Toronto Star: Tokyo proves to be a moving miracle
Published on Friday, October 22, 2010. By Jim Byers, Travel Editor. All photos from the article can be found here.
TOKYO — There they are. Exactly where they shouldn’t be.
Just a few hundred meters behind a sacred statue of Buddha in the stunning Sensoji temple in the Asakusa section of this remarkable city, rises a giant yellow sign. In black and red letters it spells out “Hotel Mermaid Club.”
A glance a bit to the left reveals a majestic gate and a towering temple where folks pray to the gods, just a few feet away from a station where incense is burned in time-honoured fashion. Behind that is a large black sign that reads “Here! Amuse Museum.”
The juxtaposition of sacred and profane doesn’t seem right. But that’s the point of Tokyo. You can shop on the oh-so-posh Ginza (window shop is more likely given prices that make Yorkville look like Honest Ed’s), but a five-minute walk is a teeming food spot called Yakitori Alley, where tens of thousands of tiny skewers of chicken breasts, heart and livers get roasted on open flames every day beneath the thundering trains at Yurakucho Station and served to hungry folks for $2 a stick.
You can wander through the “downtown” of Shinjuku and poke your head into a buzzing pachinko parlour and feel like you’ve nestled into the engine of a 747 poised for takeoff, jingling and ringing musical notes rising in an ear-pounding crescendo as the oblivious players watch the dark silver balls rattle down the machine. A reasonably short walk down the road is Yoyogi Park, with its massive wooden Torii gate, endless acres of deep green and rolling gardens of cherry and maple.
And so it goes; musicians practicing the saxophone under a highway overpass so as not to bother folks packed into 70 square meter apartments; a city with gray-suited businessmen looking like cookie cutters marching down the streets of Harajuku next to teenage girls in matching Little Bo Peep costumes marching past doe-eyed anime’ characters, a city where you can’t smoke on the sidewalk but can light up all you like in a swanky hotel bar.
With 35 million or so folks packed into the metropolitan region, this city should be utter chaos. But the Japanese brilliance for adapting and finding ways to protect their privacy and “all just get along” have combined for a city that’s a genuine treat for visitors, with a marvelously tentacled public transit system, clean streets and negligible crime.
A couple from Whitby who had just landed the day before told me they had gone to a Tokyo Giants baseball game.
“We had to line up two hours for standing room only tickets. They really get into it. There’s chants and songs and people jump and up and down and the whole bit.”
Instead of everyone having to sit for two hours, fans arrive early and mark their down spots with pieces of paper and tape it down on the sidewalk, then maybe go for a walk for a minute and leave a stool to sit on. It seems simple.”
Tokyo is a place that’s defined by its neighborhoods almost to the degree of Toronto; not so much from an ethnic standpoint but from the types of people or shops or culture you’ll find.
“I take people to Shibuya and the Ginza and all that, but I try to quickly get to the neighborhoods,” said Nadine Waechter Moreno, head chef at the Park Hyatt Hotel in Shinjuku. “On a day off, my husband and I just wander around aimlessly, and it’s wonderful.”
She took a morning off work to show a visitor the fabled Tsukiji fish market, reputed to be the busiest in the world. Small forklifts bob and weave past thousands of fish hawkers, visitors and wholesalers or buyers, steamrolling past enormous tuna carcasses fresh off the boat. Frozen tuna is sliced perfectly down the middle by a small man in a blue shirt wielding a giant, electric table saw, and buckets are overflowing with whirling, splashing eels, snapper and shiny lobster.
One twirling, hand-written sign above a tray filled with ice and dark red slabs of meat reads “baleen whale.”
Millions of creatures pass through the market every day, and a great treat is to finish the morning by sampling the wares at one of the nearby sushi stands. The only way it could be any more fresh is if you took your wasabi and rice with you on the boat.
As famous as the fish market deservedly is, it’s nearly as much fun to take in the fruit and vegetable markets. The frenzied trading is open to the public, unlike the 3 a.m. tuna auction, and it’s positively stunning to see the variety of material; asparagus with stalks as thick as the bottom of a baseball bat, enormous golden apples the colour of a harvest moon and thick, purple grapes the size of a golf ball that are lovingly nestled in pink paper and carefully boxed in a style usually reserved for a Cartier watch.
One of the great treats is to watch the folks selling dried bonito flakes. They dry them in ovens off to one side of the market, then flake them in a machine and stuff them into paper bags to be used for soup stock.
Shinjuku is famous for its pachinko and shopping, including an outlet of Britain’s Top Shop. You’ll find teens with skirts up to there and long, black, knee-high boots with mean-looking makeup, softened by the cartoon characters or miniature teddy bears that dangle from their cell phones. Parading along beside might be an older woman in a red and yellow flowered kimono. Just a few steps away is the not so dangerous looking sex district, where touts will try to lure folks into a chat with some local women; or perhaps something more.
You can find almost anything in Tokyo. Except garbage. Folks stroll the main Tokyo train station with portable vacuums on their back, looking for scraps of paper you can’t even see. A local explains that the city plants only male gingko trees in parts of downtown as the females leave messy nuts on the ground.
I kept coming back in my mind to the Sensoji (or Asakusa Kannon) temple area as a miniature film version of the city. There are lovely gardens, with that Japanese penchant for the perfectly placed stone bridge framing the view of a tree or a temple roof line, as well as moms and dads on bikes and rickshaws hauling overweight tourists. I noticed a woman rubbing her hands against a willow tree and showing the long, graceful branches to what looked like her daughter, a wide smile on her face as she, perhaps, explained the beauty of nature in the city’s urban jumble. Not far from the main temple is a large urn holding incense that sends out rafts of grey and white smoke.
Older adults walk up and stand close, sometimes wiping the smoke on their foreheads or arms. Uniformed school kids in crisp white shirts and blue pants, meanwhile, wander up and shake and cough with laughter, dashing away madly with enormous grins on their faces.
My last morning, I had perhaps an hour free to check out one of the neighborhoods I hadn’t seen. Harajuku is known for its Sunday parade of girls – and some guys – in crazy costumes; Hello Kitty or Madonna or 1950’s greasers straight out of a James Dean movie.
I was trying to find my way to the Omotesando Hills Shopping Centre, struggling with an umbrella and one of those useless tourist maps that don’t really show proper streets, when a voice called out, “Hey, man, can I help?”
The friend in need turned out to be Darrell Green, a transplanted Philadelphian who tells a Toronto visitor he moved here in 1993, the year the Blue Jays ousted his Phillies from the World Series. He doesn’t take it personally, and starts a mini-lecture on the merits of Tokyo.
“They let kids be kids,” he said.
But what about the pressure to do well in school, he was asked.
“Oh, there’s that. My son got sent home from school when he hadn’t done his work and they wouldn’t let him play baseball after school, either. That made an impression.
“If you’re in school, everything’s great. They spoil their kids rotten.”
Hence the Harajuku costume parade, which is honest, no harm fun when you get right down to it. There’s not a chance a kid would dress up like this in public in Toronto. Or even San Francisco.
I was intent on checking out the Prada shop and such on Omotesando, but Green wouldn’t hear of it.
“Man, you gotta get off on the side streets. Forget the shopping mall.”
I got my requisite shot of the Prada shop and give the once-over to the Louis Vuitton store – a brand much adored in this city – and headed back. Near the shopping centre, I made a hard right turn and suddenly….Tokyo. Not showy stores with brand names, but high-end shops with names like Crack Unit and Nest Robe, as well as small Japanese restaurants with wooden fronts and simple red lanterns. It’s too ritzy to be a middle-class area, but it’s fascinating to see single-car garages and homes with flowering oleander and ordinary mailboxes and uniformed children getting ready for school.
I watched it all unfold, and thought back to the tour guide who showed me and a bunch of other folks around on a bus my second day in town.
He explained on the way to Asakusa that’s he’s Shinto, while his wife is a devout Buddhist and his eldest son a Christian.
It shouldn’t work. But it does. Just like Tokyo.
Just the facts
GETTING THERE: Air Canada flies direct from Toronto to Tokyo’s Narita Airport.
WHERE TO STAY: At the Park Hyatt Hotel in Shinjuku you can look for traces of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson from Lost in Translation. It’s a great spot for city views and Waechter Moreno does wonders with veal and steaks and even corn fritters with lime-infused sour cream.
Located close to the Imperial Palace and only a few blocks from the Ginza, The Palace Hotel is a plush, historic hotel with all the amenities.
TIP: Cabs are expensive, so take public transit to the station closest to your destination, and then take a cab. Or ask a local for directions as best you can. Better yet, get your hotel concierge to write out your destination on a card and to give you a card for how to get home. Maps are great for the big picture but probably won’t help you find that cute shop in Roppongi.