The Balance city of dreams guide to: Tokyo, Japan
Tokyo’s imposing skyline nestled in- between pockets of lush green spaces is awe-inspiring – whichever way you look at it. I happen to be enjoying the view from an infinity pool on the 38th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, following a vigorous body-pulling massage. After only a few days, I am pleasantly exhausted – Tokyo is a city of organised madness; tidy streets, smiling Harajuku girls, flashing lights and yet ancient traditions still have an important part to play.
SAY I DO! A Shinto priest shades a bride – wearing a typical kimono – and her husband from the heat and humidity at a Meiji Shrine wedding
A CITY OF CONTRASTS
There’s no denying that shopping takes centre stage. Omotesandō in central Tokyo, right next to Shibuya, is the place to visit for high-end stores such as Prada, housed in ornate, funky buildings. Shibuya is home to flashing TV ads and that famous chaotic intersection. Everything happens at the same time here. Pop music blares from stores and teenage girls are dressed in Harajuku clothing, made popular by Gwen Stefani, all short skirts and long socks; a far cry from the conservative costumes of the Geisha girls. In stark contrast, in the city’s Akihabara area, Cosplay comic book kids stand on corners enticing people into shops. Here you can buy trashy food from vending machines. The Tsukiji Fish Market is one of the most chaotic places you can visit in Tokyo, as it was never expected to be a tourist attraction. It’s noisy, frantic with scooters darting about everywhere, but it’s certainly a feast for both the eyes and the stomach. I found the great big tuna coffins fascinating and I saw some fish I’d never seen before, and not likely to come across again. And with Tokyo hosting the Olympic Games in 2020, the fish market is being relocated to Toyosu. You’ll need at least half a day to experience the array of old fashioned food stalls that sit around the market itself, serving green tea, soba noodles, rice dishes and snacks such as Onigiri and Kaisen Don.
THE TSUKIJI FISH MARKET IS NOISY AND FRANTIC WITH SCOOTERS DARTING ABOUT, BUT IT’S A FEAST FOR THE EYES AND THE STOMACH
Tokyo is full of juxtapositions. Behind the mammoth buildings lie many Yokocho (alleyways), full of traditionalstyle eateries and Izakayas (Japan’s answer to a gastropub), some of which go right back to the post-war years. There are also places to go and be peaceful. The Meiji Shrine sits in a beautiful forest full of 1,500-year-old Cypress trees right next to Harajuku station. If you are lucky, you may even witness a traditional wedding led by Shinto priests. Across the city in Asakusa, the oldest ancient Buddhist Sensō-ji temple is a tourist hotspot, but is definitely worth a visit. People have flocked here to consult their oracle for thousands of years, gathering divine answers to their questions by shaking sticks from metal containers and reading the answers. Some traditions, it seems, never die.
WHEN OLD FRIENDS MEET
Tokyo has survived two catastrophes; the earthquake of 1923 and then World War II, which damaged most of the original architecture. What’s evident, and particularly moving, is the efforts people have gone to (and continue to make) to protect the paths of their tiny houses. To see a glimmer of the old Tokyo, it’s worth seeking out a tea ceremony, although you will have to arrange this ahead of time. These practices are viewed as a hobby; promoting happiness and the values of respect, purity and learning to be in a state of tranquillity. The ceremony itself is a long, silent process. It’s beautiful to watch; the gracefulness of the tea makers and the precision of every movement, though it’s easy to see why teenagers would rather be tripping the light fantastic over in Harajuku. A less-known traditional experience worth trying is an incense ceremony, known as Kodo. I fell in love with this very mindful guessing game in which you ‘find’ scents that bring you closer to nature and Japanese culture, leaving the stress of life behind. Kogado (just by the Azabu-Jūban station) is a 30-year-old, family-run incense business. As Tokyo continues to embrace modernity, these traditions, once reserved for the upper-classes, are sadly being lost. And yet they allow you to understand the decorum and beauty of the culture in this fascinating city.