Tantalizing Tokyo: The unique charms of Japan’s capital city

Ameyoko Market in Tokyo. (Shutterstock)
Updated 11 December 2018
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Tantalizing Tokyo: The unique charms of Japan’s capital city

  • A short stay guide of Tokyo
  • A variety of things to do in this immersive city

DUBAI: Before my trip to Tokyo, I’d been told how terribly expensive Japan was; how, without some basic knowledge of the language I would struggle; but, on the flipside, how it was leaps and bounds ahead of the world with technology.
What I found was quite different: from the affordability (shop around and you’ll find some brilliant deals), the welcoming nature of its people, and the fluently spoken English (with signage to match), but, weirdly, the least-accessible Wi-Fi I have ever experienced. (Tip: If you’re staying in Japan for any length of time and don’t have data roaming and the hotel hasn’t provided a complimentary smartphone, buy a SIM at the airport — you really will need access to Google Maps.)

For my week in Tokyo I was staying at Daiwa Roynet, a modern, spacious hotel in the top-notch upmarket shopping district of Ginza. It’s a great area to get over the jetlag — bustling enough to make it fun, but not too crazy.
Following the advice of the concierge (more useful than any travel guide) I headed to the Ameyoko market, close to Ueno Park. The narrow walkways are filled with shops and stalls selling everything you’d expect to find and more — from raw fish and meat, to shoes, bags and clothes. It was an assault on the senses. The air filled with the noise of traders shouting out their offers in Japanese, and the varied smells of what they were offering.

You can pass hours wandering here — taking photos and admiring the organized chaos — but you’ll need to find some lunch eventually. Thankfully it’s easy to grab a hearty bowl of ramen at one of the scores of doorway noodle bars in the district. All seemed worth trying.
From the cacophony of noise at Ameyoko, it’s a short trip across the street to the much-calmer Ueno Park, which boasts a selection of galleries, museums and Tokyo’s famous zoo. During my visit, the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum had a varied free exhibition of high-quality work by up-and-coming local artists, but the majority of its other exhibitions required individual entry fees.

Ueno Park itself was like a scene from a movie: Busy with weekend crowds enjoying the afternoon sun, and distractions including arm wrestlers and small congregations of people dancing to various genres of music. A passer-by stopped and asked one of a group of Rockabillies if they were dancing for money. “No,” came the response. “We do it because we like to dance.”
If you visit, as I did, during the sumo-wrestling season (it’s complicated — Google can explain) and want to check out Japan’s national sport, head to the Ryogoku arena. But make sure you book in advance — sumo is a major draw. The wrestling starts early — about 8 a.m. — but the majority of people show up from about 2 p.m. onwards and stay until the end. Expect to spend around $90. It’s worth it. Sumo is fun. The build-up can take several minutes before these enormous men finally collide like locomotives, grappling at one another, before seconds later the bout is over and one is declared the winner. You don’t need to be an expert to figure out what is happening and you don’t need to be a sports fan to enjoy it.

To appreciate just how vast this sprawling megacity is, head for the Tokyo Skytree tower, which takes you up to 450 meters above the busy streets. On a clear day you can reportedly see Mount Fuji in the distance. I did not visit on a clear day. Even so, the sights that were visible, in all directions, were stunning.
After a week traveling across Japan, I returned to Tokyo, and booked into the cozy boutique Shibuya Hotel EN, a short walk from the world-famous pedestrian crossing where, as the traffic stops, the street becomes a sea of people. This crossing is such a draw that even the Starbucks overlooking the road has become a tourist destination. This is next-level people-watching.

The surrounding area, too, is well worth a look — whether in the shops selling cards and figurines from various Japanese manga comics, or in the more generic stores selling every bargain you could possibly want.
Prior to my trip, some had said that Tokyo had little to offer and it was better not to spend too much time there. I suspect those people had never been. One week barely scratches the surface of this fascinating city. Next time, I’ll stay longer.


Booming Bangalore: India’s ‘It’ city

Updated 18 March 2019
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Booming Bangalore: India’s ‘It’ city

  • Yoga at the resort offers the chance for gentle self reflection
  • The chance for some simple, but delicious food is just around the corner

DUBAI: Officially called Bengaluru — though not by the locals — Bangalore, the capital of the Indian state of Karnataka, is lauded as the ‘Silicon Valley of India’ thanks to the presence of prestigious IT companies and a burgeoning technology sector. Once known for its sprawling gardens and lakes, today Bangalore is more easily identified by shiny shopping malls, hip restaurants and traffic-congested roads. But beyond the trappings of urban life, the city still surprises with refreshing spots where you can hit reset.

One such oasis of calm is Shreyas Retreat. This coconut farm turned yoga retreat, set amid 25 acres of lush greenery, is the real deal, and one of India’s best-kept secrets. Though probably not for long.

Experiences here revolve around ‘self-discovery’, but with a refined approach to wellness. An in-house doctor will prescribe treatments ranging from oil massages and herbal healing experiences based on Ayurveda — regarded as the world’s oldest medicinal system — to more modern remedies such as hydrotherapy. You can choose to stay in one of the poolside cottages strategically placed around the retreat’s central courtyard, with the 25-meter pool and heated jacuzzi on your doorstep, or be at one with nature in a charming Garden Tented Cottage, several of which are scattered across the grounds. They come complete with canopied roof and outdoor patio, offering incredible views.

Need some time to reflect, then try the resort's yoga sessions at the Shreyas Retreat. (Supplied) 

Guests can also join in group-yoga sessions in the morning and evening, deepen their meditation practice or lend a helping hand at the retreat’s organic gardens. If all seems too new-age for you, packages are entirely customizable and really do cater to everyone — from the blissed-out yogi and spa seeker, to curious foodies who want to learn more about Indian cuisine.

The retreat is also an inspiring base to explore nearby landscapes, with trekking trips and village visits easily arranged. If you’d like to plan your own thrills, the scenic Nandi Hills, Hogenakkal Falls (often called the Niagara Falls of India), and cultural hotspot Mysore are just a few hours drive away.

The Nandi Hills provide the more adventurous with some spectacular scenery. (File/Shutterstock)  

For unique attractions closer to the city, a day at Lalbagh Botanical Garden is one well spent. Sprawling across 240 acres in the heart of Bangalore, it started out in 1760 as the private garden of Mysore ruler Hyder Ali. The government-run garden is home to the largest collection of tropical plants in India and a popular spot for bird-watching. Visitors have plenty to take in, including a serene lake, bonsai garden, aviary, sculptures and more. Its best known feature is the centuries-old glass house — designed along the lines of London’s Crystal Palace — that plays host to bi-annual flower shows which attract thousands of visitors.

A short stroll away from Lalbagh is Mavalli Tiffin Rooms (or MTR as it’s more commonly known), established in 1924. This is a no-frills dining experience. Delicious steaming hot food is served on steel plates as patrons tear into crunchy dosas (savory pancakes) and soft idlis (steamed rice cakes). Make sure to order try the rava idli — made from semolina — which was invented by MTR during World War II when rice was in short supply.

Bangalore is home to a handful of world-class galleries, including the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA). However, if you’re short on time, there’s only one name you need to remember – Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath. Home to a respected college of fine arts, the complex is buzzing with art aficionados and curious tourists picking up unique souvenirs. There are 14 permanent museum galleries to explore here, as well as five rotating art galleries that blend the best of contemporary works alongside more traditional and Indian folk pieces. Afterwards, wander through the verdant grounds, following sand-swept paths and enjoying the city’s creative energy. Bangalore may be India’s digital heart, but it’s got soul.