As the Olympics come to a close, Rob Goss explains why the Japanese capital is a city of incredible contrasts that defies all the stereotypes
Think of Tokyo and you conjure up images of a busy and ultra-modern city, where neon-lit futuristic skylines seem copied and pasted straight out of Blade Runner. It is all of these things, but there’s so much more to Japan’s capital. In the 23 special wards that make up the city’s urban core – that among them are home to nine million Tokyoites (there are 14 million including the wider area) – visitors also find traditional gardens and quiet temples. For every busy main street, there’s a warren of becalmed side streets waiting to be explored. For every skyscraper, there’s a low-rise and low-key residential area, where even elementary schoolers can safely walk to school without their parents.
Go beyond the city centre into the Tama region and you’ll find more differences between real Tokyo and the capital’s stereotypes – it is nothing like the world of Lost In Translation. There are mountain ranges for a start, with trails for all levels of hiker. There are ancient temples deep in nature. There are sprawling parks and laidback suburbs. Farmland as well. Look south and Tokyo has an island chain, too, stretching hundreds of kilometres into the Pacific and offering travellers the chance to dive, surf and even trek around active volcanoes. In Tokyo.
One thing often said about Tokyo that is true: the trains do tend to run on time. And they are clean. Another that holds up is that the food is on a different level. It’s not just that Tokyo has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city in the world – 212 at the latest count, including 12 with three stars – it’s the dedication chefs from every culinary walk of life seem to give their craft, whether they are perfecting a ramen stock or crafting kaiseki-ryori, the artistically arranged haute cuisine of Japan with its focus on seasonal produce and techniques that enhance natural flavours. And just as there’s far more to Tokyo than concrete and crowds, there’s also an incredible depth and breadth of flavours on menus to discover – not only sushi, noodles, tempura and wagyu.
It’s become a cliché to say that old meets new, but that’s true at times, too. Sometimes its striking – such as the skyscrapers of Shiodome rising above the traditional garden of Hama-rikyu Gardens. Sometimes its subtle – such as the traditional approach to hospitality even in the most contemporary of galleries, bars or restaurants. The takeaway is that, with Tokyo, there’s always something new to learn, something that will surprise and go beyond expectations. First visit or fifteenth, it’s a city that keeps on blowing minds.
Originally published in the ABTA Magazine Guide to Tokyo
Main image © TCVB