x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Tokyo's tender, yet efficient, side

Flying on Qatar Airways' new direct route to Tokyo, Rosemary Behan visits the Japanese capital, "the most beautiful of ugly cities."

The Tokyo Skytree, left, is seen from the Sensoji temple in Tokyo. Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg
The Tokyo Skytree, left, is seen from the Sensoji temple in Tokyo. Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

The small woman combing the immigration queue at Tokyo's Narita International Airport is checking our forms before we get to the counter. She scans mine, then stops and smiles, not triumphantly but with an endearing combination of pettiness and kookiness: "You forgot to fill in your passport number!"

It's the small details that define Japan, and in a world where civility, particularly at airports, on the road and in hotels, is in short supply, the zen treatment I receive throughout my stay is enough to make me want to return.

It helps, of course, that I've just slept for eight hours in business class on Qatar Airways' new non-stop route to Tokyo, which means that, for the first time ever, I arrive in a destination feeling better than when I left. Actually, I sleep almost too well, as the time difference means that 5pm feels like morning.

I'm staying at The Peninsula in Yurakucho, part of Asia's oldest hotel chain but purpose-built in 2007. Despite its age and reputation, the Hong Kong group has just nine properties (a 10th, The Peninsula Paris, will open later this year). I'm met by a Rolls-Royce Phantom which slips silently from the airport and into the centre of the city, a trip that costs US$700 (Dh2,570) one way (not bad considering a regular taxi is $300). It's some distance, but the driver is silent, and so is the road. I'm soothed by the faint sound of classical music from the stereo at the front. In the pocket beside me I find a fully-charged iPad complete with wireless internet access to check emails and the latest news.

I check into my room on the 19th floor, which has a view of the Imperial Palace and its gardens. It's orderly and functional as well as luxurious. The practical details I like include a sliding door that insulates the bedroom from random corridor noise during the night, an option to alter the room's humidity, a panel showing the outside temperature, a "valet box" through which laundry and newspapers can be delivered without the intrusion of a person, and the fact that the phone to reception is always answered within one ring. But my favourite feature is the toilet. A slightly scary Toto-branded plastic contraption, my toilet lid flips up automatically when I approach it, and the seat is heated. As a first-time user, I don't experiment with any of its other functions.

The following morning I'm guided by two of the hotel's young staff, Masaki and Yuriko, to Kamakura, a coastal town an hour south of Tokyo. We take the metro, and given that the system is only partly translated into English, I'm happy to be chaperoned. We pay extra to sit on the top deck, battling jet lag as we carve our way through the suburbs. We visit several shrines and the Kamakura Daibutsu, a bronze statue of Amida Buddha on the grounds of the Kotukuin temple. The temple buildings have been destroyed several times by typhoons and tidal waves, bringing to mind the 2011 tsunami that, almost 400 kilometres north, killed 16,000 people. Here, the small town's bespoke shops, art galleries and organic cafes are the antithesis of such a disaster.

We use local buses to get to and from the train station, a convenient process, although our driver, seemingly angry at traffic, cuts a terrifying figure as he glares through his face mask and gloves. The highlight of the day is a shojin ryori (Buddhist vegetarian) meal at an old, traditional wooden restaurant. The food is all raw, steamed or braised, and tastes exquisite. The tiny seats and low tables make us feel like we're sitting in a doll's house.

Back in Tokyo, we head to Roppongi for a decidedly un-Buddhist feast at Robataya (www.roppongi-robataya.com), an unfussily sophisticated basement restaurant where two animated chefs cook in front of us on an open flame and pass the food and drink around on wooden planks. The restaurant now has sister restaurants in New York and Seoul, and celebrities are common. I'm served sashimi followed by a whole grilled kinki (rock fish), cubes of barbecued Wagyu beef - tender on the inside, crispy on the outer edges - and skewered vegetables. I could have sat there all night, listening to the theatrical shouting and watching the fishes' eyes burst in the heat, but I have to get up at 3.30am the next morning for a tour of the Tsukiji fish market. I turn in despite feeling that, in this city, I seem to need much less sleep than normal.

It's a quick, bleary-eyed ride in a taxi to Tsukiji the next morning. I'm lucky because the hotel has wangled small-group access to the whole site including the tuna auctions. Next year, the market will relocate to a controversial new site far from the city centre. It's still dark when we arrive, and the looming warehouses, whizz of small motorised vehicles and armies of men in rubber boots create an intense atmosphere. We're shown vast sheds containing thousands of types of seafood alive and dead, from sea urchins to huge tuna fish, both fresh and frozen. The tuna auction, where hundreds of huge tuna are laid out in rows, is a bloody and sobering sight, but it doesn't stop us from feasting on a sushi breakfast at Iwasa Sushi, one of a handful of restaurants next to the market's main buildings open at 5.30am. The landlady, who seems to thrive on four hours' sleep a night, is said to cut a Godfather-type figure at the market, owning several restaurants and selecting the best seafood from all over Japan.

Next it's a visit to the recently opened Tokyo Skytree, at 634 metres high the tallest tower in the world after the Burj Khalifa. Its observation deck, however, at 450m, is almost the same height (the Burj Khalifa's is 452m), making the view a must.

We hop back on the metro to Asakusa, visiting the Sensoji Shrine before a lunch of dumplings in a local restaurant. Despite the efficiency of the metro, it's nice to walk around older areas like this, with smaller streets and highly individualised houses. Tokyo is said to be "the most beautiful of ugly cities", and nowhere more so than in human-scaled areas like this.

We move on to Omotesando, a smart, big-brand shopping area, and Harajuku, younger and more trendsetting, with a penchant for roccoco outfits - a bit like a cleaner version of Camden Market. After a brief siesta we head out to dinner at Tofuya Ukai (www.ukai.co.jp/english/shiba/), a specialist tofu restaurant in an old building in its own gardens, near the Tokyo Tower. On the menu is tofu in peanut sauce, deep fried tofu in sweet miso sauce, and kelp soup with tofu. Slightly disappointingly though - as a tofu-lover - the menu is padded with non-tofu dishes such as chopped chicken with rice.

Still wanting to explore more of Tokyo's 23 different wards, and feeling more at home with the metro system, the next day I take the JR Yamanote line to Shibuya and meet a friend at the infamous Hachiko statue outside the station. The area is much nicer during the day than at night, when it's a frenzy of J-Pop-themed photo booths, seedy-looking hotels and rowdy groups dressed up like it's Halloween. We walk to Daikanyama, one of the hip, low-rise and civilised districts sophisticated people with money move to when they settle down and start having children. We browse in the Tsutaya bookshop, an archtectural hub in its own right, then sip coffee from El Salvador in a cafe that looks like a science lab.

For lunch we move on to Naka-Meguro, eating a selection of delicious spicy stews at Aoya (www.aoya-nakameguro.com). I browse some local boutiques, briefly contemplating the purchase of a Dh1,000 pair of shoes before heading to Ginza, Tokyo's prime retail shopping area, for the inevitable raid on Uniqlo. The 12-storey Ginza branch is the world's largest, although a bigger one will open in Shanghai later this year. Since the company's clothing seems to be one of the few things cheaper in Japan than outside, I work my way from top to bottom, leaving with three large carrier bags stuffed with leggings, scarves, tights, skirts, jumpers, T-shirts and dresses. It's slightly unceremonious, but more dignified than London's Oxford Street.

I return to the airport to catch a 10.30pm flight back to Doha. Amazingly, for an international airport, it's deathly quiet, as mine is the last flight of the day. The skies will remain closed until 6am the following morning to allow local residents to sleep. If only all airports could be like this.

If you go

The flight Qatar Airways (www.qatarairways.com) flies from Abu Dhabi to
Tokyo via Doha from Dh3,045 return including taxes. The flight from Doha to Tokyo takes 9.5-12 hours

The hotel Double rooms at The Peninsula Tokyo (www.peninsula.com) cost from JPY55,640 (Dh2,077) per night including taxes

rbehan@thenational.ae

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