|Guests arrive at The Peninsula by Rolls-Royce.|
Tokyo has never been high on my personal list of places to see before I die. Not because it’s far away; I’m an intrepid traveler who’s flown farther many times before. But in the past, whenever anyone has mentioned the Tokyo metropolitan area, my mind conjured up images of a sprawling city populated with more than 12 million people crowding concrete streets lined with high-rise buildings, blinding neon, and packed subway stations.
That was before my 21-year-old daughter decided to spend a semester studying in Osaka, a two-hour bullet train ride away from Tokyo.
A week before her school break, I found myself standing bleary-eyed in Tokyo’s Narita International Airport. Thankfully, my journey was easier than I thought it would be. American Airlines now has nonstop flights from DFW to Tokyo, and the 13-hour trip was only a mystery paperback, two movies, and a short nap from home. I’d also done some research on places to stay, and fearing a twisted physical condition after a long flight, I’d picked the perfect hotel for pampering: the newly opened Peninsula Tokyo.
I stepped outside the terminal, where I was met by a Peninsula staff member, who whisked me into the city in a Rolls-Royce. (Who said intrepid travel couldn’t be luxurious?) When I entered the hotel lobby, I gazed upon two-story ivory walls covered with wooden lattices, a concave chandelier resembling a cloud of fireflies that sparkled with 1,313 LEDs, and a spectacular bamboo sculpture of a dragon lying over the universe to ward off evil spirits. Here, elements of Japanese heritage mesh with modern design.
However, it took a Keihatsu Enlightenment massage at the hotel’s ESPA Spa to rid my body of its travel demons before I could relax in my state-of-the-art suite with a view of the skyline. The amenities at the Peninsula made the transition in time seem like an exotic Asian dream.
Well, not a real dream, because my first night in Tokyo, I couldn’t sleep. Wide awake at 4 am, I decided to start my journey. I wandered a few blocks from the hotel to the Tokyo Central Wholesale Market, also referred to as “a kitchen for the 12 million people of Toyko,” where hundreds of people were preparing for the morning fish auction. The market distributes the largest volume of fishery products in Japan, handling more than 450 products around the clock. Each morning before sunrise, wholesalers gather for the morning auction in a large warehouse of the Tsukiji Market, where more than a thousand large tuna carcasses have been tagged and neatly laid out on aluminum pallets.
|Produce stalls (left) and fish auction (above right) at Tokyo Central Wholesale Market; entrance to Meiji Jingu Shring (bottom right).|
Working quietly, the buyers jotted down notes and used flashlights, pocketknives, and meat hooks to assess the quality, color, shape, and weight of each fish in the group they had come to bid on. As they scurried to finish their closely guarded evaluations, the auctioneer furiously rang a small brass handbell to announce the beginning of the seri, or auction. Then he jumped up on a wooden crate before the first row of fish and shouted in rapid-fire, quickly moving down the first row, fish by fish. Then another auction broke out on the second, third, and fourth groups of fish. It was as chaotic and schizophrenic as the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on a triple witching day.
|(left) The Harajuku girls hang on street corners. (right) Woman in traditional Japanese kimono.|
Leaving the frenzy behind, I strolled back to the hotel in the early morning light. The streets were bustling with people on their way to work, and I was struck by how well-pressed everyone looked. Cab drivers donned white gloves and old-fashioned, military-style hats, while motorcycle cops sported futuristic blue jumpsuits like costumes out of a Buck Rogers movie. Schoolchildren, bus drivers, and street cleaners all wore distinctive uniforms. Rounding out the crowd were masses of salarymen—salaried Japanese businessmen who work long hours—clad in dark suits, ties, and white shirts. Each outfit defined the station or status of the wearer. I didn’t see ragged t-shirts or baggy shorts anywhere. Despite the throngs of people and rapidly moving traffic, the streets were relatively quiet. I got the sense that people in Tokyo really respect other people’s physical space.
After a leisurely breakfast at the Peninsula, I walked across the street toward the Imperial Palace, which is open to the public two days a year. It’s located on a large park surrounded by a moat and massive stone walls. From the large plaza in front of the palace, you can see the stone bridge—Meganebashi (eyeglass)—that forms the entrance to the inner grounds. Back across the water, I found myself strolling the gardens of Hibiya Park, the first Western-style park in Japan. Here I found the gentler side of Japanese life: a woman kneeling on a blanket sketching water lilies and a group of chatty old men feeding the huge crows that compete with stray cats for dominance in the park. Just when I thought I was experiencing my first moment of Japanese Zen, a group of tree climbers arrived, unpacked their ropes and safety belts, and began scaling the tall trees like zany characters in a Charlie Chan film.
While tree climbing might appeal to some in Japan, shopping is the country’s unofficial national pastime. I began my shopping expedition just outside the Peninsula, which is located in the Marunouchi district, fast becoming one of Tokyo’s most fashionable lifestyle destinations. The hotel’s rear entrance sits right on Naka-dori (“dori” means avenue), the Rodeo Drive of Tokyo. All the luxury fashion houses are here—Armani, Yves Saint Laurent, Hermès, Baccarat, and Les Cave Taillevent gourmet shop.
It was here that I quickly learned that Japanese shopping priorities are different from ours. While Americans will shop all day looking for bargains, quality and service are more important to the Japanese. Every time I ventured into a store, the politeness and ceremony of the numerous neatly uniformed clerks made me feel as though I had stepped into the Neiman Marcus of the mid-1950s. No purchase was unceremoniously stuffed into a bag as my credit card was swiped; my goods were wrapped like birthday presents. When I handed the clerk my credit card, it was accepted with both hands and a gentle bow of the head. The card was returned to me with the same courtesy.
Adjacent to Marunouchi is the Ginza district, Tokyo’s version of Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. While it’s one of Tokyo’s most famous districts, filled with department stores, art galleries, nightclubs, and cafes, it’s not for everyone. You could skip it if you’re in town only for a day or two, and I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re uncomfortable in crowds. Some of the stores are attractions unto themselves, showcasing items such as typical wedding-kimono ensembles and scheduling everything from fashion shows to tea ceremonies. Not my cup of sake.
Because it’s easy to navigate the city, I hopped on the subway to Roppongi station, then walked a couple of blocks to The Galleria. In this spacious, four-story open shopping center are names such as Puma, Bottega Veneta, Chloé, and, to my surprise, Dean & DeLuca. I also found unique destinations like the ABC Cooking Studio, which offers Japanese cooking lessons taught in English, and Dogdays, one of Japan’s biggest megastores for pets. Outside, the grounds have pet fountains for thirsty pooches.
At night, locals and tourists descend on Roppongi for its dazzling neon lights and clubs, discos, and bars packed with fashionable people. Here is where I found Gonpachi, a restaurant housed in a re-created kura (traditional Japanese warehouse) with a high ceiling and central, open kitchen. The place is known for its relaxed, traditional atmosphere: remove your shoes and sit on a mat around a 1-foot-tall table and enjoy fantastic kushi-style skewered delicacies. My daughter and I liked it so much that we made a reservation for the next night just moments after we finished dinner.
While Roppongi may be glitzy, I prefer the high-energy Aoyama district for its mix of big-name and local fare. Once home to ancient temples, shrines, and samurai residences, the area is now a popular entertainment and shopping pit stop for young people. Fashion powerhouses dot the European-style, tree-lined Aoyama-dori, and the side streets that feed into it are chockful of small art studios and boutiques run by up-and-coming local fashion designers.
Beyond Aoyama-dori is the entrance to the 175-acre Meiji Jingu garden and shrine, where the Emperor Meiji and his consort, Empress Shoken, have been entombed since 1920. The evergreen forest of 120,000 trees, donated by people from all over Japan, is a spiritual center in the middle of Tokyo. However, just outside the entrance to the Meiji Jingu is a people-watchers paradise: every weekend the sidewalks are filled with Harajuku girls, teenagers dressed in outlandish costumes intended to grab your attention.
Meiji Jingu’s beautiful forest of calm, reverence, and tranquility contrasts starkly with the see-and-be-seen fashion parade of Tokyo’s shopping and entertainment districts. People walk quietly beneath the arbor way along the fine-gravel path leading to the Meiji Memorial Hall, where many Shinto weddings take place. If you visit on a weekend, you’re likely to see the ceremonially dressed procession—priests, bride, groom, family, and honored guests—walking solemnly to and from the building where vows are exchanged. The people milling about the outer courtyard part, smile, and quietly bow as the wedding party passes. You can’t help but feel that, in a small way, you’ve participated in the occasion. If you feel moved to do so, you can write a prayer on a small wooden tablet, or ema, and hang it around the divine tree that grows in the courtyard. Each morning the supplications written on the ema are conveyed by the priests at Mikesai.
Initially, Tokyo felt familiar. But after four short days, the city revealed itself to be different from anything I expected. At first glance, it resembles any large American metropolis, only much denser. Every square inch of land is covered by tall buildings; you feel like you’ve entered an ant farm and must go with the neverending flow. However, unlike most large American cities, the people of Tokyo are gracious, friendly, helpful, courteous, neat, orderly, and humble. Amid the sea of humanity I had come to feel peaceful and secure, but I still didn’t feel like I had made a connection with the people.
With one final night to spend, I finally succeeded in immersing myself in the real Tokyo. I headed to Sasagin, a small sake pub across from Yoyogi-Uehara station. An eclectic crowd of young singles and urban professionals filled the tiny room with straw-colored walls. I grabbed a stool at the six-seat sushi bar next to a table of six salarymen. Still in their white shirts and ties, they had removed their suit coats, indicating that they were now in casual mode. Like their American counterparts, they were in a post-work ritualistic bonding celebration. However, unlike their American counterparts, the salarymen follow an unwritten code of conduct at these gatherings: they never roll up their shirtsleeves or take off their ties, and the most important man in the group always fills their tasting glasses. I watched as the men laughed, toasted kanpai (cheers), and ate sushi.
Despite the fact that I was the only gaijin (white devil) in the place and no one spoke English, I felt as comfortable as I would at any bar in Dallas. Their camaraderie was infectious, and although we didn’t speak each other’s language, at one point a universal sense of brotherhood was expressed as one of the high-ranking salarymen leaned over and poured me a shot of sake from their amber-colored bottle. With a rousing kanpai, we toasted each other. As the evening progressed and the sake warmed my spirit, I was overcome by the joyous soul that rests beneath the exterior of formal order and obedience. Behind the uniforms lies an intrepid spirit, a pulse that beats beneath the heart of Tokyo, a city I must revisit before I die.
How To Get There
American Airlines (www.aa.com) offers nonstop flights to Tokyo.
Where To Stay
The Peninsula Tokyo
1-8-1 Yurakucho, Chiyoda-ku
Tokyo, 100-0006, Japan
(81-3) 6270 2888
866-382-8388 toll free
Rates: about $600 per night for deluxe rooms; about $1,300 a night for deluxe suites