QUIRK THAT WORKS
Old-style Samurai values mix with hipster cool to fuel a Tokyo obsession
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.
ITS CULTURE IS UNIQUE
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.
SEAFOOD IS A NATIONAL OBSESSION
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.
IF YOU WANT HIPSTER TOKYO
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.
IF YOU’RE AFTER OLD-SCHOOL GLAMOUR
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.
HAVE A LAUGH IN A RICKSHAW
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.
IT’S WONDERFULLY WACKY
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.
THE WRITER WAS A GUEST OF TOKYO CONVENTION & VISITORS BUREAU