I am in the world’s largest city. Everywhere I go there are massive crowds-young fashionistas with platform boots, swarms of dark-suited ‘Sarariman’, students with sailor uniforms. There is always background noise-station announcements, keitai denwa (mobile-phone) addicts, departmental stores offers and vending machine melodies! There is always speed, energy and a constant flux. Despite all this, Tokyo has got it all right! Peel away the urban gray, at the centre is a core essence, waiting to be discovered. From the tranquil Jinjas in the heart of town, to the unexpected greenery, from the super-efficient transport systems to the wonderful commingling of the ancient and the modern-it’s truly an urban paradise!
If like me, you like to first explore the spiritual heart of a city, it would have to be Asakusa for Tokyo. We board a suijou basu or a water bus from the Hinode Pier to Asakusa and take in a great view of the city from the Sumidagawa River. This seems to be a great way to reconnect with a pleasant side of this fascinating city. Across the river, I see the headquarters of the Japanese beverage giant, Asahi. Designed by the French architect, Phillipe Starck, it looks like a mug of beer and a flame and has been both loved and loathed by people. Asakusa is a historic area where you get a romantic glimpse of the “Old Japan (it was part of the old Downtown district of Tokyo called Shitamachi and was infamous for being the entertainment district of Tokyo)! The oldest temple in Tokyo- the Senso-Ji is the heart and soul of this area. Legend has it that in 628 AD, two brothers who were fishing in the Sumidagawa River netted a golden statue of Kannon (a female embodiment of the Buddha) and later a shrine was built on this spot. I enter the temple through the famous Kaminari Mon (Thunder Gate).There is a huge red paper lantern at the entrance. I see hordes of people bathing themselves in the smoke from the large incense burner outside-a cure for all evils! I observe the temple etiquette that my guide has taught me. Bow first before entering the shrine. Light three incense sticks as an offering to the souls of ancestors, place a coin in the offering box and ring the gong! On my way out I get my O-Mikuji or fortune read for a mere 100 yen-it assures me of great prosperity!
In front of the temple is the vibrant Nakamise- Dori, filled with myriad stalls selling the popular O-Miyage (souvenirs) like Norens, paper lamps, Yukaata, Haapi Coats, rice crackers (Senbei) and other unknown delights. I continue to walk till I reach the Kappabashi Dogu Gai shopping street. The landmark here is a huge statue of a Chef on a building! There are lines and lines of shops selling table-ware, kitchen utensils, and plastic samples of restaurant meals (a genuine Japanese invention!). Whether you want to be a samurai or a super chef you have to buy your Katana here! I spend an hour here and many Yen! Exhausted by my morning adventures, I head for a vegetarian Tempura Teishoku meal. It is a set menu consisting of batter- fried delights like desi pakodas! Revitalized, I head for the caffeine-charged Shinjuku- the heart of modern Tokyo immortalized by the giant billboards and neon Signs.
CENTRE OF ACTION
Shinjuku is the business, entertainment and shopping district and is home to many of Tokyo’s skyscrapers. The Shinjuku Station is supposed to be the busiest station in the world-about 3.22 million people pass through it in a single day! I am assailed by the sight of a million heads and giant television screens! I head towards the main pedestrian-free street and watch the world go by. There is a busker imitating a metal doll- all the twists and turns of the doll are mimicked by him! There is a one - man band belting out Simon and Garfunkel numbers in the middle of the road with an audience in rapt attention. I visit Isetan, a humongous departmental stores, for some exquisite Japanese ceramics. It’s the small details that make the difference. I marvel at the fancy packaging for a small gift that I pick up-it’s the Japanese emphasis on appearance! Shinjuku is Japan’s Times Square. It’s where the action is and I spend a couple of hours people-watching sipping on my cup of green tea. I see ‘Goth’ girls with black blouses, leather boots and black nail polish with their mobile phones customized with ghoulish characters. In the distance is the Park Hyatt Tokyo, one of the world’s most luxurious hotels, immortalized by the movie “Lost in Translation”. I meet Koji, a young student who indulgently lets me practice my Japanese. I ask him for an intensely local experience and he takes me to a Pachinko parlour- a mammoth hall filled with what looks like video games-meets- slot machines with little metal balls and an array of pins and lights. I am assailed by overwhelmingly bright lights, deafening decibel levels of ringing and clanging and zombie-like players, lost to their surroundings. Winning here seems totally random to me, but Koji explains that there are ‘professional pachinko players’ who devise strategies! Gambling is illegal, points out Koji, so you can exchange your winnings only for gifts here, but around the corner from here there’s a place where the gifts can be swapped for money!
I want to catch the sunset from the 45th floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan building in Shinjuku, designed by the famous Japanese architect, Kenzo Tange. This is the tallest building in Tokyo and though not as famous as the Tokyo Tower, it gives one a good chance to look at the centre of Tokyo’s Government and take a free view of the city from the observation deck on the 45th floor. Reaching the top of this building, I get a bird’s eye view of this great city- the cluster of skyscrapers, the never ending sprawling metropolis and I am told that on a clear day one can even see Mount Fuji in the distance.
A WALK IN THE PARK
Day two starts on a burst of energy! Ueno Koen, the most famous Park in Tokyo is where I am heading to. Ueno is most famous for its acres of Sakura (cherry blossom trees).I regret the fact that I’m not here in spring to see them in full bloom and picnic under them in the true Japanese tradition( with copious amounts of sake and beer thrown in!) In Ueno Koen you can stroll, hop or temple gaze! The park is dotted with some of Japan’s best Museums-Tokyo national Museum, Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum and has on its grounds, Japan’s oldest zoo. The Honkan of the Tokyo national Museum has a rich array of paintings, calligraphy, textiles, Ukiyoe (wood-block) prints and Lacquer Ware. There are families with chubby, red-cheeked kids heading for the Ueno zoo! Ueno is light-years away from other parts of Tokyo and still has an old-world charm!
A vegetarian in Japan, I thought would be a nightmare. But I enjoy my meals in this country. I pick up O- bento (Japanese meal in a box) meals from Lawson and 7-Eleven as well as stations and also enjoy the variety of meals at the ‘Depa-chika’ the food halls in basements of Departmental stores, which offer breads, desserts and sushi at easy-on-the-pocket prices! I have great evenings at Izakayas with red lanterns, the Japanese-style tapas bars which pepper the areas around train stations where I have a bottle of ‘nama biru’ with some snacks. My favourite would have to be a ‘robata yaki’ restaurant, where I sit in a long bar facing a grill and the fresh green grilled tofu and beer comes to me on a wooden oar!
A DOSE OF CULTURE
A must-see of a visit to Japan is a Kabuki play. Kabuki bares the psyche of the Japanese people and is a flood of theatrics! The Kabuki play that I watch is called ‘Narukami’ which is based on an Indian Legend about a one-horned hermit, who locked up the God of Rain in a waterfall and caused a drought throughout the land! The costumes are brilliant, the props extravagant and the music of the Shamisen ethereal! I am intrigued by the use of the Onnagata (the man-actresses) as the Kabuki has only male actors. Another great invention is the earphones that you can hire which provide a pre-recorded simultaneous translation of the dialogues. I am surprised to see even the Japanese using them for interpretation. Like Shakespeare, Kabuki has become difficult to understand with the passage of time!
Deciding to take a break from culture and temples, I go to Akihabara, the electronics district of Tokyo and the mecca of cyber-junkies. Akihabara is a blaze of garish neon and the sheer range of gizmos is mind boggling. There are gaudily coloured emporiums and hole-in-the-wall places! Software, digital cameras, Anime, whatever be your budget this is the place to be! I enter a well-known chain greeted by a cheerful ‘Irrashaimase’ (Welcome!) and buy an electronic dictionary, my survival kit for languages! I see another trend here- the popular ‘maid’ cafes with names like ‘Tea-room Alice’, where young girls sporting seductive clothes based on popular anime or manga, entice customers (usually the ‘otaku’ or the geeks with poor social skills!) to flirt with them in a faux master and servant relationship! The specialty cocktails here have lusty names like Mistress and Maiden’s Blush!! After the travails of shopping I wind down in one of the ubiquitous massage chairs on display at a store for a ‘free’ massage!
SING YOUR HEART OUT!
I wrap up the evening with an authentic Japanese invention-the Karaoke, literally meaning ‘empty orchestra’. Meeting a group of friends in the teen-fashion area, Shibuya, I head for a Karaoke booth reserved just for us. It comes with free drinks, a giant plasma screen TV and a phonebook sized songbook to choose from. I belt out an old Carpenters number and move on to noisier and more uninhibited ones. In a culture that values restraint, Karaoke is one outlet that allows you to make a fool of yourself! It’s nearly midnight and I am on the last train to my hotel after a non-stop Karaoke marathon. I catch myself smiling. And I know that I am smitten by Tokyo.
Published in Jade Magazine, 2010.