Jul 06

Tokyo Reflections and Travel Tips

Our two-week stay in Japan’s capital was so different to other destinations we’ve stayed so far on our Grand Tour and there were so many lessons we learned for slow travellers and fans of local travel that we thought the experience  warranted a post just on our Tokyo reflections and travel tips.

For the first time this year, in Tokyo we got to play at being tourists. It wasn’t because we hadn’t been to Tokyo before (we had), but because it was so long ago (a stopover 17 years ago!) it was as if we were visiting for the first time. Experiencing the city as wide-eyed travellers gave us plenty to reflect upon. Here are some thoughts…

In Tokyo, it was the first time we felt the need to carry around a guidebook so far on the trip. In Jerez, Ceret, Perpignan and Kotor, all small- to medium-sized villages and towns, which we were also visiting for the first time, we relied on advice from locals and used our travel skills and instincts to settle in, get around, figure out the lay of the land, where we should eat and drink, and what we should do and learn. We didn’t need or miss having a guidebook until Tokyo.

Lesson learned: guidebooks can be helpful in big cities like Tokyo, especially for their maps (when the maps are accurate, that is), their background, historical and cultural info, and for pointing you to particular areas if not specific places. When they’re full of errors, mischaracterizations and poor recommendations, however, as one was that we used, you’re better off without them and the frustration they cause.

Why was our Tokyo experience so different to other destinations, even though we’d been before? Well, for one thing, there’s the language barrier. Unlike our first trip 17 years when we don’t recall seeing anything in English at all, but do remember clutching onto the bit of paper bearing the instructions the hotel staff had written down for us for the day in Japanese, nowadays there are helpful bilingual signs everywhere. However, while we’re trying to pick up as many words as we can wherever we go for Grantourismo, it’s difficult to learn very much at all in Tokyo in two weeks without formal language classes.

While we met many friendly Tokyoites who spoke English, we also met many warm souls who didn’t speak a word at all. Most eateries we ate at didn’t have English menus, but that wasn’t a major problem – we could always point to the photo menus or the deliciously kitsch and incredibly helpful plastic food replicas in the windows of many restaurants where food is prepared out of sight. Plus we always seemed to meet other customers who made helpful suggestions.

Lessons learned: human beings will always find ways to communicate, but next time we return to Tokyo we’ll enroll in language classes as soon as we arrive – and in the interim, we’ll work on our miming skills.

As per Paris and Venice, where we didn’t tick off any major sights this trip, we didn’t visit the Imperial Palace or Tokyo Tower here either. Nor did we do any iconic activities, such as attend a tea ceremony or sumo wrestling match, apart from visit the Tsukiji fish markets, but then we shop the local markets in every place we stay.

Perhaps more than any other destination, in Tokyo we really delighted in wandering the streets and taking in the rhythm and colour of everyday neighbourhoods. We still learned things from locals, though in a more informal way, from visiting the fish markets with food expert Etsuko Nakamura to talking sake with food and drink writer Melinda Joe to getting a lesson in pop culture from authors of books on robots and monsters. In all cases, we connected with these locals using social media, via their blogs or on Twitter.

Lessons learned: This one was a lesson we learned long ago, and was one of the reasons we embarked on Grantourismo: rather than do the things we feel we should do when we visit places, pursue our own interests in any way that it seems to make sense – it just so happens that for us those ways involve connecting with locals, both in the ‘real’ and social media worlds.

Our Tokyo Tips

Rent an apartment: nowhere does a holiday rental make more sense than an expensive hotel room than it does in Tokyo; see our reasoning here.

• Take the Airport Limousine Bus Service: if flying into Tokyo, figure out which is the nearest hotel to your apartment, then take a ‘limousine bus’ there. Tickets cost just Y3000 (around £32) compared to a £165 taxi ride – buy them at the desk at Arrivals. Porters take care of your luggage and on arrival hotel staff will organize a taxi to your apartment.

• Use PASMO for daily transport: buy a plastic PASMO card from the ticket machines at your nearest Metro and whack a couple of thousand yen on it. It’s not necessarily cheaper to use the PASMO (although individual rides on the subway are cheaper in Tokyo than, say, in Paris or London), it’s just incredibly convenient – you swipe it as you go through the gates leading to the platforms (you see the balance every time) and swipe it on the way out again, with no need to pay supplements when you change between private train lines; you can use it on trains, buses and even some drink vending machines; it’s easy to re-charge, with cash or credit card; and you can easily get your Y500 deposit back when you leave.

• Carry Maps: pick up a free Tokyo Metro map from the station and carry it with you always, and if you’re staying a week or longer, buy a small bilingual Tokyo street directory.

• Navigating Tokyo: identify the nearest Metros and walk to them from your apartment, marking the route on your map. Don’t attempt to walk home from a Metro without having done this (unless you’re using a GPS!) as we guarantee (from experience!) you’ll get lost. Most minor Tokyo streets aren’t named but are numbered. While there are maps at all Metros the top of the Map is not necessarily north, so the direction you need to go in can be challenging to figure out the first few times.

• Eat Affordably: it’s a myth that Tokyo has to be an expensive city – eating here doesn’t have to cost more than any other city – but if you’re on a budget you can save lots of money by buying bento boxes for picnic lunches or when you want to eat in, opting for set meals (many for less than £8/US$10), and eating at noodle shops, yakitori stands and izakaya bars. See this post for more tips.

• Free Stuff: there is plenty to do in Tokyo that needn’t cost a thing, from kicking back in the city’s many beautiful parks to strolling the tranquil grounds of shrines. Just walking the streets of the city is a buzz.

If you have any reflections or tips you’d love to share from your travels in Tokyo, please do leave them in the Comments below. We’d love to know what we missed out on so we can do it next time!

Jul 06

Time Travelling in the Gritty Alleys of the Golden Gai

I’m not going to name names, so don’t ask. But a Tokyo-based guide recommended to us emailed me to say he was away on a tour while we were in town. He apologised for not being there to meet us and kindly gave us his number in case we needed help. His one piece of advice: “Avoid the Golden Gai at night – it’s dangerous!”

Fortunately it was too late to take it. We’d already hit Shinjuku’s Golden Gai the night before, getting home in the wee hours after one too many drinks and nursing niggling hangovers. I knew I should have suggested Terence give the shochu a miss and reminded him we didn’t need to try everything in the name of research, we can take a night off every now and again. But we’ve all been there, right?

We had a great time kicking back at the Golden Gai. We returned again, and now we’re gone, I’m missing it. The Golden Gai is the drinking equivalent of Memory Lane (see this post), a nostalgic trip down neon-lit alleys lined with over two hundred tiny, dimly-lit bars that take you back in time, to another era that thankfully still has a place in postmodern, present day Tokyo.

Strolling the lanes of the Golden Gai is like wandering onto the sets of Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love and 2046, as much for the gritty, ‘exotic’, ‘Far East’ locations and vintage mise-en-scène, as for the sentimental mood the poignant films, and the Golden Gai, inspire. The movies are about love, loss, nostalgia and melancholia, and recalling and recapturing memories. I think that’s what the Golden Gai experience is about too.

Peek into any one of the nomiya – the miniscule counter bars that cradle no more than a dozen punters – and you’ll spy a perspiring salaryman, dishevelled head in his hands, as he pours out his heart to the bartender. In another, a bartender entertains her jolly patrons with stories she’s probably shared countless times, the laughter of her clients filling the place. It’s this intimacy, that can make a visit to a bar here feel as if you’re gate-crashing a private party, that outsiders can find either appealing or intimidating.

The atmosphere of each of the bars reflects the musical tastes, style and interests of their owner-bartenders for whom the bars are a second home, or, in some cases, it could even be assumed from the cosy décor, their main domicile. This means you can expect to find anything from a bopping jazz and blues bar to a blackened heavy metal joint. It also means that requests probably won’t be welcome, so do a lap of the ’hood and choose your bar carefully before pulling up a stool.

The guidebooks warn that the Golden Gai isn’t very foreigner-friendly. As we’d later learn their writers, as well as their readers, simply misunderstand the unwritten rules. The guidebooks suggest that La Jetée, a bar behind a closed door, up a skinny flight of rickety stairs, with an English-speaking owner, is one of only a few that welcome strangers – ordinarily, considering our mission, good reasons to avoid it.

But being a fan of the Chris Marker film the diminutive bar is named after – a movie about time travel and memory in which scientists send their victims to different periods “to call past and future to the rescue of the present” – I couldn’t not visit the bar, could I? The owner, I had also read, was a devotee of Jean-Luc Godard, whose films I once wrote a thesis about, and Wim Wenders, another inspiration for this former filmmaker. When in town, Wenders drops by for a drink and filmed at La Jetée for Tokyo-Ga, his film about Ozu and Tokyo, and one of the most sublime documentaries ever made. How could I not check it out?

When we open the door at the top of the stairs, we find a table of four young locals and one other drinker at the bar. We squeeze in next to him and the bar is full. The owner, Tomoyo does speak English, she is welcoming, and La Jetée is like her home, its wooden walls plastered with old movie posters and shelves stacked with tapes with handwritten covers.

Over vodka and beers – Tomoyo drinks too – she tells us she opened the bar in 1974. “But how could you?” Terence flatters her, “You were just a baby!” “I mixed drinks with water,” Tomoyo responds dryly.

We chat about Tomoyo’s music selection (French chanson when we arrive, Natacha Atlas by the time we leave) and the collection that crams the shelves on her walls – everything from Nina Simone to Sonic Youth – much of it given to Tomoyo by clients. To Terence’s surprise, her favourite band is Tortoise. We talk about Tokyo (Tomoyo recommends we visit Tsujiki fish markets; on her one day off, she heads to Shinjuku Park), the bar (most regular customers drop in at least once a day), and the Golden Gai. Surprisingly, in hindsight, we don’t get around to talking film.

“Foreigners don’t understand that we have customs here in the Golden Gai,” Tomoyo tells us, after learning we’re writers, as if appealing to us to share them. “It’s a very traditional way of drinking here.”

Before leaving, we ask Tomoyo if we can take a few photos of her bar. Would her customers mind, we ask?

“Ask them yourself,” she says, “They speak English. They’re filmmakers. A couple even live in New York.” Of course.

Tips for Barhopping in the Golden Gai

  • Bar rents are high, space tight and customers few in the Golden Gai, which explains why most bars have a cover charge, generally chalked along with drink prices on a blackboard outside – if they’re not and you’re on a tight budget, ask the price before sitting down.
  • Some bars offer discounts or waive cover charges for foreigners – this is generally for a good reason, but all the same, these might be a good place to start if you’re watching your wallet.
  • It’s a custom in the Golden Gai that if a bar is full and new customers arrive, and the group inside has been there a while, the people who have been there the longest should give up their seats first. According to Tomoyo, many foreigners don’t know this and don’t always budge when they should. This probably explains occasional tensions. The rule is simple: don’t overstay your welcome.
  • “If you really want to drink at a particular bar,” Tomoyo suggests, “just go and have a drink at the bar next door or opposite and wait your turn.”
  • It’s easy to lose track of time in the Golden Gai, so if you miss your last train, you’ll find plenty of taxis on Yasukuni Dori, along with an ATM (and clean public toilet!) in the 24 hour mini-mart.
  • No matter how much you feel like kicking on, avoid doing it in the nearby red-light district of Kabukicho (which begins beside the mini-mart). Now that’s an area that can get dangerous.

Jul 05

A Trip down Omoide Yokocho (Memory Lane) in Shinjuku

Many people think of Tokyo as a high-tech, high-rise city and while that is true to a certain extent, it’s not the complete picture. Tokyo boasts charming, low-rise, traditional neighbourhoods such as Yanaka and Asakusa (which we wrote about here), but more surprisingly there are atmospheric old quarters hidden right amid the neon-lit towers of Shinjuku, such as the tiny area tucked beside the railway line known as Omoide Yokocho or Memory Lane.

A black market after WWII, these skinny lanes of rickety buildings are home to dozens of smoky yakitori and izakaya bars that are famous for their grilled skewers and wok-fried noodles cooked over open flames. Ironically, the very thing that makes the place so beloved by regulars is what for many makes the place little more than a fire hazard.

Indeed much of the neighbourhood was actually rebuilt in 1999 after fire raged through the old wooden structures. A complete demolition of the area has long been talked about, but fortunately these little eat streets still thrive, with workers filling the bars nightly to line their stomachs or soak up the alcohol with this fantastically affordable fast food.

Also called Shonben Yokocho or ‘Piss Alley’, the area gained its name from its lack of toilet facilities, and while there are toilets here now, it’s a small concession to the atmosphere of the place.

While this may not be the best spot to come on your first night in Tokyo if you’re not with a Japanese speaker – there are no menus in English and few staff speak English – we managed to make friends and get by okay with lots of pointing and a little help from our new mates. It’s also not a good place to come in a group larger than three or four as you’ll find it hard to get seats for two in the tiny eateries.

Having said that, Memory Lane quickly became one of our favourite places in Tokyo, and one we returned to – as well as being one we think should be preserved at all costs.

When you go, whatever you eat (here’s a guide), be sure to have a shot of shochu with soda and lemon, called a chuhai, and toast kampai! to an area in the heart of Tokyo that still oozes plenty of post-war charm.

Jul 05

Aloha Yanaka: Vintage Tokyo

Strolling the leafy lanes of the atmospheric quarter of Yanaka is like stepping back in time. Dotted with historic temples and traditional low-rise wooden houses, this laidback area is one of Tokyo’s oldest neighbourhoods, dating back to the Edo period (1603-1867). It’s also one of the few areas of the city to survive World War Two bombing relatively intact and as a result has a vintage vibe.

One of three neighbourhoods, along with Sendagi and Nezu, that comprise an area collectively referred to as ‘Yanesan’ – from Ya (Yanaka), Ne (Nezu), and Sen (Sendagi) – Yanaka is becoming increasingly cool. Tokyo’s hipsters are taking over tiny retro bars, untouched since the 1950s and 60s, and opening funky boutiques and shops.

It’s here, on the border between Yanaka and Nezu, that we stumbled across Akihiko Nakamura’s small atelier, SanUnKaiGetu, which, Akihiko tells us, translates to ‘Mountain, Cloud, Sea, Moon’.

A former computer engineer who studied English literature at university, 50 year-old soft-spoken Akihiko says he gave up computing (“because it was boring”) to pursue something more creative, and threw in a sales job two years ago to open his atelier because he wanted to work for himself.

A Hawaiian grandfather and his grandmother’s antique kimono collection – many over 100 years old – were the inspiration for his collection of his and her Aloha shirts, original artwork and accessories made from vintage kimonos.

Akihiko hasn’t forgotten his tech background completely. He has an online store if you’re not going to Tokyo anytime soon, and one of his coolest products is a vibrant kimono-covered iPad case!

Atelier SanUnKaiGetu
2-37-1, 1F Nezu, Bunkyou-ku

Jul 05

Cat Cafes and Other Tokyo Eccentricities

It’s no secret that the Japanese love the kawaii or cute character Hello Kitty, but also wildly successful has been a more tangible rendering of cats – the cat café.

While pet ownership is up in Japan apparently – pet shops are everywhere and small breeds of dogs are hugely popular here – many apartment blocks in Tokyo forbid pets, so these cafes, started in Osaka in 2004, are on the rise in Tokyo.

The business model is simple really: provide a long menu of cats from an array of different breeds to cater for all tastes, a short menu of drinks and snacks, and charge people by the hour to sit back and pat a kitty while they sip a coffee.

We’re cat (and dog) lovers, and one thing we’ve been missing from our holiday rentals so far this year is having something cute and fluffy to cuddle on the rare occasion that we unwind in front of a television, so we couldn’t resist paying a visit to this ‘cat petting zoo’ as they’re sometimes called here.

We opted for one of the original Tokyo cat cafes, which we were told had the most interesting range of cats – Calico Cat Cafe in Shinjuku. Here they charge Y600 per person for an hour or Y900 for 90 minutes. We planned on spending just an hour, but if you’re a cat lover you’ll understand how easy it would be to let one slip into two… the cats are just so adorable.

When we visited around 8pm one evening (the place was packed with locals), all of our favourites, the Persian cats, spent most of the time sleeping, and there’s a rule (among many) that you have to let a sleeping cat lie, so we had to settle for dangling toys in front of the others instead.

Curiously, the most popular breed that the locals like, is the ‘Scottish Fold’, the ones above with their ears bent forward – probably because they most resemble the kind of cute characters that the Japanese love so much – even when they’re real!

See Bento.com for a list of Tokyo cat cafes compiled by Melinda Joe.

Looking for other eccentric activities in Tokyo?

  • Virtual Golf Bars – enjoy a few swings in front of golf simulator while you swig a beer at one of the many Golf Bars popping up all over Tokyo. There are a dozen alone in our neighbourhood of Akasaka.
  • Pachinko Parlours – as bewildering as it seems to us to want to gamble away your savings on a pointless game of vertical pinball, Pachinko Parlours are incredibly popular in Tokyo and worth a visit at least once if you fancy yourself as a bit of an amateur anthropologist. You’ll find them in every area of Tokyo.
  • Maid Cafés – geeky guys can have a game of cards, a back rub and even get their ears cleaned (gross, we know!) as they chat to a waitress in a French maid’s costume about the latest manga release. There’s a list of maid cafés here on CNNGo.

Got any tips on quirky things to do in Tokyo? Let us know in the comments below.

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