Take a trip to Tokyo

KarenKay­comes­faceto­face­with­thecity’sThum­bTribe, and­feelsstrange­ly­likeAlice

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - TRAVEL2009 -

IT felt strangely like time travel. I’d stepped out of my quaint cot­tage in the depths of the Bri­tish coun­try­side, shuf­fled aboard a flight at Heathrow – and touched down in a jaw-drop­ping, alien, fu­tur­is­tic world, still clutch­ing my Mul­berry hand­bag and wear­ing my Lib­erty print shirt, Church’s brogues and Har­ris tweed coat.

Of­ten th­ese days, when we visit the won­ders of the world, our ex­pe­ri­ences are al­ready di­min­ished by vir­tual vis­its via tele­vi­sion and the in­ter­net. But here I was in Tokyo, sur­rounded by mono­rails snaking about the bases of glis­ten­ing glass and steel sky­scrapers – and com­pletely awestruck. I was over­come with a sense of com­plete cul­ture shock.

This, I imag­ined, was how Alice must have felt when she ar­rived in Won­der­land. Yet, though they are sur­rounded with all this fu­tur­is­tic ar­chi­tec­ture and state-of-the-art tech­nol­ogy, the Ja­panese are de­cid­edly con­ser­va­tive in their per­sonal style, largely favour­ing a look that mir­rored my own, quintessen­tially English wardrobe.

All around, busi­ness­men strode pur­pose­fully in Savile Row-style tai­lor­ing, while women of all ages had adopted a look that owed more to Laura Ashley than the sci-fi style of their sur­round­ings.

Tokyo is a city like no other: you imag­ine a cos­mopoli­tan com­mu­nity, lit­tered with an ar­ray of di­verse faces from around the world but, in re­al­ity, this re­mains an in­her­ently Ja­panese place, where long­stand­ing tra­di­tions and cul­tural rit­u­als are be­ing adapted to suit the mod­ern lifestyles of a new gen­er­a­tion of techno-savvy ur­ban dwellers.

Af­ter con­sult­ing my map and try­ing to de­ci­pher the in­com­pre­hen­si­ble sig­nage around me, my first stop was the Li­brary bar, a com­pact sa­lon in a quiet res­i­den­tial street where Ja­pan’s new lit­er­ary elite gather to sip espres­sos or cock­tails and work on their lat­est best­selling nov­els.

But this is no or­di­nary writ­ers’ meet­ing place. The bat­tered l eather arm­chairs and bar stools were oc­cu­pied by so­phis­ti­cated, de­signer-clad au­thors who tapped out their block­busters on their cell­phone hand­sets. I or­dered a cof­fee – ouch, nearly £9 (R117) – in an at­tempt to coun­ter­act my jet-lag and perched next to Tadashi Izumi, who I dis­cov­ered was well qual­i­fied to be here, boast­ing a PhD in Vic­to­rian lit­er­a­ture from Cam­bridge.

Far from hark­ing back to the clas­sics, though, he writes for an au­di­ence of teenage girls, whom he refers to as the “Oyayu­bi­zoku” or “thumb tribe” – so called be­cause they use their thumbs to tap out text mes­sages or scroll through the “pages” of nov­els on their phones.

Izumi’s first “keitai” (cell­phone) novel, Cross­roads, sold more than two mil­lion copies within a week and the lat­est byte-sized in­stall­ments are ea­gerly awaited by le­gions of fe­male fans hooked on his ro­mances. He is con­vinced that if Shake­speare were alive to­day, he too would be writ­ing on a cell­phone, and that it will be the way the rest of the world en­joys read­ing lit­er­a­ture soon.

I’m not so sure but I am more comfortable with this than with the story I hear from an­other au­thor, who told me one of Ja­pan’s lead­ing hor­ror writ­ers, Koji Suzuki, is plan­ning to pub­lish his next thriller on a roll of toi­let pa­per.

Next day, I took a walk through the up­mar­ket Shibuya shop­ping district, where brands such as Burberry, Ralph Lauren and Prada have glossy flag­ship em­po­ri­ums. How­ever, I was more in­tere s t e d i n t he qui r k y bout i ques a nd gal­leries in the wind­ing streets be­hind the de­signer-la­bel-clad av­enue, where crafts­men were hand-tool­ing ex­quis­ite leather goods, chil­dren’s clothes and jew­ellery. There were also book­binders and cob­blers, sil­ver­smiths and sta­tion­ers.

Then there was Kiddy Land, a vast tem­ple to toys that makes Ham­leys look like a small-town op­er­a­tion. Next stop was Ak­i­habara, Tokyo’s gad­get district, where ev­ery pos­si­ble elec­tronic de­vice seems to be piled high. I found – among other things – a strange USBen­abled kid­ney-shaped ob­ject that, ac­cord­ing to the packaging, is de­signed to be in­serted in­side the cups of a bra. Does it vi­brate? Sing? Trans­mit data? I left, none the wiser.

I was fas­ci­nated by the num­ber of “anime”, or car­toon comic stores and the pop­u­lar­ity of gashapon ma­chines – vend­ing ma­chines that spew out toys for 100 yen (about 60p) – and pachinko, an ar­cade game that’s a cross be­tween pin­ball and a slot ma­chine. At home, they’d be for kids: here they’re for Big Kids, for whom Tokyo is one big play­ground.

And for many lo­cals, there is def­i­nitely a res­o­lute re­fusal to grow up: the lat­est trend among 20-some­thing Ja­panese women is large, opaque con­tact lenses that cre­ate the il­lu­sion of youth­ful, car­toon-like “wide-eyes”, which they wear with “cute” girly en­sem­bles more ap­pro­pri­ate to ju­nior school chil­dren.

There are even “maid cafés”, where af­ter­noon tea is served by wait­resses dressed in St Trinian’s-style uni­forms ac­ces­sorised by a pleased-to-serveyou, but some­how not sub­servient, smile.

The “kawaii” or “cute” fac­tor is key to pop­u­lar ap­peal here, as I dis­cov­ered when I headed to Chiara, a chi-chi bou­tique where hun­dreds of women head to have their cell­phones cus­tomised with crys­tals, se­quins, car­toon char­ac­ters and mono­grams. I learnt that top Ja­panese model and so­cialite Momo Eri (Paris Hil­ton of the East) has had six or seven hand­sets cus­tomised here in the past few years, adorn­ing each with tiny straw­ber­ries, cher­ries, roses, lip­sticks, hearts and other ephemera.

I couldn’t help but get car­ried away by the kitsch­i­ness of it all, and ner­vously handed over my new INQ1 phone for some bling treat­ment. When in Ja­pan, as they say … Speak­ing of which,Thanks to tour firm Be­spoke Tokyo, I se­cured a cov­eted reser­va­tion at Tokyo’s most stylish eaterie: the Ta­pas Molec­u­lar Bar, on the 38th floor of the Ni­hon­bashi Mit­sui Tower at the Man­darin Ori­en­tal Ho­tel.

At just two sit­tings an evening, each serv­ing seven guests, award-winning chef Jeff Ram­sey of­fers a gas­tro­nomic jour­ney fea­tur­ing 25 bite-sized cour­ses of culi­nary heaven.

Half-Ja­panese, half-Amer­i­can, Ram­sey’s style is a blend of the cuisines of­fered on each side of the Pa­cific, pre­pared us­ing sci­en­tif­i­cally in­flu­enced, al­chemic meth­ods à la He­ston Blu­men­thal. It is a truly mem­o­rable and he­do­nis­tic ex­pe­ri­ence, and well worth the £100 bill (R1 278), which in­cludes wine.

Most of the time I found bento boxes (take­away) or sushi bars to be an af­ford­able, healthy and tasty way to eat.

Tokyo is a city of con­trasts, where mir­rored mono­liths house in­ter­na­tional conglomerates and shoe­box shops of­fer quirky one-off crafts.

It is a place where you’ll find the ex­tremes of taste, from gaudy and kitsch to the re­fined and el­e­gant, and cul­tural de­lights from an­cient tem­ples, such as the must-see Meiji Shrine, to con­tem­po­rary art gal­leries. Most of all, Tokyo gives you a fas­ci­nat­ing in­sight into the fu­ture. – Daily Mail

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