I landed in Tokyo in May, thus missing the glorious spectacle of the blooming cherry blossom trees by a whisker. Okay, maybe by more than a whisker, as the sakura, Japan’s unofficial national flower, keeps the city awash with colour till mid-April. This meant that I also missed the hanami (blossom-viewing) parties and the bonhomie that marks this season. But that disappointment was forgotten as I decided to focus on the essentials I wanted to experience in this enticing metropolis. What I discovered is that Tokyo is a delight for all five senses.
A sight to see
I wanted my first stop to be The Tokyo Sky Tree, which will celebrate its first anniversary on May 22 this year. At a dizzying 634 metres, this is a TV transmitting tower – but its two observation decks offer unrivalled views of Tokyo and its neighbouring areas, including Mount Fuji (on a clear day). But since tickets could only be booked in advance, I had to be content with checking out the Sky Tree’s steel mesh structure the next morning. And as further consolation, I went up the beautiful white-and-red Tokyo Tower that evening.
The sky (tree) is so high: Tokyo’s newest landmark is 634 metres tall
From the 250-metre-high observatory, I was rewarded with a view of Tokyo spread out like a lighted circuit – pulsating with verve, energy and life. I realised that the city is a singular, unmistakable world, crafted with typical Japanese precision. It was very difficult to tear your eyes away from the view.
Hear the call
I like to cover all bases as far as my connect with God is concerned, so a visit to a Japanese shrine was high on my list. We zeroed in on Sensoji, a Buddhist temple dedicated to Kannon (the goddess of mercy), in the Asakusa district (a 20-minute walk from the Sky Tree). We entered this oldest temple in the city – completed in the seventh century – through the Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate), went past the souvenir shops (Nakamise Shopping Street; more about it later), to reach the spectacular five-storeyed pagoda.
Before entering the main hall, we washed our hands, and then fanned some smoke on to ourselves from the smoke health bowl (to encourage wellness). Inside, I found the main altar covered by a glass pane and the ceiling and walls decorated with murals and paintings. It is hard to describe just how beautiful and peaceful the shrine is, and how opulent as well.
All around us, we saw devotees clap their hands twice and bow twice to pray, and then clap once again. Then they went on to tie their ‘fortune-telling paper slips’ (omikuji) on strings. I took the cue and on payment of a coin, pulled out my own fortune slip from a box. After hearing the English translation, I tied it on a string, clapped, bowed deep and prayed. Of course, I can’t tell you what my fortune said! If you time your visit to the temple right (weekends are a good time), and you are lucky, you might witness a wedding taking place and see a bride in a gorgeous kimono.
A touch of Shopping
I skipped the upmarket shopping complex, Omotesando Hills, in favour of the Ginza district (you can also go to the Aoyama shopping district to shop and to Roppongi to simply gawk). Ginza is where you (and actually most tourists) can go for some serious shopping. The place is fun and the best part: no one minds if you just window shop. Apart from smaller boutiques, many international brands, including Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Coach, and big department stores like Wako and Mitsukoshi are located here. I also popped into Printemps (a Paris-based department store) for wine. Sake of course I found in abundance just about everywhere. If you fall in love with it (like I did), pick up some bottles.
Next, I window shopped my way through Hakuhinkan Toy Park, one of the largest and oldest toy stores in Japan. And then I had coffee (made from fabulous Brazilian coffee beans) at Ginza’s Cafe Paulista. Beatles fans, this was John Lennon’s most favourite coffee shop in the whole wide world. Roppongi has many distinctive buildings; my favourite was the huge Prada showroom made of steel and glass. Designed by Herzog & de Meuron, the people who designed London’s Tate Modern museum, the showroom looks like it is bubble-wrapped in diamond-shaped pockets.
Next, I picked up my curios from the Nakamise shopping lane, which is a great place for cutesy knick-knacks. The 90-odd shops here sell around 100 types of folding fans (yes, trust me), umbrellas beautiful enough to be gifted, thousands of fridge magnets, splendid cotton kimonos (known as yukatas), big and small red lanterns, and more hard-to-resist stuff. I bought a pair of funky (and surprisingly comfortable) natural cane slippers, and wound up by sampling handmade rice crackers, red bean paste waffles and chestnut ball skewers. Unfortunately, a quick enquiry about their shelf lives made me realise that these goodies would not survive the flight home.
Taste the food
Wake up with the dawn and go to Tokyo Bay’s Tsukiji Fish Market. All the action gets over by 8am, so you’ll have to hurry. But it makes for a great experience and the fresh sushi breakfast is a must have here. Actually, the food anywhere in Tokyo is droolworthy. I’ll just list the essentials: soba – hand-rolled, hand-chopped buckwheat noodles. These are delicious. Try them anywhere, but if you can then go to Yabu Soba in Minato-ku. Next on the list are: crisp tempuras (batter-fried morsels of crisp, fresh vegetables – asparagus, carrots, bamboo shoots, mushrooms – and seafood – scallops, shrimp – usually served atop rice), flavourful bowls of ramen (noodles; find them at every corner), sashimi (bite-sized pieces of raw fish eaten with soy sauce), sushi (can be prohibitively pricey; so try it at a Uogashi Nihon-ichi branch) and sticky rice and miso soup (both part of almost every meal).
I could go on and on, but I’ll end with a suggestion to try unagi (freshwater eel) too; it’s a local favourite. Also definitely check out a bento box; a meal so delightfully presented, you’ll actually hesitate before you dig in. Japanese are not big on desserts, but one delectable sweet is sesame mochi (Japanese rice cakes made of glutinous rice and topped with sesame seeds). The only junk food we had in Tokyo was a burger (hardly junk though, as it was made Japanese-style with lots of veggies) with a local cola at a pleasant sit-out restaurant in Tokyo’s waterfront area.
And I must say that wherever we ate, the food was incredibly fresh, wholesome and satisfying. And when paired with sake, every meal becomes memorable. One piece of advice though: don’t offer a tip to waiters (or even taxi drivers). It is not expected and some even take it as an insult – I saw a kimono-clad waitress run behind an American couple to return the yens they had left for her with their bill.
Smell the green
The Hibiya Park is the more famous section of the Imperial garden and palace complex. But I made my way to the Hama Rikyu garden instead simply to savour the peace and quiet. In the midst of Tokyo, this traditional garden is a stark contrast to the skyscrapers of the adjacent Shiodome district. It is home to thousands of maple, ginkgo and pine trees (including one that is 300 years old), a tidal pool with three stone bridges and a teahouse.
At the gate, I was offered a free English audio guide, but I skipped that, opting for a quiet stroll. In that one hour, I managed not only to fill my lungs with clean air, but also ponder Japan’s contradictions, and wonder why Indian cities can’t create tranquil spaces like this.
The Sensoji Buddhist temple is the oldest in the city.
There’s more to Tokyo
Go to Akihabara and check out Yodobashi Akiba, the city’s largest electronics store – six floors of TVs, stereos, appliances and game consoles, with three more floors dedicated to restaurants, juice bars, bookstores and music shops.
A history buff?
Go to the Edo-Tokyo Museum to discover Japanese culture.
Take the bullet train (the shinkansen) out of Tokyo to somewhere. These zoom at incredible speeds (240–300 km/h; that’s like doing the Mumbai-Delhi distance of 1,400 km in four-and-a-half hours).
Go to Golden Gai, where there are 200 watering holes, some big, some minuscule (they seat only 4-5 people at a time), or head to Omoide Yokocho in Shibuya.
Visit the Sushi Potager restaurant (in Roppongi) run by Chef Aya Kakisawa to get your fill of delicious vegetable sushi (carrots, tomato, spinach and more). They offer a many-course sushi meal devoid of any fish. Feel like a sweet? Visit Patisserie Potager (above pic) in Nakameguro Street (run by Chef Aya again) and try the buckwheat chai mousse, arugula jelly with black sesame or opt for leek in a baked cheesecake – smooth, fluffy, inventive and totally vegetarian!
Want to please the child in you? Check out the 18-metre-tall statue of the animated superhero Gundam (who has a cult following in Japan), in front of the Diver City Tokyo Plaza mall. It looks so real that you expect the giant robot to move at any moment.
Visas: See http://www.vfsglobal.com/japan/india/
Flights: There are flights via various carriers to Tokyo from Delhi and Mumbai.
Currency: 100 Japanese yen is approximately R55.
From HT Brunch, May 12
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