Outside the Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku. See more Robot Restaurant photos here
Tokyo is a must-see city. A must-hear city. A must-taste city. You can touch it, too, but it might be better form to bow.
With Air Canada offering direct flights to Tokyo as of this summer, accessing the largest city in the world is that much easier. It’s a 12.5-hour flight, yes, but it’s well worth it for an experience that merits an overused word: it is literally awesome.
The flight takes you over Nunavut, Alaska and remotest Russia in a Boeing 787 Dreamliner outfitted with comfortable ergonomic seating and “enhanced definition intuitive touch personal entertainment screens,” offering a wide variety of music, movies and TV — I watched a pair of depressing arthouse movies that barely played in theatres here, Eye on Juliet and Nico 88, while a guy near me had Big Bang Theory running for 12 straight hours. Look here for our report about the International Business Class Signature Service (with photos), and note that there is also a middle ground between Economy and Business: Premium Economy offers wider seats (that recline), more legroom, premium meals and complimentary bar service as well as priority check-in and baggage delivery.
Old meets new
Shibuya crossing. See our cityscape & architecture gallery here
For urban explorers who love the buzz of a metropolis, there are few (if any) experiences that match the feeling of standing in the middle of the Shibuya intersection, a “scramble crossing” that dwarfs Times Square with the sheer volume of people, not to mention the volume of its video billboards, which advertise at full blast in English and Japanese, Blade Runner style. Being among the masses and the stacked vertical signage that line tall buildings across Tokyo’s multiple downtowns is exciting, but the city and the culture offer a plethora of experiences to counter that sensory overload and capitalist excess. A love of minimalism, nature and simple rituals are ever-present, if you look hard enough.
The Meiji shrine. See photos from Meiji and the Senso-ji temple here
Hands-on tourists might enjoy traditional crafts and customs such as tea ceremonies, flower arranging, calligraphy, glass-cutting and soba-noodle-making — to get a little more physical, “the ninja experience” is a thing. But for some serenity amid the intensity of the city, the Meiji shrine is a beautiful spot, a green oasis of 98-year-old trees (it’s a man-made park). Meiji is a Shinto shrine, representing Japan’s other religion (we also visited Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple, Senso-ji), which our guide explained is less a religion than a philosophy. Both Buddhism and Shintoism are more common, casual and superstitious than the organized religions we’re familiar with; rather than daily prayer and frequent ceremonies at a holy place, the vast majority of Japanese people visit shrines on special occasions, wishing for good luck at the beginning of a new year, for example. Bars and restaurants donate the first barrel from each batch of saké or wine to a shrine, as we saw on the strung-up display on the Meiji path. Whereas it might feel intrusive to participate in religious rituals and services in other countries, Japan encourages tourists to visit the shrines and temples; they’re that much more inviting being outdoor spaces, typically a paved or stone square with an assembly of large structures: an arch, a pagoda, a fountain and a smoker (to cleanse your hands and face before offering coins to the gods).
Takeshita Street, Harajuku. See our Harajuku photo gallery here
Walking distance from the tranquility of Meiji is the madness of the Harajuku shopping district, an explosion of young people parading in oversized doll clothes. The restaurants and shops that line the heart of Harajuku — Takeshita street — sell everything from crunchy ice-cream-injected zaku zaku dessert to British ’70s punk attire (a subcultural obsession over there, along with rockabilly music and fashion — a park near our second hotel advertised Elvis impersonator Sundays) to some quality time with a room-full of cats. Yes, of course the land of Hello Kitty invented the cat café.
Japan is also responsible for the infamous Robot Restaurant, which is not at all what it sounds like. It’s not a restaurant (though you can buy popcorn, sweet or salty, and beer) but a show, a barrage of lights and live music and actors riding/fighting animatronic “robots,” located in the depths of the dense, labyrinthine Shinjuku district. The show is advertised with a succession of eye-popping billboards that count down the distance to the box office and venue entrance in metres. Once there, you will pay roughly $80 (8,000 yen — currency conversion is as easy as subtracting two zeroes) to witness what Anthony Bourdain called “the greatest show on Earth.” I wouldn’t say I concur, but it was certainly 90 minutes well spent.
Golden Gai. See more photos of Tokyo nightlife & street life here
Nearby, a series of connected pedestrian alleys known as Golden Gai are lined with tiny bars populated by a handful of regulars (friends of the staff, typically). Many of them serve food, sometimes one specialty dish, as well as a range of hard liquor, wine and beer, and most charge a cover of some sort. We went to a Hawaiian-themed upstairs spot for a mai tai, drank saké with a 20-something bartender and a glamorous middle-aged lady and tried whiskey with a female bartender and her buddies — judging from the poster in her bar’s bathroom, the bartender is also a pro singer of some sort.
My companion didn’t exactly regret his decision to check out a nearby cabaret, but he reported that it was very different from the western strip club, involving choreographed dancing on-stage and an audience clap-along that seemed mandatory. Various forms of adult entertainment are available at clubs in the red light district and beyond, from “massages” to hostess companions to straight-up street prostitution. Drinking aside, the most popular nightlife activity is, you guessed it, karaoke, where the famously reserved Japanese let loose on the mic on the regular.
All the food
Friends and family members who’ve travelled to Tokyo recently told me that they couldn’t recommend specific restaurants because “everything is good.” I didn’t really believe that, but having eaten everything from dirty vending-machine ramen (it doesn’t come out of a vending machine, that’s just how you order it) to high-end hotel restaurant meals to sandwiches and mystery snacks from Lawson and 7-11 dépanneurs (which are everywhere), I can confirm that it’s true. Everything is good.
Our first meal was at a 24-hour chain restaurant called Sushi Zanmai Shimbashi, which was full of tipsy locals at 3 a.m. — smoking is not banned in restaurants, but only this place was noticeably smoky. The restaurant’s dinginess didn’t exactly raise our expectations, but this was some of the best sushi I’ve had. Obviously sushi is better in Japan than it is here, in pretty much every way, but the first thing you’ll notice is the rice — the flavour, the bite, the stickiness are perfect. The soy and other dipping sauces are also better, but sushi doesn’t automatically come with wasabi, ginger and soy sauce — if it belongs there, it’s usually in the roll.
Likewise, tempura is significantly lighter and less greasy than what you generally find in Montreal. Not being a fan of fried food in general, I tend to avoid tempura here — at the Tempura Tsunahachi restaurant in Shinjuku, I polished off my plate of fish and vegetables happily.
Ramen at Yoroiya. See our Tokyo food & drink photo gallery here
The ramen at the Yoroiya restaurant (which didn’t employ a vending machine) in Asakusa’s tourist-jammed streets by the Senso-ji Buddhist temple was another revelation: delicious broth (a mysterious soy, fish and meat concoction), halved and double yolked soft-boiled egg and perfect noodles garnished with fresh herbs and nori; likewise, their chicken/glass noodle gyoza (dumplings) melted in our mouths.
After a walk through the park by the imperial palace and hotel one day, we ventured into the high-end Peninsula Hotel for tea. Like the Ritz Carlton in Montreal, the Peninsula serves high tea (with an optional glass of champagne), but theirs features a novel dessert tower with a slot for each little item rather than the usual stack of plates. As for the items themselves, aside from the scones and one morsel that was wrapped in a cucumber slice, I had no idea what I was biting into — would it be sweet or savoury? Let’s see. Either way, it was all good. Apparently a couple of guys from the Killers, who were sitting nearby, thought so, too.
An adventurous palate is a bit of a must when you’re in Japan, given the Japanese-language packaging or labelling and the sometimes unfamiliar menu items or recommendations from your servers. The only foods we didn’t enjoy in Tokyo spanned the familiar — a McTeriyaki chicken burger from McDonald’s, a 3 a.m. mistake — and the foreign: a piece of sushi topped with something that looked and smelled like shit. (I didn’t progress to the tasting stage there.)
One sight that made me jump and yell simultaneously was a package of what appeared to be either huge insects or tiny crabs, in the food market below the swanky Ginza mall — they were alive and crawling. But as “foreign” as some of Japan’s culinary tendencies may appear, you’re more likely to see Japanese people eating food that’s universally adored, be it the Japanese staples, Chinese or Italian food, or — and this was everywhere — French sweets. Pro tip: try the Tokyo Banana. There will be no regrets (unless you hate bananas, of course).
Lost in Translation
A viewing of the Sofia Coppola classic felt mandatory before the trip (and after). We stayed in a tiny room at the Shiodome Villa Fontaine Hotel, in a very business-ey area of town near the Ginza shopping strip, before checking in to the Park Hyatt Hotel near Shinjuku — it’s the Lost in Translation hotel, and they’re very conscious of that. We were asked when we checked in whether we were fans of the movie, and if we wanted a DVD copy sent to our room. The hotel (or at least what’s visible of it in the movie) has not changed since 2003, but being a five-star everything has been meticulously maintained, from the rooms to the pool to the New York bar, with its distinctive little lamps. We had a couple of great cocktails there one night as a jazz singer with a full band entertained a packed room.
Cocktails at the New York Bar
Our lunch at the hotel’s New York Grill restaurant was excellent: the mains were fist-size portions of filet mignon and Arctic char on top of smeared purées, beside bits of grilled veggies — a little on the small side, but this was more than compensated for by the generous and delightful spread at the appetizer/dessert buffet.
Given that the hotel is a Hyatt, and the New York bar and restaurant are American-themed, there’s not much about the hotel experience that was particularly Japanese, the exceptions being the kimonos (which are full length, not comically short as they are in the movie) and the toilet — as with most Japanese toilets, this one had a panel of buttons offering bidet options, and a seat that heats up on contact. The latter feature has an unfortunate spoiling effect — Canadian porcelain and plastic feels extra cold now.
There are plenty of other Japanese customs and cultural proclivities worth a double take: everyone with a cold or flu wears a hospital mask (we saw hundreds, one of which may have been a fashion thing as it was made of black leather); cyclists usually ride on the sidewalk, not the road (the city doesn’t appear to be bike-friendly); no one wears sunglasses (it’s apparently regarded as pretentious); those familiar with Japanese etiquette or Curb Your Enthusiasm know that the depth of a bow, from a nod to a full bend from the waist, has meaning, indicating levels of familiarity and respect or gratitude; in Tokyo, at least, everyone is thin. Food is everywhere but portions are small.
Looking at Tokyo from above — the Skytree tower offers views from 451 metres up high in the sky — is even more awesome than the view from the ground at Shibuya. The city sprawl goes on and on and on — you can’t see the end of it. Over 9 million people live within the city’s 23 wards, with over 36 million populating the GMA. I’ve experienced metropolitan grandeur in New York City, London and Istanbul, but Tokyo is something else. Even though I was only there for five full days, even if I never get back there (and I hope I do), this felt like total immersion in a unique urban landscape. It truly was an adventure. ■
See our report about the Air Canada Signature Service experience (with a photo gallery) here.