Tokyo: Sushi, shopping... and 'French' maids

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

One year after the earthquake struck, Tim Walker finds it's business – and games, food and fashion – as usual in Japan's capital

The tuna auction at Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market begins at 5.30am every day, and the queue to be one of 120 tourists permitted to witness it grows well before dawn. One of the best ways to scratch the surface of Japanese life is to consume – to shop, to eat – and Tsukiji is a perfect place to start. But you have to start early. By 6am, the tuna have been sold and are on the slab, where they're sliced and diced into steaks. At Tsukiji's first auction this year, an endangered bluefin sold for an impressive, if ethically dubious, £438,000. Avoid being run down by the zig-zagging electric tare carts, and you'll find an encyclopaedic selection of seafood in the maze of stalls here. By dusk each day, £5m of fish will have changed hands.

Tsukiji's traders are indomitable envoys for food, commerce and tradition, yet even this market closed briefly in 2011, when much of Japan was devastated by the earthquake and tsunami that struck exactly a year ago. Though the traders went back to work within the week, tourists were banned from the tuna auction for more than four months.

Still, Tokyo is as big and as resilient as London or New York, and, 12 months on, the city's scars are only apparent if you persuade a reticent local to discuss them.

In fact, with a world-topping metropolitan population of more than 36 million, it's so big that any enlightening walk will include some interstitial subway rides. So prepare yourself with a sushi breakfast at Ryu Sushi (00 81 335 476 894), one of the market's row of early-opening sushi joints, then stroll towards Shimbashi station.

Public transport in Tokyo is much easier for British people to negotiate than is the Tube for Japanese visitors to London. The extensive and efficient metro is complemented by the overground Yamanote Line, which appears as a green loop on the Tokyo metro map, and connects most of the city's places of interest on its circular route. Get yourself a Pasmo stored-value travelcard (pasmo.co.jp/en).

From Shimbashi, it's four stops north on the Yamanote Line to Akihabara, and "Electric Town", where the streets are deep with otaku ("geeks"). In the basements of multi-storey gaming arcades such as the Taito tower, grown men chain-smoke and watch each other play Tekken and Super Street Fighter IV. One floor up, teenagers boogie furiously on Dance Dance Revolution pads, among rows and rows of end-of-the-pier claw-grabber games. In the Tora No Ana bookstore (www. toranoana.jp), next-door to Taito, the shelves of manga are divided by age and gender, and men crowd into their allotted aisles to stand and read comics. This is also the district for cheap electronics and designer toys.

French cuisine is one of Japan's favourite imports; French-style bistros and bakeries abound. One odd side-effect of this, however, is the "maid café". Young women dressed as French maids cluster on street corners in Akihabara, advertising their services; no, not those kind of services. A short walk north up Chuo Dori from Tora No Ana and a left-turn into the side streets brings you to the T&K Akiba Building, address of the Pinky Café (00 81 3 3254 6777; www.pinkycafe.com). Customers pay almost £40 per hour to sit in a pink room decorated with Hello Kitty dolls, where – for a price – waitresses will squeeze chocolate sauce on to your pudding in the shape of a kitten, play a children's game, or squeak excitedly as they squelch your burger bap.

From Akihabara, hop back on to the Yamanote line. A leisurely ride through the northern districts will bring you finally to Harajuku, on the west side of the city centre. If you failed to brave a maid café, you'll be hungry again by now, so stop in at Jangara (kyusyujangara.co.jp), just a few steps from Harajuku subway station on Omotesando, for a bowl of tonkotsu ("pig bone") ramen.

If it's eclectic Japanese fashions you're after, walk down Omotesando past the Nike store to the junction with Meiji Dori and take a left. Rising up beside you is Laforet (laforet.ne.jp), which houses seven floors of strange, wonderful and, occasionally, wearable clothing concessions. The city's celebrated youth subcultures congregate each weekend, in their distinctive street-wear, on nearby Takeshita-dori: glam rock "Visual Kei", cute and fluffy "Kawaii", self-explanatory "Goth Lolitas" and more.

From Laforet, go back up Omotesando past Harajuku station and turn south at the National Stadium. Wander down through the park into Shibuya – home to Tokyu Hands (shibuya.tokyu-hands.co.jp), a destination department store that's equal parts John Lewis and Urban Outfitters, with a double shot of only-in-Japan. You could spend as many hours in here, learning about Japanese life, as in any similarly sized museum.

Make use of the landmark Shibuya pedestrian crossing (you saw it in Lost in Translation) to wend your way to Shibuya station, from which the Yamanote line will take you back to Shimbashi. You're now a short walk from the glossy designer shops of Ginza. And if you need perking up somewhere between Uniqlo and Bulgari, there's one more thing that you'll only find in Japan: here, in Starbucks, they serve lattes in "small".

Fresh cuts

 

The Tokyo Sky Tree (tokyo-skytree.jp/english) in Shitamachi, which has just been completed, provides the best view in Tokyo. At 634m high (2,080ft), it's the world's second-tallest structure (after the Burj Khalifa, in Dubai). There are two observation decks, at 350m and 450m, plus a shopping mall, aquarium and planetarium planned at its foot.

 

Food-lovers and rail passengers must visit "Ramen Street" in the bowels of Tokyo Station (tokyoeki-1bangai.co.jp/ramenstreet). Here there are eight ramen shops in the same thoroughfare, each specialising in a different noodle.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Tim Walker flew to Tokyo with British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), which serves both Tokyo Haneda and Narita airports from Heathrow. Narita is also served by Virgin Atlantic, Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways.

 

Staying there

Tim stayed at the Shangri-La Hotel, Marunouchi Trust Tower Main, 1-8-3 Marunouchi, Chiyoda (0800 028 3337; shangri-la.com). Deluxe rooms start at Y51,944 (£404) per night, including breakfast.

 

More information

Japan National Tourism Organisation: 020-7398 5678; seejapan.co.uk

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
people
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
News
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvSeries 5 opening episode attracts lowest ratings since drama began
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck stars as prime suspect Nick Dunne in the film adaptation of Gone Girl
filmBen Affleck and Rosamund Pike excel in David Fincher's film, says Geoffrey Macnab
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Life and Style
fashionThe supermodel on her career, motherhood and Cara Delevingne
News
i100
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Sport
Greg Dyke insists he will not resign as Football Association chairman after receiving a watch worth more than £16,000 but has called for an end to the culture of gifts being given to football officials
football
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
Sport
premier league
Sport
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments