Old-style Samu­rai val­ues mix with hip­ster cool to fuel a Tokyo ob­ses­sion

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Escape - - DESTINATION JAPAN - ROWENA RYAN

It’s the style that grabs you first. Cu­lottes teamed with a beret and heels worn with vel­vet socks. But then you’ll see a beau­ti­ful woman pass by in a ki­mono. You’ll walk past cof­fee stores so hip­sterly cool they make Bondi look 10 years late to the party, then pass a tea­house steeped in tra­di­tion, prac­tis­ing cen­turies-old rit­u­als. You’ll queue for the In­sta­gram­friendly US chain restau­rant Luke’s Lob­ster in Omote­sando but the next day be en­tranced by a sushi mas­ter us­ing tech­niques passed down over hun­dreds of years.

Konichiwa, Tokyo. Ja­pan’s cap­i­tal city is so cut­ting edge one mo­ment, but tightly tied to its con­ser­va­tive val­ues the next. It has me, in one word, ob­sessed. Here’s why it’s made the list of my top three cities in the world.


You’ll find Ja­panese youth still learn­ing the art of tea cer­e­monies, you’ll see peo­ple wear­ing face masks when sick to stop the spread of germs and taxi doors open au­to­mat­i­cally so you don’t have to touch the door han­dle.

The lo­cal bus driver is met with a bow by his col­leagues on the kerb­side, train clean­ers bow to pas­sen­gers once the car­riage has been cleaned and the pub­lic bath­rooms are spot­less. I’m told clean­ing up af­ter your­self is in­stilled at an early age.

It’s a set of val­ues, my guide says, that can be at­trib­uted to the samu­rai war­riors. Although the Samu­rai no longer ex­ist, their val­ues of re­spect, dis­ci­pline and hon­our are still deeply man­i­fested in Ja­panese cul­ture to­day.

Nowhere is it more ob­vi­ous than on the Tokyo sub­way. A car­riage­ful of lo­cals sit qui­etly as the train passes through each sta­tion. Talking on your mo­bile phone is a strong cul­tural no-no, and the rules are as­tound­ingly abided by.


Famed for its tuna auc­tions, Tsuk­iji fish mar­ket has for years drawn vis­i­tors, lo­cals and Miche­lin-starred chefs to its stalls. But af­ter 80 years, it shut in Oc­to­ber and moved to a new state-of the art fa­cil­ity at Toyosu.

How­ever, what does re­main is the Tsuk­iji Outer Mar­ket, where hun­gry tourists can pe­ruse fresh fish, food­stuffs and kitchen­ware, and it’s hum­ming. Lines wrap around the laneways for the most pop­u­lar stalls in­clud­ing Ja­panese omelet served on a skewer for ¥100 (about $1.20), bar­be­cued oys­ters and scal­lops that can be washed down with Ja­panese beer, yak­i­tori oc­to­pus (just fol­low the sweet bar­be­cue smells) and, for the lo­cals, boxes of dried shrimp that pair per­fectly with sake.

Fresh tuna is the hero, with otoro the most prized cut thanks to its fatty con­tent. Just be pre­pared to pay.

The trick, ac­cord­ing to our guide, is to avoid the pint-sized stalls with long lines and in­stead visit the sur­round­ing streets. She takes us up a set of stairs and into a lo­cal sushi restau­rant, Shutoku 3rd Branch.

Take a seat at the bar and let the chef ’s choice menu guide your taste­buds through ni­giri of squid, mack­erel, tuna, sea bream and sea urchin. Known for their sushi rice, they use red wine vine­gar in­stead, so the rice has a dark tinge. Watch the sushi mas­ter’s in­cred­i­ble knife skills, but don’t ask for soy sauce. The chefs here be­lieve the flavour of the fish should be en­joyed on its own.


Pin Daikanyama to your Google maps. The “Brook­lyn of Tokyo” is an area with a lo­cal vibe, in­cred­i­ble fash­ion, bou­tique shops and hip­ster cafes.

First stop should def­i­nitely be at Tsu­taya book­store, the hang for the cool set where you can or­der cof­fee from a cafe with a counter made TSUK­IJI SEAFOOD from nov­els be­fore sink­ing into dark leather couches.

Wind your way through the sur­round­ing laneways, past the trendy Satur­days NYC whose baris­tas are schooled in Aussie-style flat whites that you can drink on their out­door deck. And while I have you at cof­fee, ink. by Can­vas Tokyo is the spot for all your In­sta­gram needs, serv­ing up six dif­fer­ent coloured lat­tes in a hip lo­ca­tion that does min­i­mal­ism at its best.

Pop into Okura, lo­cated in an old ware­house, for indigo-dyed Ja­panese cloth­ing made us­ing tra­di­tional dy­ing tech­niques. Bon­jour Records, Plage, APC Homme and Le Labo are just a sam­ple of the bou­tique shops.

For lunch, make a bee­line for Isshin Rice House. A tra­di­tional Ja­panese ex­pe­ri­ence of­fer­ing af­ford­able lunch sets, it’s hard to find and filled with lo­cals in the know.


Pull out your Prada pumps and head to Ginza. You’ll find ev­ery high-end la­bel, in­cred­i­ble mod­ern ar­chi­tec­ture NA­TIONAL COS­TUME Ki­monos are a com­mon sight; be tempted by fresh de­lec­ta­ble seafood at Tsuk­iji; Senso-ji is Tokyo’ s old­est Bud­dhist tem­ple. and the best tem­pura you’ll ever eat at Tem­pura Abe, the Miche­lin-starred restau­rant you’d never find with­out a lo­cal. It’s hid­den down a Ginza laneway, where you’ll take a lift to the base­ment level. Doors open to a tiny restau­rant with a counter top that seats about 12. Chefs work in si­lence serv­ing the most per­fectly bat­tered prawns, salmon and veg­eta­bles that you ei­ther flavour with salt or a spe­cial tem­pura dip­ping sauce.

While I’m on the topic of food. The fa­mous Mit­sukoshi depart­ment store has a food hall David Jones could only dream of. The Ginza branch has two lev­els ded­i­cated to eat­ing where you’ll find beau­ti­fully crafted Ja­panese sweets, cakes that look like works of art and per­sim­mons cut out and filled with salad.


Don’t dis­credit a rick­shaw ride around Asakusa. What I as­sumed would be a cringe­ful tourist ex­pe­ri­ence was a morn­ing high­light. Where else would you come across a stand-up co­me­dian by night, rick­shaw driver by day, wear­ing split toe run­ners while giv­ing SENSO-JI, ASAKUSA a com­men­tary about the lo­cal area sights in­clud­ing Senso-ji, the most fa­mous and old­est Bud­dhist tem­ple in Tokyo, and the Asahi beer head­quar­ters, nick­named the poo build­ing thanks to the golden flame struc­ture perched on top.

The tra­di­tional form of trans­port is sur­pris­ingly peace­ful and a wel­come break from the crowds.


Step off the train at Hara­juku and you’ll be met by the fa­mous Takeshita St filled with teenagers in out­fits so wacky it works. The cen­tre of street cul­ture and fash­ion, it’s chaotic in a way only an Asian city can pull off and lined with trendy shops and food out­lets in­clud­ing waf­fle trucks and rain­bow-coloured fairy floss geared for the In­sta­gram crowd.

Just past the teenagers’ strip you’ll reach Omote­sando, the tree-lined av­enue known as Tokyo’s Champ­sÉlysées and home to some of the world’s big­gest fash­ion house names.


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