There are almost 40 million people living in Tokyo. That’s more people than live in the whole of Canada, Australia or Poland. For a week at the beginning of May they were joined by me and my colleague Pav on a trip for work. We spent five days getting lost in this huge, bustling city.
Disclaimer: I think it’s worth noting now to my current and any future employers that I also carried out a full week of work. Everything you’re about to read happened between the hours of 5pm and 9am.
One of my favourite films is Lost in Translation. The film stars Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson as two westerners acclimatising to Tokyo during their brief stay. The characters in the film are constantly left bewildered by the intense politeness of the Japanese people, and this turned out to be completely accurate. Upon leaving my hotel room each morning, I was bowed to, and greeted with shrill cries of ‘Ohayōgozaimasu!’, by every single person who worked in the hotel (and probably some who didn’t). By my third morning, I had sussed that the best response was to bow deeply, mutter something vaguely Japanese-sounding, and smile knowingly. Worked an absolute treat.
As you might have guessed, my Japanese is very, very limited. While some of the subway station signs have the English language names, many do not. One evening, convinced that we were headed back towards our hotel, we ended up on a crowded ‘express commuter special’. We rocketed through the never-ending suburbs in completely the wrong direction, neon lights and residential blocks flashing past the windows. I think it was the equivalent of accidentally getting a train to Woking if you live in Kent. Not something you want to do on a rainy Thursday night.
Depending on which estimate you read, there are between 80,000 and 120,000 restaurants in Tokyo. While we didn’t have time to visit all of them, certainly did our best. We tried ramen noodles, fried lemon chicken, teppinyaki beef, wagyu steak (cooked by our good selves on a BBQ on our table), and the obligatory sushi. For anyone interested, we didn’t see a single conveyor belt in what must have been over 200 sushi restaurants across Tokyo. Turns out that’s a western gimmick.
A colleague back in London had recommended we visit the Roppongi district for a good evening out. On arriving at Roppongi station, Pav asked a fellow westerner if he knew of any good bars nearby. “Nearby?” said this chap, “I know a few – do you want a bar with girls?”. Fearing that saying ‘no’ would result in some sort of strip club, we both nodded, and our friendly neighbourhood guide showed us towards a bar. We took a lift up to the fifth floor, where the doors slid open, revealing a sign declaring it to be ‘Affinity, a gentleman’s exotic lounge’. By the time we had walked into the bar, flanked by some scantily-clad girls, we realised it would be too late to turn around and leave. We were directed towards a sofa, and the waiter took our drinks orders, before whispering conspiratorially that all we had to do was ask if we wanted a girl. I have never concentrated so much on a pint glass in my life, nor took such an interest in examining a mark on my sleeve.
We hastily finished our beers, and instead headed for cocktails at the Park Hyatt Hotel in Shinjuku. The New York Bar on the 52nd floor has an amazing view across the city, and as we sat there, the evening rain subsided, casting a ghostly mist across the city. Far below, headlights of a thousand cars lit up the streets of Tokyo, while large steel skyscrapers loomed out of the fog towards us. This is the bar where the characters met in Lost in Translation; in the cocoon of western, surrounded by staff and customers who speak good English, you do feel very separate from the city below.
No trip to Japan is complete without karaoke where, instead of singing to a room of people, you rent a soundproof booth. On our last evening in Tokyo, slightly braver for a couple of beers, we hired a booth and belted out some of the most energetic singing you’re ever likely to hear. From Taylor Swift and the Lion King to Dr Dre and Busta Rhymes, we managed to avoid every single correct note over the course of an hour. ‘My Heart Will Go On’ was a particular highlight, especially the final chorus where we really believed we were on that boat. We sang so loudly, so wholeheartedly, that we failed to hear the phone ringing; staff on the other end were asking us to stop.
The day after arriving back from Tokyo my parents came over to visit Nicola and I at our flat in Kew. I popped out to Tesco to get some gravy powder, and upon paying, accidentally bowed deeply at the till. The cashier looked confused for a second, then solemnly nodded her head in return. We could learn a lot from the Japanese.
We stayed at: Hotel Gracery Tamachi, Minato (tamachi.gracery.com)
We had cocktails at: New York Bar, Park Hyatt Hotel, Shinjuku (tokyo.park.hyatt.coml)
We sang our hearts out at: Karaoke Kan, Roppongi (lonelyplanet.com/japan/tokyo)
My colleague and friend Pav also writes – visit his blog at imskyhigh.com