Tendrils of smoke curl and float past scarlet pillars. Fingers fold white paper into prayers. Heads bow, hands wash in water, and the soft, sonorous chime of a gong, flecked with gold, reverberates through the crowd.
This is the Asakusa Shrine, or Sanja-Sama (the shrine of the three gods,) in the heart of pulsing Tokyo. And right around the corner, I found worship of a different kind.
Heads bowed, sirens blazing, flickering lights in fuchsia and fluorescence.
This is the whir and buzz, the whizz and blaze of Pachinko: a Japanese pinball arcade where silence is forbidden and tranquillity long since forgotten.
I’ve walked this way many times, often thinking how this small area serves as a capsule of life in modern Tokyo. Energetic, frenetic and forging into the future on the one hand, seamlessly preserving traditions from the past on the other.
Many first time visitors say that Japan’s like nowhere else they’ve been, and just a day spent in Tokyo condenses that idea to its core.
From sumo to sushi, karaoke to kitsch, volcanic baths to spaceship-like toilet flush controls, Japan provides an intense cultural experience like nowhere else on earth.
As an unconquered island nation for over one thousand years, Japan had plenty of time to develop a distinct cultural identity. Nearly two hundred years of sakoku, a rigid isolationist policy that closed off contact with the world except for Nagasaki, emphasised this further.
Today, its G8 heavyweight status leaves it able to finance ambitious projects, while the patchwork destruction and rebuild as a result of World War Two makes Tokyo a fascinating city to uncover, layer by layer and piece by piece.
Futuristic icons include the shimmering colours of the Rainbow Bridge that soar above the northern Tokyo Bay and the Eiffel-esque shape of the Tokyo Tower. Emblazoned in red and white, it’s the world’s tallest self-supporting steel tower, grabbing at least 13 more metres above sea level than its Parisian counterpart.
Its dizzying observation deck offers views of the concrete skyscrapers, green parks and curving gables of traditional Japanese architecture that make up the cityscape below.
The Tokyo Tower held the record as the capital’s tallest structure from 1958 until 2012 when the Tokyo Skytree pierced the air.
Standing at a vertiginous 634 metres tall with not one but two glass-fronted observation decks and an aquarium down by the ground, even the height of the Skytree merges futuristic construction with traditional ideas: 634 can be read as “Musashi,” an historic name for the Tokyo region and reminder that in Japan, few details occur by accident.
Back on the ground, it seems at first that all of Tokyo heaves and sighs with urban city speed. A popular way to orient yourself involves following in the footsteps of Hollywood starlet Scarlett Johansson from the Oscar-winning film Lost in Translation.
Start at the Hachiko crossing outside Shibuya station to watch the crowds gather and disperse, gather and disperse in a pulsing demonstration of modern city life. For a more ironic view, see tourists mesmerised by the same human pattern on the upper floors of the nearby Starbucks. Who knew how interesting meticulous urban planning could be?
The plush and polished Park Hyatt Tokyo served as the location for Bill Murray’s bar, pool and hotel scenes and offers a glitzy atmosphere for evening cocktails or all-American breakfast if the appeal of morning rice is wearing thin.
Stay in Shibuya to relive the pink-wigged karaoke night (a genuinely popular local pastime) and head to rooms 601 or 602 of Karaoke Kan for the ultimate in authentic fandom.
As befits the nation that invented karaoke in the first place, singing your troubles away is a much more liberating experience in Tokyo than at home. You hire small booths for an hour or so with your friends, order drinks by intercom, and self select your ballads from around a million or so songs. There’s no standing forlorn on an empty stage, crooning to strangers: it’s just you and the people you came with, for better and for worse when it comes to morning-after smartphone evidence.
Nightlife is serious business here, with clubs like Womb hosting Asia’s largest mirror ball and Age Ha fitting in four storeys, including a swimming pool, to cater for its 5000 plus guests per night. As a result, Tokyo also excels in the “capsule hotel:” coffin-sized sleeping pods with shared bathroom facilities for those who have missed their last train home.
But among all this hedonism, there are plenty of quieter spots in the city where you can find a taste of the old Japan.
Take Yanaka, a district within walking distance of Ueno Park, where stone torii stand outside dark wooden temples and local artists mix pigments from crystals into paint by hand. This is the Tokyo that existed before the carpet-bombing during World War Two set the city on fire.
The Japanese call this nostalgic ambiance shitamachi, the rustic simplicity evoked by these traditional streets where cherry trees draw spectators with their blossom each spring.
Perhaps not surprisingly, artistic communities flourish in and around Yanaka.
Artist Allan West, for example, paints here, taking hour upon painstaking hour to lay ochre, blue and charcoal onto wall screens gilded with birds and natural beauty.
And if you’re only in town for a short while, look out for taster courses on calligraphy, flower art, Japanese ink painting or the classical theatrical opera-dance of kabuki.
Yanaka is also a hot spot for the sweet and gluey treat of manju. Imagine an enlarged golf ball sliced in half, the outer shell soft and gelatinous, the inside a savoury sort of fudge. The base ingredients include rice flour and red bean paste, but my favourite involves the pairing of thick black sugar with bitter green tea.
Tea itself comes with a disciplined ritual, or at least it can if you follow the formal chaji method. Served in a ceremony that can take up to four hours, this revered custom for exalted guests lies far from whipping up a builder’s brew. Instead, expect immaculate silk-gowned attendants tiptoeing between opaque bamboo screens on soft tatami mats – and be sure to take your time.
At the opposite end of the scale, nudge your way to the bar join the salarymen, Tokyo’s corporate white-collar workers, for yakitori at the end of a busy office day.
Yakitori spears food, typically chicken, with kushi (bamboo or steel skewers) before cooking the chosen morsels over an open charcoal fire. Seasoning is salty-sweet, often combining soy sauce, sake, sugar and mirin, a light rice wine, into a simple but surprisingly tasty marinade.
Dining this way becomes fast and furious, often washed down with wooden cups of sake, glasses of beer or shots of the local spirit shochu. Tokyo-ites tend not to sip and stay slow.
One of the most atmospheric spots for this is the labyrinthine pedestrian area of Harmonica Yukocho, whose watering holes and markets line the narrow streets beneath bobbing red lanterns that ooze old world charm.
Away from the fish markets, glitzier shopping opportunities can be found in the designer boutiques and art galleries around Ginza, while Akihabara is the place to go for high tech electronics and vintage Mario Bros computer games. It’s here, too, that you’ll find the diehard fans (otaku) of anime and manga. These Lolita-like comics and plastic figures inspired the Maid Cafes, where costumed French maids giggle with customers over coffee and make heart shapes with their hands – for a fee.
And if you’re feeling homesick for your beloved pet, make your way to one of Tokyo’s curious cat cafes. For the price of a coffee, you’ll get a pair of slippers, access to a sofa and the chance to pet and play with any one of a number of feline friends.
But if crazy cats aren’t your thing, try bathing naked with strangers at a Japanese onsen. In the countryside, these thermal baths typically occur on the picturesque sites of natural volcanic springs.
In Tokyo, expect a few more sliding bamboo screens in order to provide some urban privacy.
Nudity is strictly enforced in the hot water itself, although sexes are segregated, but the steam and extreme heat make for a surprisingly relaxed experience.
Onsen complex Niwa no Yu allows swimsuits in some sections, in case you’re worried you’ll get cold feet when it’s time to disrobe.
But as much as I love the healing powers of the onsen, for me, Tokyo offers other ways to relax between the fragmented horizon of its concrete towers.
Take the view of snow-capped Mount Fuji, for example, a reminder of the country that extends beyond the city, of the prominent landscape, the rich culture and the intriguing history that defines Japan.
And in a smaller way, too, those white paper prayers and those curling tendrils of smoke in Asakusa have the same effect.
It’s as though the smallest of traditional details bring the whole city of Tokyo alive.
Disclosure – Sometimes I’ve travelled to Tokyo under my own steam and sometimes I’ve stayed with friends. Sometimes I’ve been hosted by various hotels, tourist boards and companies. However, as ever, as always, I always keep the right to write what I like.
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