Tokyo, Rocky IV-style • The joys of the FamilyMart • Intoxicated Salarymen • Beers (And Nuts) On Top Of The World • Surprised By A Shinto Shrine • Mooching Teenagers • Japanese Cuisine, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Chicken Hearts • Yakitori – So Good, You Guys
As soon as my plane touched down at Narita Airport, I felt a rush of excitement at being back in Japan.
I’d visited the country a few years before, and had made a lot of noise to anyone unfortunate enough to be in hearing distance about moving to the place some day. I loved it that much.
Now I was back – and while my last trip had been a flying visit to Osaka and Nagasaki (by financial necessity, all my trips to Japan are flying visits), now I was free and at large in Tokyo.
When I think back to my adventures in Tokyo, it’s like a montage from an 80s movie. Everything seems to pass by in jump-cuts – here a plate of yakitori, there a neon-soaked alleyway, here the calm of a Shinto shrine, there the mingling smells of cigarette smoke and a steaming bowl of ramen. The eerily silent crowds, the spotlessly clean streets, the little electronic jingles that play on the subway. I loved it all.
I’d liked to have written this piece with a more cynical, world-weary eye, more befitting of the grizzled traveller. I’m sure there are some expats and seasoned travellers rolling their eyes at me right now.
But like a schoolboy with a crush, when it comes to Tokyo I just can’t. I’m head-over-heels in love with the place.
For three days I wandered the city with no particular purpose besides the simple pleasure of existing in Tokyo. I’d have a quick and simple breakfast at my guest house in the Asakusa district of the city – maybe a pot noodle, a pastry and a bottle of iced green tea procured from the local FamilyMart (and let it be said here that even the convenience store – or konbini – food in Japan is exemplary). Then I’d wander the pleasant ten to fifteen minutes it took to get to the Asakusa subway station – possibly grabbing a coffee along the way – and I’d pick out a station and explore.
I wandered through the towering forest of skyscrapers that is Roppongi, the ‘backpacker district’ of the city, where I saw the rather arresting site of a Japanese salaryman being helped off the pavement into the back of an ambulance – falling-down drunk at eleven in the morning. I wandered through the luxury shops of Ginza and the slightly more down-at-heel shops of Ueno. I spent a good few hours in the flickering neon insanity that is Akihabara, the world’s hub of all things otaku (the Japanese term for an anime and video-game obsessive – the equivalent to a nerd or a dork, I’d guess), spending far too much money grappling with the seemingly endless crane and slot machines. I had a beer (and some complimentary peanuts) at the top of the Tokyo Skytree, the world’s second-tallest structure.
I spent a rainy morning in the impressively spacious grounds of the Sensoji temple in Asakusa, flicking coins into its wishing wells and lighting incense at its shrines – because that’s what you do at temples, I suppose. It was a pleasant break from the neon-saturated havoc of the city outside. Tokyo is an astonishingly quiet city even on its busiest roads, so it didn’t take much walking along the gravel paths of the Sensoji before the noise of the city had faded completely, to be replaced by the sounds of muted conversation, the pitter-patter of raindrops on leaves, and the crunch of my boots on gravel. It was exactly what you’d want from a temple, really – an oasis of calm in the centre of a bustling metropolis.
And like the best ‘tourist attractions’, every corner you turned presented you with something new. Here a winding zen garden with a bubbling fountain, there an entire funfair packed away in the warren of streets that backed on to the temple. Here an impressive jet-black sculpture of a lion, there an entire shrine hidden in a copse of trees and shrubs.
The place I seemed to end up returning to again and again, however, was Shibuya. You’ll know Shibuya – it’s the place with the giant zebra crossing spanning several major roads, where hordes of people can be seen crossing at any given time of day, the image which is used as a short-hand for Tokyo on just about every travel blog and advert ever.
But the Shibuya district is so much more than that. It’s the centre of youth culture in Tokyo – and yes, flamboyantly-dressed members of every teen tribe imaginable can be seen mooching around its malls and restaurants. It’s a hub for shoppers. But best of all, it boasts some excellent nightlife – a whole rat-run of back-street bars and clubs and smoky izakayas, full of delicious treats and fresh-flowing, ice-cold Kirin.
And this seems like as good a place as ever to talk about the food. My god, the food.
Japan has the best food of any country on the planet. Period. Everything – everything – is delicious. Big, steaming bowls of ramen, full of floating slices of pork so tender it melts away in your mouth. Crispy dumplings of gyoza, bursting with rich, peppery filling. Delectably meaty sushi, served with sinus-blasting balls of wasabi. After a while, you find yourself losing any inhibitions about what it is you’re actually eating. Raw eel? Bring it on. Chicken hearts on skewers? I’ll have two. Big, doughy balls of takoyaki, complete with a rubbery hunk of octopus in the centre? Amazing. You trust that everything you eat will be delicious. It’s Japan – how could it not be?
Towering over all these treats, however, is the ubiquitous yakitori – chicken parts on bamboo skewers, cooked to absolute perfection over charcoal. It had been the highlight of my trip last time – revelatory, even – so it was with no small amount of excitement that I entered a yakitori joint in Shibuya called the Bistro Gokigendori, hung my overcoat up on the rack, took a seat at the bar, ordered a couple of ice-cold Kirins and got eating.
You order your yakitori by the skewer, whenever you feel the need. It’s real drinking food – sip a beer, order a plate of skewers, repeat. You can choose various parts of the chicken – the breast, the aforementioned heart, even the skin – as well as vegetables, such as yam or leek – and your hard-working chef cooks it up right in front of you, accompanied with a little soy sauce and garlic. Simple, but on an entirely different level of deliciousness. At times I found myself pausing the conversation to close my eyes and soak up the moment, trying to eke every last ounce of fleeting pleasure I could out of every bite. It was so good.
I could have kept doing what I was doing for the whole trip. I could have, if money were no object, kept doing it for the rest of my life. But I had bigger plans for the fourth day.
I was going to see Mount Fuji.