An introduction to Tokyo: neon, sugar, ramen, loneliness

An introduction to Tokyo: neon, sugar, ramen, loneliness

The deal was that we would go to Japan together, at a later date.  It was a country we both longed to visit and therefore deserved to be taken on its own merits without any other distractions.

But the cheapest flight from Vladivostok to Melbourne went via Tokyo, so Peter reasoned it would be simply churlish not to extend the stopover from two hours to two nights.

And if he was getting two nights in the city then damnit so was I.  Although flight prices being what they are . . . two became four.  And so I found myself bound for Tokyo with five days to play with and strict instructions not to leave the city limits.

On the plane I met Shane, a Korean-born American who had lived in Japan for several years and had strong feelings on all three countries.  In-flight entertainment was abandoned as we quizzed each other, and he gave me a crash course on the differences – both striking and subtle – between the Japanese and Korean cultures.  I was coming at it with already nostalgic views of Korea and no knowledge whatsoever of Japan but he, despite his Korean heritage, was clearly a greater fan of his adopted country.  That said, he was on his way home to America for a respite from both.  I said “Korea’s so clean” and he said “Wait until you see Tokyo” and I said “I loved all the Korean food I tried” and he said “Korean flavours are so strong – Japanese flavours are far more subtle”.  I thought: I’m going to like Japan.

Having read and been told that Seoul was a gigantic sprawling megalopolis of incalculable inhabitants and unnavigable public transport, yet finding the whole place perfectly accessible and not unlike a more homogeneous London, I wasn’t remotely fearful of Tokyo.  I figured that the two places would probably share many characteristics.

Their first similarity was that ATMs in both cities are similarly opposed to foreigners.  Having instead exchanged my remaining won for yen and feeling relatively optimistic, I sauntered from Narita Airport and opted for the slower, cheaper train than that which my hosts had suggested.

Firstly, the entire process took not one and a half hours as they had estimated, but closer to four.  It involved one slow train, two metros, several inexplicable barriers, not one but three incredibly helpful Tokyoites going out of their way to deposit me on the correct platform, and at one point my eyes filling with genuine, painfully-withheld tears as I stared helplessly at a board written entirely in Japanese and realised I had literally no idea where to go.  I had travelled across China, sourced buses in India, spent the night in the Laotian jungle, and literally days before been navigating Korea but here, in modern, sparkling, logical Tokyo, I was utterly lost.

At this point, the third helpful person intervened and a crisis was averted.


Now we all know my tendency towards exaggeration but I genuinely don’t think I’ve ever encountered a city quite so overwhelming as Tokyo.  The streets teem with people at all hours of the day and night.  I thought Seoul was a neon fantasy but Tokyo indulges to such an extent that viewed from space, I can only imagine it glows like a packet of highlighters.  Its public transportation is comprehensive but so hideously complicated that even locals make regular mistakes.  And the suburbs seem to go on forever; but unlike London’s low-rise sprawl, here they are packed-together buildings which don’t seem to stop.  Seoul was easy.  Tokyo was not.

So much neon
So much neon

By the time I arrived at my apartment, my patience was hanging by a thread.  I had expected a warm welcome from my hosts but it turned out they lived in a different building and unlike every AirBNB I’d ever stayed in, this was a DIY job; keys in a security box, let yourself in, have a nice trip.  It was freezing, and the heating refused to kick in.  The place had apparently been decorated in the 1970s as an antithesis to Tokyo’s retina-scarring neon streets, by somebody with excessive enthusiasm for beige.

I curled up on the bed in thermal leggings and three long-sleeved tops and felt sorry for myself.  Stupid Japan.  Korea was miles better.  I thought nostalgically of kimchi and bibimbap and before I got too woebegone, I decided to drag myself out and attempt to find dinner.

The hosts had left a few local suggestions.  One was a more scenic walk to the nearest train station than the direct one I had initially followed.  I grumpily followed the route.  Less than three minutes after leaving the apartment, I found myself on a street lined with little shops, interesting cafes and small restaurants.  Some of the buildings seemed positively ancient.  I didn’t see any tourists at all.   But something about it seemed off – a kind of Disneyfied effect which lent an odd sheen.  Suddenly I realised: it was just so bloody clean.  Unlike the potholed, gritty, glass-covered, multiple-tarmacked London streets, the road surface here was mirror-smooth.  I could have bobsleighed down it.  I could have dropped an icecream face-down and still eaten it.  Plus, it was well-lit, the shop fronts were positively manicured, and they all displayed openly-available merchandise outside without even the slightest fear of theft.  It was all so civilised.

Asagaya: so, so clean
Asagaya, Tokyo, where city planners forgot to install potholes and chewing gum stains

My frosty feelings began to thaw.

Next to the station, it transpired that there was an even more interesting warren of similar streets, but older and more higgledy-piggledy.  With very little English on display but my stomach issuing ever louder threats, I zeroed in on the first place I saw which seemed relatively full.  I walked inside and held a finger – one person.  I was gestured to go outside.  Oh sod this, I thought, somewhere else that won’t serve single diners?  I got enough of this in Korea!  And there are loads of solo eaters in here!  What is this, a racist thing?  I just want to eat, I thought miserably.  And then the waitress came over and gently pushed me out of the door and pointed to a vending machine outside, and things started to come together.  I had to order first, from the machine!

Later I was to discover that this is a really common way of eating in Japan.  It’s fantastic, really: you take your time outside when you’re not in anybody’s way, with photos to help, make your selection without any fear of attempted upselling, and simply pay as if at a vending machine.  It’s all the joys of fast food but tastier, healthier, and an all-round more pleasant experience.   It’s hardly groundbreaking that the Japanese don’t faff about when it comes to efficiency, but it’s quite revelatory to see it in person.

Step 1: choose from menu with handy photos
Step 1: choose from menu with handy photos
Step 2: find selection on machine, insert money, press button, retrieve receipt
Step 2: find selection on machine, insert money, press button, retrieve receipt
Step 3: enter restaurant, exchange receipt for seat and, shortly, food
Step 3: enter restaurant, exchange receipt for seat and, shortly, food
Step 4: eat delicious food which may or may not be chicken katsu
Step 4: eat delicious food which may or may not be chicken katsu

With a stomach full of chicken katsu (or something else??  Culinary corrections welcome) and emotions significantly lifted, I took the long way home, slowly exploring the windy streets.  As I stood in the middle of the road, staring slack-jawed at a particularly picturesque old building, another random person stopped me to ask if I needed any help.  I was so taken aback that all I could say was “how old are these buildings?!  I mean, they look really old, but are they actually old?!”  Poor guy.  Only wanted to direct me back to the main road and there I was demanding a history lesson.   He assured me that they were, in fact, quite old, and hurried on his way.

A building in Asagaya which probably is quite old
A building in Asagaya which probably is quite old

Despite a reputation of being quite cold to outsiders, I was astonished by just how friendly the Japanese people I met were, and so willing to help a foreigner in distress.  I’ve honestly never visited a capital city where so many people have offered unsolicited assistance.

Back at the flat, the heating was still useless so I crawled into bed wearing a flannel shirt over my pyjamas, thermal socks, and my blanket-scarf spread out on top of the duvet, made myself a hot chocolate with a packet I’d dragged all the way from the Trans-Siberian (international!), and looked forward to the morning.

Which was already off to a good start because I was due to meet David, an American colleague of my mum’s who lives and works in Tokyo, speaks fluent Japanese, loves the country, and is an all-round decent chap.  My mum had coerced David into receiving a care package for me and he had not only agreed, but also offered to take me out for lunch, send home anything I no longer needed, and furnish me with suggestions on what to do in Tokyo.

At the office, I was ushered into the boardroom and instructed to sit on the side of the table facing the door (an ancient tradition which allows the sword-wielding host to sit opposite, with easier access to slay any would-be attackers).  After green tea and some bittersweet reminiscing about our various experiences of China, we visited a little restaurant which David promised was what real Japanese people would be settling down to of a working lunchtime.  It was on a quiet street, in a basement, barely signposted, and not somewhere I’d ever have visited had I been on my own – or even known existed.


The food was beautifully served on a single enamelled tray, all courses together, and accompanied by a side of concern from the proprietress regarding my ability to use chopsticks.  I encountered similar consternation in Korea too and was met by even greater surprise when I demonstrated that not only could I use them but I did so with my left hand.  David and I ate, chatted, he gave me reams of advice on what to do and where to go, and as we left, the lady bustled over again, firing questions at David.

“She wants to know whether you enjoyed it” he explained.

“I loved it!  It was delicious!  Especially the fish” I replied.  He translated and she beamed.  I said “arigato” and revelled in her astonishment and delight.  As my friend Josy had told me, even the most basic attempt at Japanese nets the foreign speaker a disproportionate level of congratulation and approval.

After David sent me on my way with a host of instructions, I headed for the gigantic department store nearby, whereupon I discovered Tokyu Hands and was lost forever.

Well may you look lost, Japanese man, for I too am bewildered and delighted in presence of such uncountable delights
Well may you look lost, sir, for I too am bewildered and delighted in the presence of such immeasurable delights

My new favourite shop, Korea’s ArtBox, was banished into obscurity as I wandered amongst the display stands giving little moans of pleasure and squeaks of excitement.  I stood in front of the washi tape for 20 minutes deliberating between ten different rolls before giving up and buying them all, and five more just in case some hideous accident befell the world’s remaining supply and I regretted forever not buying more when I could.

This isn't a lot of washi tape. This is just ONE QUARTER OF THE DISPLAY
This isn’t a lot of washi tape. This is just ONE QUARTER OF THE DISPLAY

There were separate floors for stationery, craft, cards, hand-made paper, and gift-wrapping.  SEPARATE FLOORS.

If we’re each allowed to design our own heaven then all bets are off, Tokyu Hands is mine.

After messily dashing around for several hours like a toddler in Hamley’s with a mouth full of E-numbers, I decided it was time to do something serious and befitting of my age.  So I went to Harajuku and ate this:

Why yes that is a crepe filled with ice cream, whipped cream, strawberries, chocolate sauce, and a brownie
Why yes that is a crepe filled with ice cream, whipped cream, strawberries, custard, chocolate sauce, and a brownie for luck

Which I chose from a selection that looked like this:

One tiny sample of the literally hundreds of options available, all lovingly recreated in full-size plastic
One tiny sample of the literally hundreds of options available, all lovingly recreated as full-size plastic models

To be honest I’d ended up there by accident because Josy – my primary source of inspiration for all things Japan – had warned me that Harajuku is, to borrow her description, the Camden of Tokyo: an area that tourists think is cool but anyone in the know will tell you is way past its prime.  It’s a good thing she’d already broken the news gently because I was not-so-secretly hoping to encounter a gaggle of Harajuku girls dressed as hyper-sexualised manga characters with plastic ducks in their hair and of course, I didn’t.  They’re long-gone.  But Harajuku itself retains its cutesy crown.  It is the capital of kawaii – a temple to twee.  It seems to have taken the most saccharine international retailers and crammed them onto one street, including Claire’s Accessories, Laura Ashley, and Korea’s blush-hued make-up palace Etude House.  The whole area is so sugary, neon, glittery and pink that I – yes, even I – felt increasingly nauseous, and with crepe in hand, headed for the metro.

In case you forget where you are, there is actually a mini-mall called "Cute Cube"
In case you require an even more intense short of twee, Harajuku boasts a mini-mall called “Cute Cube”

Still not home, though; oh no, I was making the most of my limited time in Japan.  From Harajuku I sped over to Shinjuku for what Yelp and TripAdvisor told me was the best place to go for ramen.  I tracked it down to a tiny place around the back of the station.

Can I remember what it's called in English? Can I bollocks
Can I remember what it’s called in English? Can I bollocks

The name outside was written only in Japanese calligraphy, such that I couldn’t even match up the characters to those on my phone, and I had to wait until someone came out before I could hesitatingly ensure that I’d reached the correct place.  Inside, a long bar snaked around the central cooking area, what I found to be a common way of laying out such restaurants.  The air was filled with tantalising smells, with the low-hung lights over the dark wood bar giving the impression of a smoky American bar on a nameless backstreet in the rough part of town.  It was a side of Tokyo I hadn’t really seen on TV.  .

Hungry diners wait for their ramen
Hungry diners wait for their ramen

Again, the food was ordered from a machine – the resulting receipt handed across the bar to a server – and a single seat made quickly available.

Don't worry, I'll show you how to do it
Don’t worry, I’ll show you how to do it

Maybe I’m a heathen but I don’t really get “standard” ramen.  The noodles here had a great texture, the pork was juicy, and the soft-yolked egg fantastic but I never find the broth to be particularly interesting, even at places where I’m told I should.  Tokotsu ramen, now that’s a different story – lip-smackingly delicious, deep, rich, flavourful – but regular ramen?  I can take it or leave it.  I thought I’d give it a whirl in these parts to see if I simply hadn’t visited the right places but nah . . . I still think it’s a bit boring.

Nobody can deny that it's a deeply instagrammable dish
Still, nobody can deny that it’s a deeply instagrammable dish

I suspect the offerings at Bone Daddies in London’s Soho are tweaked to suit western tastes but I don’t care; I’d much rather settle down to one of their bowls than this restaurant which was nonetheless closing in on five stars for local ratings sites.  I hold up my hands.  Call me an authentic foodie failure.  I can take it.

My favourite part of any ramen
Those eggs, though.  Flipping heck, look at that gooey centre

Still, the venue itself was worth visiting alone, with old Japanese film posters on the wall, and an all-male staff (eight cooks/waiters to the maximum 15 seated patrons) who remained imprisoned behind the bar and shouted out in unison when people entered and exited the premises.

Of course, here we simply call them "film posters"
Of course, here we simply call them “film posters”

After that, I finally decided to call it a day and headed back through the neon-soaked streets as I begun the long journey home.

It was a Friday night and the streets teemed with happy folks, flushed with post-work drinks and trickling back to their homes.  I optimistically decided to take a longer route to an alternative station so that I could avoid the horrors of Shinjuku (Tokyo’s busiest station, which – if you stand in the wrong place at the wrong time, as I had done earlier in the day – can feel like multiple tidal waves of people descending upon you from different directions, all of whom know exactly where they’re going, whilst you are the insignificant bug trampled under their endless feet).  I found myself on a wide, empty avenue, with walkways overhead and underneath, completely lost.  Right on cue, a young woman appeared and shyly asked if I needed help.  When I explained where I was trying to go, she announced that she was heading in more or less the same direction, and would walk me there.  Yet again, I was bewildered by such freely-offered kindness.

We headed to the station chatting about our experiences of Tokyo; she was a country girl, recently moved to the city, and still getting to grips with its momentum and sheer size.  I admitted that even though I was a Londoner, and used to frenetic metropolises, that this was beyond anything I had imagined.  She confided that although she had made friends through work – indeed, these were the people with whom she had just spent the evening – she found it hard work living somewhere so overwhelming.  With limited English, and recognisably Japanese reserve, she tried to imply the isolation I already recognised myself after just two days.

“Sometimes in the biggest cities, with the most people”, I suggested carefully, “it’s the hardest because nobody notices when you feel . . . sad”.  She nodded emphatically and didn’t meet my eyes.  “Yes,” she agreed quietly, “sometimes, it can feel very sad”.

The walk was complicated – through several underpasses and up an unmarked escalator – and as we reached the entrance to the station, I blurted out “Thank you so much for helping me – I never would have found this on my own”.  She said she was happy to help, and smiled.  “Have a good Christmas,” I said – and then, quickly, “I hope you find life in the city easier”.  She smiled, a little sadly, and quickly replied “I will”, but our earlier moment of connection was lost.  I thanked her again, unsure of the etiquette, but she was already turning to leave and hurrying away down the corridor; another nameless guardian angel, back to her own personal problems, and I to mine . . . briefly passing ships in Tokyo’s darkening night.

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