Japan Part III: Skimming the Skyline of Tokyo

Richard Tseng tells Maxime Beauty everything we ever wanted to know about Japan in Part III of this compelling five-part series. (Read Part I  and Part II here!) Read on to discover this alluring and exotic country…

The saying that, “it’s about the journey, not the destination,” is so oft-repeated it seems pat. There’s some truth to be scraped out of it. Ultimately, travel isn’t about going places as much as it is about new experiences. A trip isn’t a quest but a circular tunnel. You set off on one side and emerge on the other exactly where you started, but wiser.

This being your first time, I’d advise you to sample a little of everything in Tokyo. The following are some of the things that blew my mind.

Akihabara (Electric Town)

Imagine if Comic Con, E3 and the Consumer Electronics Show ran all year long and occupied an entire city district. That would give you some idea of what Akihabara is like, although there would still be plenty to see that has no Western equivalent. From the ubiquitous French maids to the sex shops selling used underwear to the 48-girl pop super-group AKB48, just about every weird meme you’ve ever seen come out of Japan is represented here.

Beginning with post-war Japan’s radio and electronics boom, Electric Town has become the hub of all things Otaku (a close cousin to the Western geek). Here you’ll find multi-storey buildings dedicated to toys, comics, appliances and games. A lot of it is global. Whether it’s Hello Kitty nail clippers, a toy of the car in Dark Shadows, or a necktie covered in Stormtrooper helmets, nothing is too popular or too obscure to be found here.

Ginza

When it comes to shopping, Ginza is where the rich and beautiful go. If, like me, you are neither of these things (at least not on the outside anyway), this district is still worth checking out for its soaring skyscrapers and near-endless department stores. For men who are grown up enough to care for their own appearance, the Hankyu Men’s department store is 8 floors of quality man-gear. Endless varieties of cufflinks, shoes, and other gifts for the man who has everything.

Tsukiji Fish Market
Featured in the film of eponymous sushi chef par excellence, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Tsukiji is the most famous of the ten wholesale markets in Tokyo. It’s also where Japanese restaurants worth their salt in Tokyo go to buy fish. Admissions to the auction begin at 5am and no more than 120 visitors are permitted per day. So those who value their sleep should probably just visit later to take in the vast array of marine life and Japanese delicacies. It is unlikely you will ever have fresher sushi any else in the world.

The Diver City Tokyo Plaza Complex
If you are at all puzzled by Japan’s obsession with size, a visit to the DiverCity Tokyo Plaza might put things in perspective. In addition to being a major shopping mall replete with the latest brand name boutiques and fine restaurants, the Plaza also includes a massive Toyota car museum featuring miniature dioramas, hundreds of classic cars, and a showroom dealership surrounded by a test-drive track that winds around the entire structure.

Perhaps what’s most impressive is the Gundam theme park featuring a life-size Gundam robot towering over the citizenry. This iconic mecha anime (Japanese animation) has been around for over three decades, and continues to sell millions of toys and models each year. Because many of Japan’s political and corporate leaders grew up with Gundam, erecting a life-size statue to their childhood hero was only natural. It is perhaps no more bizarre than Detroit’s Robocop statue or if Star Wars geeks banded together to build a Millenium Falcon replica.

Whether you’re captivated by the colossal, the miniscule or just want to shop, DiverCity is worth a visit.

Tsutaya Books

Easily the most elegantly designed bookstore I’ve ever been in, the store has everything a bibliophile could ever ask for. With plenty of deep wooden surfaces and off-white lighting, the space invokes a relaxed that’s perfect for quiet reading and reflection. Add a large performance space, cafes, and chairs combined with multiple interconnected levels stacked with shelves of books, music, movies and magazines, and you’ve got a great place to spend an afternoon indulging your intellect.

The Golden Gai

You don’t need somebody like me to show you how to enjoy Shinjuku’s nightlife. This district is teeming with bright lights and young revelers, but if you’re looking for something unique to Tokyo, you can’t miss the Golden Gai. These 6 narrow alleys, connected by even narrower passageways, are home to over 200 tiny bars, clubs and eateries. Architecturally, it’s a glimpse into Tokyo’s recent past. Apparently all Tokyo was once a maze of streets and passages so narrow they can only be walked single file, and mom-and-pop bars so small they seat no more than 5. Work out a fee with the bartender, and the bar is yours to drink and chat in until sun up.

While a working knowledge of Japanese certainly helps, you’ll also find bars here that cater to English speakers. However, if you’re adventurous and don’t mind a little awkwardness, then don’t let language stop you. Speaking no Japanese ourselves, my friends and I spent several hours mumbling through Beatles songs with an old vaudeville guitar player and a newspaper reporter, gesturing with our hands and drawing on napkins while the barkeep fed us numerous local treats. We were welcomed by regulars who were not only strangers, but who made an effort to be good conversationalists despite our obvious handicap. A remarkable act of hospitality we would never have experienced had we not broken from our comfort zones.

Sumo

Matches are fast and the action is quick. The rituals, the salt spraying, the stomping, the pre-game intimidation tactics, all contributes to one sublime spectacle. Coming from a country where our oldest sports are perhaps 3 centuries in age, Sumo feels so ancient as to be elemental. No wonder the Japanese tell myths of Sumo matches between disagreeing gods at the dawn of time. In a land whose people have traditionally been barely 5 feet tall, the Sumo wrestler has, and to some degree still is, venerated for exemplifying the colossal.

A Few Words on Food

I couldn’t really recommend you a list of places to eat in Tokyo because there are simply too many places to go. Rest assured that there really is something for everyone. Generally, the food quality here is at least above average. Vending machines and snack bars are everywhere, so you can always find a place to eat no matter how lost you get. Prices range from a few bucks to astronomical. The city also has the greatest number of Michelin star restaurants in the world, and perhaps the greatest number of foodies per capita too. So there’s no reason to think that, just because you’re in Japan, you must have Japanese food. Albeit you need not worry too much about where to eat if your aim is Japanese. Simply go where you see plenty of locals, and you shouldn’t have a dining experience that isn’t at least head and shoulders above what you get at home.

These are just some of the more striking places to visit when in Tokyo. Next time I’ll cover some of our most memorable discoveries from the surrounding area.

 

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