many guides to help you. Time Out Guide to Tokyo is particularly good and generally kept up to date. There are also many websites and magazines but best to just ask as things change quickly in Tokyo. 

I adore sushi and sashimi (raw fish). I have never met a westerner (apart from dedicated veggies) who did not adore raw
fish once they had tried it. Don't be shy. You will be missing one of life's great treats. The fishmarket in downtown Tokyo, as I have mentioned, is a great tourist sight in the early morning but also an opportunity to eat really fresh (the best sashimi obviously). However the fish is quickly and efficiently transported far and wide, so sashimi everywhere should be super fresh in Tokyo. Prices vary,sometimes only due to the kudos of the establishment in which it is served. Take your pick. It depends upon whether the affluence of the location outweighs the consideration of price vs quality. Personally I like the experience of eating in a market straight from the boats. 

Sushi is similar in terms of the price versus quality equation. You needn't pay a lot but you can if you want to eat at the most chic places. 
At the bottom end of the sushi establishments (apart from what you get in plastic boxes in convenience stores) is the ubiquitous Kai-Ten Sushi Ya. These are the places with sushi on plates revolving on a conveyor belt. You sit at the counter (or sometimes at a connected table) and pick plates off as they go by. They have spread to other countries now so you may well be familiar with the system. There may be some subtle differences in Japan, however. Here you call out for the sushi of your choice, once you know what to ask for. But the big benefit for beginners is that it is good to be able to 'try with your eyes' before you pick things. Dishes are almost always delicious. In some places all plates cost the same (as low as 95Yen for two pieces). In others, more often there are different coloured plates signifying differences in price. Some plates can be up to 500Yen, so be careful. These places are relatively cheap but you can find good quality and they are almost never bad.You can often order miso soup and many of them these days have veggie sushi as well as cooked meat and stuff with mayonnaise etc. These, I have noticed, are popular with kids. 

Traditional Japanese Breakfast (no buttered toast)

Coffee Shops are a whole speciality culture in Japan. They vary from high-tech classy places in Shibuya where they
prepare the coffee like a religious ritual, to 1960's style cafes with formica tables. At the extremes you will find things like one place I know that is an ageing wooden tree-house serving home-made cakes and pasta also. The old woman who runs it encourages squirrels to come in from the trees and eat her delicious cakes. Many coffee shops serve breakfast food and snacks. 'Morning Set' usually consists of thick buttered toast, a small salad, eggs of some sort (often in a sandwich) along with tea or coffee and iced water. Starbucks has made inroads over the last 15 years but thankfully many of the traditional places survive. 

A Japanese beer is going to cost you around 500 yen for a large bottle in a street bar and 650 in a restaurant. A draught Guinness or Bass (yuk) will cost you around 1000 yen a pint in an Irish / English Bar. In an Issakaya type street bar you will be expected to eat as well (small dishes such as barb'qued chicken - Yakitori, salad, tofu steak, fish etc). In recent years a number of micro-pub style bars serving craft beers from around the world have sprung up. These are popular with locals as much as with homesick ex-pats.

What To See 
This is a hard one for me because I am not a great fan of the museum and gallery type of tourism (huge understatement). However, I would say that the best exhibitions of paintings I have ever seen (Van Gough, Modigliani, Monet, Vermeer, 20th Century Pop artists to name but a few) have been in Tokyo. They do it so well. As I said previously, if they bother to do something here, they do it well. 
On that basis there are numerous museums, historic buildings, some of the best modern architecture, galleries and botanical gardens etc here and they are all done well, so it is a great opportunity. I would just say though, save plenty of time for hanging out in bars, cafes, restaurants etc. because that's where you will find the people at their most alive and natural. 

Living On Tokyo Time 
For the sake of observance, or for those planning to stay and maybe work for a while in Tokyo (and many do) it is probably
worth my giving you an idea of how people tend to live their days and nights here.   
When I come to Tokyo I switch to a totally opposite time clock. My English friend (who I usually stay with) and I get up at around midday and go out for brunch (often sushi, sometimes soba or quality ramen noodles, or 'morning seto' if we are up earlier). After this we tend to go and visit somewhere, or meet someone in the afternoon to hang out in coffee shops or bars, and then pop home to check our e-mails, change clothes, watch a movie etc before heading out at around 10pm to an Issakaya (traditional bar with good food consumed slowly plate by plate over the evening, like tapas). We may go to more than one but generally we hangout there until around 3am, during which time various friends may or may not turn up - it is generally left open as a week to week thing on certain days, although sometimes specific arrangements are made to meet on a specific day / time. We go home at 3am (this is usually walking distance home). On other nights where we go further afield we tend to stay until 5.30am when the tubes start running again. We make toast, check e-mails, maybe watch another movie or UK Premiership Football live on cable TV then we fall asleep. 

Believe me this is a good and healthy life and a common one amongst young (or not so young) ex-pats in Tokyo. One can still find time to work on certain days or at selected times of day or night. Many still teach English, while others work as technical re-writers or as models. But even the locals work at odd times in Tokyo. This is a truly 24hr city. 

Getting Around 
Tokyo has an excellent transport network. It is not cheap but is reasonable given the cost of living here. 
The Metro maps are written in English (Roman script names) as well as Japanese. Announcements on the trains are also generally in English as well as Japanese. People are helpful and it is hard to go very wrong. There is a circle line known as the Yamanote Line (green) then many bisecting lines, many of which head way out of Tokyo, giving tourists ample opportunities for discovering less well-known places as well as visiting the known attractions. 

Taxis are pretty expensive but the only option after around 1am at night when the metro closes for a while. Buses are a fairly cheap option but harder to understand if you don't speak / read Japanese. Try though, it can be fun if you're not in a hurry. There are weekly tickets etc but this is more for convenience than cost since they don't often work out so much cheaper. 

A bicycle is a great way to get around Tokyo of course. The roads are congested and can be frightening on a bike, but most Japanese cyclists use the pavements. Call me a traditionalist but personally I prefer to take my chances on the road. 

Useful Lingo 
It is worth learning some Japanese. Like the English in particular, Japanese people are somewhat obsessed with politeness and formality (even young people). 
Many words (nouns mainly) are adopted from English (some from other languages also) so it is easy to guess - Hotel = Hoteru, Cake = Caykie, Beer = Biru, Airport = Airporto etc (no really!). 

Learning the 'Katakana' written script is useful for longer-term visitors since it is used for all foreign words and is a pretty easy phonetic alphabet to learn. 

Many people in Tokyo speak some English but as always, an ability to show you are trying to speak their language will take you a long way. In fact, being one of the world's most hospitable races, they will bend over backwards to help you. 

Excuse me - Sumimasen 
I'm sorry - Gomenasai 
Thank you - Arigatto Gozaimas 
Do you speak English - Eygo wah, hanashimaska? 
Do you understand? - Wakarimaska? 
I understand - Hai wakarimas 
I don't understand - Wakarimasen 
Hello - Konichi wah 
Good morning - Ohio Gozaimas 
Good evening - Konban wah 
Yes - Hai! 
No - (rarely used alone) Iyeh (or verb / noun plus nai
Good - Ee des  (Good eh? - Ee des nih?
Bad - Warui des 
How much / many - Ikura deska? 
What time is it? - Nanji deska? 
Where is the station - Eki wah, doko deska? 
Goodbye - Sayonara 
Delicious - Oshi des!
Cute - Kawaii

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this, along with his two collections of short stories, on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.


  1. Fascinating post! Thank you so much for sharing!

    1. Thanks EJ. Makes it all worthwhile. Have a good day.

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    1. Thanks Anushka, much appreciated. Please enter your e-mail in the "Subscribe" box to receive updates on new blogs.

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