This a roundup of a few of our most memorable sights and things we did in Tokyo.
Akiharbara is a shrine to all things geek. I think this is the Japan people envisage before they visit Japan. We strolled through neon streets of video arcades and electronics shops, and watched, rather perplexed, as suited, middle-aged businessmen sat transfixed on games that looked like something straight out of the 80s. Electronics stores are everywhere as you'd expect for somewhere known as “Electric Town”, so this may be the place to pick up any electronic gizmos you're in need of (although the prices looked comparable to Europe to me). The culture here is that of the “Otaku”, usually (if not always?) men who harbour quite obsessive interests in anime/manga, computer games or Sci-Fi. It's an odd thing to visit the stores lined with anime/manga that is only inches away from being pornography. These Japanese guys clearly idolised their childhoods and like Peter Pan, never wanted to face the stress of adult life in modern Japan. Who can blame them?
The maid cafes seem to be a prime example of this mentality. These are cafes where the hostesses are young Japanese girls dressed in skimpy French maids outfits. We visited one of the 'Maid Dreamin' chain of cafes after obtaining a flyer from a Japanese girl with filed teeth, a practice known as Yaeba. We were seated and received our “welcome ceremony”, which involved a dance and candle that the maid blew out. We decided to order the Teddy Bear Katsu and Ginger Ale and before we ate each item, we had to participate in “Delicious Magic”, which basically involved a song in Japanese that I didn't understand, some “Meow Meow”s and a cutesy dance with some clapping. The maid finally then drew a love heart with sauce on the Katsu. I must have blushed bright red throughout the entire thing. The maids address the men as “Master” and the women as “Princess”. As part of our meal package, we then got a poloroid photo of us with the maids, and some souvenir bunny ears (of course!). It was just interesting looking around at the different kinds of people who visit to be honest. There were other uncomfortable looking tourists like us, but also single Japanese guys and even single Japanese women, who had clearly done this before! It's interesting as like the manga/anime stores, it kind of blurs the line between innocent escapism back to childhood and an almost adult fetishistic theme.
Certainly a memorable experience of Tokyo anyway, although be warned: these cafes are not cheap (expect a cover charge about 1000JPY per person, and a meal for one to be about 2000JPY). We also visited a cat cafe whilst in Tokyo, which, you've guessed it, is a cafe full of cats (there are also owl cafes). To someone from the UK (where it's not so uncommon for a cafe to have a cat or two anyway) it wasn't much of a novelty, although, it was still nice to sit and have a drink and stroke some cats. I think these cafes came about in Japan because people often live in buildings where keeping pets likes cats is not allowed or feasible.
Other things of interest: the band AKB48 (Akiharbara 48) originated here, and you can visit their shop near the entrance to the metro station. Also next door is the Gundam Robot Cafe.
Tokyo has several buildings with platforms for your viewing pleasure. We didn't visit the biggest of these, the Tokyo Skytree, but we did visit the Mori Tower in Roppongi, which gives a great view of the Tokyo Tower, and we also went up the Tokyo tower itself. Tokyo is one of those cities that has to be seen from somewhere high up at nightime, so I'd definitely recommend going up at least one building with a view.
We also went to the New York Bar on the 52nd floor of the Park Hyatt Hotel, which is famed for being the bar in which Billy Murray somberly sipped Suntory whisky in Lost In Translation. There is a 2000JPY cover charge if you go after 8pm, but we went at 6pm (cheapskates). The drinks are as pricey as you would expect, but it was enjoyable nevertheless; the room is dark and swanky, the city view is great and there are some interesting cocktails (Chili and Coriander Margartia for example) and aged Whiskies to be sampled. I felt like James Bond as I ordered an 18 year old Glenmorangie on the rocks, that cost more than some of the accomodation we've stayed in recently. We mostly sat watching the clientele, and wondering what they did to be able to afford the £350 pn rates at this place.
Of course, no visit to Tokyo would be complete without a trip to the Tsujiki fish market. We didn't make it to the 5am auction (possibly on account of the aforementioned Park Hyatt whiskies), but we did go here for lunch one day. You should definitely go here with an appetitie and just walk around eating. We had big tuna steaks on the bone, squid, octopus and even more strangely Shrimp and Wasabi flavoured ice-cream. Yes, I said ice-cream. I would like to say “it was delicious, you should try it you culinary philistines!”, but no; the Wasabi wasn't bad to be fair, however the Shrimp was not something I'd order again. Still, when in Rome...
One of the most memorable nights in Tokyo was a Ramen noodles making night organized by our hotel. There was Louise and me, an American guy and a group of friends from the Phillipines. We started with just flour and salt, made the dough, folded it and then carved out the noodles (or amorphous lumps of dough as mine would be more accurately described). Surprisingly it tasted very good, but I suspect that was more to do with the toppings and stock than the noodles. I'd been wondering what the spiral patterned fishy topping was on the Ramen I had had at a restaruant a few days earlier, and I learnt it was called Naruto (named after the whirpools in the Strait of Naruto (and also now the name of a popular manga character). We also tried fermented bean paste, which is quite a common breakfast in Japan (trust me, it smells worse than it tastes, so give it a go).
Since we were trying to minimize the finacial damage Japan was doing to our bank accounts, we eat a LOT of bento meals from 7-11, Familymart and Lawson stores, which are everywhere in Japan. These meals usually cost between 400JPY-700JPY and consist of things such as rice, sushi, chicken katsu, okonomiyaki etc. We also eat at our fair share of Ramen noodle joints. These usually have vending machines at the entrance where you can visually select the meal you want (handy for non-Japanese speaking tourists), pay and then hand the ticket over to the waiter. The noodles are usually very generation portions with good helpings of pork and egg at a reasonably price, 600JPY-800JPY, so a very good option if you are sick of convience store meals but on a budget.
On one of our last evenings, we also made it to an authentic Izakaya pub/restaurant. This was in a small side alley in Shinjuku, and looked just how I imagined an Izakaya should. Small tables, jam-packed with people (all Japanese except for us), beer flowing and meaty treats galore. Since we couldn't read the Japanese menu, we basically got a picture of a pig, which looked more of an anotomical sketch to be honest. The various organs like the kidneys, intestines, tongue and even the rectum were neaty sketched and labelled. These meaty skewers actually go very well with beer, and I had no complaints.
Love Hotels in case you don't know are a Japanese phenomenom. They are basically hotels that can either be rented by the hour (“rest”) or overnight (“stay”), and which originated for couples to go for a bit of hanky panky. Apparently lot's of young Japanese people still live with their parents on account of accomodation being so expensive here, so these hotels provided the necessary getaway spots. They tend to be fairly posh (in a playboy mansion kind of way), and known for their crazy themed rooms. We'd already stayed in one Love Hotel in Kyoto, but now that we were in Tokyo we wanted to try again for something with a theme. I'd read about all manner of themes such as the, now sadly no longer existant, "Hello Kitty BDSM room", so we spent a Saturday afternoon trawling around the Love Hotel Hill region of Shibuya, which is the central hub in Tokyo for these kind of hotels. This is just up the hill from the famous Shibuyu crossing (which of course you should go and take pictures of too, see pic below), past the Shibuyu 109 building. It's hard (often impossible) to book these hotels in advance or online, so we were quite nervous without any accomodation booked for the night. The best resource that I found was this map. It at least shows you the names and locations of the hotels there, but to see what rooms are on offer the only real way is just to walk around.
In the end we settled on the White Box hotel. It wasn't a themed room unfortunately, but the only themed rooms I found were in the SK-Plaza hotel, which charged upwards of 20,000JPY for it's Bali or British themeed rooms, which was beyond our budget, boo! The white box hotel was pretty standard love hotel fayre to be honest –- jacuzzi bath, with various lighting, a big bed with various sound and lightning controls, games consoles for rental, a TV with uherrm Video on Demand. Just like the Ramen noodle restaurants, these hotels have a vending machine to choose your room from in the lobby. Discretion is paramount, and there is usually just a small hole to talk through to the receptionist if needed. It can be sometimes tricky if you don't speak Japanese too.
On the note of quirky Japanese accomodation, we also stayed in the Kiba Capsule Hotel. We had a double capsule room, which wasn't too cramped. It had everything you'd expect from a Japanese capsule hotel such as underwear vending machines (just incase) and an onsen spa for all your public nude bathing needs, It was our cheapest accomodation in Tokyo, but it was very noisy. Not so much because of anyone being purposefully loud, but just the general banging that goes on when you share three 2-inch walls with different neighbours, and people walk up and down the corridor outside climbing into their capsules at all hours.
We visited the Museum of Emerging and Future technologies. Here you can see Asimo do his thing and interact with scary looking androids. There are exhibits on all kinds of things from quantum computers to future medical techniques. I'd recommend the planetarium too, even if it did send us to sleep almost (in a good way).
Tokyo was our last stop in Japan, and I'm writing this from the airport minutes before we board a plane for Cairns, Australia. I can't quite believe we are leaving Asia after 9 months to be honest. I need to retune to the fact I will be surrounded by English speaking people again, otherwise I'll be talking to the shopkeeper in monosyllabic grunts in the fashion that I've got used to in order to make sure I am understood ('Me want that please'). No more chopsticks! No more rice and noodles! What are we going to do!? I'm going to miss Asia a lot, but hopefully the eastern coast of Australia will take the edge off.