A Tokyo escape

Written on the 6 July 2009

Sushi chef Shige-san says the squid and yellowtail fish are in season as he serves them up with a big grin, but Matthew Ogg finds it difficult to believe that anything here could be out of season.

With every smooth new taste in this nook-and-cranny Tokyo restaurant I get a feel for how sacred the Japanese kitchen really is – the sort of preparation and care that entices people to wait up to three hours in line to eat here on busy weekends for their share of fresh tuna, salmon, shrimp and all sorts of sea-dwelling critters.

On my first morning here I am near the Tsukiji Fish Market, the ‘kitchen of Tokyo’ where up to 10,000 people work every day, but inside the cosy haven of Daiwa Zushi you could easily forget the hustle and bustle outside. Huddled on stools at a wooden counter that wraps around the open kitchen, we are given the customary miso soup and tea and can see the variety of ingredients in the glass case in front of us. And as we watch the chefs slice away, the clientele woe the Japanese loss to the Socceroos the night before, but it doesn’t distract them from the food or their sense of humour.

Friendly, personal and hospitable, this place is the perfect analogy for my impressions of Tokyo – no matter what your tastes are, the ingredients are right in front of you to choose as you wish.

Bug-eyed like the anime characters that litter the landscape, I am faced with a visual overload that is beyond words like ‘contrast’ and ‘juxtaposition’. From the lush green parks outside the Imperial Palace where the trees are crafted like bonsai, to the neon novelty of electronics mecca Akihabara, a sense of harmony somehow emerges.

Instead of the stressed crowded city I was expecting, I find the culture to be very calm – there is method in the madness.

After the sushi breakfast our tour guide takes us to a number of sites around town to walk it off, including the Edo-era district of Asakusa which is home to the Senso-Ji Temple and markets selling souvenirs ranging from your typical knickknacks to handcrafted chopsticks, or a nice glass of iced green tea on a hot day. Because of the area’s historical importance at the heart of ancient Tokyo, its traditional appearance has been maintained to a large extent with serene gardens and old-style houses with tatami mats serving as curtains.

But any trip to Tokyo would be incomplete without stopping by an Izakaya, which is a type of restaurant bar that is the Japanese answer to tapas, serving different types of small dishes such as fried vegetables and tofu, pork skewers, rice balls and sashimi fish, alongside a beer or a glass of sake. Of course Tokyo is not just famous for its cuisine, but other consumable goods as well.

The shopping street of Omotesando and the little alleyways that stem from it remind me of something between Melbourne and Berlin, but at the same time there is something distinctly Japanese about them. The attention to detail you can see in their food preparation or the feeling of peace that you have in their gardens is also applied to the way they use space in their shops and fashion.

I am more than happy to get lost in these streets among the hotchpotch potpourri of colourful outfits and funky stores, awaiting the next serendipitous discovery.

But when it comes to what’s cutting edge in Tokyo, look no further than the suburb of Naka-Meguro, where people promenade along the tree-lined canals past locally-grown boutiques, scattered izakayas, as well as many hair salons that come with cold beer or sake — in fact, one hairdresser even sells dog clothing.

After striking up a friendship our guide Yuko offers to show us around this interesting suburb in her spare time the following day – such is Japanese hospitality.
“This is Tokyo now,” she says.

Japanese people work long hours yet I see very few people who appear stressed. There are probably a number of reasons for this, but one answer might just be the Japanese spa.

On the last morning in Tokyo I unwind at the Nagomi Spa at the Grand Hyatt Hotel. Not only is the hot water a perfect way to relax and reflect on all the ingredients that made this Tokyo experience, but the modern interior and the white-lit whirlpool have been beautifully designed by architect Takashi Sugimoto.

There is no visual overload here, but there is the sort of thoughtful design that makes you feel at home, which in my mind will always be ‘in season’.

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