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Window swapping in Tokyo

Youngsters decked up like mannequins and barrel baths are worthy distractions from the old clichés of the Japanese Capital, writes Sanchita Sharma.

india Updated: Oct 24, 2008 22:50 IST
Sanchita Sharma

Eat sushi, drink sake and make sure you get a room bigger than a closet. Pretty much the travel advice I got before my trip to Japan. I knew things would go all right the moment I checked in and found my room much, much larger than a closet. The closet, though, was smaller than my check-in bag, but we’ll not get into that.

Now for what not to expect. Nothing prepared me for the sheer courteousness of the people, even complete strangers were helpful to a fault. Be prepared for such behaviour even from people who don’t understand a word you say. You are repeatedly shown a bath-house instead of a bar — no, they are not coming on you — and a restroom when you want a restaurant. They even open the door for you, so there is little you can do but use it.

Staying on Ginza Street, Tokyo’s version of Connaught Place, made life easier for a visitor like me with limited time and unlimited energy. Everything was around the corner, so I spent more time on the street of the most developed country in Asia than in my room, though it was bigger than a closet.

Tokyo’s streets seem more virtual than real, populated as they are with beautiful people under 30 years. Young things in Tokyo would even make Gisele Bundchen feel like an old hag. Everyone is a sharp dresser and appears young and fit. It does make you wonder really what they do with the old people, more so given Japan has the world’s highest longevity — at 81 years and six months.

A must do at Ginza is an evening at the Ginza Lion, a Sapporo Beer hall established in 1934. Designed by Eizou Sugawara, one of the best known architects in Japan, the bar has ugly mosaic frescos and pillars that give it an old world charm.

While this one serves great Supporo beer — one of the big fours of Japanese beer along with Asahi, Kirin and Suntory — do ensure you have a bit of sake (made from fermented rice, also served warm) and shochu (made from sweet potato, also referred to as Japanese Vodka) while you are there. My vote goes to Sapporo, but since I like Guinness, I’ve been told in the past that my vote doesn’t count. Your call.

Style, in a fashion
The Japanese obsession with style is proverbial, and this was most apparent in the mile-long queue of 20-smomethings that appeared a permanent fixture at Ginza Street. Discovering it to be just a block-long one evening, my curiosity got the better of my good sense and I queued up too. 20 minutes later, I ended up at the local H&M store, the Swedish clothing company that sells cheap and trendy clothes the world over. The locals queue up for hours there just to buy clothes styled in Europe! Okay, I confess I shopped too but that was just to put my time to good use. In Japan, everyone wears black and white clothes, with some women throwing in a dash of grey for colour. Only the hair is anything but black. The few who deign to step out with black tresses, usually have them streaked uber pink or strawberry blonde.

The best place to spot wacky street styles is at Takeshita-dori in Harajunku. Takeshita-dori is a narrow pedestrian-only street that is a temple to popular culture and packed with shops bursting with clothes, cafes and memorabilia alters dedicated to Osamu Tezuka, the god of manga.

Seriously touristy
The more conventional tourist must do a day trip to Mount Fuji, cruise on Lake Ashi and ride the aerial cableway at Mount Komagatake for sweeping views of Hakone National Park with it innumerable hot springs. The day should end with a ride back to Tokyo in the Shinkansen (bullet train), but make sure you find out the train timings in advance. The trains are fast but packed and the wait can be long and tiring.

At 12,388 feet (3,776 meters) Mount Fuji is Japan's highest mountain. Rarely, on clear days, Fujiyama’s volcano slopes can be seen from Tokyo and Yokohama, but views are subject to weather conditions. Mornings are the best time for a clear sighting.

If you like museums, like me — I do have a serious side, though it’s buried deep — visit Ueno park, the museum district with some centuries-old temples. A visit to the Odeo-Onsen Monogatari hotsprings and sauna in Tokyo is a must. There are mist sauna and barrel bath options, but these are not for the coy — you are not allowed to wear swimwear or underwear, unless you’re at the the footbath.

I’m not big on shopping, but I’ve been told Akihabara is the place for electronics products, the Tokyo Tower for an aerial view of the city and Sinabashi Enbujo Theatre to catch a traditional Japanese show where men dress as women. Roppongi is the place for nightlife and though Japanese insist it is not safe as it’s “full-o-foreigners”, do go. Anyone who can survive a night out in Delhi can survive the worst Japan can offer, and more.