There’s something strange going down in Tokyo. Against a neon-lit skyline, french maids, robots and cosplayers rub shoulders with crisp-suited salarymen in this fast-paced metropolis where anything goes.
Our first stop, Shibuya – the beating heart of Tokyo, crammed with amazing shops, cat cafes, fish-shaped pancakes, insane theme bars and blaring gaming arcades.
It’s sensory overload. It makes no sense. And I love it.
Colour and chaos in Shibuya
We have been in Tokyo all of five minutes when a seven-foot Japanese cyber goth with rainbow hair, massive platform shoes, dressed in tight, red, latex strolls through our hotel lobby.
I’m so surprised, I literally do not know where to look. I know I should whip out my camera for a pic, but suddenly come over all shy and study my feet.
The smart salary men sipping Oolong tea don’t even raise an eyebrow as Japanese-Lady-Gaga-on-acid heads for the lifts, casual as you like.
We check into our hotel and head into the streets to check out Shibuya. A stream of go karts whizz down the street, the drivers clad in an assortment of colourful onesies and Pokemon costumes.
Welcome to Tokyo, huh?
Fashion, and shops – oh my!
Tokyo makes me want to be a better version of myself. Everyone here is immaculate, with a fashionable twist. Elegant women dangle Louis Vuitton bags alongside perfectly made-up goths, squealing bunny-eared girls and preppy guys with funky haircuts and those little hipster tortoiseshell glasses.You know the ones.
Clearly you need ‘props’ with your look here. Shallowly, I am happy to have a good handbag with me.
The girls here have the loveliest hair I’ve ever seen. I immediately want to straighten the hell out of my own, slather it in serum and twist it into jaunty pigtails. Jim tells me I would look ridiculous and the pigtails are forgotten.
I do, however, shop. The shopping here is insanely good. Harajuku is the fashion capital with shops specialising in gothic Lolita, punk, hipster and high-end fashions – plus everything in-between.
I need stuff in Tokyo. I buy a scarf, a lipstick, shoes. I want a panda backpack and furry rabbit phone cover. I don’t buy them. I shop more until my feet hurt and my bank balance dwindles.
Eat your heart out in Tokyo
And the food, oh god the food. Everywhere we go is bursting at the seams with traditional Japanese eateries, upmarket restaurants and eclectic dining options from around the world.
The great man, Anthony Bourdain, wisely said – of all the world’s cities, if he had to choose one to eat in for the rest of his life, it would be Tokyo.
So, we eat.
Unique ramen experience at Ichiran
A great, and unique, ramen spot is Ichiran in Shibuya. As we join the queue at the entrance, we have no clue what is going on. This is par for the course in Tokyo.
Once inside, a wall of digital menus faces us and we bang in what we hope is a couple of ramen orders. We fill in a form to customise our order, specifying our preferred firmness for the noodles and how spicy the broth. (Firm, and medium-hot incase anyone’s interested.)
The introvert’s ramen restaurant of choice
Finally, we’re ushered into a tiny cubicle. A pair of hands slides through a partition in the wall from the kitchen and pops our condiments on the table. Two minutes later, the ramen follows – and the hands pull the partition down for privacy.
In this high-density city of around 14 million, people appreciate a spot of privacy where they can grab it. This place is perfect for introverts, or those wanting to avoid needless chatter – you don’t need to utter a word.
Oh, and the ramen? Deliciously salty and brimming with noodles, topped with melt-in-your mouth pork and a kick of chilli.
Fast food, Japanese style
Another Shibuya spot, Genki, is worth a visit for sushi. You place your order on an ipad and the food whizzes along on an electric conveyor belt to you. Efficient, quick and very, very tasty.
Be warned – it’s easy to get quite greedy using this method with no waiting staff to judge the copious amounts of food you tap onto your screen.
Yakitori Alley, Shinjuku – intimate dining for hoardes of hungry-people
Yakitori Alley in Shinjuku is an epic dining experience not to be missed. Blink and you’ll miss the concealed entrance to the alleyway – but once you’re in, you won’t want to leave.
Yakitori Alley, Shinjuku – intimate dining for hundreds of hungry-people
The alley is packed with small cubicle-sized restaurants. Make a selection, and squeeze up at the counter. It’s an intimate dining experience, with a bunch of strangers!
Most of the eateries serve delicious skewers of roasted meat (yakitori) cooked to perfection in front of you. Best washed down with a cold Asahi, or delicious local plum wine.
Sensory overload in Electric Town
Next day, we head to Akihabara the ‘electric town’ famed for its maid cafes, gadget shops, anime and comic boutiques, not to mention hundreds of gaming arcades.
I’m not a gamer, but Jim persuades me to him in a two-man pod to shoot some monsters in a 4D game, Dark Escape.
Now, to be honest, I don’t even really know what 4D is. I’m wearing the glasses and not expecting much of anything to happen.
A bloody great zombie leaps out of the screen towards me as the whole pod starts shaking. Holy hell! I let out a blood-curdling scream.
The monsters keep coming. Cold air is suddenly blasting into my face as they grab right at me with gnarly fingers. I’m meant to be shooting, but I scream some more.
Jim is disgusted and calls me a newbie. As I exit the pod, rattled, at the end of the game, surly-looking Japanese teenagers look my way and snigger.
Delicious dining and perfect pooches in Nakameguro
After a few days in Shibuya, we rent an airbnb in Nakameguro to sample a different side of Tokyo. The Meguro river runs through this area and is lined with contemporary and traditional restaurants, funky boutiques and seriously cool little bars.
There are also some majorly stylish little dogs round these parts – all of them sporting jumpers to ward off the cool November nip in the air. The fancier ones prance around in rhinestone-studded jeans and doggles.
These pooches are perfectly coiffed, no doubt thanks to the large amount of doggy beauty spas in the area – complete with mini-doggy hairdryers.
Yup, that’s a thing here.
Micro bars for major drinking sessions
There’s something new to discover at every twist and turn. On our way back from the train station one night, we stumble across Soul 26, in Nakameguro.
Here, the bar fits a squeezy six and the owner is an absolute character. He did tell us his name, but somewhere along the line, we forgot.
Soon we are singing along to blaring music and grooving with his elderly golden retriever.
As it happens, we *ahem* seem to discover quite a lot of bars. These amazing microbars are dotted all around Tokyo.
You just have to keep alert to spot a clue – peak through curtains and doorways opened just a crack – perhaps you’ll get lucky and glimpse revellers around a tiny bar.
Bar-hopping heaven in Shinjuku’s Golden Gai
However, if you like all your microbars bundled together for ease – head to the Golden Gai district. This amazing precinct in Shijunku is bar-hopping heaven.
Over 200 tiny drinking havens packed together across a couple of blocks. The vibe is ram-shackled and buzzing, teeny tiny watering holes all piled on top of each other.
“We’ll just stay for a couple,” are famous last words here.
You won’t want to stop exploring and each new drinking den you wander into – most only seating a max of half a dozen – offers a distinctly unique vibe
We found ourselves squashed shoulder to shoulder with locals, salary men, expats and tourists. Everyone singing songs, performing magic tricks and swapping stories under the dim blue lights. This ridiculous, yet brilliant, song cropped up often.
Breathing in Tokyo’s natural beauty at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden
Our poor livers need a break, and we take a recovery day at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. The leaves on the beautiful ginkgo trees and maples are changing into a riot of fiery autumn colours and the air is alive with birdsong.
We’re in the heart of Tokyo but the park is so cleverly designed there’s not a skyscraper to be seen. Autumn foliage is beginning to take hold amidst a sea of green tranquility.
Fortified with fresh air and the soothing beauty of nature, we stroll to Yoyogi Park, home of the Meiji Shrine where visitors can cleanse themselves spiritually pouring water over their hands using wooden ladles. Exactly what we need!
Yoyogi Park, home of the sacred Meiji Shrine
Yoyogi is amazing with massive 40-foot Tori gates marking the entrance to sacred land.
They are awe-inspiring and my mouth hangs open. Jim comments they look just like something from the Minecraft games he loves so much.
Here old-world Japan, meets new, and on Sunday locals wear traditional dress to visit the shrine and pay their respects.
We were lucky enough to witness a traditional Japanese wedding taking place – the red paper umbrella to ward off evil spirits.
Lose your mind at Robot Restaurant
We have just one night left and decide to check out the Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku. Placed firmly on the map by its cameo in Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, I’m not sure it can live up to the hype.
It does and I’m delighted. The show is camp, colourful and extremely silly.
Girls in bejewelled bikinis writhe around atop gigantic robotic sharks and dinosaurs. Monsters duel and lasers dance in this crazy, camp, kaleidoscope of colour and sound.
The magic ends and we are spat out onto the street. Shaking our heads in disbelief and wondering what the hell just happened, we hail a Tiffany-blue cab and head home.
Tokyo, I love you. Don’t ever change.
What are your favourite Tokyo haunts? Did we miss anything? I’d love to hear your Tokyo stories in the comments.