Tokyo is a city of two halves, the old and the new and it was time to embrace the new! Our first morning in Tokyo began with grey skies and drizzle, the kind of weather that would normally be enough of an excuse to stay home in your pyjamas all day. We however would not be put-off, instead we packed our rucksacks and headed downstairs for some breakfast. It was here, sat on our tatami mats enjoying a nutritious glass of water (we had forgotten to buy food for breakfast) that we made our first friends of the trip, the lovely Zac and Laura, two teachers working in China who had come to Tokyo for the week. We soon discovered that they were looking for two more people to join them on a trip to the ‘Robot Restaurant’ that evening, so obviously we volunteered.
With our plan for the evening sorted we set out for Ueno Station to activate our rail passes and get our bearings in this concrete metropolis. Within minutes of leaving the hostel and walking along the main road we were caught unawares by a beautiful Shinto shrine. This tranquil garden was set back only a few metres from the road and obscured by a small hedgerow and yet once inside this sacred place we felt a million miles from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo.
The majority of buildings in Tokyo are large concrete blocks, which might sound rather dull and uninspiring and that’s understandable. However it is only when you take the time to walk through these streets that you notice the countless gardens, parks and shrines that fill these streets giving the city a strange and yet beautiful juxtaposition of man and nature, old and new.
Walking along one of the many commercial streets towards Ueno were all of a sudden aware of a crowd in front of us, moments later we realised why. Towering above us on the roof of a shop was an enormous chef, a slight grin on his face and and well trimmed moustache to keep his nose warm. Beneath this behemoth was a covered street lined with stalls selling something as Japanese as sushi or samurai…plastic food.
Like many cities, restaurants here often have pictures to accompany their menus in order to make them easier to understand…however in Tokyo this is taken a step further. Almost all restaurants will have a plethora of fake foods lined up outside their stores, giving you a scarily accurate representation of everything on the menu. This entire street, at least 300 metres of shops and stalls split over several levels is dedicated almost entirely to this bizarre and charming method of advertising.
With our senses overwhelmed and our minds confused from the sheer oddness of all the plastic foods we headed on to Ueno station, but not before the drizzle turned into downpour. So there was us, two westerners huddled under a tiny umbrella running towards the station as the local residents wandered casually around us taking no notice of the rain. It was at this point that we realised neither of our shoes, although both fashionable and comfortable (which is always a priority), had any grip whatsoever. To make matters worse the concrete path then turned into what can only be described as a series of brightly coloured bathroom tiles. The remaining hundred metres between us and the station turned into the most stressful slip and slide imaginable, with both Yianna and myself struggling to stay upright.
The sense of relief upon arriving at the station was indescribable…however this feeling was quickly replaced by confusion, panic and a desperate need for the loo. Ueno station is akin to Kings Cross in London, except everything is in Japanese and there about 400 entrances to the station none of which are easy to find when wet and panicked, basically it’s a big train station. After what seemed like hours of going up and down the same escalators searching for where we needed to go we eventually found the ticket office and got hold of our rail passes. Having had a brief rest and with renewed confidence we hopped on the Yamanote Line and headed for Harajuku.
Harajuku! There are few places if any that can compare too the quirky charisma of this colour corner of Tokyo. From the second you leave the station every sense is overwhelmed by Harajuku. Takeshita Street is the focal point of this neighbourhood, a pedestrianised walkway lined with all manner of shoes, cafes, bars and who knows what! Made famous in the late 1990s and early 2000s Harajuku is a place where fashion and self expression are encouraged with reckless abandon. The Japanese word Kawaii, meaning cute, is the only way of accurately succinctly describing this place. Walking through the crowded streets each shop is something you’ve never seen before or likely even dreamed existed.
At the top of Takeshita Street is the Tamagotchi shop, a cacophony of colour and strange noises that in all honesty is a very tame introduction to the rest of Harajuku. Outside every shop there seems to be a mascot posing for pictures with children and adults alike, whether these mascots are for the shops in question I really don’t know! One could spend hours on this street going into every shop and meeting every mascot and it wouldn’t be wasted time.
Perhaps the strangest place that we stumbled upon was the ‘Cat Cafe’ and yes I know we have them in London now but please bare with me. Although fronted by a huge sign for ‘Cat Cafe’ the shop was covered in pictures of owls and there was a terrifying animatronic owl greeting you at the door. The cafe itself was below street level, upon entering you must pass through a series of hanging sheets similar to those you find in a reptile house at the zoo…or at an abattoir. The walls, ceiling and the floor are covered to within an inch of their life with fake foliage and perched among the plastic branches are owls…actual living owls…in a basement in the middle of Harajuku called ‘Cat Cafe’. Trust me we have as many questions as you do.
After the ‘Cat Cafe’ and comes a 50 metre stretch of nothing but sweet shops and desert cafes, inside these sugar sanctuaries the sky is the limit. They sell everything from gummy bears to edible dolls and candy floss bigger than anything I’ve ever seen before. Spending any longer than about five minutes in one of these places is dangerous however as the music, colours and smell of sugar are nauseating to say the least.
It was behind one of these sweet shops that we found and underwear shop, that doesn’t sound too odd I hear you say, but wait. These pants, as well as being tighter than anything you can imagine are decorated with what perhaps the oddest patterns I’ve seen on underwear. At the tamer end of the spectrum are skin tight y-fronts that look like denim (strong look I know). At the other end of the spectrum are terrifying Kabuki faces and 16th Century frescos. Perhaps the oddest however are the frog pants, made of felt these glorious green garments are definitely going on my Christmas wish list!
When the hustle and bustle of Takeshita Street ends a very different side of Harajuku is revealed: retro chic. A far cry from the anime inspired people of Takeshita Street this part of Harajuku is filled with vintage clothes shops, record stores and couturiers. Shops specialising in bomber jackets, 1970s jewellery or reimagined Disney characters to name but a few. However the piece de resistance in this part of Harajuku is a small Kimono shop, from the outside all you can see is a few pairs of brightly coloured Perspex flip flops. Once inside the shop flip flops quickly reveal a passageway into a circular room filled with the most exquisite kimonos I’ve ever seen. A true blend of tradition and innovation, these garments are made in the traditional kimono style but using untraditional textiles and patterns. Everything from houndstooth lined with sheepskin to prints of Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ adorn these fabulous Kimonos.
As you continue deeper into Harajuku you reach the main shopping thoroughfare of the district, and though this area is full of names like Vivienne Westwood, Zara and Forever 21 do not mistake this for your average high street. Between these global brands are shops like Bubbles, a pink bedroom filled with everything and anything pink…including some questionable items considering how many children were in the store. Across the road from Vivienne Westwood for instance is Condomania, a shop entirely dedicated to condoms of every conceivable shape, size, colour, taste and who knows what else.
As you leave Harajuku it is difficult to avoid the tranquility of the Meiji Shrine, named after the dynasty of Emperors restored after the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Walking through the enormous Tori gate you could be forgiven for forgetting you are in Tokyo, the entire area is full of lush, wild forest. If I can make one recommendation for Harajuku it would be to end your day with a trip through the Meiji Shrine just as the sun sets. With the waning sunlight dancing through the trees it is easy to see how in places like this the Japanese could believe the spirits are communicating with humanity.
Our first full day in Tokyo ended with a trip to the Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku. This area of the city is the picture postcard of Tokyo, narrow streets glowing with a thousand neon signs hanging from skyscraper after skyscraper. At the heart of Shinjuku is the Robot Restaurant, a terrifying, exhilarating, ridiculous, hilarious and down right incomparable experience. Words honestly cannot begin to describe this show, is it a gimmick? Yes. Does that mean it’s not worth seeing? Absolutely not. In fact the gimmicky nature of the show only adds to its unique charm.
The show is an assault on the senses, people dressed as everything from Samurai to Mermaids and Sailor Moon to Dinosaurs. Each of the four acts is themed, though the term is used loosely. The first act focussed on the history and traditions of Japan…though this was done through the medium of robotic drum players and scantily clad women using plastic swords. The acts only got weirder from there…mermaids riding robotic sharks fighting dinosaurs using nothing but their tails and a minigun…now there is a sentence I never thought I’d write. The final act went a step further, every single person came out dressed as a horse riding a horse singing about horses and I still don’t know why.
Safe to say it was one of the weirdest and most amazing days of my life.
And so onto the next day: palaces, sushi and karaoke!
See you soon,