Tokyo Drift

Tokyo Drift of the past - a rare first generation Nissan Skyline GT-R (KPGC10) built from 1969 to 1972 on display in the History Garage in Venus Fort, Odaiba.

Mention Tokyo and one would likely recall the mega-district of Shinjuku, the digitised world of Akihabara, or perhaps the manga and maid cafés.

Indeed, Shinjuku is mega, is massive, is beyond a comprehensible human scale. Handling more than 3.6 million commuters across 36 platforms in a single day, it is not surprising that the Shinjuku train station complex gets the honour of being the busiest transport hub in the world. Let's put it in perspective if you are still wondering what those numbers mean. Singapore's total citizenship is smaller than the number of commuters on Shinjuku station's platforms in a day (3.3 million citizens, excluding PR and foreign talents). And with all three Terminals combined, our Changi International Airport handles an average of 180,000 passengers a day flying to and from all over the world, which is 20 times less than Shinjuku train station in a day.

And mention Akihabara, one could seemingly hear the digitised Japanese voices and music echoing off the neon and LED cladded façades along its main street. If Sega, anime and manga are your cup of (Japanese) tea, you would be screaming in excitement and robotic-dancing to AKB48's music in the background.

Tokyo isn't all about J-pop, anime or millions of zombified commuters all rushing to work in their perfectly-pressed suits. A short train ride out of the city centre would transport one into another world. The historical towns of Kawagoe and Kamakura are perfect destinations if ancient Japanese architecture and historical temples and shrines are of your interest.

And if high fashion and high quality shopping experience are what you are looking for, a glamorous saunter along Omotesandō would fit the bill, and potentially add to your credit card bill. From the iconic multi-storey flagship stores of Prada and Tod's to the shopping complex of Omotesando Hills, architecture lovers would also be equally delighted with the works of Herzog & de Meuron, Toyo Ito and Tadao Ando lining the boulevard.

Not far away, the Rotterdam-based architecture firm, MVRDV had made a mark in the Japanese capital with the Gyre Shopping Centre, housing the first Asian branch of the MoMA Design Store on its third floor. No wonder Omotesandō is also known to many in the world as the street of architectural showcase.

No visit to Tokyo would be complete without getting up early and making a trip to the famous Tsukiji Fish Market - the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world. It promises an eye-opening experience for a market of this staggering scale, including countless giant blast-frozen bluefin tunas and other seafood being shuttled around on turret trucks and carts. The market handles a mind-boggling 2,000 tons of seafood per day. Combining the output of all our 130 fish farms in Singapore, we would need half a year to produce that amount.

The famous bluefin tuna auction starts at 5.25am daily (except Sundays, public holidays and almost 2 months over the New Year period in Dec and Jan). The queue starts at 5am on the first floor of "The Fish Information Center" beside the Kachidoki Bridge entrance. When I reached just before 5am, a long queue of tourists had formed at the gate. I did a quick count and clearly, there were more than 120 people in line. The maximum number of visitors allowed per day is 120, which will be divided into 2 groups of 60 persons each at 5.25am and 5.50am. Do get up early and reach early (by 3am according to some travel forums) if you wish to be part of the auction. I will have to try again on my next trip, very soon.

After a week of walking, shopping, and sashimi indulgence, there is no better way to soothe and pamper oneself with a hot spring and bath in a traditional Japanese bath house. Just a short train ride to the reclaimed island of Odaiba in Tokyo Bay, the Oedo Onsen Monogatari offers both indoor and outdoor communal baths in the traditional Japanese way. To some of us, it is the quintessential of experiencing the Japanese way of life with nothing to fear and nothing to hide, literally.

Perhaps, the Teriyaki Boys were right. As their song goes: "I wonder if you know. How they live in Tokyo. If you seen it then you mean it. Then you know you have to go. Fast and furious."

I'm not talking about burning rubber or nitrous-racing down the streets of Tokyo. Neither am I referring to seeing it all in the onsen. Instead, if you have seen and experienced Tokyo, you would fall in love with it fast and furious. From the vibrant boulevards and massive underground shopping complex of Shinjuku to the fine shrines and traditional houses from the Edo period, there are too many reasons you know you'll have to go at least once in your life.

So for a week there, with each day filled and fuelled by the freshest sushi, sashimi and the tastiest ramen, all meticulously prepared and served by the most polite and professional people (not flying drones), I could see and understand the true meaning of absolute pride and immaculate perfection in the Japanese culture that have shaped what Tokyo is today.

Finally, I shall leave you with some real Tokyo Drift ( and let that music accompany you with the photo story below. Hope you'll get the drift.

A breath-taking view of Tokyo from our hotel room at Park Hyatt - possibly the most celebrated hotel in the Japanese capital. Housed between levels 39 to 52 of the Shinjuku Park Towers designed by Kenzo Tange, the hotel rose to fame with the award-winning movie Lost in Translation.

Closing-in on Tokyo from Park Hyatt with some miniature fun.

Traditional selfie along the driveway of Shinjuku Park Towers.

A typical cross junction in Tokyo, looking out from a taxi windscreen en-route Aoyama.

Found Muji, found. Located in the Aoyama area, this is where the first Muji standalone store was set up and located back in 1983. It is now a new Muji concept store showcasing many traditional crafts, vernacular and handmade products. Worth a visit for a fresh perspective of Muji.

A friendly service staff in Andersen bakery café in Aoyama, going around with a basket of freshly baked bread for customers' selection. Despite the language barrier, his big smile and personal touch had epitomise what good service is all about. No technology (read: drone) could replace this very core value and true meaning of good service.

Pick all you want from the basket.

Little pleasures in life - simple and delightful dessert.

Window display at the bakery café. More is not always good. Learning to keep things simple and elegant is an art not many could appreciate.

Walking down a back lane in Aoyama area.

The Comme des Garçons flagship store in Aoyama. A mandatory stop for fans of Rei Kawakubo and Junya Watanabe.

Window display, displaying on the window literally. Many window displays in Tokyo are such a delight to look at. Learning to show only what is absolutely necessary.
The iconic Prada boutique in Aoyama, designed by Herzog & de Meuron. Alight at Omotesando station and take Exit A5.
"The rhomboid-shaped grid on the façade is clad on all sides with a combination of convex, concave or flat panels of glass. These differing geometries generate facetted reflections, which enable viewers, both inside and outside the building, to see constantly changing pictures and almost cinematographic perspectives of Prada products, the city and themselves." Herzog & de Meuron.

Tadao Ando's Collezione building in Aoyama.

The rise of the shadow on Toyo Ito's Tod's flagship store.
The façade of Tod's by Toyo Ito.

More of Tadao Ando at Omotesando Hills, a multi-storey shopping complex that stretches for 250 metres along the zelkova-lined boulevard of Omotesandō.

Several interesting shops in the Gyre shopping centre designed by MVRDV, including the Good Design Shop by Comme des Garçons on the second storey.

Not forgetting a visit to Asia's first MoMA Design Store on the third storey of Gyre.

Other than multi-storey flagship stores and shopping complexes, there are many other interesting small retail and lifestyle stores in the Aoyama area. This is a pottery craft workshop located in the FROM1st building, which also houses Issey Miyake's concept flagship store.

Back in the hotel - A glittering view of Tokyo from Park Hyatt. Imagine Silvia, RX-7 and 350Z racing and drifting down the boulevard, fast and furious.

While admiring Tokyo's night skyline from Park Hyatt, I'm sure it would have reminded many of Scarlett Johannson sitting on the window ledge and enjoying such a splendid view in the movie Lost in Translation.

Graffiti in an underpass while walking to Shinjuku to grab dinner.

Decided to settle down at a small restaurant in a back lane of Shinjuku. Incredibly juicy and crunchy edamame. A perfect way to start my dinner.

Sushi and sashimi for dinner.

What can be more enjoyable than having superb Japanese food with an ice cold beer in a quiet and gracious environment, and watching beautiful people walking by and greeting each other politely. Compared to being surrounded by dysfunctional families with ill-mannered kids screaming away with iPads in their hands, with a maid trying to coax and feed, while oblivious parents yak away and leaving a mess on the table after their meal.

Starting a new day at the world's busiest transport hub, the Shinjuku station.

My ticket to Kawagoe, about an hour's train ride from Shinjuku.

The famous bell tower of Kawagoe built in 1894. For more than three centuries, this 16 metres tall bell tower has been telling time to the residents and villagers in the area. Till today, the bells still ring four times a day.

Neko in Kawagoe.

Kawagoe is a beautiful place that exhibits the traditional Japanese culture and flavour in many ways. Why not buy and wear a yukata and continue your walk down the street?

The traditional noren in front of many shops. These multi-purpose fabric dividers are the shops' branding, they shelter the occupants from glare, heat, wind and dust, and represent that the shops are open as they would be taken down at the end of the day.

Pride and precision. Japanese hand-made knifes and tools for every imaginable need.

The main street of Kawagoe is lined with many clay-walled warehouse-styled buildings known as Kurazukuri which where built in the Edo Period (1603-1967). A stroll down the street evokes a charming nostalgic ambience transporting one back in time. Should have bought a yukata and wore it along.

Many beautiful architectural details on these historical buildings.

Getting some Japanese cooler in this very hot day at Kawagoe.

Walked past a shrine in Kawagoe. An excellent place to cool down and take a break.

Back in Shinjuku. At the Isetan flagship store, often seen as the trendsetter for fashion and new products in Tokyo.

A Louis Vuitton window display by Yayoi Kusama at Isetan Shinjuku.

In the heart of this electrifying district of Shinjuku lies an oasis, a little retreat of complete solitude. The Hanazono Shrine is a good place to go if you wish to take a break from the loud music and glaring billboards of Shinjuku.

A stone's throw away from the Hanazono Shrine lies a treasure trove of more than 200 shanty-style bars and restaurants. The Golden Gai is an area with narrow lanes and alleys, flanked by two-storey old shophouses, mostly dimly lit with small doorways and narrow staircases leading to another bar on the upper level.
From paper lanterns to LED light boxes, the lanes of Golden Gai are overcrowded with interesting signboards, advertisements, posters, menu boards, and anything that could make a faint presence amidst the fierce competition.
Walking down these narrow lanes with over 200 bars and restaurants in the Golden Gai area was a memorable and nostalgic experience, seemingly transporting one back in time. After all, some bars could truly trace their history back to the 1960s.
Fortune teller by the walkway in Shinjuku.
Human advertisement on the road.

A visit to the famous Tsukiji Fish Market on the following morning. It's a truly busy and vibrant market with hundreds of people shuttling around and getting their businesses going. It's important to be alert, be attentive, be respectful and avoid blocking their path. Basically, know your place and don't be an ignorant and irritating tourist. (Above: unique turret trucks and traditional carts zip through the wet hallways carrying the freshest catch from the seas.) 

Tools for all your seafood preparation needs.

Keeping their tradition in making and sharpening their tools.

Dropped by a local coffee shop in Tsukiji for my much needed coffee.

A place where the locals gather, chit chat, read their papers, and enjoy their mornings.

This is the famous sushi restaurant in Tsukiji, Sushi Dai. They are supposedly the best according to many reviews and articles. The queue started to form very early and was insanely long. According to some sources, be prepared to stand in line for 2 hours or more. I'm not a fan or believer of queuing for "good" food. So no, I didn't try.

Bluefin tuna on the go. Huge and there are bigger ones. The record price paid at the auction is a whopping US$1.76 million for a 222 kg beast in 2013.

Always remember to sharpen your tools.

Turret trucks speeding and zipping through the market. Always be alert when crossing the road.

A typical sundry store in Tsukiji.

Merchants cutting and preparing their goods. Many bluefin tunas are so huge that have to be cut-up using industrial jigsaws. 

Fish head curry, anyone?

A typical stall in Tsukiji fish market. Many types of seafood on display are not commonly seen. Not forgetting all the live octopus in netted bags.

Watching how the merchants prepare the fishes is a performance itself.

Beautiful creatures. Yayoi Kusama in its natural form.

Shinkansen cruising down Tokyo.

Took a short subway train ride to the reclaimed island of Odaiba in Tokyo Bay. This is the rainbow-coloured Daikanransha, a 115-metre high ferris wheel in Palette Town.

Within the huge shopping and entertainment complex of Palette Town is Megaweb, a massive exhibition hall by Toyota, showcasing many interesting cars and exhibits.

What could be better than ending the day with a hot spring bath, the traditional Japanese way. The Oedo Onsen Monogatari, Tokyo's largest artificial hot spring complex is located on the island of Odaiba, a mere 5-min walk from Telecom Center subway station (Yurikamome Line).

The lobby hall of Oedo Onsen Monogatari. No shoes allowed from the timber platform onwards. The row of counters in the background are where you make payment, get your locker key, your credit tag and select a yukata from the many designs available.

A pet shop in Aqua City shopping centre, Odaiba. Look at the huge difference between their pet enclosures and the conditions of our pet shops in Singapore.

Enjoying the magnificent sunset with the Rainbow Bridge across Odaiba waterfront.

A great way to start the day with a hearty and healthy breakfast at Park Hyatt.

All open. At Downstairs Café located in the Mercedes showroom in Roppongi.

Behind the Tokyo Midtown complex, designed by SOM Architects, in Roppongi lies a humble building, the 21_21 Design Sight, a design gallery and workshop created by Issey Miyake and Tadao Ando.

More of Tadao Ando.

Incidentally, it was the last Saturday of July, one of the happiest and liveliest days for many Japanese in Tokyo. The Sumidagawa Fireworks Festival dates back to the 18th century and is still held every year till now. Many Japanese (even tourists) would put on their traditional costumes to attend the festival along the Sumida River.

Many would picnic and wait patiently for the fireworks show along the closed streets. No pushing, no elbowing, no queue-cutting to get the best view. All in good order and behaviour despite having to compete with a million people.

Some fortunate ones enjoying their exclusive view by the river. And that's not an alien invasion in the background. It's Philippe Starck's gold flame on the roof of Asahi Beer Hall.

Catching a glimpse of the fireworks show. There are numerous locations and viewing points along Sumida River. One may choose to walk along with the crowd or find a spot to picnic under the dazzling fireworks.

With hundreds of thousands of people attending the festival, getting home is a challenge after the crowd had dispersed. But fret not as this is Japan. Order and discipline are their middle names. Of course, it is also advisable that you start making your way to the train station (Asakusa Station) in advance before the last pyrotechnic concludes in the sky.

A platform staff overlooking a train leaving the station.

This can get really confusing. Change all lines into yellow and it would become a plate of noodles.

Started the following day with a visit to Frank Lloyd Wright's creation - the Jiyu Gakuen School, completed in 1921.

The double-volume central hall facing south towards a garden courtyard, bringing in ample sunlight into the school hall.

Looking through Frank Lloyd Wright's details.

Wright's lighting design on display. Timeless.

Gardening with love.

Visited Nekobukuro  (Neko + Ikebukuro), a petting zoo full of cats located on the 8th storey of Tokyu Hands in Ikebukuro. More than 30 cats roam, laze, sleep and catwalk (literally) around this indoor "zoo".

Time for lunch. Settled down in an authentic ramen restaurant where the locals would slurp and gobble their meals.

Incredibly delicious and satisfying ramen with succulent pork, oily soup and silky noodles.

Maid café in Akihabara. Yes, it is big and occupies four levels in that building. It was shockingly crowded and we decided to give it a miss.

The colours of Akihabara.

Ending a long day and making our way back to the hotel.

On board the train en-route Kamakura, about 50km south-west of Tokyo.

A local napping on the train. That was a red hanky on his backpack, not his bow ribbon.

Kamakura is well-known for its many historically significant temples and shrines, all set in beautiful gardens where priests could often be seen walking around.

A wall inside the Hachimangū Shinto shrine, possibly the most iconic and important shrine in Kamakura, founded almost a thousand years ago.

Beautiful gardens and landscape surround the Hachimangū Shinto shrine. Don't forget to look for the 1000-year old ginko tree stump.

Kermit the Buddha, Hello Buddha, and Buddha loves Hello Kitty.

Lush greenery surrounding the shrines and temples. Kamakura is a perfect destination to unwind and get away from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo's city centre.

The Great Buddha of Kamakura located on the grounds of Kotokuin Temple. Measuring 13.35m high, it is the second tallest bronze Buddha statue in Japan.

Arriving at Enoshima, about an hour's train ride out of Tokyo. Remember to catch the vintage Enoden train and rattle down narrow tracks with buildings standing just inches away from the track.

The charming streets of Enoshima island.

The small island of Enoshima is connected to the main island by a causeway. From here, one could enjoy beautiful views of Mount Fuji on days with good visibility.

Curious and playful neko on Enoshima.

Heading back to Shinjuku after spending our last day on the island of Enoshima.

Facts and Figures: Date: July 2012

Accommodation: Park Hyatt Tokyo (15-min walk to Shinjuku Station), and Hotel Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku (3-min walk to Shinjuku Station).

Equipment: Nikon D5100, Nikon AFS DX 10-24mm f3.5-4.5, Sigma 17-70mm f2.8-4 DC, AFS DX 35mm f1.8, AFS 50mm f1.4.

No comments:

Post a Comment