Drowsy in the clammy warmth of the bus, I struggle to keep my eyes open and take in my first sights of Tokyo. It’s 8.40 pm on a day spent entirely in transit, and we now seem to be wading our way through giant, lit-up Lego columns — parking lots, I’m told. Even the ginkgo trees lining the sidewalks look like they’ve been cut out with a stencil and glued into place. But there’s something about their bright yellow that makes me reach out for the knob and draw back the window. The crisp draft hits the spot, and I’m wide-awake.
After going up, down and around a maze of flyovers, many of them several storeys high, we’re finally at The New Otani in downtown Tokyo. Our arrival sets a bevy of bellboys and hospitality staff scurrying about, but it takes another day of having my phone calls answered at the first ring to realise just how severe Japanese diligence is. Well, this is why this over-populated, under-resourced group of islands is the world’s second richest country.
11.30 am, the following day, I’m standing 250 metres above Tokyo, trying to work up the courage to walk across a patch of floor that consists of a sheer sheet of glass. As I break into a mass of nervous giggles, a bunch of pre-schoolers ask me to get aside and proceed to walk across the glass while looking down through it. Gathering up the remaining shreds of my dignity, I turn to my understanding translator, the splendid Mr Fujioka, who’s politely telling one of my colleagues that no, he’s got nothing to do with the Fujifilm family.
Tokyo, he tells me, has been inhabited for 2,000 years. With a population of over 12 million, it is the most heavily populated urban area in the world. But looking down from Tokyo Tower — a taller replica of the Eiffel Tower of Paris — you see no huge traffic jams and no crowded streets. Where are all the people, I wonder. At work, says Mr Fujioka smugly.
He’s great with facts and figures, this Mr Fujioka. The average Japanese family has 1.7 children, he tells us, poker-faced. And the ginkgo tree is so hardy that four trees that grew just two km from the site of the atom bomb in Hiroshima survive until this day.
A slice of history
Our next stop is the 800-year-old Asakusa Shrine, which dates back to the Edo era. It is here, for the first time, that I feel I’m in Japan — most other parts of Tokyo look no different from any American city. It’s a Shinto shrine, although there’s a statue of the Buddha, too. It houses a giant lantern on which is written ‘Panasonic’ in Chinese characters — it is said to mark a big donation by the owner of Panasonic, Mr Matsushita, because he was cured by the incense at the shrine.
Outside, visitors are drinking from a holy fountain with a Shogun figurine — a surprising display of faith in a stringently rational society. Soon, however, a bunch of noisy Spaniards arrive, shattering the peace and quiet.
11.30 pm at the hotel. As part of the Prime Minister’s entourage, we’re in for an early start the next morning. But I find myself in the traveller’s twilight zone — my body’s tuned to India time and I’m wide awake. Tokyo’s very safe; the pretty receptionist at the hotel assures me. So I head out to Shinjuku, deliberately leaving behind the map and the travel guide she offers me.
Christmas lightings and neon seem to compete for attention, and for a moment I think I’m in Piccadilly Circus. A taxi driver gives me a fleeting tour past Chiyoda, the area that houses the Imperial Palace. At the height of Japan’s real-estate bubble, the piece of property on which the Imperial Palace is located was worth more than the entire state of California.
7.30 am the next day, and I’m finally awake. It has taken every alarm possible — on the mobile phone, the laptop and the hotel clock — to wake me up. The New Otani’s 400-year-old Japanese garden is among Tokyo’s most famous, and I’m determined not to miss it. As I step into the hotel lobby — with an overcoat thrown over my nightdress — the immaculately turned out hotel staff, hair straightened, makeup perfect and fingernails polished, look positively cringe-inducing.
I put on what I hope is my most nonchalant expression, and walk into 10 acres of heaven. The maples are a flaming red, and the ginkgos golden yellow. The fish in the pond seem to comply with the dress code — they’re bright orange and yellow. For a few moments, the sun emerges from the clouds, burning them orange. I sit down and close my eyes, and when I reopen them, I’m late for breakfast!
Stars and sardars
On our last night in Tokyo, we dine at a restaurant overlooking the Rainbow Bridge. High on sake, I notice a cool breeze blowing and the lights of the bridge twinkling in the distance. As we leave for the night, to my shock and delight, I find Punjabi music playing in the lobby. I’m reminded of the joke about Neil Armstrong landing on the moon to find a Sardarji and his wife there. “When did you get here?” he asks in disbelief. “Oh, after the Partition,” comes the casual reply.