At thirty-five million, greater Tokyo’s population is ten million more than all of Australia. It’s any wonder I’ve by-passed the city to ski its legendary powder snow in Hokkaido as I’ve felt intimidated by its immensity.
This time I’m determined to overcome my resistance. I book a ryokan in old Tokyo in Asakusa at the end of our February ski trip to sample life the traditional way. It’s only when my Swiss mate Eric from yoga asks me: ‘Why are you staying in a ryokan?’ do I hesitate. I’m not nearly as tall as his 6ft 4ins, but he’s right. After eleven days skiing, our tired bodies won’t be as supple as they were pre-trip and sinking into a hard, ankle-high, futon bed or sitting cross-legged under a knee-high table is not my idea of comfort. I unbook and choose a western hotel.
Now I can happily say: I’ve navigated Tokyo’s complex transport system; wandered through parks, backstreets and museums; taken a culinary tour that starts in the frenetic paced Shibuya and finishes in the small lanes of Kichijoji; seen the first plum blossoms for 2017; ridden a lift in less than 53 seconds to the 33rd level of Skytree, at 350m, the world’s tallest building; and I’ve become totally mesmerised by the quirky and exotic that makes up Tokyo.
While I laughed at the comical English translations on labels and signs including an air freshener in our bathroom that claimed ‘It is a deodorant spray of an effective professional specificaton to the anxious smell’, I ate fugu (puffer fish), eel, homemade Japanese crackers (senbei) and sushi for breakfast.
Looking back on my photo’s I’ve found some common themes:
1. Unusual pastimes
Japanese girls love dressing up in kimonos and wear geta or zori on their feet to parade around the streets. Taking selfies is now part of the ritual.
There’s been a cosmetic craze among Japanese girls to have crooked teeth (snaggletooth) as some men consider it attractive. This smiling girl outside the Owl Cafe and Bar in Asakusa was encouraging passers-by to come in and see the sad doe-eyed owls.
Hug a bunny? Apparently lots of people do and the wall outside the Bunny Theme Park in Asakusa shows a selection of them with claims that ‘bunnies have special healing powers’ but no mention of what they are.
2. Food – the exotic to the everyday
Known in Australia as puffer fish, fugu is a delicacy, exotic and expensive but dangerous. Chefs must train and have a licence to serve it. The poison is found in the ovaries, liver and skin and these pieces have to be specially disposed of. Fugu is very delicate (even bland) and we ate it drinking fugu infused sake.
Single strawberries are gift wrapped and perfect canteloupes command a high price. This canteloupe has a price tag the equivalent of $A80.
Wasabi, sake, strawberry cheese cake, green tea…I’ve listed but four of the 200 different flavours of Kit Kats available. My favourite was green tea.
3. No cats, but dogs a plenty
‘Tokyo’s version of the RSL’. This was how our culinary tour guide jokingly described this part-outdoor, dining bar to us. Here we sampled local beer, sake and barbequed foods at Japanese pub-eatery prices. Sitting swaddled in a puffa-bag at the feet of this diner was an expectant dog waiting for morsels to come his way.
Dog walking is big business even on a Sunday. But I wasn’t sure whether it was a coincidence that the dogs seemed to be graded by size to avoid the leads twisting.
4. Biking is big
E-bikes are ideal for Tokyo’s traffic to pick up the kid’s after school. When its wet, a plastic hood can be slipped onto a frame and put over the kids, whereas the rider only gets to wear handwarmers fitted to the handlebars.
Lock up your bike? There’s no need to in Tokyo where everyone is amazingly honest, but many kept them close when having a snooze or exercising in the parks.
My advice to anyone planning to visit Tokyo is not to be an ‘anxious’ tourist, but to think of it as a small patchwork of towns. Pick your patch, spend time there getting to know its lively characters and you’re in for an exotic treat whatever the season.