By Alexandra Laskie
I witnessed something very unusual on a sunny winter’s day in Tokyo earlier this year – in a city of 13 million people, order and courtesy prevailed.
In the jumping ward of Shibuya, right near the famed intersection in front of Shibuya train station – named The Scramble and one of the world’s busiest – pedestrians crossed huge multi-lane highways on overpasses.
It happened to be peak hour, when thousands of Edokko (Tokyo residents) were headed for work. A single-form queue of more than 100 people had formed to walk up the stairs and onto one of the pedestrian-only overpasses.
People often don’t even wait for passengers to exit a train carriage before pushing on themselves in Melbourne, yet here were these patient “salerymen” – as white collar workers are called in Japan – and women waiting in a line that snaked its way up the street just to walk up a flight of stairs.
The scene says a lot about Japan and the Japanese, who are typically polite, punctual, kind, hard-working, respectful, shy and clean. And Tokyo is the perfect place to introduce yourself to Japan’s uniqueness.
Taxi drivers are usually impeccably dressed in suits, a black cap and white gloves. Their doors open automatically (allowing passengers to avoid touching germ-covered handles) and the drivers rarely speak English.
Welcome to a first world city unlike so many others, where you can almost entirely escape the English language.
Yet those who do speak English often approach tourists offering assistance.
On a gruelling search for a café a friend had recommended, we decided to take a pit stop and buy a drink from one of the many ‘family marts’, a Japanese convenience store franchise dotted across the city that sells everything from ice-creams to stationary to bento boxes and alcohol.
When paying, we asked the cashier whether he knew where the café was. At that, he walked around the counter, out the door and beckoned us to follow him up the street. Three minutes later he stopped to provide further directions before excusing himself and returning to the store. Such is the friendliness and charity of the Japanese!
Even for those with an aversion to travelling to cold places, Tokyo loses none of its appeal in the winter. Sunny days are still frequent and it would not be unusual to strip down to a T-shirt when criss-crossing the city in search of cafes, restaurants and galleries.
Something you learn about the Japanese when a visitor in their country is their penchant for the finer things in life.
According to Monocle magazine, there are 298 Starbucks cafes in Tokyo. But for the discerning Melbourne visitor (and coffee drinker), there are just as many smaller, boutique-style cafes using only the best single- origin beans, which are often roasted in Australia. For a taste, try Streamer, Fuglen and About Life Coffee Brewers.
The same penchant for quality is shared by restaurant and bar owners.
While the main alcoholic drinks enjoyed by the Japanese are beer, sake and shochu, wine lovers need not despair. Top quality (and mostly French) wines can be had at wine bars, such as at Ahiru Store in the hip neighbourhood of Tomigaya.
Eating out in Tokyo is an experience in itself. Many restaurants serve only their speciality, which may be tempura (dishes that have been battered and deep fried), ramen (a noodle and broth dish) or soba (buckwheat noodles), and you can rarely go wrong.
For breaded pork cutlets, though, Butagumi is a must. And for tempura, try Miyakawa Tempura Aoyama.
The café around the corner, named Down the Stairs, does an unmissable bento lunch.
For those who want to stay in the heart of the action, the Tokyu Stay hotels are reasonably priced and centrally located. Each room has a washing machine, with washing powder provided.
The boutique hotel experience can be had at Claska Hotel, in Meguro ward, which is known for its on-trend furniture stores and lively neighbourhood.
It’s a short walk to the train station, which is on the Yamanote line and will connect you to the city’s main train stations quickly and easily.
While it might seem premature to book a trip to Tokyo during their winter (our summer) now, just remember, those two-for-one Jetstar flight deals can’t be too far away.