KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 14 — There’s no place quite like Tokyo, with its meeting of East and West (some might argue more clash than concord). Beyond sushi or J-pop, here’s what a beginner to the Japanese metropolis can expect, and then some.
The giant red lanterns
When spring is in the air in Japan, it’s time for matsuri (festivals) and great celebration. And no better place to witness this than Asakusa.
First head to Kaminarimon (“Thunder Gate”), the entrance to the famous Senso-ji Temple. A giant red chochin lantern hangs from the middle of the gate.
On either side, a statue stands guard: one the Shinto god of wind, Fujin, the other Raijin, of thunder and lightning.
Past Kaminarimon lies the Nakamise-dori shopping street. Some stalls sell traditional yukata and kimono robes; others offer Buddhist scrolls and ukiyo-e (woodblock prints). Try some local treats such as kibidango (millet dumplings) and osenbei (charcoal-grilled rice crackers).
Hozomon (“Treasure-House Gate”), the second of the large gates, opens into the Senso-ji Temple, dedicated to the Bodhisattva Kannon (Goddess of Mercy). Join devotees performing omikuji (meaning “sacred lottery”).
First make a small donation, then shake labelled sticks from the metal containers provided. Next, retrieve a fortune sheet from one of 100 drawers according to the number on your stick. If you obtain less-than-stellar readings, simply fold it up and tie it onto the rows of folded fortunes while offering a prayer.
The biggest fish market in the world
Fancy waking up at 5am to watch a tuna auction?
At Tsukiji Market, the largest fish market in the world, Japanese fish dealers haggle over frozen fish before the break of dawn. Tens of thousands of tons of seafood from around the world arrive at Tsukiji to be sold in a process that involves wholesalers, traders, auctioneers and hygiene inspectors.
While not always encouraged, outsiders are allowed to attend the auction (except during certain periods). Make sure you avoid flash photography or touching the very expensive fish -– this is a working market, after all.
The very clean “inner market” comes alive with the ever-busy troops of stevedores buzzing about on “fish taxis” (motorised carts). Each stall has stacks of white polystyrene boxes containing millions of yens worth of seafood, frozen or iced to keep them fresh.
The variety is astounding: Tuna, salmon, trout, horse mackerel and cuttlefish. Lobsters, sea bream, sea urchin and octopi. Hairy crabs, flower crabs, snow crabs and more.
Outside in the “external market”, there are stores selling Japanese kitchen tools and knives, restaurant supplies and fried seafood. Drop by a sushi bar; there’s nothing quite like fresh sashimi and sushi for your first meal of the day.
Anime mania and maid cafés
Nowhere is the otaku subculture more lively than in Akihabara. Otaku are usually young Japanese men obsessed with anime and manga. Here the streets are alight 24/7 with giant neon signs (which explains its nickname: Akihabara Electric Town).
You can find all manner of anime, souvenir items, computer and electronic goods here. It’s all carefully organised by the street the store is on (new goods or used) and by the floor (cameras, household electronics, tablets).
It’s a shopper’s paradise: truly you can buy just about everything and anything here.
There are long, sprawling lines of young men queueing up to buy the latest manga-inspired collectible figurines. It’s a surprise because they don’t know what they might get; some figurines are much rarer than the rest. Cosplay fans may visit maid cafés, where waitresses serve drinks in full maid attire.
Star-crossed at Shibuya
They say you haven’t been to Tokyo unless you have witnessed the Great Shibuya Crossing.
The Shibuya Crossing is a mad scramble of pedestrians right in front of the Shibuya Station’s Hachiko exit. Vehicles stop in all four directions every time the traffic lights turn and a sea of people rushes in to swamp the entire intersection.
The best place to observe this is from the Starbucks above the Tsutaya store overlooking the crossing. This outlet is also one of the busiest Starbucks outlets in the world. It’s not always easy to get a seat as everyone wants the best view possible. Plenty of Japanese students congregate here to work on school assignments or simply people-watching.
Another famous spot is the statue of Hachiko the dog adjacent to the Shibuya Station. Legend has it that the faithful canine kept waiting for his late master at the station daily for over a decade (1923-1935) before passing on himself. Hachiko is now a national symbol of loyalty and his statue the most popular meeting point for young star-crossed lovers.
Shinto shrines and Harajuku cosplay
If you’re looking to escape the city’s bustle, head to to Meiji Shrine just outside Harajuku Station. Located in a tranquil forested park, the shrine is dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and his consort, Empress Shoken.
Here you may stroll on tree-lined gravel paths, passing a giant torii gate and barrels of nihonshu (Japanese rice liquour). At the shrine, you may witness traditional Shinto weddings taking place, buy luck amulets or write your wishes on an ema (wooden plate).
If it’s a spectacle rather than sanctuary you are seeking, then head to the other side of Harujuku Station. Every Sunday morning, hundreds of cosplay aficianados, mostly young Japanese, congregate on Jingu Bashi, a pedestrian bridge that connects Meiji Shrine to the rest of Harajuku.
There are many different styles of dressing here (with equally amusing names): Gothic Lolita, Decora, Ura-Hara, Visual Kei, Ganguro. Life-size superhero action figures pad around in spandex. To join them, you can play dress-up thanks to a myriad of fashion boutiques on Takeshita-dori.
Also nearby is Omotesando, Tokyo’s Champs-Élysées, where luxury labels like Prada and Louis Vuitton reside in flagship stores showcasing their unique architecture. A perennial hit is Kiddyland, the famous Japanese toy store where adults often outnumber children.
One thing’s for sure: you will never get bored in Tokyo.
This story was first published in Crave in the print edition of The Malay Mail on February 13, 2014.