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

Ameyoko Market in Tokyo. (Shutterstock)
Updated 11 December 2018

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.

Catch the coastal chic of Biarritz

Biarritz is one of the best surfing locations in Europe. (Shutterstock)
Updated 24 June 2019

Catch the coastal chic of Biarritz

  • The French seaside town mixes old-world glamour with a very modern surfing scene
  • This patch of Basque Country — less than 20 miles north of the Spanish border — has a windswept, relaxed charm all its own

DUBLIN: It’s hard to put a finger on what makes Biarritz so special. Maybe it’s the faded charm, maybe it’s the sprinkling of stardust that the numerous guests (the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Frank Sinatra) brought to the city, or maybe it’s the low-slung surfer’s vibe, but this patch of Basque Country — less than 20 miles north of the Spanish border — has a windswept, relaxed charm all its own. It’s something of a hidden gem, with surfers, Parisian hipsters, retired French tourists and a smattering of in-the-know Europeans descending here every year.

Its most recent heyday was during the 1950s, when luminaries including Sinatra and Coco Chanel visited. From the 1960s onwards, Biarritz’s star fell, with Hollywood and the European elite favoring France’s Riviera as a holiday destination. Yet recent years have seen the town emerge back into the spotlight — although these days you are more likely to see surfers rather than film stars, as the town has embraced its position on France’s rugged southern Atlantic coast.

There are countless surf schools, and Biarritz is the birthplace of the sport in Europe. The (reportedly) first surfer here, appropriately enough, had Hollywood connections. Peter Viertel, a screenwriter, was in town as the movie he had co-written, “The Sun Also Rises,” was being filmed there in 1957. The long, wide sandy beaches provide the perfect place to learn, with the crashing Atlantic surf offering ample big waves to ride.

The town is small enough to explore in an afternoon, with countless cafés and restaurants dotting the narrow streets. There’s plenty of shopping too, with local boutiques such as Jox & An (which sells rope-soled espadrilles) next to the likes of Gucci and Duchatel, which features labels including Nina Ricci and Belenciaga. Indeed much of the town’s charm is seeing moneyed old French couples in their designer clothes rubbing shoulders with dreadlocked surfers in board shorts.

It might officially be in France, but Biarritz is Basque country, something very much apparent at Caroe, which mixes Basque and Nordic cuisine. This minimally designed pintxos bar specializes in local seafood and serves up everything from monkfish foie gras, smoked eel and trout gravlax. If you prefer a venue overlooking the water, head to Alaia, an ultra-stylish beachfront joint on Socoa Beach, 30-minutes south of Biarritz. You can enjoy lamb, mashed-potato pancakes, and hake and cabbage in front of the bobbing fishing boats. If you prefer to eat on the go, or grab something for a picnic on the beach, head to Les Halles market, which is filled with stalls dishing out sumptuous fare: from local goat’s cheeses and anchovies in olive oil and vinegar to limoncello jelly and hazelnut bread.

The most salubrious lodging in town is the Hotel du Palais, the brainchild of Eugenie de Montijo, the wife of Napoleon III, who chose a patch of hillside overlooking the Bay of Biscay for the Imperial residence. The hotel became the center for France’s elite, who holidayed at the sumptuous building and held balls, picnics and fireworks displays, while welcoming world leaders and royalty from around the world. These days the hotel retains all its old-world glamour, and its breakfasts are worth the room price alone.

There’s not a whole lot to do in Biarritz, but that’s sort of the point. It’s a place to while away the hours in a café, or to take long walks on one of the numerous beaches. It’s a place to relax in, not to do too much. If you do want to exert yourself, then there are a number of surfing schools where you can learn to ride the waves. Most offer similar courses (and prices), with La Vague Basque being the best reviewed. All ages and nationalities come here to learn to surf, so don’t be shy about getting that wetsuit on.

After a reviving dinner, head to the promenade and grab yourself an ice cream. One of the great French pastimes is people-watching, and the cafés along the promenade offer the perfect place to watch the world go by. Part French, part Basque, and with a wonderful mix of elegance, cool and Fifties chic, Biarritz might just be the best beach town in France.