Twenty years ago Tokyo was the epicentre of the future. Otherworldly and alien, you couldn't have dreamed it if you'd tried. A city from a film. A place of bullet trains and robot waitresses.
Last month I visited for the first time. Was it futuristic, asked a friend on my return. His question gave me pause. It's the future how we once imagined it, I said. Every square inch is built on and everything is tall and grey. People move seamlessly in great throngs from one anonymous destination to another. But, no, it's not futuristic. I guess the rest of the world just caught up.
And yet Tokyo is undeniably extraordinary. The orderliness is seductive. It is the cleanest metropolis I have ever visited. Even the homeless maintain a level of hygiene, a sense of rigour with their possessions. The standard of service, the politeness, is incomparable. When all is constant - the noise, the movement - and you step into a shop where the assistants momentarily pause to draw their hands together into the prayer position and bow, it is wonderfully restorative, like a power meditation.
Schedules are conducted at odds to our own. Where we aim for eight hours of sleep a night, five is considered normal there. People think nothing of working until 9pm and then hitting the town with their colleagues. Shops don't really open until 10am, often 11am. Lunch is taken early at 11.30am.
Because hardly anyone can afford to live in the city centre, many people commute an hour and a half each way to work. You sleep on the train. The music changes at each station, and stirs you from your slumber. It feels safe. Women walk freely on the street at night.
Tokyo was fascinating, but in many ways it didn't surprise me. A much bandied about cliche of modern life is that we live in a global village. When someone somewhere around the world dies every 3.6 seconds from hunger while my children are throwing themselves on the floor at the prospect of risotto for dinner, it doesn't really feel like much of a community. Nonetheless, for many eating out and international travel are now the norm, and increasingly the chances of experiencing true culture shock are few and far between.
Take Japan. We eat their food, watch their films, learn their language. My kids get Manga comics out of the library. So when I got off the Metro at Shibuya Station and stepped out into the blinding light, I looked around at the famous madness of the scramble crossing, with it's confusion of neon signs and digital billboards and, and thought, ah, yes, Tokyo's Times Square, Sofia Coppola referenced it in Lost in Translation.
In spite, though, of the vague sense of deja vu, there were small wonders. Even when another culture has permeated ours so thoroughly, it can be misinterpreted. Sushi, for example. So ubiquitous here. A cheap and healthy fast food. The dieter's lunch of choice. On Wednesdays and Fridays my kids can order it at school. But in Japan, I discovered, it is a treat food, something to be looked forward to on special occasions. Revered for the time involved in its preparation.
I knew the Japanese were sticklers for removing their shoes at the door. I was still taken aback, however, when I was instructed to take mine off before entering a fitting room. And this was everywhere from Gap to Gucci. As a child I remember seeing a news story on the telly about Japanese toilets with their music to mask the sounds of urination, and worse, defecation. I always assumed this luxury was something faddish, special.
I never expected every toilet I availed myself of, from my beautiful bathroom at The Peninsula Tokyo hotel to the public toilets at the Tokyo Skytree (at 634 metres, the tallest tower in the world), would boast not only music, but other thoughtful features like a gentle spray of water with which to clean your nether regions and a whoosh of warm air with which to dry them. Even more thoughtfully, most public toilets have a sort of high chair in the corner in which to place your baby while you relieve yourself.
The Japanese are renowned for their love of high fashion and I anticipated the middle-aged women sporting Tod's loafers and Mulberry bags, fingering the Lanvin scarves in the famed Mitsukoshi Department Store. But when I stumbled upon a three-level Issey Miyake store around the corner, it made me appreciate the Japanese aesthetic afresh. The designer is perhaps most loved for his perfume and his pleats. In this space, which manages to be cavernous yet intimate, industrial yet peaceful, his genius is given meaning.
Miyake is a master of the Japanese love of minimalism. At high street level this can be best appreciated at Muji, Japan's answer to Ikea. Years ago in London I'd been blown away by this store, where functionality is rendered beautiful and form useful. From the clothes to the furniture, it is all linen, crumpled, asexual. You can buy everything you ever needed and everything you never knew you needed: retractable scissors and mesh envelopes with which to systemise your suitcase. (I bought slip-on linen "room shoes" for every member of my family.) There is a cafe, and in the food department you can buy vacuum-packed sugared sweet potato and soluble green tea.
I've long admired the Japanese schoolgirl uniforms I'd spotted on visiting tour groups: the knee socks and sailor tops, paired with kilts and boaters. But in Tokyo I realised that here there is no such thing as an ugly uniform. At the Skytree the attendants wear beautiful silk dresses with an on-trend mustard and duck egg geometric print and contrasting neck scarves. The door girls at The Peninsula wear immaculate white pant suits and gold-corded pillbox hats. There is uniformity, too, to Uniqlo, the Japanese mega retailer, where you can stock up on cashmere sweaters and cotton chinos at laughably cheap prices. I bought a black silk blouse from a range designed in conjunction with the French model Ines de la Fressange for $40.
On the surface the much-written-about Harajuku girls, in their quasi Victorian, French maid-meets-Hello Kitty cartoon character outfits, seem discordant in a country which gave birth to something as refined as a bonsai tree, but in context you understand they are the necessary flipside. Structure needs an out. So, too, good taste. More incongruous were the black guys with their gangsta-style touting for business outside the clubs all along this teenage mecca of a street.
Despite the blatant sexiness of Harajuku, though, this is not where you go to get some. There are plenty of other places for that. And not just strip bars. Here every fetish is catered to. The Japanese have a fixation with the super cute. I had heard stories about the maid bars where grown men eat pink cupcakes and drink milkshakes with smiley faces served by waitresses in pigtails and frills. The cafes where you can stroke real pussy cats while you drink your tea.
But I had never heard of the bars where men lay their heads in women's laps and have their ears cleaned out with cotton buds. Despite the sense of restraint amongst the Japanese, there is a latent sexuality which bubbles away under every surface. Outside Kaminarimon, the first of two large entrance gates, which leads via Nakamise (a street of souvenir shops where it is possible to buy the most beautiful yukata - traditional cotton robes) to Sensoji Temple, is a line-up of the most astonishingly muscled and handsome young rickshaw drivers. Apparently they are chosen for their attractiveness.
If you can peel your eyes from them, across the road, and tucked in behind an excellent shop selling all things paper, is San-Sada, a tempura restaurant which has been going for almost 200 years. I thought I knew Japanese food, but I didn't know that most restaurants only specialise in one dish. And so here we only ate food deep-fried in sesame oil. For sushi we went to Iwasa Sushi, a tiny place on the side of the Tsukjii Central Fish Market (where foreigners are no longer encouraged to enter, but on its edges you can pick up lovely everyday ceramic dishes for a song).
The freshest sushi imaginable was dished up, its freshness confirmed by a photo behind the bar of Australia's Michelin-starred chef, Tetsuya Wakuda, taken with the owner. In Toufuya Ukai, an ancient sake brewery set in the most Zen garden at the foot of Tokyo Tower, everything is based around tofu. You eat in private rooms, seated on tatami mats, and can look across the courtyard to other groups of diners where you may well be lucky enough to see, as we did, a mother and daughter wearing exquisite kimonos.
Traditionally dessert in Japan is something of a non-event, just a slice, perhaps, of perfect melon or mango. If you go into the food halls of any of the department stores (usually located in the basement), you can see fruit, cherished for its size and blemish-free skin, individually and lovingly packaged up in tissue. However, in recent times the Japanese have gone mad for Western sweets.
Reinterpreted them, I guess, in the same way we have sushi. In Harajuku, every corner brandishes a crepe shop. Each option on the menu represented by photograph or plastic model - a series of explosions of cream, ice cream, fruit and sauce.
Even in Mitsukoshi's most elegant of food halls, where we sampled the most delicate shade of pale green Muscat grapes, which had been individually dusted in sugar and frozen, we were able to buy a "Happy Pouch" - a crepe gathered around a filling of cream and sweetened cheese, packaged up in a cornet with its own icepack. It was a revelation.
The writer travelled courtesy of Cathay Pacific and Peninsula Hotels.
Getting there Cathay Pacific offers a daily one-stop service from Auckland to Tokyo via Hong Kong. With more than 40 flights every week from Hong Kong to Narita and Haneda airports, there are plenty of options to suit your needs. See cathaypacific.co.nz for Economy, Premium Economy or Business Class fares.
Staying there The Peninsula Tokyo enjoys a prime location in the luxury shopping district of Ginza, and is only a few minutes walk from the Imperial Palace. Rooms start from Yen 62,000 (about NZ$690) per night for a Superior room. See tokyo.peninsula.com.
Being there Tokyo Skytree: Be prepared to queue for tickets. They are available online but only with a credit card issued in Japan. See tokyo-skytree.jp.
Mitsukoshi Department Store: The oldest department store chain in Japan, the flagship store is in Nihonbashi, but there is a slightly less overwhelming one in Ginza. Get off the Metro at Ginza Station.
Iwasa Sushi: 5-2-1 Tsukiji Chuo-Ku.
San-Sada, see tempura-sansada.co.jp.
Toufuya Ukai, see ukai.co.jp.
- Sunday Star Times