I'm sure if it's the early morning earthquake or the headline in that day's edition of the Japan Times that surprises me most. There, top right on the front page, next to stories on the Fukushima nuclear crisis and March 11 tsunami, is "Chef's fugu licence axed after diner hospitalised". Below is the account of a diner recently poisoned by the famously toxic puffer fish liver at a two-star Michelin restaurant in the city's glamorous Ginza district. But back in the hotel restaurant, most of the talk around our table is of the 5.3 earthquake that shook us all awake. So far my first morning has combined elements of a disaster movie with an episode of The Simpsons. Welcome to Tokyo.
For three nights we stayed at the Imperial Hotel, famous for hosting the press conference at which Marilyn Monroe revealed to the world she wore only Chanel No 5 to bed. In other claims to fame, the hotel's second incarnation built in 1923 (the current version is the third to occupy this site) was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and in its 122 years, it has quite possibly hosted more world leaders and celebrities than any hotel anywhere. It overlooks the Imperial Palace, though this royal seat hides away behind moats, parklands, trees and massive stone walls. Only twice a year (January 2 and December 23, the Emperor's birthday), is the public able to enter the inner palace grounds in the hope of catching a rare glimpse of the royal family.
The Imperial is vast and, so typically of a large hotel anywhere, largely beige and gold. But its homogenous big international feel is elevated by a sensational lobby mural, the Zen garden we pass going to and from our rooms and the Old Imperial Bar. This is one of the few places in the hotel where Lloyd Wright's legacy is still evident but that's not its only appeal. Here, the barmen look like they've just stepped from the set of a 1960s' Rat Pack movie with their slicked-back hair, bow ties and shark skin jackets nipped in at the waist. They shake cocktails like nobody's business. An original black Bakelite telephone rings on a table nearby. A Heineken will set you back about $20; a double pour of Suntory whisky a whole lot more. At least those prices guarantee you a relatively early night.
The Imperial is within walking distance of the famous Ginza shopping district. It's the place where money was once made (Ginza means "silver mint") and it's now the place where money is spent. Every international label worth knowing about has a shop- front here, along with branches of the city's stupendous department stores such as Misukoshi, which started out more than 400 years ago as a seller of kimonos. These aren't really stores to visit for a spot of casual shopping - unless you have particularly deep pockets, Tokyo isn't a goldmine for shopping - but they are worth a visit for the beauty of their window and retail displays.
It is pouring with rain as we reach Sensoji Temple, Tokyo's oldest and most famous Buddhist temple, but that's no deterrent this Saturday morning to the scores of worshippers, who smoothly weave their way around each other's umbrellas.
Outside the temple, which dates from 628, is the much- photographed Thunder Gate, with its giant red and gold lantern and twin statues of Raijin (the god of thunder) and Fujin (the god of wind). Behind Temple Gate is the area known as Kannondo (Kannon Hall). Here a large urn is filled with burning sticks of incense. Worshippers waft the smoke over themselves for good luck and good health - the saying goes you put smoke in your pocket to take it away with you. One woman with a tumourous looking lump on her hand holds it over the smoke. She tarries longer here than most.
Inside, worshippers pray and donate money. You can buy a piece of paper on which is written your future. The ones bearing good luck are tucked away in pockets and bags; the ones less cheery are tied on to nearby racks so, we're told, they can be "given back to Buddha".
To the left of the temple is a five-storey pagoda, said to contain some of the ashes of the Buddha and to the right, a Shinto temple. Here we see three generations of one family, all dressed in kimonos, sitting for a photographer. There are beautifully wrapped gifts on hand and it is solemn and very formal. A birthday, anniversary or christening? There's no way to tell, though we're told Shinto temples are used for happy occasions, Buddhist ones for less happy times. The religions, it's worth noting, are not mutually exclusive - most of Japan's Shinto followers are Buddhists as well.
Nearby is Kappabashi St, or "Kitchen Town", which stocks kitchenwares and restaurant supplies to Tokyo's 80,000 eateries. You'll find beautiful Bento boxes; well-priced ceramics, utensils, hand-crafted knives and those artful, and definitely not cheap, plastic food samples that are found in the windows of most Japanese restaurants. Along with the inevitable sushi and sashimi, there are also some quite remarkable bowls of spaghetti carbonara and slices of pasta.
In a shop piled from floor to ceiling with ceramics, I happily fork over not too many yen on some plates and bowls. The store has been there for 120 years, the shopkeeper tells me, run by the same family, generation after generation.
Like Hong Kong, Tokyo is a city obsessed with food. At the legendary Tsukiji fish market, the world's largest, you need to watch for the crowds of foodie tourists, Tokyo Lonely Planets in hand, as much as you do the turret trucks that fly around this 23 hectare area at breakneck speed. We have breakfast at one of the dozens of sushi restaurants that line the lanes around the market and know we will never again eat sashimi so fresh. One of our group stops at a stall where yakitori skewers are cooking on a charcoal burner. It's whale. He buys one and somehow eats it. "It's like liver," he reports back. He has no desire for another.
The night before we'd eaten at the Pandora steak house, down an alley and up a few flights of stairs in the Shinjuko district. This restaurant has occupied this same spot for 40 years and as a result looks well lived in, in a good way. We take our seats at one end of a teppanyaki grill about the size of a ping-pong table. At the other end is a couple, who we discover, have been dining here almost weekly for 30 years and the chef cooking for us tonight is the same chef who has cooked for them every other night of those past 30 years. They smoke constantly throughout their meal and remind me of Jack and Vera from Coronation Street. Plates come and go of perfectly cooked seafood, vegetables and wagyu beef, washed down with pints of Sapporo. It's a perfect meal for a chilly December night.
The next night we take the train to the Tsukishima district and Monja St, home to the 60-plus restaurants here that all specialise in monjayaki, a kind of fried pancake-like batter with different kinds of ingredients - steak, seafood, noodles, vegetables, etc. We're shown how to prepare one on the hot plates in front of us then it's up to us to look after ourselves. The restaurants are all pretty much identical in size and appearance so odds are you're guaranteed a good and relatively inexpensive time at whichever one you end up at.
A night at the Mandarin Oriental is far from inexpensive but for an amazing culinary experience in one of the most stupendous dining rooms imaginable, it's hard to beat. On the 38th floor of this luxurious and achingly stylish hotel, where the lights of Tokyo stretch in all directions as far as the eye can see, is the Tapas Molecular Bar. Here plates of stunning food are served sushi bar style with the chefs creating these marvels right before you. I thought I'd tired of the whole molecular gastronomy schtick but no - this was fresh, exciting and fun. And the bathrooms, with floor to ceiling windows, are, quite simply, the best ever. Leg 6
Over four days in Tokyo I constantly thrilled to the sight of women in kimonos, the white socks and wooden geta on their feet. I was forever bemused by the toilets with their warm seats, soundtracks of birdsong and more buttons than I knew what to do with and was too scared of to find out about. I was moved to tears at Meiji Jingu Shrine, where I wrote my wish on to a wooden tablet (ema) to join the hundreds of others. And I never ever tired of sushi. I left this city of 13 million (greater Tokyo is about 35 million) feeling as if I knew less about it than when I arrived but actually quite liking that. Somehow I thought it would feel familiar but really nothing did. I left wanting much more.
Where to stay: Imperial Hotel Tokyo, Chiyoda. Great location and an impeccable history.
What to do: Tsukiji fish market. A limited number of visitors are allowed to attend the early morning tuna auctions on a first-come, first-served basis. The interior wholesale market is open to visitors from 9am daily. For more information go to shijou.metro.tokyo.jp/english/ market/tsukiji Akihabara. Also known as Electric Town, this area is full of stores selling electrical good, games and comics. The massive Yodobashi Camera electronics store, next to JR Akihabara train station, also has some excellent restaurants on the eighth floor. This area is also home to the infamous Maid Cafes, which are not wrong as such; just weird.
Where to eat/drink: New York Bar, Park Hyatt, Shinjuku. Yes, the one made famous in Lost in Translation. Amazing views, eye- watering prices. Tapas Molecular Bar, Mandarin Oriental, Nihonbashi district. Out of this world food and location.
How to get there: Air New Zealand operates five flights a week between Auckland and Tokyo. Return fares, including airport taxes, start from $2061.
Angela Walker visited Tokyo courtesy of Air New Zealand.
- Sunday Star Times