The view from the 35th floor of the megawatt Mandarin Oriental reduced this 840-square mile megalopolis to a tinkertoy set from Godzilla: a tangled web of trains and cars hurtling in every direction, never colliding, racing through an endless jumbled landscape of cubistic skyscrapers shrouded in smog.
After a few shots of Yamazaki whiskey, I expected to see the scaly prehistoric reptile stomp his way through the city, wreaking havoc with every swing of his tail.
But here’s the surprise: when you’re down at street level, the traffic is sparse and, except at rush hour, the crowds are minimal. For a metropolitan area of 37.8 million people, it can be shockingly serene.
For instance, take a walk within the imposing stone walls of the Imperial Palace…
or wander through Hama-rikyu park. Both have arcadian areas where you could forget the towering office blocks all around—until you look up.
Hama-rikyu, incidentally, is a beautiful example of Edo-period (1603-1867) gardens. Until the mid-17th century, it was a duck hunting ground; later it became the preserve of the Tokugawa family which over several generations created a classic strolling garden with ponds and wooden bridges, forested areas, and a teahouse.
Centuries later, many elements appear to be unchanged. The most venerable of the black pines, branches pruned to look like floating clouds, is over 300 years old. The ponds are still fed by saltwater tides from Tokyo Bay, flowing in and out through small locks, and there’s even a shrine to the spirits of the long-departed ducks.
This beautifully preserved Shinto shrine attracts worshippers who clap their hands and bow to the spirits within.
Too idyllic for you? Then trot on over to Tsukiji fish market. My advice: Wear rubber soled shoes—better yet, rubber boots—and look sharp. Roughly 14,000 people work in the 50-acre inner market, many of them zooming around on motorized delivery “tricycles” at breakneck speed.
We skipped the “must-do” pre-dawn frozen tuna auction (do you really want to get there at 2:30 AM to stand in line to snag one of 120 tickets), arriving bleary-eyed even at a more civilized 7:04 AM.
Our well-connected guide, Toru Ishitobi, whisked us into the wholesale market (a no-no for most early visitors) where we were able to observe the meticulous butchering of several fresh tuna fish bought at auction just an hour before.
At Suzutomi Co. Ltd., one of the wholesale market’s top purveyors, we watched as a shop attendant opened up a section of big eye tuna caught in the coastal waters off Shiogama, a fishing city in the Miyagi prefecture. The young “surgeon” used an oroshi-hocho, a long, thin, flexible knife, to flay the fish, then remove the rosy flesh, layer by layer, down to the bony carcass.
Meanwhile the boss, Mr. Suzuki, was carefully cutting a hunk of prized bluefin tuna, measuring to the exact centimeter before slicing the dark red meat into fillets and chunks that were immediately put on ice. In between cuts, he washed the surface of the fish with water to keep bacteria at bay. Much of this bluefin tuna, shipped to auction from Canadian waters, would be sent to Tokyo’s top sushi restaurants that day.
Not hopping enough for you? Then stage a weekend assault on Asakusa Kannon Senso-ji. Any fair weather weekend, Tokyo’s oldest temple, founded in 645 AD, will likely be mobbed by thousands of camera-toting tourists and locals alike. You’ll know you’re there when you see the crowds streaming under giant red lanterns dangling dramatically from the Kaminarimon and Hozomon gates.
Join the carnival-like throngs and climb the steps to the main hall where an ancient statue of the compassionate Kannon Bodhisattva is said to be hidden in a golden shrine. To pray, put your hands together in the Buddhist prayer position and chant, “Namu Kanzeon Bosatsu,” which means, “I put my trust in Bodhisattva Kannon.”
But wait: Before entering the temple, you might want to purify yourself in the fragrant smoke of a large brazier of smoldering incense. Wave it into your face and hair, and over your clothing. (Don’t forget to take a selfie so the world can see what you’re up to.)
You could also get purified in the water of the dragon fountain. Pilgrims are supposed to clean their hands and the skin around the mouth—but some intrepid souls actually drink it.
Another option: Make a wish, shake up the metal cylinder and draw an omiku, or written fortune from a numbered drawer. (Of course, you need to read kanji to know what the future holds.)
Here’s some sage advice from the powers that be: “When you draw good fortune, you should not be careless and arrogant. Even if bad fortune, have no fear. Try to be modest and gentle.”
Whatever you do, don’t take a bad fortune with you. Tie it to the thoughtfully provided wire and leave it behind. Good fortunes should be tucked under your pillow.
Hungry yet? We sampled lots of places to eat in Tokyo, from a posh restaurant in the Ginza featuring rich marbled beef from Kyushu island to far more basic eateries serving up ramen and grilled yakitori. But nowhere in the city did we enjoy a meal more than at Teuchi Narutomi Soba.
This austere-by-design restaurant, with just a few dark wooden tables and pale plaster walls, is tucked away on a modest Ginza back street. It specializes in elegant handmade soba made of 100 percent buckwheat flour–a tricky feat that caused eyes to widen every time we mentioned it to anyone in Japan.
Buckwheat contains no gluten and the dough therefore tends to fall apart. Often “buckwheat” noodles are made with two parts wheat flour for added elasticity, but chef Masaaki Narutomi, has mastered the art of making soba entirely from buckwheat flour.
Chewy and nutty-tasting, the delicious hand-cut noodles were also mildly sweet–a sure sign, we learned, that they were made from freshly harvested, ”new season” grain. We ate them cold, with shredded scallions, a touch of wasabi, and tsuyu dipping sauce (an umami-rich blend of soy sauce, rice wine, sugar and dashi, a soup stock of dried bonito flakes.)
Often soba are served with tempura, a classic Japanese combination that approached greatness when we discovered how light and airy Narutomi’s tempura batter was. The tempura, which included a single scallop cut in half, was otherwise vegetarian, featuring an irresistible array of delicately fried vegetables such as lotus root, mild green chiles, matsutake and shiitake mushrooms and creamy eggplant. The only seasoning was a tiny dish of sea salt and a slice of lime.
Every order is served on the chef’s stunning collection of ceramics. Some pieces are new, but handmade in a rustic way that the Japanese might describe as wabi-sabi, a phrase that in the West we use to connote “the perfection of imperfection.” Other pieces are antique, including a group of flat-bottomed cups made between 1750 and 1860, mostly collected at temple markets.
Can you imagine slurping noodles from these beautiful blue and white plates?
As we ate, we glimpsed chef Narutomi and his assistant, a young woman with a blond tipped ponytail, whirling around the compact kitchen as clouds of steam rose from pots of boiling water and vegetable tempura sizzled in oil. But it all came to a halt at 3PM, Saturday closing time.
Here’s Narutomi in post-lunch relaxation mode.
(If you want to make buckwheat soba from scratch, go here to read The Kitchen’s excellent how-to post.)
Tokyo by night: Back on the 35th floor, the jumbled cityscape has disappeared and a bejeweled necklace of traffic runs like a ribbon through the darkness. A perfect moment for Godzilla to appear.
We learned about Tsukiji fish market and Teuchi Soba Narutomi from Food Sake Tokyo, Yukari Sakamoto’s comprehensive blog and guidebook to all good things to eat and drink in Tokyo (and Kyoto). If you’re going to Japan, do buy the English language version of the book before you leave.