Take a trip to Tokyo
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