Japan is as well known for its ancient traditions as for striving to be at the forefront of cutting edge technology and cool. Nowhere do these two extremes so peacefully coexist as in the sprawling metropolis of Tokyo. A morning can be spent playing pachinko and shopping in Akihabara Electric Town and the afternoon not far away at the sumo wrestling. Cosplay teens and rockabilly dancers are hard to miss on the way to the Meiji-jingu shrine. Early birds can catch the tuna auction at the Tsukiji Central Fish Market and be served the very same tuna for dinner by a ninja. The bright lights and bustling crowds at Shibuya Crossing dazzle the senses not far from where a little dog waits patiently for his master to come home from work and the glittering Tokyo Skytree is one of the best spots from which to gaze on eternal Mt Fuji.
Akihabara Electric Town
In Akihabara Electric Town you are bound to find a clever gismo or gadget you can’t resist buying. For me it was retractable bud headphones (no more tangles, no more tears!) and I was impressed by the touch-screen gloves to avoid bare hands when using an iPhone in cold weather. Amidst the electronics were manga and anime figurines and for those who prefer their figurines moving, girls dressed as French maids were beckoning customers into the maid cafes to be fawned over.
We visited the multilevel Club Sega arcade and played a quick warm-up game of Tetris before trying pachinko, a Japanese cross between a pinball and pokie machine. I fed 1000 Yen into a winter romance themed machine and large ball bearings rushed into the tray at the bottom. I twisted a dial and they were sucked up into the machine where they fell from the top of the screen bouncing and rattling their way down to an exit hole at the bottom. Lights flashed, music played and a little snowman popped in and out calling excitedly in Japanese. A handful more balls rushed into the tray but soon they were all gone. Now it was Nato’s turn. Though none the wiser about how the game worked Nato seemed to do better at pachinko. At one stage the tray was so full of balls we thought it might overflow, sending them skittering across the parlour floor. The lights flashed faster, the music was louder and the excited snowman waved his stick arms so vigorously it seemed they might fly off his little round body. The machine was still in full swing when it came time for us to go so we called over an attendant to cash out. “Are you sure you want to stop?” he asked, concerned. We assured him we had to leave and he pressed a few buttons so the machine printed out a receipt and led us downstairs to a prize desk where we exchanged the receipt for what can only be described as a handful of cheap plastic flotsam. As we thanked him and turned to leave he shook his head cheerfully and again led us over to a small window in the wall; the plastic prizes went in and cash came out. We thanked him again, pocketed the money and bowed our way out, it was not until later that we counted our winnings and realized Nato had turned 1000 Yen into 12000 Yen. How he did it still remains a mystery.
The Sumo Grand Tournament
Sumo Grand Tournament
Less than three kilometers from the cutting edge technology of Akihabara sumo wrestlers were preparing to engage in their ancient pursuit at Ryogoku Kokugikan. The Sumo Grand Tournament is made up of six tournaments held in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka. Three of the six tournaments are held at Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan in January, May and September, refer to the Grand Tournament schedule for exact dates. Tickets can be purchased online for either a regular seat or a Japanese-style box in which you sit cross-legged and sans-shoes. We opted for a day in a box and caught the Metro to Ryogoku Station, a short walk from the Ryogoku Kokugikan. We followed the sound of beating drums along a street where colourful flags flapped in the wind and knew we were in the right place when we saw a sumo dressed in a robe and sandals stride into the wrestlers’ entrance.
We arrived at lunchtime and headed downstairs for a bowl of Chankonabe stew, a delicious meat and vegetable stew eaten by rishiki (sumo wrestlers). We rented a radio for the English commentary, stocked up on yakitori (meat skewers) and Sapporo beer and settled in our box to watch the show. We looked out onto the dohyō, a raised square of clay and sand marked with a white circle inside which were two white starting position lines. Suspended far above the dohyō was a Shinto-style shrine roof.
Sumo is rich in ritual; each division commenced with the rikishi striding in clad in their ceremonial aprons. The first two rishiki entered the dohyō for their bout. Facing the audience, the rishiki clapped their hands and raised their legs high before stomping the ground. Several times they carefully tucked the stiff fringe of their mawashi (loincloth) away and squatted into position, before breaking to stride to their corners slapping their bellies. Here they wiped their faces, sipped water from a wooden ladle, dabbed their lips with tissue and grabbed a handful of salt to toss into the ring. Finally they squatted into position and charged, each aiming to force the other out of the ring. The gyōji (referee) bounced about nimbly staying out of the wrestlers’ way. The bouts were short, far less than a minute. Some victories were achieved with a simple step out of the ring, whilst others resulted in a rishiki tumbling off the dohyō and into the first few rows of spectators. The rikishi returned to the ring and bowed to each other and the gyōji presented a stack of paper to the winner. We watched the juryo (intermediate division) and makuuchi (senior division) bouts. The crowd cheered loudest when the yokozuna (grand champions) made their ceremonial ring entrances, clapping, stomping and sliding their feet in a show of strength. The tournament day ended with a rikishi performing the bow (as in bow-and-arrow) dance. We pulled on our shoes and joined the throng of spectators leaving to the sound of drums beating to encourage us all to come to the sumo grand tournament again.
Harajuku and Meiji-jingu
Harajuku – Image courtesy of Mr. Aktugan @ Flickr
Harajuku is home to the Harajuku girls, teens who dress up in elaborate costumes as lolitas or their favourite manga or anime characters. A stroll down Takeshite-dori was a fascinating peek into this costumed world, with shops selling all manner of dress ups. To further overload your senses try a sweet Japanese crepe filled with your choice of green tea ice cream, cheesecake, strawberries, apples, chocolate sauce and whipped cream, curled into a cone-shape and wrapped in paper. Nearby in Yoyogi-koen park rockabilly dancers shook their tail feathers to the music from a boom box. Harajuku is a place where you can just dress up and do your thing, whatever that may be.
The sounds of rock and roll faded as we passed through the first of the wooden torii (gates) on the path to Meiji-jingu Shinto shrine. We strolled along the wide lantern-lined path through the woods past a wall of kazaridaru (decorative sake barrels) to the shrine. At the entrance to the intricate wooden shrine we rinsed our hands and mouths with water from a wooden ladle at the temizuya (font) for purification which put me in mind of crossing with holy water at the door of a church. Beneath the camphor tree nearby, people were writing their wishes on Ema (wooden tablets) and hanging them neatly on hooks. We entered through ornate wooden gates into the paved courtyard and strolled around taking in the magnificent carved wooden shrine. Large boxes scattered with coins stood at the door to the shrine. These are similar to church collection plates though making an offering is a little more complicated than just adding a coin. Following the example of others we bowed twice, tossed a five yen coin in the box, clapped twice and bowed again.
Wedding at Meiji-jingu
We were lucky enough to see a wedding party leaving the shrine, the bride in her shiromuku, a white kimono lined in vibrant red and wataboushi (stiff white hood) and the groom in his montsuki (black formal kimono), haori (kimono jacket), and hakama (kimono pants). The bridal party followed behind in matching black and gold kimonos, shading the couple from the sun with a large red parasol. More conventional costumes than those the Harajuku girls don, but costumes all the same.
Tsukiji Central Fish Market
Tsukiji Central Fish Market
Fish markets have a long history in Tokyo with the first fish market in Tokyo established in the early seventeenth century to service Edo castle. Tsukiji Central Fish Market has been held at its current location since 1935 and is the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world.
It’s a case of the early bird getting the tuna at the Tsukiji Central Fish Market. Travelers queue early to be one of the first 120 in line and watch the tuna auction from the visitors’ gallery from 5:25 to 6:15 am. The size and price of the tuna is astounding, particularly at the first auction of the year. In 2013 a single 222 kg bluefin tuna sold for 155m yen, close to 700,000 yen per kilogram and triple the previous year’s record price.
There is still plenty for later arrivals to see, fish of all shapes and sizes, crabs, lobsters, clams, octopus and anything else that has been hauled up from the watery depths can be seen swimming in tanks or piled high at the stalls. There are also a variety of stalls selling ingredients such as bonito flakes, condiments, green tea, cookware and crockery. We sampled matcha and sencha teas, buying some of each and a whisk for the matcha tea. Ravenous from our shopping we stepped into a bustling sushi restaurant for the freshest sashimi we have ever tasted then picked up a selection of mochi as dessert on our way out.
Please note that the market will close on November 2nd 2016 and move to a new site in the Toyosu district of Tokyo’s Koto Ward.
Mystery Box – Ninja Akasaka
We couldn’t resist booking dinner at ninja themed restaurant Ninja Akasaka. Once we found the entrance we were greeted warmly by reception and our ninja for the night who popped out of a wall to escort us to our table. We followed him through tight dark corridors, up and down stairs, while he used his ninja magic to repair a broken bridge in our path and pointed out secret ninja sights along the way. Finally we arrived at a small low ceilinged room and sat on cushions on the floor at a low table. We opted for the ten course tasting menu and the food was delicious and beautifully and innovatively presented. All courses were excellent but a few stand out as particularly memorable. Shuriken star-blades grissini featured star shaped grey crackers hung on potted switches served with star shaped pate. The mystery box was a black lacquered box tied with orange tasseled cord. The lid opened to release a cloud of dry-ice smoke and reveal an egg which we cracked open to find a miniature masterpiece of seafood in aspic. The bonsai tree dessert was also a tasty marvel, twisted pastry branches with green tea iced foliage sprouting from chocolate mousse soil.
Our ninja was attentive, introducing each course to us and making sure we felt entirely at home. The ninja master dropped in between courses to perform some ninja magic card tricks. A traditional ninja experience this is not, but it is a fun night with fantastic food and excellent service. There is every chance that like visitors to Tokyo for 400 years, the seafood so beautifully arranged on your plate in the evening is the very same that you saw at the fish market in the morning.
Shibuya crossing is the Tokyo you’ve seen in movies and advertisements. The enormous video screens and flashing neon could be New York’s Times Square or London’s Picadilly Circus, but down at street level when the lights go green it could only be Shibuya crossing. Hundreds of people cross the road from all directions smoothly maneuvering around each other as if choreographed. Somehow by the time the lights go green again hundreds more have arrived to cross the road.
Hachiko statue – image courtesy of royalt @ Flickr
Not far from this perhaps busiest intersection in the world, is a statue of Hachiko, a small akita who lived with his master, a professor, near Shibuya Station. Each day Hachiko would walk to the station to meet the professor on his way home from work. The professor died in 1925, but for the next 10 years Hachiko continued his daily pilgrimage to the station until he too died. Similarly statues were erected to commemorate Edinburgh’s Greyfriars Bobby, who guarded his master’s grave for fourteen years, and Gundagai’s ‘Dog on the Tuckerbox’, a mythical drover’s dog that loyally guarded his tuckerbox long after the man’s death. The Hachiko statue is a reminder that this was once a spot where a dog could wait peacefully for his owner and not the bustling hub it is today.
Mt Fuji from the Tokyo Skytree
Tokyo & Mt Fuji from the Tokyo Skytree
We had previously seen the Tokyo skyline by night from the Eiffel Tower-esque Tokyo Tower, a 1950s fixture which was somewhat usurped by the opening in 2012 of the Tokyo Skytree. At 634m-high the Tokyo Skytree is the tallest tower in the world. Staff in colourful uniforms decked with yellow trees guided us to an elevator which whizzed us up to the 450m-high Tempo Galleria for panoramic views of Tokyo. We visited on a clear winters day and gazed out across the sprawling metropolis of Tokyo to see magnificent Mt Fuji in the distance. Snowcapped Mt Fuji is perhaps the oldest and most enduring symbol of Japan and tourists were crowded at the windows to capture it on camera. It seemed to me the epitome of the coexistence of old and new in Tokyo is that one of the best vantage points for viewing timeless Mt Fuji is from Tokyo’s newest attraction.
In Tokyo, the frenetic pace of change ensures there are always new things to see and do whilst traditional pursuits continue unchanged and unfazed by the changes around them. The ability to access both in the same city is what makes Tokyo such a fascinating city to visit, and return to again and again.