With a population of millions, Tokyo can be a real assault on the senses but trips out to other parts of Honshu will give you a break from the relentless urban buzz
After spending a month in beautiful, sleepy New Zealand, Tokyo was a serious and obnoxious assault on my senses. The Guinness Book of Records confirms that the population of Tokyo is approximately 26 million – greater than the combined populations of Australia and New Zealand, and by some distance the world’s most populated city. Although there are legislative boundaries, there are no distinct geographical boundaries between Tokyo and the satellite cities of Yokohama and Kawasaki to the south. The combined population of these three cities, forming one vast urban agglomeration, is approximately 40 million, easily the largest metropolitan area on Earth.
I had the misfortune to arrive in central Tokyo during the morning rush hour. I was carrying my 20kg backpack and trying to find which one of the 60 or so exits from Shinjuku station I needed to take to get to my accommodation, whilst the first wave of the one million people who pass through Shinjuku each day made their way to work. As I tried to find my way out another train would arrive and its passengers swarmed past me, completely oblivious to my heavy bag.
Despite these initial challenges, once I had dropped off my bags I went back into central Tokyo – if indeed Tokyo has a centre – to start exploring this immense, insane city. Walking from Tokyo station to the Imperial Palace, I noticed how clean the city is – no litter or graffiti anywhere. And the roads and pavements are immaculate, too – no potholes. Huge jungle crows caw loudly in all parts of the city. A 30-minute walk northwest of the Imperial Palace is the Budokan, where so many famous rock stars have played over the years, like The Beatles in 1966 and Bob Dylan in 1978 (not one of Bob’s better nights, regrettably).
Unencumbered by luggage, I was able to people-watch as I returned by train to my hotel. In Tokyo (and indeed all over Japan) people of all ages wear white face masks to protect themselves from the inevitably high pollution levels – and to stop others catching their colds. The Japanese must work very hard, as most of the commuters that I sat next to on trains were always asleep.
For such a huge place, Tokyo is astonishingly safe. It’s absolutely normal for very young schoolchildren to travel by themselves on trains and buses. Whilst waiting for a train or bus Japanese men will inevitably be practising their golf swing. The announcement jingles in stations and on trains are also hugely entertaining, ranging from short, cheery tunes to long and melancholic pieces that I’m sure influence commuters’ moods.
I wanted to see rather more of central Honshū (Japan’s main island) than just Tokyo itself. My first out-of-town trip was to Nikkō, 80 miles north of the capital. This was also my first opportunity to travel on a Shinkansen, the famous Bullet Train that is so symbolic of Japan. The conductor even bows as he or she leaves and enters a carriage. (I will definitely write to Richard Branson suggesting that he implements this on his dismal Virgin trains.) The trains are punctual, immaculately clean, very comfortable, and – above all – fast. On one train that I travelled on there was a speedometer in the dining car that registered 250 km/h (150mph). And that was one of the older trains, with the classic ‘bullet nose’; the newer trains are even faster. On a Shinkansen train there is also a choice between a ‘Japanese style’ and a ‘Western style’ toilet. For those unused to a ‘Western style’ loo, there are written and pictorial instructions. No translation needed.
Nikkō was worth the trip. It’s a beautiful little town, with a World Heritage-listed shrine complex set amid woodland and hills. The gentle sprinkling of snow that fell during my visit made it an even more romantic place. The serenity of the shrines and temples was an almost surreal contrast to the energy of Tokyo, just an hour away.
Another day trip from the city was to Kamakura, a small town with an extraordinary 65 temples and 19 shrines. The most splendid sight here is the Daibutsu (Great Buddha), a 750-year-old, 11m-tall bronze statue of the Buddha Amida Nyorai that has stood outdoors in a woodland setting for over 500 years.
On the way back to Tokyo I visited Yokohama, Japan’s second city, with a population of about 10 million. I enjoyed a stroll through the very lively Chinatown and then a walk along the harbourfront, where a crowd had gathered to watch a street magician perform. He played an absolutely wonderful gag on a young boy that had everybody laughing aloud. The magician put his hand inside the boy’s pocket and pulled out what at first looked like a handkerchief but was actually a pair of underpants. The poor boy then peered inside his trousers to check that he still had his underwear.
I headed north the next day to Morioka, the furthest north that I was able to reach in one day. Honshū is far less populated here, a pleasant contrast to the almost continuous urban strip that runs west from Tokyo to Kyoto and beyond. Morioka itself is uninteresting but it is surrounded by sublime mountain scenery. On the return journey to Tokyo I stopped at Matsushima, as lovely a place as any that I have seen in Japan. Although I only had time for a quick look around the town itself, Matsushima Bay has 260 islands of every shape and size, a really wonderful sight, and a pleasant relief from Tokyo’s relentless urban buzz.
Those excursions left me with three more days in Tokyo itself, enabling me to have a thorough nose around the world’s largest city. In Asakusa, about three miles north of the Imperial Palace, there is the vast Sensō-ji temple, an utterly incongruous sight in this huge metropolis. Ginza, to the east of the Imperial palace, is Tokyo’s most exclusive shopping area, and where I found a bottle of shōchū for myself.
My favourite Tokyo landmark, however, is the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Nishi-Shinjuku. This colossal structure houses 13,000 bureaucrats but they have very thoughtfully opened a free observation room on the 45th floor, 202 metres high. I spent my final night in Japan here, looking down at the multi-coloured lights and neon of Shinjuku sparking into life. I’m sure that Ridley Scott was influenced by nighttime Tokyo whilst making his film Blade Runner. Shinjuku in the evening, with giant TV screens and neon signs fizzing in the darkness, is exactly how he represented 2019 Los Angeles in his film. Maybe the film wasn’t so futuristic, after all.