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Travel to Tokyo


How Tokyo changed the world

20 August 2015

From sushi and tiny technology to manga and console gaming, the Japanese capital is responsible for many of the things we take for granted in modern living.

Tokyo is a city in a hurry, the neon-splashed streets, steam-filled restaurants and boisterous karaoke bars crammed with people no matter the hour. More than 13 million people live in Japan’s capital, representing around 10 per cent of the country’s total population.

It’s a hub of style, engineering, design, technology, and food – its innovations and inventions shaping nearly every aspect of modern life in the West. With the help of three experts in the fields of technology, popular culture and food, we’re going to take explore Tokyo’s rich legacy, and the best places to experience it today.

“For demographic and geographic reasons – a high population and very little flat land for building – the Japanese were generations ahead of the rest of the world in terms of having to cope with living piled on top of one another,” says Dr Jonathan Clements, author of Modern Japan: All That Matters.

“This has led to a greater interest, in terms of design and technology, in being able to isolate oneself from the people around you. The Walkman was originally designed so that the boss of Sony, Akio Morita, could listen to music on a plane. Can you imagine air travel today without it? The Walkman then kicked off a revolution in fitness, but miniaturisation and falling costs have also been instrumental in the migration of TV sets from lounges to bedrooms, and the diversification of media into narrowcasting, whereby different people can watch the TV programmes or videos that they want, even in the same house.”

Clements calls this ability “negotiated privacy”, and spend any length of time wandering Tokyo’s streets and you’ll soon understand its necessity. Hedged in by mountains and ocean, Japan’s capital has grown upwards – like a plant reaching for the sun. Roads are narrow and crowded, neon advertising hoardings painting the roads below. Arrive after a long flight and it can feel like the entire city’s jumping up and down, clamouring for your attention.

It’s a lot of fun though, especially around the electronics district, Akihabara. Hundreds of technology stores are crammed along the main drag of Chuo Dori and its side streets, covering everything from tiny stalls selling phone chargers to huge chain retailers like Yodobashi Camera (1-11-1 Nishi-shinjuku), with floors and floors of gizmos and games.

Akihabara was once the place to see the technology of tomorrow, and though ferocious international competition has cracked the crystal ball, there are still a few glimpses of the future to be had here and there. “You’ll see new fashions on display, the TV shows that are big with today’s youth, and the stores selling whatever it is that is just about to go global,” says Clements. “Not everything will look likely at first. They were selling selfie sticks 20 years ago... and nobody thought they would catch on.”

For something a little more startling, head to Tsukumo Robot O-koku (1-9-9 Sotokanda, Chiyoda-ku), a shop that specialises in putting a palatable face on the robot revolution. In one corner, you’ll find two teams of robots playing football, in other a robot maid dutifully moving dishes around. Whether you’ve got $10 in your pocket or $10,000, they’ll have something to sell you. Even if you’re not buying it’s worth taking a peek, if only to see what your own country will look like in 10 years’ time.

Tokyo’s at the forefront of robotics research, with companies, including Honda, Toyota and Mitsubishi, creating machines capable of learning, displaying emotions on eerily lifelike faces, and even helping elderly people around the house – including getting them in and out of bed. Obviously, these companies aren’t going to let you wander into their R&D labs (no matter how much you plead), but the Honda Welcome Plaza (2-1-1 Minamiaoyama, Minato) is the place to be if you want to see what all the fuss is about.

Every day at 1:30pm and 3pm, Honda’s humanoid robot Asimo is wheeled out to entertain the crowds, something he does by dancing, running and generally acting a lot like a human child. Better yet, unlike most things in Tokyo, it’s free, so don’t be shy about stopping by.

There are few cities in the world that know how to let their hair down quite like Tokyo. And by down, we mean dyed pink, tied up into pigtails, and part of a costume only people below the age of 22 actually recognise. This is the world of cosplay, manga and anime – which has brought of us everything from the Oscar-winning studio Ghibli film Spirited Away to cult hits such as Akira.

“In the ’80s, Japan was famous for cars and the Sony Walkman, but since the 1990s it is anime (animation) and manga graphic novels,” says Dr Anan Nobuko, a lecturer in Japanese studies at Birkbeck, University Of London. “Kawaii [meaning cute] culture, represented by Hello Kitty, is also very popular outside of Japan. It’s no surprise, as Japan has been promoting itself as a cultural superpower since it lost its economic and political influence in the 1990s and 2000s, and youth pop cultural artefacts such as anime and manga occupy a large part of the export.”

If that seems a little clinical, don’t worry, a trip to the Harajuku district will soon convince you this isn’t a mere marketing exercise. Fanning out from Takeshita Dori is a spider web of fashion boutiques, costume shops, and fast-food restaurants. Come evening cosplayers (people dressing up like their favourite fictional characters) spill on to the streets like some sort of bubble-gum army, the entire area turning into a living comic book panel. Anybody who’s ever attended a Comic-Con will feel immediately at home as the atmosphere is friendly and fun, though be careful about taking pictures – most of these people won’t take too kindly to popping flashes.

Trips to the Ghibli Museum (1 Chome-1-83 Shimorenjaku), offering a behind-the -scenes look at Japan's most famous animation studio are a must, though if you’re looking to add to your manga collection, then you’ll need to head over to Akihabara and Sinjuku, which do a roaring trade in everything otaku – which roughly translates as “geek”. Start out at Mandarake (Sotokanda 3-11-12, Chiyoda-ku), which is stuffed to bursting with mangas, action figures, costumes and just about everything else you could ever want. Even if you’re just dipping your toe in, a couple of the staff speak English and will dedicate themselves to finding something you love. Be open-minded and you’ll get an education.

“The two-dimensional, often unrealistic aesthetics in these media [manga and anime] seem to attract Western audiences,” says Dr Nobuko. “This actually dates back to the late 19th century when many Western artists were fascinated by Japanese fashion and paintings. It isn’t clear if there’s any direct link between these traditional Japanese arts and contemporary anime and manga, but two-dimensionality has always been an important aspect of Japanese culture.”

And we can’t talk about geek culture in Tokyo without touching on videogames. Sega and Sony are headquartered in the city, while Nintendo has offices there. Sega and Nintendo started creating arcade games in the 1970s, before sparking the console boom in the 1980s, an industry that’s now worth $100 billion worldwide. Celebrate with a visit to Joyopolis (1-6-1 Daiba, Minato), a theme park that specialises in rides and arcade games. For a slightly quieter evening, there’s always the lovely 8bit Café (3-8-9 Shinjuku, 5F Q building), where you can order a cup of green tea and play classic videogames on big screens all night.

It’s an oft-repeated fact that Tokyo has (far) more Michelin stars than any other city in the world, something that makes immediate sense 10 seconds after tucking into your first meal. Eating badly in Tokyo is difficult to do, even if you sit yourself at one of the roadside noodle bars that look to be a stiff breeze away from falling over.

Whatever the hour, the chef will lavish the same care on your food as you’d see in the swankiest restaurant on the 30th floor of a skyscraper. Cooking is an art in Japan, every dish a gift, honed through decades of experience. Little wonder Japanese cuisine has been added to the Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

“I believe Japan’s greatest impact on Western cooking has been the ‘fifth taste’ or umami,” says Anton Verplak, a former Nobu chef who now runs Minus8, a company offering culinary tours around Japan. “We are aware of sweet, salty, sour, bitter and then there is the illusive umami [which translates as a pleasant savouriness]. Even though it isn’t a recent discovery, nor does it exist solely within Japanese cuisine, it was discovered by the Japanese. In Japanese cuisine it can be found in ingredients such as konbu and katsuobushi, which are used to make dashi, the foundation to almost all dishes.”

Making sense of umami is a little like trying to explain the colour red to somebody, though Verplak equates it to the feeling you get after eating a bowl of miso soup: “it’s as though your meal has just given you a hug,” he says.

To experience it, your best bet is to take a wander around one of Toyko’s massive food halls. Agree to meet friends at a specific stall, and chances are you’ll already be full by the time you arrive, having gorged yourself on the free samples being constantly pushed your way by perma-smiling sales assistants. One of the more recent – and largest – sits beneath Takashimaya Times Square, and sells over 30,000 items, the entire hall abuzz with chopping and chattering, delighted exultations from diners having a crack at something new. For something a little less glossy, try Aqua City (1-7-1 Daiba, Minato), which complements great food with views over the bay, including a miniature Statue Of Liberty.

“For a deeper understanding of umami you can also tour markets such as Tsukiji and try as many samples as you can,” says Verplak. “You will find that satisfying umami taste in so many foods. Perhaps visit a kastuobushi supplier at Tsukiji to see both freshly shaved katsuobushi and konbu [kelp]. I would also highly recommend dining at the Michelin-starred Ishikawa Kagurazaka where chef Hideki Ishikawa will serve you two courses made with dashi stock. His broth is gentle yet with such depth of flavour. You will have then experienced the pinnacle of umami in my humble opinion.”

Words: Stuart Turton

Gifts from the East

Japanese creations have permeated the West to such an extent that many of its most telling contributions aren’t even remarked upon. Dr Jonathan Clements, author of Modern Japan: All That Matters, takes us through some surprising Japanese inventions.

Instant noodles
“Japanese food has certainly carved out a global niche for itself. Not just sushi, either, but also the humble instant noodle, pioneered by Momofuku Ando of the Nissin Corporation in 1958.”

Emergency exits
“How many lives have been saved by the pictographic ‘Emergency Exit’ sign, which grew out of the realisation that visitors to the Osaka Expo wouldn’t be able to escape in a fire if they couldn’t read Japanese? Yukio Ota’s 1982 refinement of the image has since been internationally adopted.”

Bumpy pavements
“Or how about the humble, largely-unnoticed ‘tactile pavement’ – those nobbly paving stones for the blind, invented by Seiichi Miyake in 1965?”

Funniest home videos
“Because of demographics, the Japanese often reach market saturation before other first-world countries, and are the first to find new applications for technology. With the largest market penetration of video cameras, they were the first nation to solicit ‘funny home movies’ from the public to fill up TV programmes.”



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