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The capital of Japan is home to over 13 million people and an astonishing 35 million people in Greater Tokyo. The fact that the city manages to function at all is a modern miracle of organisation. And, yes, Tokyo’s obsession for order is legendary – just observe the action at the world’s busiest train station Shinjuku during peak hour, where there’s none of the chaos of other colossal cities. Outside of office hours, however, and the commute to and from the corporations that have made Japan such an economic powerhouse, a different Tokyo emerges.
Ties and tongues loosened, the restraint of Tokyo’s business world is flipped on its head at an after work izakaya bar. As the last train approaches the nearest station, workers scramble to make it home to avoid a bank-balance-draining taxi ride or a night in a claustrophobia-inducing capsule hotel.
This dichotomy is a substantial part of the appeal of Tokyo. While Harajuku is a shopping Mecca for the style-conscious youth of Tokyo, just across the road from the centre of the action is Meiji shrine where you’ll find couples dressed in traditional costumes celebrating their wedding day with age-old rituals. While many think of Shinjuku as just a neon-lit shopping and business strip that is stereotypical Tokyo, the small quarter of Omoide Yokocho (Memory Lane), tucked away beside the railway line, is full of smoky yakitori places where diners order endless rounds of barbecue skewers and down potent glasses of shōchū (similar to vodka) or copious amounts of beer.
Across the brightly illuminated streets is the equally atmospheric Golden Gai with its tiny, ramshackle bars where many a night continues long after Memory Lane.
For all the talk of Tokyo as a high-tech city, where gadget geeks head to Akihabara to gush over electronics, anime and manga, other locals will be thumbing through vintage vinyl records and sizing up collectable film cameras. For all the soaring towers and traffic chaos of the city, there are suburbs such as Yanaka, where old women ride their bicycles down leafy streets lined with old wooden houses, bothered by nothing but a yapping dog. This, and other similar neighbourhoods are classic ‘shitamachi’ quarters, where traditional life carries on as it did a century ago.
While Asakusa is a more touristy version of the quintessential shitamachi neighbourhood, you’ll still find solemn worshippers at the Sensō-ji Temple and tables of locals at simple eateries sharing meals while they have a flutter. Food is one thing Tokyo stops for – even just a humble bowl of ramen noodles. While a visit to the Tsukiji Fish Markets is a great way to experience the collective love of seafood that Japan has, the locals will be across the road at the market shopping fastidiously for the perfect bonito flakes to make their own miso soup at home. Tokyo might have an obsession for order, but their obsession with food gives more of an insight into their character!