Resident Shaun Davies describes the buzz and the drama of Japan’s capital
Shibuya Crossing assaults the senses. The gateway to Tokyo’s youth-fashion hub, it is one of the most overwhelming locations in a city full of insane energy. Every three minutes people gush across the intersection, heading to shops, mega-clubs and karaoke joints. Sounds from giant video screens bleed into one another, saccharine J-pop topped off with computer-game gun blasts. Few places in the world can match Shibuya’s buzz – maybe Times Square in New York, perhaps London’s Piccadilly Circus. But Tokyo also has Shinjuku station, which sees 3.6 million people pass through daily; not to mention Ikebukuro, Ginza and Roppongi, all shopping and nightlife districts with energy to burn.
This relentless pace is at the heart of Tokyo’s appeal. It is the most populous metropolitan area in the world: nearly 35 million people live in Greater Tokyo. Despite more than a decade of stagnant economic growth, the city still has the world’s second-largest stock exchange, and its residents have turned conspicuous consumption into an art form.
Tokyo can look ugly. From up high, a strange geography appears – a jumble of shoddy buildings, power lines and concreted rivers. The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and the bombing of the city during World War II destroyed most of the Edo-era wooden buildings, and many newer structures seem designed to last a decade at most. Pick through this mess, however, and you’ll find pockets of beauty: shrines, temples and parks dot the neighbourhoods. At night, when thousands of kanji-covered neon signs come alive, the mess itself becomes beautiful, although it’s not to everyone’s taste.
And then there’s the food. There are more than 80,000 restaurants in Tokyo (more than you could try in a lifetime), ranging from greasy yakitori joints to world-class establishments. The city has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other in the world, but even at cheap places the grub is mostly great.
Tokyo’s subcultures are fascinating. Harajuku’s street fashions are world famous; US pop star Gwen Stefani was so enamoured of the area that she named her backing dancers the Harajuku Girls. The otaku (geek) subculture produces an astounding variety of animé and manga. Maid cafés (where pretty girls dressed in stylised maid’s uniforms serve tea, treating customers like masters) and fan-drawn erotic comics are standard fare. This kind of thing gives Tokyo a reputation for being ‘weird’ that is only partially deserved. Most locals find it unusual, but non-Japanese really struggle to understand. Perhaps it’s impossible to comprehend such a complex place, and perhaps it doesn’t matter – Tokyo fascinates just as much as it confounds.
Getting There Emirates flies direct to Narita airport, with prices from Dhs6,550 return including tax.
Hachiko is the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing, with crowds pouring out of Shibuya station and across its stripes every three minutes. Traffic is simultaneously stopped in all directions, allowing pedestrians to cross the junction diagonally as well as one street at a time. The crossing takes its name – Hachiko – from the nearby statue of a loyal dog, who sat waiting for his dead master at the station every day; the statue is now one of the city’s most popular meeting points. Shibuya is one of Tokyo’s most youth-oriented districts, the epicentre of its teen culture. To a backdrop of blaring video screens and neon-clad buildings, this is the Tokyo of popular imagination.
Population 33,200,000 (core city 8,130,000)
Area 6,993 sq km
Where is it? On the east of Japan’s main island, Honshu.
Climate Spring and autumn are mild, winters are cold, and summers are hot and humid. The rainy season begins in June.
Ethnic mix 248,363 foreigners were living in Tokyo during the last census – just two per cent of the total population.
Major sights Tokyo Tower, Shibuya’s Hachiko Crossing, Takeshita Dori in Harajuku, Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, Tsukiji fish market, Odaiba.
Insiders’ tips Shimokitazawa and Naka Meguro for indie cool, yakitori (grilled chicken) under the train tracks at Yurakucho, Kichijoji’s Inokashira Park for a lazy Sunday, authentic Korean food in Shin-Okubo.
Where’s the buzz? Shinjuku, Shibuya, Harajuku.
Former name Edo
Number of restaurants More than 80,000
Number of Michelin-starred restaurants 173
Tons of fish and seafood handled at Tsukiji fish market each day 2,000
Number of train lines 121
Number of days Mount Fuji is visible per year 79
Number of mobile phones 13,351,000
Worst earthquake The Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 – more than 142,000 people were killed.
Number killed by the 1945 bombings Around 100,000.
Immortalised in Tokyo Story, Godzilla, King of the Monsters, Tanizaki’s Diary of a Mad Old Man, Akira, Haruki Murakami’s novels, The Ring, Lost in Translation.