Six days in Tokyo
05.06.2015 - 13.06.2015
If anyone has seen 'Tokyo Nights', an episode of Anthony Bourdain's TV programme Parts Unknown, you'll have some idea of what our time in Tokyo was like. Alighting from the plane we felt, well, jet-lagged doesn't cover it. Flying from LA meant we had lost 16 hours, arriving 28 hours after we'd left, even though the journey only took 12 hours. Or arriving 12 hours later, when 28 hours had actually passed. Either way, we felt a little strange.
Luckily, Tokyo is the sort of place that jet-lag can work to your advantage if you use it wisely, much like Las Vegas where, on our honeymoon, we went for a jet-lagged nap at 6 p.m., slept through our dinner reservation at Hakkasan, woke up at 3 a.m. and went downstairs to the casino, where we played roulette and got hideously drunk, eventually abandoning a tableful of ill-ordered daiquiris in the all-you-can-eat buffet at midday. It's all part of the experience, right?
So taking our lead from Anthony Bourdain, we jumped straight in at the deep end. After navigating our way through the airport and the subway system, which is almost a whole city in itself, we emerged from one of Shinjuku station's 200 exits into the neon-lit, bustling streets of Kabukichō, Tokyo's major red light district. Our hotel wasn't too difficult to find, as it had a giant Godzilla on the roof, which is perfectly normal, of course.
Speaking of Kabukichō, I should note that the title of this blog post is stolen from the book of this name by Ryu Murakami. It is a novel about a young Japanese man, Kenji, who is hired to guide an American tourist around Kabukichō. Kenji has a bad feeling about this American, and becomes more and more suspicious that he might harbour murderous desires. I love the title, and it sums up Tokyo for me, as I definitely felt like I was swimming in a bowl of miso soup, occasionally bumping into a piece of wobbly tofu or getting tangled in a string of seaweed.
So what did we do during the next few days of miso-drowning craziness? The Robot Restaurant was high on our list of priorities, and was conveniently located close to Godzilla's reassuring presence. There are no words to adequately describe this place. First of all, it's not a restaurant. At all. It is a show, and the strangest, most mind-boggling show you'll ever see. Glittery bikini-clad girls on podiums, gigantic robots and electronic snakes, massive flashing video screens, neon battle tanks, an audience waving glo-sticks… it was a live-action power rangers fantasy world that could only exist in Tokyo. I found it impossible to take a good photo of the show, but definitely Google it, and if you find yourself in Tokyo, you must go.
Next, we decided to make like Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray in Lost in Translation and try our hand at karaoke. We paid for an hour, thinking we’d probably leave after half… Six hours and three bottles of wine later, at 5 a.m., we stumbled back into the street. There is video evidence, available on request. I don't recommend watching it – you can never unsee (or unhear) it.
The fun didn't just happen after dark. During the day we plucked up the courage to go to a maid café (after downing a few Sapporos). Waitresses dressed as maids make food in the shape of cute animals and draw kittens on top of your coffee. When they bring your food and drinks they do ‘magic’, and you join them in making hearts with your hands and blowing out candles. We unwittingly chose a maid to have photos taken with from a list, thinking we were choosing a photo design. As far as I can see, the idea is that people (and most of the customers were middle-aged men) go there, usually on their own, to feel ‘special’. The maids ask a lot of questions about your life and act very interested and empathetic. Maid cafés, karaoke booths, gaming arcades… they're all a form of escapism.
Matt's favourite area of Tokyo was Akihabara, known as Electric Town – this is where all the technology and electronic stores are situated, as well as arcades, anime and manga cafés. After spending some time in Club Sega and Taito arcades, where people sat in rows, completely transfixed on the machines in front of them, I left Matt to browse Super Potato and other strangely-named retro games stores while I went to check out a few cat cafés, to practise those crazy cat lady skills that Matt was starting to worry about in Texas. Unlike Lady Dinah's in London you can feed the cats in the Tokyo cat cafés, and before I knew it I had a dozen cats swarming around me.
When I met up with Matt later, he had bought a suitcaseful of games, which I thought was rather unfair, as I had been told that under no circumstances was I to sneak a cat out of the cat café. Our lack of phone signal and internet access made it quite difficult to continue this games/cat café dual, so we sought a way to combine our interests. Unfortunately there are no cat cafés with retro games consoles installed (future business idea?), but after a bit of research we were delighted to discover 8-bit, a retro games bar. Perfect. Matt could continue his retro gaming, whilst I got drunk on video-game themed cocktails, such as Metroid, Princess Peach and Donkey Kong. I even got drunk enough to be persuaded to play a game of Dr Mario.
Having been a good wife and pandered to Matt's retro-gaming will, it was my turn to choose a place for an evening's entertainment. So off we went to Golden Gai, an area of six tiny lanes, with about 200 even tinier bars, mostly seating between four and eight people. We sauntered around the lanes first, peering through doorways into the dark, smoky drinking dens, and felt like we'd been transported back to the 1950s, the area having been preserved and avoiding the mass development happening around it. Many of the bars have themes, be it Halloween, Easy Rider or hospitalisation (Tachibana Shinsatsushitsu has cocktails such as Chounai Senjou ('colonic irrigation'), which looks like, well, a turd). After a wander, we decided on a bar called Araku, which we’d heard was a good one for gaijin (foreigners), many of the bars even refusing to serve non-regulars, never mind nosy Westerners. Araku had an Australian theme, in as much as it served kangaroo meat, but it was bigger than many of the bars, and the atmosphere wasn’t quite what we were looking for, so after a sake cocktail we moved on to NaNa, an Andalusian-themed bar with a few seats, where the only other patrons were a Japanese man and a 19-year-old cat called Ojo. The Golden Gai experience reminded us of Ikiru, a hauntingly beautiful 1950s Japanese film by Kurosawa. If you haven't seen it already, you definitely should.
After drinks comes dinner, and what good dinners we had. We found a tempura restaurant called Tsunahachi, where we sat along a bar and watched the chef dunk prawns, white fish, squid and vegetables into tempura batter, which we then ate with rice, pickles and miso (the standard accompaniments to most meals). We ate fresh sushi at Tsukiji fish market, where tuna auctions take place every day at 5 a.m. There were izakayas, such as Donzoko, an old, ivy-covered, three-storey building with cosy booths and lots of dark wood. I can't remember how many matcha-flavoured goodies we tried: matcha ice cream, matcha kit-kats, matcha mochi, and good old matcha tea. At Kakiden we had kaiseki: a traditional Japanese multi-course meal consisting of beautifully presented morsels of exotic delicacies (more about kaiseki in my next post – it gets scary).
There is so much I haven't mentioned: the famous Shibuya crossing (the 'scramble'); Hamarikyu gardens, where a floating teahouse provides a tranquil escape from the city; Senso-ji Temple, the largest temple in Tokyo; the plastic food in most of the restaurant windows – such an important business that factories employ actual sushi chefs to make the miniature food exactly to scale; and the girl we met in an izakaya, who was carrying around a bearded dragon (real) on a white tiger (not real). Tokyo is a beautiful, crazy city of extremes, and we'll miss it.