Capitals of Japan: Tokyo

6 Days in Tokyo // Sleeper train // Gardens // Food // Architecture // Art // Shopping // Kabuki // Kawaii Monster Cafe // Boat trip // So much plum blossom // Shrines & Temples // Organisational Fail // Fuji-san in the Clouds

So here it is, the current capital of Japan. I spent last Wednesday to this Monday in Tokyo, visiting an old school friend, M. She very kindly, graciously and patiently accompanied (lead) me on a grand tour of the biggest city on earth. We did so much! It was amazing. Here’s what I thought…

I don’t really like cities. On the whole, I find them stinky and dirty and depressing and ugly. And Tokyo is not a beautiful city. I’ve lived in Edinburgh, London and York and they all win in the visual department, hands down. British people: stop complaining about the strictness of our planning regulations! Tokyo is an awful mishmash-hodgepodge of architectural styles, many ugly: the buildings are looming and modern and piled randomly together: industrial areas butt up against sleek developments and the precious few remaining historical sites are overwhelmed by skyscrapers, all the while criss cross electricity lines are sagging overhead. But, you know what: who cares about that? It’s brilliant!

It’s ugly (of course it is, pretty much the whole thing was rebuilt post WW2) but it’s also clean and tidy, smells much better than London, has tonnes of interesting things to do and is really easy to navigate. I was with an official Tokyo resident for 4 out of the 6 days I was sightseeing, so you may not believe that last point, but honestly- it’s true. It may take me longer to work out which subway line or station exit I need but it is perfectly simple to do, even for Japanese-language idiots like me.

Tokyo is definitely not as monstrous and terrifying as is often described. It may be the most populous city on earth but it only felt like that at certain times (like rush hour on the subway) or in certain areas where, I think, most of the crowds were actually made of tourists. Definitely no busier than London.

I visited 9 gardens and saw lots of interesting horticultural things in Tokyo, so I think I’ll deal with them in a different post. Apart from that, here are some of my highlights…

Nobinobi

I took the sleeper train to Tokyo on Tuesday night. It was great! It’s not a common way to travel in Japan, but I love sleeper trains and it meant that I could arrive first thing on Wednesday to fit in loads of sightseeing in before M finished work. I bought the cheapest ticket: a nobinobi. In this carriage, there is a two tier platform (like a bunk bed) which is divided up into sections, one per person.You lie across the direction of travel, on a heated carpet with a little mat. And you have a window. It was nice. If you don’t understand this description, here’s an awkward photo (there were a lot of people already sleeping when I got on at Kobe, I didn’t want to seem like a weirdo taking pictures of people sleeping…)

IMG_20160210_241731440

Kabuki 歌舞伎

Kabuki is amazing! So amazing, in fact, that I went on about it for ages and have had to move my write-up into a separate post for your sanity. If you want to read about it, click here.

Architecture

After slating Tokyo as ugly above, I would now like to say that it also has some amazing architecture. [Mum, I took LOADS of photos of buildings especially for you, instead of just taking pictures of plants like I normally do :-).] There are some really swanky new developments, some beautiful temples and shrines, loads of skyscrapers and also loads of really odd or interesting buildings. Tokyo is full of really interesting shapes!

Kawaii Monster Café

Is the strangest place I’ve ever been in my life. Japan has something called kawaii culture, which I do not profess to understand. It is something to do with being cute (kawaii かわいい), and extends beyond an aesthetic value to one’s personal appearance, to music styles, even behaviour, I think. Kawaii is EVERYWHERE. Some kawaii things are actually cute, some are super creepy, as we found out… Kawaii Monster Cafe is a restaurant/bar which was created by Sebastian Masuda, a kawaii design mogul. He is behind the look of kawaii popstar Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. (All credit for this information goes to M & R: thank you!). M & I thought we had to see this, especially after reading the website description: “Upon entering, you will walk through the tongue of Mr. Ten thousand chopsticks(Choppy) and then come across the cake shaped Merry-go-round“SWEETS GO ROUND” and also the 4 unique areas called“MUSHROOM DISCO”,“MILK STAND”,“Bar Experiment”, and “Mel-Tea ROOM”.” Mushroom disco?! Yes please!

The restaurant looks amazing, and the food was good too. The design is SUPER COOL. It’s mad. It’s hilarious. It’s overwhelming. Unfortunately it was also just about empty on a Friday night: not a good sign for Mr Masuda. Despite the amazing look and concept, the place came across as dystopian more than cute and the atmosphere wasn’t very good. Mostly because there was really loud pounding techno so you couldn’t talk properly, the waiting staff were quite grumpy, and the hourly ‘Monster Girl Show’ was just one surly anorexic woman trying to do sexy dancing on a revolving plastic cake whilst a huge lunging purple cat (cat?) wiggled around next to her. Seriously, Sebastian? I want cute, not depressing. Lose the sexy act, give us some (quieter) kawaii music and something interactive to do. What’s the point in all this amazing design if you can’t play with it? Well, here are some pictures… See what you think!

Shopping & Eating

Although I didn’t actually buy anything in Tokyo, I really enjoyed looking at the shops. Shopping is a national pastime in Japan and fashion is BIG. As is buying beautifully wrapped and presented chocolates and sweets and pastries. There are more bakeries and patisseries in Tokyo than the whole of France, I swear to God. It smells like cake everywhere. It’s really hard not to eat everything you see! Luckily all the skinny Japanese people everywhere are a helpful reminder that I don’t need to eat sweets all the time: once a day is OK. There are loads of shopping districts with every brand or item you could imagine, from fancy Omotesando and funky Harajuku to markets and well, everything.

Everything Else

We did loads more brilliant stuff… A boat trip, Museum of Contemporary Art (highly recommend), plum-hunting, temples and shrines. Oh! And I finally realised the difference between a temple and a shrine. Shrines are Shinto, temples are Buddhist (and they have other different things). M thinks that I’m an idiot for not realising that they are from different religions. Oops!

I also massively FAILED to see the Imperial Palace Gardens and Shinjuku-Gyoen (the biggest and most famous garden in Tokyo), because I tried to visit them on Monday and they were both closed, as it clearly states on all my tourism leaflets and in my guidebook. Don’t make the same mistake as me, fellow Japan visitors! Read the small print! LOADS of things are closed on Mondays, even massive tourist sites. Well, it’s OK, there are so many other things I didn’t have time to see, I’ll just have to go back to Tokyo again 🙂

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