Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Tokyo, Japan

Japan, with a population of around 128 million, seems to be able to successfully squeeze people into tight places. Tokyo is the world's largest metropolitan area with a population of 30 million and as Dermott Brereton discovered, it's a wonderfully vibrant city. It's on the main island of Honshu.
Harajuku: If you want to get a taste of Japan's unique youth culture, Harajuku is the centre. It has extreme teenage culture and fashion and is the place to be seen for the young and hip. 

On Sundays they gather near the railway station wearing costumes of their favourite fantasy characters. Called "cosplay", short for costume play, it's taken as a very serious form of self-expression. Most hope they will be snapped by one of the many magazine photographers mingling in the crowd. 

Takeshita Street, the focal point, is crammed with stores full of clothes and accessories where fashionistas head with attitude and yen. There are adult shops too. They deal in edgy fashion, haute couture and even the cafes are designer.

Check out our photo gallery of hot Harajuku street fashion.
Shibuya Crossing: This is one of the busiest pedestrian intersections in the world. Enormous video screens noisily compete for attention and bright blinking neon billboards advertise the very latest in everything.

When the lights go green, thousands of people criss-cross in all directions. At rush hour (which seems to be almost all the time) it's just a sea of people. Shibuya train station is one of the busiest in the city. Not surprising as there are about 13,500 residents per square kilometre living in Shibuya.

Ichiran ramen noodles: Japan's version of comfort food is ramen, a noodle soup dish traditionally with a chicken or pork base. Over the years it has evolved and today there are many soup bases with various toppings.

There are thousands of ramen shops throughout Japan and Ichiran is one of the most popular chains. With made-to-order dishes, these shops take their food seriously and it's all very efficiently run.

Diners take a ticket from a vending machine and an electronic panel shows which seat are free.

Menu forms in Japanese, English, Chinese and Korean are available. All you do is circle your choice and push the menu and ticket to the edge of the counter. Most eating areas have curtains so you can't be seen, and probably more importantly, diners aren't looking through the kitchen. Your bowl of food is discretely passed through the curtain.

Roppongi Hills Observation Deck: For stunning 360-degree views of Tokyo from 250m above sea level, head to Roppongi Hills Observation Deck at the top of the Mori Tower. It's built around the rim of the rooftop heliport and on a clear day, Mt Fuji can be seen.

Green Plaza Shinjuku Capsule Hotel: Dermott stayed in Japan's largest capsule hotel in Kabukicho, one of the city's red-light districts. It has 630 capsules and they're all about price and convenience. Capsules are 190cm deep, 100cm wide and 990cm high. They form a honeycomb, and each capsule is air-conditioned and comes with television, radio, alarm and personal light. Belongings are stowed in a locker room and vending machines dispense drinks, soup, snacks, underwear, trousers, neckties and emergency purchases.

Sleeping compartments are reserved for men only, but women can spend the night at the women's sauna on the ninth floor of Green Plaza. Admission entitles women to 10 hours of soaking, steaming and sleeping and is a safe overnight option. Men have a communal bath and lounge area, but be warned — if you have tattoos you will be banned from the bathing area.

Christon Café: Only in Tokyo! This themed restaurant has gone totally overboard presenting Christian paraphernalia. It's decorated like a church with stained-glass windows, vaulted ceiling, crosses, holy statues and organ music.

The atmosphere is gothic so being in a basement is perfect. There are loads of chandeliers and gothic light fixtures, gargoyles, angels and cherubs and images of the Virgin Mary. Enormous chairs you'd expect to find in a mansion are placed around luxurious tables with light features. Red latex booths with red velvet curtains are there if patrons want privacy. Plates of small izakaya dishes, the Japanese version of tapas, are served with beer.

Golden Gai: Golden Gai is a block of hundreds of tiny bars which accommodated just five to 15 people. It's all like early post-war Japan when the area was popular with artists and radicals wanting to change the world. It was built as a red-light district, but after the US occupation ended in 1952, owners converted the mini brothels into mini bars. Locals tend to drink shochu, a sort of local vodka. Sake is thought of as a tourist drink. 

Visit Insider's Guide to Tokyo or Getaway for more information

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