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.