Tokyo locals aren’t friendly, we’d heard. “They’re shy, so they won’t make an effort to speak to you,” said one person. “They’d rather you just go away, because they get embarrassed they don’t speak English,” said another. “They actually don’t want you here at all,” said one long-term expat.
Had the Gods heard? Because every day in Tokyo has brought myriad encounters that make myths of this advice.
At the Nagasaka Metro on our first day a businessman offers tips and assistance with buying the best train tickets. As we study our map having taken a wrong street returning home one day, an office-worker offers to assist, going as far as to walk us down the street from which he’d just come to show us the right way home.
One night, looking for an Akasaka restaurant with signage only in Japanese, we ask staff at a soba restaurant to point us in the right direction; instead, the kimono-clad woman slips on her wooden shoes, grabs a parasol, and gestures for us to follow her — in the rain, to the next block, and down another lane — to our restaurant.
Another evening, we’re standing outside our apartment block looking at a map and discussing the best route to take, when a young couple asks if we’re lost. We’re not, but we accept their advice and — as they turn out to be so lovely — their offer to show us the best way to our destination, a 15-minute stroll away.
“We’ve just had a big dinner and need a walk,” they insist. But as we walk and talk, we discover that over their meal, the young just-married couple — the wife, Kazuki, a marketing and sales executive, and her husband, Tetsu, a restaurant manager — had just made a resolution to help foreigners who look like they need some help.
“We were talking about how we see so many tourists in Tokyo who look a bit lost, and they seem too shy to approach Japanese. As we’ve both travelled we know how the foreigners must feel, so we decided that we would help anyone who looked like they needed it!” We’re lucky to be the first.
And then there is Yuto. We meet Yuto Yamada, who looks like a hipster out of a Wong Kar Wai film, and his friend at a smoky yakitori place down an atmospheric alleyway beside Shinjuku railway line. Heavy metal music is blaring, the owner is sporting an Ozzy Osbourne t-shirt and, fittingly, the patrons are drunk or well on the way to it. Of course, there is no menu in English and we have to wait for a couple of guys to stumble off into the night to get a couple of seats.
We sample a few skewers before Yuto, offering to translate our order to the yakitori guys, recommends the raw liver in sesame oil — one of the main dishes he comes here for. We take it as a test of our ability to fit in, which we relish. The dish is delish and you can tell we’ve earned their respect a little. Yuto explains that he and his friend are graphic designers and that they consider this place to be the best on the strip of yakitori joints. It’s certainly the most fun!
Yuto has lived in New York, where he worked in a clothing store while learning English. He admits he’s shy, but it doesn’t stop him from helping us and offering advice, asking whether we’ve done this or that — “Have you been to Shibuya? What about Harajuku?” he asks. We exchange cards and the next morning he emails us: “It was nice meeting you guys last night. I checked your blog. I like your photography. Did you go Tukiji fish market? I forgot to tell you last night. They have a best sushi in Japan. If not, you have to check it out in the morning.” It makes sense to invite him to be our Local Knowledge person.
When we arrange to meet Yuto to shoot his portrait, he suggests midnight at a Shiubya club where he’s heading to meet friends. Terence refuses to ever enter a nightclub again with a camera, so we suggest midnight outside at Shibuya crossing instead, seeing Shibuya is one of Yuto’s favorite hang-outs.
An hour later, a little damp after our shoot in the rain, we’re perched on stools, digging our toes into shagpile carpet as we down beers and potent caiparinhas amidst the retro red interior and mirrors at Yuto’s favourite Shibuya bar, Insomnia Lounge.
Q. What do you most love about your work as a designer?
A. I can earn a living with my art work at the same time that I can make my clients happy.
Q. Why should travellers visit Tokyo?
A. In Tokyo people can experience a mix of new and old stuff in a crazy big city. In every season there are different ways of enjoying Tokyo. Stay longer and you can really do lots of things and see so many places.
Q. 3 words to describe Tokyo?
A. A big city, a crowded city, and a city that never sleeps.
Q. And the people of Tokyo?
A. Cool, busy, and original.
Q. Top recommendations for visitors?
A. Visit Tokyo Tower and Roppongi Hills just so you can really check out the concrete jungle we all live in here in Tokyo. Go to Shibuya, which is the best spot to hang out for shops, izakaya (bars), clubs and more. Spend some time in Asakusa, which is one of Tokyo’s most traditional places with temples and old shopping streets.
Q. Best souvenir from Tokyo?
A. Some Japanese incense or a green tea set. They’re both cheap and useful. You can find these and other great souvenirs at Oriental Bazaar at Harajuku.
Q. Must-do eating experiences?
A. Visit Tukiji fish market, where you can eat the best sushi in Tokyo and you can see how the local fishmongers trade seafood, especially tuna, early in morning. Go to an Izakaya, a typical Japanese bar where you can eat and drink a wide range of typical Japanese food and sake or beer. Shinjuku has many great Izakaya bars. Eat Ramen, Japanese noodle. All Japanese people love Ramen I think, and the noodles at every Ramen shop have a different taste.
Q. An essential thing to know before coming to Tokyo?
A. The trains don’t run 24 hours and the taxis can be a little bit expensive so you need to plan your arrival and plan how you’ll spend your evening.
Q. Most important phrase to learn in Japanese?
A. Kanpai!! of course, especially for people who like to drink. It’s the Japanese toast like ‘cheers!’
Q. Any other advice?
A. You can visit Tokyo anytime, but the best season to visit is in April because it’s cherry blossom season. The city is beautiful and local people party under the cherry blossoms.
We normally leave our Local Knowledge post (interviews we do with locals who have helped us get beneath the skin of a destination), until the end of our two-week stay in a place, however, we thought we’d move this one to the front of the queue as it dispels a lot of myths that seem to exist about Tokyo and its locals.