Tokyo’s big. Tokyo’s really big. It’s so mind-bogglingly huge that sociologists, frustrated over coming up with superlatives, decided to coin a new term for a megacity of such a magnitude. The result, it’d seem, is a portmanteau of two Latin words in an effort to sound hip and pretentious – a megalopolis. This definition defines the Tokyo megalopolis as the Kanto plain in the east to the Kinki region in the west, absorbing the lesser cities of Yokohama, Kawasaki, Shizuoka, Nagoya, Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto. Even when you narrow things down to the city limits proper, Tokyo is still a huge ass city. So, how does one even plan an itinerary for one of the largest cities on the planet? Well, you see what you can, and hope for the best, really.
The moment you get off the train in Ikebukuro, a warm whiff of a hearty Japanese curry in the air greets you in a genuine embrace, and that gave me cravings. However, I could never find the source to that wonderful aroma anywhere around the station, and it frustrated me. So to satisfy that elusive Ikebukuro curry craving, I did a quick check on the web before I left the inn to look for a good Japanese curry, and it turns out there was a well-known curry chain in the area. Morvan, according to Google Map and tremendous food sites, was located at Ikebukuro 5-chome, which wasn’t too far a walk from the east exit of the Ikebukuro station complex, but that’s all I managed to gather. I had the actual address, but it was completely useless. To make matters worse, Ikebukuro 5-chome’s a shopping street which reminded me of the Cathay Cineleisure and *Scape stretch – it’s not exciting unless you’re a local, a great place for tertiary students after school, which was basically what the place eventually filled up with. Search for it, I did, but it was turning out to be a futile attempt. With time not on my side, and my stomach beginning to protest, I headed for the nearest food outlet, Matsuya. Matsuya’s a quaint little fast food restaurant that’s pretty similar to Yoshinoya except that the interior’s is less “fast food” and more “cosy”.
My beef bowl was served as I expected, but with a single exception – a raw egg, and I was dreading it. To confirm, I clarified with the staff, who indicated I had to crack it onto the small bowl, whisk the whites with the yolk, then pour the yellow goo into my bowl. It sounds disgusting but hey, when in Japan, do as the Japanese do. The result, or rather, the taste, wasn’t as bad as I thought it’d be. The egg definitely gave the thin strips of beef more depth, and gives the dish a more liquid consistency to what was originally a pretty dry dish. With only chopsticks available, the gelatinous consistency made the rice and beef a lot easier to pick up. I was actually enjoying my meal! Now that I was all filled up, it was time to begin sightseeing.
The first stop was the Imperial Gardens. I’ve always been somewhat fascinated by Japanese gardens. I think it’s intriguing that there could be no plants, just strategically placed rocks over sand can be so calming, and sometimes, even more calming than plants. Despite it being late winter, the gardens were an oasis and a welcomed respite in the middle of a very visually and sensorial overwhelming metropolis. Tokyo’s an exceptionally amazing case study in Geography because the city’s so huge, it generates its own weather patterns by way of the urban heating effect and its undulating geography (Tokyo’s a very hilly city). While this makes the city physically warmer and more humid than its suburbs, it does little to heat the surrounding air, which on this day, was one degree below freezing. Perched on higher ground, Mother Nature had free play here, and the weather, while initially enjoyable, steadily became harsher and harsher. It was soon apparent that an unbearable cold had penetrated the urbanity itself when I headed to Ginza afterward.
Commuting to Ginza
I last visited Japan way back in 1996. Tokyo was a very different city then. Districts like Shibuya, Ikebukuro, Ebisu and Harajuku were hardly “must-visit” districts, and Ginza was the place to see and be seen. Today, Ginza offers a glimpse into the future of Orchard Road – stocked with foreign fast fashion houses and luxury labels – in short, a not-very-interesting place to be. Still, it’s a must-visit as it’s home to Laduree, the only Asian branch of the world-famous Parisian bakery (which I missed as their bread, cakes and pastries are usually sold out before noon), the famous Shiseido Parlor and what feels like Asia’s largest Abercrombie & Fitch outlet (although technically, Singapore holds that record). As a fan of Abercrombie, I had to see what’s available. A&F’s store in Tokyo is quite interesting in itself. Like the carpark at Plaza Singapura, all guests are whisked to the top floor (seventh level) to begin their shopping experience, so that way, you get to see everything on offer.
Soon after, I ate again (I blame Japan’s small portions although I did eventually got used to it, and ate lesser). Despite having eaten gyudons earlier, I was quite excited to try Yoshinoya. Like Matsuya, it’s less like a fast food restaurant, and more like a small restaurant, and unlike overseas, they only sell beef. From the offset, it was clear Matsuya had come out on top. The beef slices were noticeably drier and blander compared to the caramelized beef at Matsuya which gave it a deeper flavor.
Who would’ve thought? The first place I shop is at H&M. It wasn’t by choice though. All this masculine facade couldn’t make up for the fact that I had clearly underestimated Tokyo’s deceptive climate so in I went, and got myself a sweater and a pair of gloves, and changed. Feeling warmed up, I felt ready to explore the rest of the area, covering every corner and crevice from Ginza to Shimbashi to Nihonbashi to Yurakucho. Now that I was a proud owner of a NEX-5N, I was very excited to visit the “Sony Museum” which is a glorified Sony concept store with an extra department showcasing concept pieces (some of which are for sale), limited editions as well as first and exclusive releases. Had I known I was coming to Tokyo back then, I’d have waited because there are really steep discounts for foreigners at places like this and camera mega store, BIC CAMERA including releases that the world outside Japan will never see. My sightseeing continued as I lurged forward towards Yurakucho, and Ifinally stepped into one of the places I’ve been wanting to visit for a long, long, long time – the Muji megastore.
My “super kawaii desu” Japanophile ex-boyfriend talked about this place to the nines. If Muji needed a Singapore spokesperson, he’d be the perfect candidate because everything he has is Muji, save for the bags, shoes and accessories. Seven years on, having seen the place in the flesh (well, not really since it’s a store and has no flesh), I’ve to agree. Imagine IKEA and Carrefour but all “Muji-fied” to cater to the minimalist, understated Japanese style individual, complete with its own version of the IKEA Cafe. You know, for a city that’s really expensive, optical frames are really cheap here, and with Muji’s optical frame collection looking like what Men’s Folio’s stylist, Wei Lun would wear, and with a special offer of frames and lens costing no more than 7,000 Yen, and to be ready in under an hour, I was excited at the prospect making a pair in supercool Tokyo. I searched for a suitable pair, and then some, but couldn’t find any that’d fit me. Worse still, they could custom a pair for me, but it’d take a week (by Saturday to be exact) – I was visibly disappointed, but looking upset turned out to be very embarrassing as the staff began apologizing profusely, bowing as I left the section. I also spent a long time in the bag section to find one to replace my Muji tote (which is for some reason, commonly mistaken as a Gucci tote) but the choices overwhelmed me. Just imagine: a whole entire section for bags.
Remember all that babbling about Japanese curry earlier? Besides Morvan, a search revealed that C&C was right up there, and guess what I passed by enroute to JR Yurakucho station?