Our Japanese guide Kohei called in excitement to our group ‘He’s not even speaking Japanese!’…we were in the Tsujiki fish market Tuna Auction, it is 5.30am and we’ve been up since 3am to get in the queue to experience our allocated 20mins of this incredible spectacle. And it most certainly was, there must have been around 300 massive frozen Tuna’s in this chilled warehouse, and the small ones were going for £5,000! Kohei was astounded by the speed and what seemed like random numbers and blurb that was coming out of the auctioneer’s mouth – it was a first for our guide Kohei too. This is my 4th day in Tokyo, it’s been a whirl wind of trekking around Shinto shrines, famous streets, cooking, climbing towers (well taking the lift), eating some of the most diverse and scrumptious food I have ever had.
We are here in Tokyo on a 5 day trip sponsored by the Tokyo Tourism Government, to look, see, eat and enjoy Tokyo so that we can sell it better to our clients. In our group who flew from London there are 6 of us, but there are 52 other representatives of travel companies from around the global.
The first day I opted for a walk up to Mt Takao, a nearby hill (330m) with the Yakuo-in Yuki-ki Temple enroute. The walk was refreshing and peaceful, unfortunately Mt Fuji was hiding its self in the clouds when we arrived at the top, but to see the unexpected lush forest and hills was still worth 1 hr train ride from downtown Tokyo. My food experiences on this day included Japanese charcoal grilled chicken and various unusual vegetables which we cooked on the coals whilst sat on low tables with some serious help of our pretty giggling kimono dressed waitresses (obviously I was doing it totally wrong!).
Tea, Sake and Okonomiyaki
The second day was sightseeing from 8.30am till our return to the hotel at 11.30pm! Wow what a place, we started with a short tea ceremony in Haramrikyu gardens. Of course I wasn’t expecting my usual mug of boiling water dipped with the PG pyramid bag, but I didn’t expect that there are over 1000 different ways to make tea in Japan! It’s also VERY green, not like the ‘green’ tea that we have at home, this is almost neon and it’s frothy (sounds not so pleasant, but actually totally delicious). The tea is powdered from the actual tea leaves, and not roasted giving the colour. After an explanation from our tea master we proceeded with some low bows, eating a sweet, turning the special cup of the season 90 degrees clockwise, we drank (totally drinkable immediately as the water mustn’t get to over 85°C), wiped the cup in a certain way and went along our way.
After a sight inspection at one of the posher hotels that Tokyo has to offer we stopped off for some Sake tasting. Another highlight! I sampled 6 varieties, and we all had a special treat of some sparkling sake. There are 10,000 sake breweries in Japan, but it is less favoured in the Japanese younger generation turning more to beers, wines and souchu. Sake is usually around 15% alcohol and made from rice & water, which is washed, steamed, mixed with yeast, fermented and some added sake mould for a bit of flavour.
Feeling a little tipsy we moved onto lunch. This time we are having Okonomiyaki which is a Japanese sort of omelette cooked on a hot plate which is your table with a thin section around the edge of the hot plate table for our plate and chop sticks. We had 3 different types, one with noodles, one with millions of spring onions and another noodles. It was all going well until our young funky waiter started dolloping on the brown sauce and mayo – not sure how this was supposed to work, but if that hadn’t been added it would have been delicious!
Onwards we dashed off to the 1 year old Tokyo Skytree. At 634m this is the highest tower in the world. We flew past the boring queues with our group pass and were catapulted to the 340 floor at 600m per minute in the super lifts. Unfortunately it was hazy and the light a little dull of good pics, so we took some of our feet on the glass floor before zipping further up in another great glass elevator to the 450 floor – now at 450m we were above all other buildings in Tokyo. It’s pretty cool. The city of 13 million people and the ensuing sprawl is vast. However it’s also surprisingly green, with the tipped roofs of temples dotted throughout the town. We made it down through throngs of cheerful, very well behaved and perfectly uniformed school children back to earth and to the basement mall. After a quick stop at Hello Kitty with some important purchases for friend’s children at home we moved on.
After another hotel inspection we nipped to the Meiji Shrine, a delightfully peaceful sanctuary where we were purified again, bowed, prayed, took some iconic images. The Japanese Shinto / Buddhist history culture and religion is fascinating. There is emphasis around worshipping mountains, sun, trees, and nature giving the incredibly peaceful and beautifully arranged harmonious gardens of Japan. This is immediately evident with the long walk along a wide forested pathway and park area into the shrine itself.
Seaweed, Sukiyaki and Karaoke
It’s around 6.30pm now so we use the time before our next feast to visit the food hall in the posh Odakyu department store, in the Shinjuku area. Of similar ilk to Selfridges food hall but with the must unbelievable array of crazy vegetables, vastly expensive melons (!), more sushi than I’ve ever seen, fish, beef, and a seaweed stall. What impresses me so much about this city is how pristine clean it is, and how wonderfully friendly the people are. After a sip of miso soup from my new friend Seaweed san our guide Kohei takes us upstairs to a small restaurant on a narrow street flashing all around with neon signs which mean nothing to my foreigners eye. Low and behold there is a darling of a lady serving the most delicious cuisine. We ate Sukiyaki which involves a large pot on the table with sizzling hot fat and the lovely lady adding various noodles, beef, vegetables and yummy things whilst we watch in awe as she deftly whips up the noodles with some extra long chop sticks whilst explaining in English what she is doing. What has been cooked is extraordinarily delicious and we all ate much more than our tummies said we really should! The only problem for me with this dish was the ‘dipping’ sauce, which was a straight up freshly cracked raw egg. I’m pretty good at tasting everything when I’m away, however this dipping sauce crossed my line! Meal over and hugs given to the lovely lady we decide that it’s time for a spot of Karaoke….obviously when in Japan etc etc…! We have a booth for the 6 members of our group on the 7th floor the karaoke salon. Um, you can imagine what it was like! After us brits warming up with a bit of ‘The Bare Necessities’ and ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ the shy Kohei gave us a perfect rendition of ‘Vida la Viva’, very clearly he’d done this several times before, he took it very seriously and we also discovered his competitive edge! A brilliant laugh we were now back into the nightlife of Shinjuku with jolly people milling and bright flashing signs everywhere. Even at this hour (OK only 1030) I felt very safe. Tokyo, and Japan in general, has a very good reputation for public safety, there is little theft and crime in this totally over populated but very well behaved, kind and friendly society. In the end we thought we would be sensible and take the subway back to our hotel, arriving 45mins later, totally exhausted from an exhilarating day full of sensory overload!
A day and sushi cooking class (great fun, although I went a little bit crazy with the wasabi paste which caused some serious eye watering by me and much hilarity for my travel companions!), later I was back on the subway with our guide from the Nakasendo Trail. Another charming giggling lady called Youmi we visited Yanaka. This area of Tokyo is what it was like 30 years ago. Youmi was saying that she grew up in a similar area which has now become tower blocks. Over an ice-cream sandwich we discussed the merits of the beautiful Nakasendo Trail which in feudal times saw samurai, merchants and artisans travelling between Tokyo to Kyoto along this route. Youmi walks it around 4-5 times a year and describes it as home-from-home. She loves most the people who own the beautifully restored buildings along the route and says that some a great characters who sing and cook some terrific food for the groups. After another hotel visit I return to the hotel having hugely enjoyed another day.
The business folk in Tokyo are so orderly in their white shirts and black trousers, they pile out from the office blocks for lunch creating neat single file queues around the block for their favourite sushi stall. Then at 1pm, they are all gone again for the afternoon. And not the smallest scrap of paper exists on the streets or blowing into forgotten corners, none are forgotten here. Everyone and everything is in it's place.
Our last day is all about business too as we have a travel mart where 200 agents involved in the travel industry from all around Japan come and chat to us. However we did sneak out in an hours break to nip up the Tokyo Tower, which was conveniently situation near our hotel. This red and white Eiffel tower look-a-like is the predecessor to the Tokyo Skytree, but standing at only 330m it is dwarfed by many of the buildings in Tokyo now. When it was built in 1958 it was the highest. With better weather today we even saw the outline of Mt Fuij.
What I am coming home with are memories of beautiful smiley people who cannot do enough to help, and an incredibly full belly of sushi, miso soup and hundreds of other unpronounceable food experiences. I absolutely cannot wait till I can go out to Japan again and see more of this country. Having a good impression of Tokyo I want to know how the countryside compares. Can the people be more friendly? Is it so very clean all over Japan? Many people say that Kyoto is more interesting and more traditionally Japanese than Tokyo – I must go there too. And I’d like to see the old wooden buildings so warmly spoken about by our guide on the Nakasendo Trail, and of course I need to climb Mt Fuji as well, especially now it has just been given UNESCO status! To be honest I was not expecting to enjoy Japan as much as I did, and it in terms of worldwide destinations it is pretty much top of the list now to explore in more depth.