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Time Out In Tokyo

Inder Raj Ahluwalia stops over at Japan’s ‘Big Apple’ to find a city replete with man, machine, ambition and tradition

The view from Seiroka Tower, Akaishi-Cho, in Chuo Ward

"Don't prejudged"

"It isn't that sort of city. And don't be hasty. Try to ease yourself in and you'll blend in better and feel the rhythm. And forget about comparisons. They don't exist."

Ever the local girl, Ria Hiraoka allowed herself the luxury of a smile. But in fact, I wasn't prejudging. Simply because I didn't get the chance, having been hurled head first into the urban circus that is the city. Yet at first look it was a gray blob of glass, steel, and concrete, which left me wondering about all the fuss. And to top things off, my first day was rained off.

But Tokyo sweeps pre-judgments off! All the enigma and charm of Marco Polo's supposed 'golden palaces' comes through in Japan's political, commercial and cultural hub. And though it may appear staggering to first-timers, it's actually an easy city to discover.

Looking towards Shinjuku from Tomigaya, Shibuya Ward

Within a 45-kilometre radius of the Imperial Palace live some 30 million people - the same as in California. The dreamers and achievers, they all converged here to Japan's 'Big Apple', making it journey's end for over-achievers in a country where over-achieving is a mania. The result is throbbing commercial activity and a globally unmatched lifestyle that gets Tokyo the attention it deserves.

Once, Tokyo was a mere fishing hamlet. That is till Ieyesu Tokugawa, founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, moved here with his retainers and their families to establish the new centre of Japan in 1590. Then called Edo, the city developed fast. Though featuring a history that goes back several centuries, little remains from the days of the Shoguns, because of fire and earthquakes that took their toll. Twice in the 20th Century, first by the 1923 'Great Tokyo Earthquake', and then by a blazing fire during the 1945 raids, Tokyo saw near complete destruction. What one sees today has been rebuilt from the ashes.

Kameido Sun Street

Whether it is attending a tea ceremony, watching Sumo wrestling or a Kabuki performance, riding the world's fastest lift up 70 floors, travelling the world's second fastest trains, or gambling at astronomically high stakes, the city features hoopla amidst opulence and class.

In spite of the ruthless urban grind that's seen historic sites and ancient buildings crowded out by modern structures, exploring a city that reflects the traditions and aspirations of an ancient race of people is sheer fascination.

Look for the little things! Like a narrow path lined by bobbing paper lanterns, or a finely pruned pine tree gracefully draped over a stone wall. Or a Sumo Wrestler in a kimono and topknot, at a phone booth…

Filing silently in, passing under a gateway formed by 1,700 year-old cypress trees, one enters the very heart of Japanese tradition. The Imperial Palace - the Emperor's official residence - is an interesting complex of guard towers and gateways and popular spots like East Garden, Plaza, and the Nijubashi Bridge. Like the Meiji shrine dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, the palace is open to the public on the Emperor's birthday.

Queens Square, Yokohama

Amidst the palace's serenity, it's hard to believe that just across the street lies the hustle of fashionable Harajuku. A short walk to the huge open space of the Plaza, a favourite lunchtime rendezvous for office goers of the Marunouchi business district, provided further contrast.

For a taste of fashionable, downtown Tokyo, drop in at Harajuku and Shibuya, true designer-label territory. A wide boulevard fringed by restaurants, coffee shops, and boutiques, Harajuku swings. And so does Shibuya with its elegant outlets. Life moves fast here, even on Sundays, when hundreds of dancing teenagers dressed in '50s styles, jam the streets in a festive mood. Featuring unlimited entertainment and shopping in the shadow of the huge Olympic stadium and the Meiji shrine, Shibuya takes off from where Harajuku ends. If you're looking for some real action, Koen-Dorji street is the place for you.

With its remnants of Old Tokyo, the Ueno area, though traditional, is also lively enough, and Ueno Zoo is worth visiting. What started out as an innocuous stroll past the station, became much more as I found myself surrounded by surging crowds.

Shinuku Southern Terrace, Shinjuku Station, South Entrance

Make the climb to the viewing centre of the Tokyo Tower. The view is one not easily forgotten. On three sides, glass and concrete structures reach for the sky. On the fourth, there's a green break, with a patch of blue water, making it hard to believe they're part of the same city.

The National Museum of Emerging Science and Technology

Dusk brings another face of Tokyo. This is the city's best hour, and there's nowhere better to enjoy it than in The Ginza, which contrary to popular perception, is a whole district rather than a street. Famous stores edge side-streets fringed by restaurants, bars, cafes, nightclubs, and specialty shops. Distinguished by day as Japan's luxury goods and high fashion hub, with the greatest concentration of art galleries, and by night for the world's most expensive nightlife, The Ginza is as upscale as they come. For the city's rich, The Ginza is simply 'it'. Though class-consciousness is discreet in Japan, aristocrats and tycoons are still on the scene and The Ginza is their hangout.

It's great to take in the Tokyo National Museum of Modern Art, which has a superb collection of national art through the last two centuries. But don't spend all your time at museums.

From my vantage point in the shadow of the Sony Building, the view of the district is as good as it gets. Early evening bears a fashion-parade look as regally attired hostesses, many in kimonos, make their way daintily to work. Millions of office-goers pour out of buildings, into the streets, and into thousands of bars. And the famous neon lights flash their commercial messages.

To say that the Japanese love gardening is to make an understatement. The Hibiya Park is a famous nature study centre and a paradise for birds and butterflies, the Rikygien Garden features traditional Japanese landscapes of stone, water, plants and ferns, and the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden spills over with chrysanthemums and cherry blossoms.

In the area of Heiwajima, Ota Ward

The eternal question! How does one tackle Japanese food? Don't fret. There's more to Japanese cuisine than sukiyaki, tempuras, and shushi. Rice (gohan) usually boiled till sticky, is the staple ingredient. Numerous vegetables ranging from carrots, cucumbers and peas, to wild mountain roots and grasses, are served either fresh, pickled, deep-fried or boiled. Meats are normally chopped into bite-sized pieces, rarely overcooked, and often served raw. A bowl of soup accompanies all meals.

From little kiosks the size of closets to star establishments, there's a staggering variety of eateries. There are exclusive restaurants with subdued décor and music, impeccable service and sobering rates, but there are also more modest establishments serving wholesome cuisine at affordable rates, at least by Tokyo standards. Tipping is taboo.

Make bold! Walk the streets without fear. You'll always stumble upon a 'koban' (police box) and an obliging 'omawari-san' will help out. Huge, bustling, almost awesome, Tokyo defies comparisons. Yet alongside bustling thoroughfares lie quiet neighbourhoods where the traditional pattern of Japanese life still ebbs and flows.

Fact File

New Tokyo International Airport, Narita, Japan's main aerial gateway, has direct flights to India. From the airport one can take trains, taxis, and limousines (coaches). The airport's elaborate infrastructure includes hotels, car-rentals, and tourist information.

Tourist Information Centres
B1, Tokyo International Forum, 3-5-1, Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 100-0005. Tel. 03-3201-3331.
New Tokyo International Airport, Narita, Terminal 2 (Main). Tel. 0476-34-6251.

Japan Travel-Phone is a nationwide telephone service that provides information and assistance to foreign visitors. Once in the country, call one of the following numbers directly: 3201-3331 (Except for Saturday pm, Sundays and national holidays). Public telephones are found everywhere in the city and accept 10 and 100 Yen coins and a magnetic prepaid card.

General Business Hours
Banks - 9am-3pm.
Stores - 10 am-7.30 pm.
Museums -10 am-5 pm.
Offices- 9 am-5 pm.

  • City accommodation comes in a wide range, from deluxe hotels down to budget establishments and 'ryokans' (Japanese inns). Tariffs range from USD 50-600.
  • Travellers Cheques and select international credit cards like American Express, VISA, Diners Club, MasterCard and JCB are accepted banks, hotels, ryokan, and stores.
  • Take a sightseeing city tour. Or pick up a map and set off on your own. Most people in the service industry speak English, but don't forget that map.
  • Individual tipping isn't common in Japan, since a 10-15 percent service charge is added to the bill at leading hotels, ryokan and bigger restaurants.

Yakitori dinner

Select Restaurants

  • Isehiro (Yakitori) . Has several branches in the downtown area
  • Maharao (Indian)
  • Minazuki (Japanese seafood)
  • Tony Roma's (American barbecue)
  • La Brasserie, Imperial Hotel (French)
  • Tenryu (Chinese)
  • Chiang Mai (Thai)

Soba, udom and thin chilled wheat noodles

Select Hotels

  • Nikko Narita Hotel
  • Fairmont Hotel, 2-1-17 Kudan Minam/Chijoda-Ku
  • Hotel Okura Tokyo, 2-10-4 Toranomon/Minato-Ku
  • Miyako Tokyo Hotel, 1-1-50 Shiroganouch 1 -Chome
  • Tokyo Bay Hilton, 1-8, Maihama, Urayasu-Shi, Chiba

Indian nationals require a visa to enter Japan.


Business Etiquette
Though more Japanese businessmen have started adopting - at least in their dealings with Westerners- Western habits and manners, certain standards of behaviour remain very ‘Japanese’.

For instance, when you're introduced to someone, you are expected to present your visiting card (both hands please, and your card should ideally have your name and designation in both English and Japanese). The gesture will be reciprocated and you are expected to keep the card in front of you while at the meeting. The Japanese are sticklers for punctuality - whether it’s for a business meeting or a social occasion - so make it a point to be on time. And never ask any personal questions - or probe into the personal lives - of Japanese business associates; it’s considered bad manners to do so.

Currency and Costs
The currency used is the yen (¥). If you’re hoping to travel in Japan on a shoestring budget, you're going to be in for a shock - it’s probably one of the most expensive countries in the world to travel in. Despite staying in the cheapest of establishments and eating at the lowest priced of food stalls, you’ll still end up spending around US$50 a day, and if you allow yourself to splurge- then there’s really no limit to how high you can go. Amongst the highest priced items are travel tickets - going long distance can really cost a packet (the solution is to buy a rail pass - much more economical)

Banks & Money Changers
Japan's is a sound economy, and it's reflected in the country's banks- sound, stable establishments you can trust your money with (on the whole). For most tourists, banking transactions are limited to foreign currency exchange, and this is a service handled by nearly all banks in the cities. Banks, in fact, will be able to give you the best rates for exchanging foreign currency into yen. Among the better known and more reliable establishments are the Bank of Japan and the Bank of Tokyo.

Banking hours: Most banks in Japan work six days a week, from 9 to 3. However, work hours are shorter on the first and last Saturdays of the month- banks close by 12 on these days. All banks close on Sundays and public holidays.