With a population of more than 30 million, Tokyo is earth’s most populated urban area, offering a glimpse of what Dubai might look like in 50 years. This colourful metropolis is home to some of the most bizarre and intriguing culture imaginable, and a trip here is sure to make a welcome change for anyone weary of the UAE’s rounds of malls and brunches.
That said, Tokyo is largely ignored by the travelling community. Maybe this is because it is the farthest flung of all Far Eastern destinations, or perhaps its culturally incomprehensible wackiness deters the less adventurous traveller. Either way, everyone should dare to infiltrate this inspiring, bewildering, vast land, with its organic tangle of neon lights, packed bars and fascinating food.
My trip starts seven hours late as I step out into the brisk autumn air at Toyko’s Narita Airport. I choose a taxi driver, who stubs out his cigarette with a hospitable smile – I think he can sense my distress. We head towards the centre of town. During this hour-long trip I feel Tokyo’s magnitude: at no point does the city swell or retreat, it’s just an endless succession of factories, high-rises and apartment blocks. It’s around 10pm when we finally cross the Rainbow Bridge into central Tokyo and Chiyoda’s New Otani Hotel, formerly a castle site that’s ribboned by an attractive canal. It’s a popular haunt for business travellers, and the rumours are true – rooms don’t come cheap in this buzzing city. I pay Dhs1,750 a night for a standard double room, but the location is worth it. Budget travellers shouldn’t expect to pay less than Dhs440 for a decent double room for the night.
Roaming the streets of Tokyo is an attraction in itself. Each district offers a unique atmosphere. I begin in nearby Akasaka, with its pretty mix of main roads and winding shopping quarters, where I stumble across Itamae Sushi, an upmarket restaurant where local businessmen go to unwind. I opt for a platter including roe, shark and crab, but I soon remember I’m not actually too keen on sushi, and though I do my best to demolish the Dhs87 plate there are a fair few morsels left when I head into the night.
Roppongi is the resounding nightlife recommendation from Tokyo veterans, so I get a taxi round the block for Dhs65, where I stumble upon a couple eager to sample one of Tokyo’s renowned late-night hangouts. After much aimless walking through Roppongi’s garish back streets, populated by wide-eyed westerners and heaving R’n’B clubs, I settle on a tiny establishment where shoes are left at the door and a conveyor belt of meat and vegetable skewers meet fragrant aromas of incense, creating a unique ambience. I soon learn that unassuming, traditional entrances signal the best places to get an authentic Japanese experience at reasonable prices.
There is no lack of post-bedtime fun to be had in Tokyo, be it an edgy bohemian bar (visit Roppongi’s Super-Deluxe for a wild array of live music, art and poetry readings); cavernous superclubs (Womb in Shibuya regularly attracts world-class DJs) or the Cavern, a Roppongi homage to Liverpool’s own Fab Four (tickets for the bar’s incredible doppelgangers cost a reasonable Dhs87). But top of any tourist’s to-do list should be to experience the mayhem of the Shibuya pedestrian crossing, made famous in numerous Hollywood movies. My own Lost in Translation dream takes me to the nearby Karaoke Hero Bar where I caterwaul to a progression of poorly-recorded western hits.
Yet as much as my Tokyo obsession is fuelled by Sophia Coppola’s masterpiece, it is the southern borough of Shinbashi, a warren of railway-arch restaurants and lurid Orwellian skyscrapers, that is without doubt the closest one can come to the futuristic streets of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. I can almost hear the Vangelis soundtrack as I clamber through a sea of commuters and partygoers.
As far as sightseeing goes, I’d fully recommend the sprawling Imperial Palace, Gyoen National Garden in the commercial centre of Shinjuku, and the views from the Toyko Tower, a giant Eiffel-inspired communications deck in the south-eastern corner of Minato. A trip on the unfathomable metro is a must-see, even if you are likely to end up further from your destination than when you started, and the Tokyo National Museum houses more than 100,000 artefacts from Japan’s colourful history.
But the best way to experience Tokyo is to pack a good pair of shoes and walk. For hours. It’s the only way you can properly take in the trendy backstreets of Harajuku, with their impossibly attired teens and den of arty restaurants (visit the kitsch Yellow Café for some impressive cheap nosh and hip atmosphere). Likewise, try Nihonbashi, a giant weave of government buildings and banks between which hide steamy tempura bars (Dhs13 for lunch – slurp away) and chintzy souvenir shops.
All this may make Tokyo seem a dehumanising grey expanse, but it never is – the impeccable manners of the Japanese make sure of that. Every visit to a shop or restaurant is greeted with a chirpy chorus of hellos and thank-yous. As ‘konichiwa’ resonates through the air, I’m lost in far more than translation in this charming and captivating land.
Need to know
Where to stay
New Otani Hotel, Chiyoda This vast venue offers a luxury central location from Dhs705 a night. www.newotani.co.jp/en (+813 3265 1111)
Hotel Asia Center of Japan The cheapest three stars you’ll get in Akasaka, with friendly staff and buffet breakfast. Rates start at Dhs490 based on two sharing, www.asiacenter.or.jp/eng (+813 3402 6111)
Hotel Yanagibasi A two-star family affair in the heart of the city, ideal for budget travellers at Dhs460 per night for a single bed. www.hotel-yanagibasi.jp/en (+813 3861 8784)
What to see
Shibuya pedestrian crossing The pulsating nerve centre of central Shibuya boasts so many lights you’ll lose track of time.
Shinbashi This cluttered southern district encompasses commercial towers and tiny eateries. A tangled mess to some; unfettered urban beauty to others.
Tokyo National Museum Home to the world’s largest collection of Japanese antiquities. www.tnm.go.jp/en (+81 3 3822 1111)
Super-Deluxe An underground art bar in Roppongi, offering the best in avant-garde Japanese performance. www.super-deluxe.com (+813 5412 0515)
Tokyo was founded by the Edo clan in the late 12th century.
It became the capital of Japan in 1868, stripping Kyoto of the title.
During the Japanese asset price bubble of the 1980s, when property prices skyrocketed, Tokyo’s Imperial Palace was thought to be worth more than all the real estate in California.
Today, the Tokyo metropolitan area is the world’s most populated, home to an estimated 32 million people.