Tokyo drift

Transit in Tokyo? Here's a hop-skip-and-jump guide to the city. Bask in the city's quaint glory in a 24-hour jaunt; we're sure you'll return for more, and real soon.
R Pallavi | Print Edition: July 21, 2013

British draughtsman David Hockney may have had some inkling about art or at least a perception, but for me, he summed up Japan. Tourists wield a strong urgency about 'knowing' the country, but just as they begin to feel adequately informed, something more confusing yet fascinating unravels before them. Tokyo, in all its bullet train modernity, is my case in point. While there are no patriarchs rhapsodising tea-house riddles on the streets, an aged guard outside a swanky bank office opens up his iPhone gallery, points to pictures of the Taj, and draws an easy analogy with Japan's history. A country of paradoxes, it surprises, shocks and stuns - all at once.

Those on a transit visit to Asia's most progressive capital should follow the cruise code: maximise deck time and minimise room time. A 24-hour wrap of Tokyo should ideally commence with an early morning visit to the Asakusa Shrine. Swathed in the rising sun, the sharp and almost authoritative façade of the pagodas preserves the colonial prowess of the ancient Edo Empire. The temple complex is decked out with rice paper lamps and incense cones, and is crisscrossed by narrow streets punctuated by handfolded paper fans, ebony combs and glitter-lined masks. You may want to stock up on souvenirs at this point, because the rest of Tokyo won't feed your cultural cliches. For instance, the edge of your eye might be searching for a Maiko girl with seasonal flowers suspended by the side of her rounded jaws and that almost edible, immaculate face paint. Instead, what you find here are Maiko and Sumo makeover studios that leave you with photo-souvenirs and a discomforting sense of Indian hill station holidays from the 90s that are frozen in summer-vacation memories.

The old Tokyo tower, like a lighthouse, beams over the city's skyline
The old Tokyo tower, like a lighthouse, beams over the city's skyline

The morning hours witness a wave of Tokyo's workforce ebbing and flooding the city's many metro lines. Excuse yourself from the inland chaos and hop aboard the Tokyo Water Bus to the Hamarikyu Garden. Flanked by skyscrapers, the garden's pine and plum-laden expanse offers an unexpected calmness. The cherry blossoms and emerald green shrubs are mirrored, and multiplied, by the still lake waters. Follow the wooden-bridge path that leads to the garden's traditional tea-house and feast on a breakfast of green tea, miso soup and the whitest of white soba noodles. On weekdays, you'll spot tiny-footed scholars in crisp uniforms taking a study tour, while the weekends bring out the kimono-clad folk, with their sharp watercolour prints on glossy silk.

Quirky glass art on the Prada building in Omotesando
Quirky glass art on the Prada building in Omotesando

By noon, a siesta-like weariness falls upon the town. This is the time to check into the Mita Subway Line and debark at Onarimon Station. Here lies the red-and-white version of the Eiffel, which the state calls Tokyo Tower. Unlike its counterpart, there are no crowds thronging the entrances. Has something that was once a strong symbol of the city's economic ascendency become a thing of the past in public memory? Your confusion firms up when the locals repeatedly insist that you visit the new Tower Skytree, a short cab ride away. In my opinion, a trip to both the observatories is a must. Besides enjoying two distinct bird's eye perspectives of the same cityscape, the towers convey that Tokyo might be the world's only megapolis that's so open to rebuilding and reshaping its architectural symbolism. There's nothing like a London Bridge or a Tiananmen Square to reaffirm its civic history. The unorthodox urban sketch and the lack of a city centre inadvertently deflect the city's real character onto its dispersed cultural hubs. The Shibuya Shinjuku Line guides you to two such zones: Omotesando and Harajuku. Visit both, and in this order. The former is a swank street where giant glass boutiques peep from behind a thicket of zelkova trees. The malls are scattered with gourmet eateries where you can halt for lunch. Yasaiya Mei dishes out tofu burgers and eggplant doria of sake kasu, and Toraya Cafe does a flavourful version of An Paste, a creamy azuki.

A simple walk to the neighbouring Harajuku is like entering a different cosmos. In the crammed nooks and bylanes of the quaint youth district, Metallica shares rack space with Doraemon and Japanese Che Guevaras etched out on the usual knick knacks. Keep a few thousand Yens spare because credit cards won't always be a welcome choice and you don't want to be stuck trying to explain what you need.

Try your hand at the empty orchestra at a karaoke box in the Shinjuku area
Try your hand at the empty orchestra at a karaoke box in the Shinjuku area

The crimson ball of the sun sets, and the moon, much like a chipped piece of nail, appears to activate Tokyo's most animated district, Ginza. Here, giant screens flash complicated Japanese text in a colourful neon script. Besides being a steadfast bastion of upmarket fashion, with brands like Gucci, Chanel and Dior nudging each other, Ginza houses art galleries like the Galleria Grafica Tokio and Wacoal Ginza Art Space that showcase Japan's new and bold art scene.

There's also the Kabuki-Za theatre where the centuries-old kabuki drama is staged. While the show goes on for about five hours and comprises three to four sequences, you can always grab last-minute seats for a single act.

At dinner time, step into the Yurakucho Line and hit Roppongi Hills that hedge the city's hip business district. Flooded with karaoke parlours, sushi- noodle bars and strip clubs, this is where the city downs its after-hours. Finally, on your way out, do a sake sampling at the duty free. If you've managed to stay sober through it all, you'll know instantly the one that suits you best. If not, who cares, perception is reality, right.
Best Business Hotels

The Ritz Carlton - Located in the heart of Rappongi's diplomatic and entertainment hub, the rooms and suites occupy the top nine floors of the 53-storey Midtown Tower.
Price: Rs 30,000

InterContinental Tokyo Bay - Offers views of the Sumida River and Bay. It is connected by walkway to the Takeshiba Station and Odaiba, a large artificial island in Tokyo Bay.
Price: Rs 15,000

The Peninsula - A stone's throw from Ginza, the hotel is famed for its gourmet dining scene. The traditional multi-course meal Kaiseki is famous at a restaurant called Tsuruya.
Price: Rs 35,000

Park Hyatt - It served as an inspiration and backdrop for the movie Lost in Translation (2003). The hotel has a full service business centre that's open 24 hours a day.
Price Rs 36,000

  • Money Matters Tokyo runs largely on cash. It's safe to carry bank notes, and for Yen 20,000(Rs 12,000), you should be able to travel across the city by metro, eat meals and do some sightseeing. Tokyo post offices have ATMs that accept foreign cards.
  • Around Town Cab rates start at Yen 710, which buys you 2km (after 11 pm it's 1.5 km), then the meter rises by Yen 80 every 275m (every 220 \m or so after 11pm). The city has 13 subway lines. Make sure you download a detailed English map before heading out

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