There are some places that literally everyone has an opinion about.
Mention New Zealand and friends will drone on about stunning scenery crammed with adrenalin-obsessed hobbits.
Drop Australia into conversation and suddenly colleagues are larking on, dreamy-eyed, about sun-drenched beaches separating a land and water crammed with creatures gagging to bite, sting, eat or perhaps just chew on you.
The problem (or blessing) with Tokyo is that while everyone has an opinion, nobody seems to have actually been there. Except for that loaded uncle who pops over for business every now and again or that mate of a mate who’s been teaching the locals English for a couple of years, everyone’s entire knowledge of Tokyo seems to originate largely from Lost in Translation.
In other words they get a bit hazy once you’re past Scarlett Johanson’s arse or the genius that is Bill Murray. But for many visitors, the film’s central feeling of a constant jetlag-fuelled surrealism is spot on. That’s fine though. You only really need to know one thing about Tokyo, and that’s that it is a completely mental place, not quite like anywhere else. The city feels on a scale unlike any other metropolis. There is no obvious city centre. Instead there are numerous districts, all with a maze of streets packed with design-obsessed urbanites surrounded by skyscrapers rising up in a flurry of neon and massive TV screens.
There are few places in the world where there is such little need to tick sights off a list. This is all about the aimless walk. Believe me, you’ll never get bored. Whether it’s the obsession of every Japanese, from businessman to teenage girl, with cute characters, or bizarre remote controls on toilets to supply a vast array of intriguing sounds to cover up the more embarrassing strains and splashes, nothing is quite how you expect.
Here’s five things that should help you make the most of the madness.
1. Throw yourself in at the deep end. Avoid the international you-could-be-anywhere-in-the-world hostels and head to a traditional inn, or ryokan. Prepare for slidey doors, futons, ditching shoes for slippers and old-style breakfasts served in your room. Be warned though, if you’re heading to the communal baths in your Japanese robe (like the obliging tosser tourist you are), try and avoid the large group of pissed-up local teenagers also staying there – because they will laugh at you, very loudly, while pointing (trust me).
2. So you’ve made a twat of yourself and the jetlag’s really starting to kick in. It’s barely dark but you’re gagging for bed. The only thing to do is head out and explore the streets. Tokyo comes alive at night like no other city. This place has a serious love for neon, meaning whole areas become massive corridors of light reaching all the way up the skyscrapers. It’s like stepping into a cheery Blade Runner.
3. Eating in Tokyo can be a challenge, often requiring the detachment of your eyes and brain from your taste buds. Few places have English menus so get used to pointing at pictures and eating slimy morsels you can’t quite put a name to. Still feeling the jetlag, take advantage of rising early for perhaps the freshest sushi in the world. Head to Tsuji fish market for an unbeatable early breakfast.
4. If there’s one thing Tokyo is obsessed with above all else it’s style. And like most things in Japan there’s someone to take it to quite a bizarre extreme. In this case it’s the world’s oddest teenagers. Every Sunday they get dressed up in their outfits, whether it’s a corpse bride gown or a dinosaur outfit and head to Ginjoku where they try to outdo each other and pose for tourists. It has to be seen to be believed and is Tokyo at it’s most surreal.
5. Jump on a train for an hour and take a day trip out of town. The former imperial capital Kamakura is easy to reach. It’s jam-packed with centuries-old temples, including a giant Buddha, and is also home to a great surfing beach.