Hush hour

The rush of Tokyo is bewitching, but often bewildering. When you hit overload, retreat to its quiet corners, says former resident Alicia Miller. Then you’ll see the city like a local: electric and serene, in equal measure

In the shadows the white-cloaked master works slowly, rhythmically – painstakingly executing his ritual with reverence.  His tools are basic, but no matter. He has done it all before, a thousand times over, cloistered in this tiny, dimly lit room — cream-walled, fringed in polished wood, bare, but not unfriendly. Seated in a semicircle around his workspace is a hushed audience of eight — myself included. Entranced, we feel like intruders on his sacred task. No-one dares disturb Gen Yamamoto as he toils. After 10 minutes of tap-tap-tapping and swish-swish-swishing in the darkness, he’s ready. He reaches across the gleaming wooden bar and presents me with the precious fruit of his labour: a juicy pear cocktail. It’s a taste of nature’s simplicity in this manic, modern megacity.

In Tokyo, many things are not what they seem. Contradictions are rife: the sky-scraping, technicolour tangle of the transport-hub Shinjuku is futuristic — with robot-themed eateries and lavish department stores — yet locals prefer to flock to old-school, cash-only ramen joints in ramshackle alleyways. Service in shops is endlessly polite, yet there’s nothing courteous about the metro: no sharp elbow on the planet is more eviscerating than the one served up on the Yamanote Line come rush hour.

Mitama Matsuri Summer Festival Held At Yasukuni Shrine
 Women wearing kimonos walk through lit paper lanterns during the Mitama Matsuri summer festival at Yasukuni Shrine

I lived in Tokyo during my party-loving early 20s and I couldn’t get enough of its flashy scene. Returning 10 years later, it’s a different story: I found myself overwhelmed by its brash vastness. On my first morning, the crush of Shibuya, the trendy shopping district, left me breathless. At the famed Shibuya crossing, the illuminated, advert-flooded intersection — Piccadilly Circus on steroids — crowds scurried like ants across zebra crossings. Every direction provided a fresh assault: hole-in-the-wall katsu curry bars, their plastic food displays pulling weary-eyed tourists into dingy basements; CD emporiums pumping out syrupy J-pop tunes; queues snaking from $2 sushi joints; purple-haired girls chattering outside malls.

‘locals prefer to flock to old-school, cash-only ramen joints in ramshackle alleyways’

Of course, in Tokyo, the gaudy chaos is a ‘sight’ in itself — so, despite the hectic scene, I progressed. Rubbing the jet lag from my eyes, I wove through the thicket, heading north past lanes lined with shoe shops and towering homeware stores. I passed through the vintage boutiques of rammed, pedestrianised Cat Street; I perused the bizarre anime merchandise at bewildering mega-shop Kiddy Land. Before long I was in Harajuku, Tokyo’s teen-fashion epicentre, and bravely turned left onto Takeshita Street. Whatever madness had come before, it had nothing on this: hundreds, no thousands, of kids, a tidal wave rushing into discount sunglasses shops and out of cat cafés. Music was blaring from every direction; cloud-like puffs of rainbow cotton candy and bags of chocolate-smothered crisps were passed around by the dozen.

Modern Shinjuku Skyscraper Skyline and Snowy Mt. Fuji Backdrop in Western Tokyo, Japan
Mount Fuji backdrops the Tokyo skyline

And then, as if it wasn’t squeezy enough, along came a matsuri – a traditional Japanese festival procession. Where men and women in traditional happi coats bounced a golden shrine through the crowd, chanting excitedly.

Once I reached the end of the street — it was just 400m, but it took more than an hour — I siphoned myself off from the human tide. I could have carried on with the flow, bound for the famed Meiji shrine, a grand series of wooden buildings in a sprawling nearby park. But experience told me that today — a Saturday — any sliver of tranquillity would be shattered by camera-clicking hordes and ooh-aahing tourists. I wasn’t 22 anymore, and rather than more insanity, what I needed was a break.

I fixed a quick plan: after a 20-minute zip on the metro, I stepped out from Gokokuji station, in central Tokyo’s northwest. I strode towards the 17th-century Gokoku-ji building, directly ahead, passed under its grand red gate and was plunged into another world. Apart from a handful of grey-haired local ladies shuffling up the stone steps, there was no-one around. I had visited this place a decade before, at the time thinking the low-key vibe was rather dull. But now, I seized the silence, wandering past statues and vast wooden structures that had survived WWII bombings, padding through a room festooned in ornate gold decorations, and switching off to the rustle of a gnarled pine tree. Scores of cats prowled eerily around gravestones, my only company until a monk momentarily darted by, his robes flicking behind him.

Street art in Akihabara electronics shopping district.
Street art in electronics shopping district Akihabara

The whole serene scene was a different Tokyo, one I could now fully appreciate — and, impatient as I was to soak it up, it was a full, contemplative hour before, placidly, I stumbled out. I was a relative skip from crazy Shibuya — but there were no skyscrapers, few shops and hardly any people. Instead, wandering south towards the undulating Kanda River, I saw little houses framed with flower pots, and tiny noodle bars with makeshift signs. Had it not been for the luminous vending machines glimmering at every corner, I would have thought I’d gone back in time. Eventually, a thin alley led me past a clutch of art museums, before spitting me out on the leafy riverfront walkway. And there, cut from a creamy wall, was a tile-roofed entranceway to Chinzanso Garden.

I’d forgotten how verdant Tokyo can be. From Imperial Palace parks to regal Hamarikyu gardens, little landscaped patchworks of green provide figurativeand literal breaths of fresh air among the cityscape’s suffocating intensity. Inside Chinzanso, among twisted trees and winding paths, I discovered craggy stone carvings, a pond fed by tinkling waterfalls, red tori shrine gates with a string of prayer notes fluttering in the breeze.

Glamorous Japanese newlyweds, taking a pause from their wedding festivities in the nearby hotel, posed for pictures in front of blooms. I climbed uphill to a three-storey wooden pagoda, a creaky, half-century-old witness to the city’s transformation. In the distance rose a contrasting clutch of new buildings — the frenetic concrete city pushing against this lush green pocket. For now, at least, it couldn’t quite reach us.

‘little landscaped patchworks of green provide figurative and literal breaths of fresh air’

As evening descends in Tokyo, you feel the city revving up — doubling its electric energy to fever pitch. Below the rainbow signs blinking in the darkness, waves of identikit office workers rush from office to bar in a messy jumble; at 6pm, the city collectively loosens its tie in smoky yakitori grill bars. But up in my hotel, the Aman Tokyo, I felt none of it. It was my second day, and I had spent it huddled under an umbrella, exploring clogged Ginza — the ritzy designer-shopping area by Tokyo station. It was exhaustingly busy, especially in the rain; but a short walk and a zippy, 34-floor elevator ride had catapulted me far above the insanity.

Tokyo is famous for its soaring buildings, but they do more than provide much-needed extra living space — they’re veritable floating oases above the city’s earthly rush. Up here, seen from the hotel spa, the buzzing traffic looked like toy models, the tower-block lights like flickering stars. In Aman’s dark-slate infinity pool in the sky, lined with floor-to-ceiling windows, I could paddle in peace, recouping my energy. I could laze on fluffy loungers and sip nutty, roasted hojicha tea, watching the mesmerising show unfold below. It was so very peaceful… Dare I say, after a while, a tad too peaceful. Because, however much Ginza’s earlier crowds had tired me out, I didn’t feel quite ready to hole up for the night. Maybe it was just fond old memories beckoning me to play. In any case, the pull of the Tokyo night felt too strong.

Garden Lounge
Garden Lounge at Aman Tokyo

I soon found myself emerging from Akihabara station, in the city’s weird, wonderful electronics district. Lights throbbed; adverts for gaming arcades covered every facade. Electronics mega-shops such as Bic Camera — selling everything from cult action figures to rice cookers — encircled the station; ‘maid’ cafés jostled with warren-like DVD shops. I stepped into quirky, only-in-Japan superstore Don Quijote in search of souvenirs. It was packed. I persevered through endless floors briming with fake horse heads and peculiar beauty products, emerging with a cutprice haul of my favourite Japanese sweets and facial sheet masks infused with green tea.

The clock hands were inching towards 11pm — these days my usual bedtime — but the frenzied mob spurred me onwards. Tokyo’s not ready to call it a night, so why should I? I elbowed my way through the crowds to a karaoke bar, where I met an old Japanese friend for a nostalgic singalong. As we were guided to our private room, the din from outside became increasingly muffled. Curling up in our cosy, cushy space — that Tokyo chaotic-calm contradiction again — we ordered pizzas. Sheltered from the mayhem outside, microphones in hand, song catalogues in our laps, we drank and sang dramatic, cheesy power ballads — Bonnie Tyler, Bryan Adams, you name it — until we were hoarse, and very late became very early.

Over the next two days, further glimmers of my twentysomething self were teased out by Tokyo’s frenetic energy — I was falling back in love. But whenever my stamina wavered, a moment of peace was always waiting. Behind crowd-crammed Senso-ji temple, a stop on every tourist’s hit list, I discovered sleepy shopping arcades with kitchenware shops and old-school hotpot eateries. After braving frantic Odaiba, a Disneyesque mallscape with a replica of the Statue of Liberty, I caught my breath on a relaxed riverboat ride. On my final night, I booked myself into a swish restaurant, Sushi Kokoro. After a busy day museum-hopping, tranquillity here was practically guaranteed: intimate omakase (chef’s choice) sushi spots such as this are famous for being respectfully hushed, as diners watch chefs prepare artful courses in awed silence. 

Small bars called izakaya in Omoide Yokocho in Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan
 Small bars called izakaya in Omoide Yokocho in Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan

At 7pm, I pushed open the door and my chef-host, Oba-san, welcomed me with a polite smile. I joined seven other guests — together we filled the counter restaurant — and began the noiseless gourmet parade. We greeted a goblet of silky salmon roe with silent nods of approval. A blushing pink prawn was met with a shy ‘arigato’ (thank you). But the drinks were flowing, and somewhere between the gleaming silver mackerel and the creamy sea urchin, a Japanese salaryman next to me turned, practising his English with a simple ‘Where are you from?’

A switch had been flipped, and the raucous descent began. Soon, all nine of us — Oba-san included — were doubled-up with giggles, wolfing down nigiri with cries of delight. Group photos were snapped, email addresses were swapped, and as we finished our meal with a simple flourish — a handful of sweet grapes — we decided to carry down the road. As we tottered out of the restaurant, Tokyo was, for once, cloaked in midnight silence. But only for a moment. Because that rare, sleepy stillness was suddenly shattered — by the sound of my own crackling laughter.

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Credit: Alicia Miller/The Sunday Times Travel Magazine/News Licensing