TRAVEL: Yin and yang in Japan

Mike Hornby finds his bearings in one of the most bustling cities in the world – Tokyo – on an exciting Japanese jaunt.

By The Newsroom
Tuesday, 29th May 2012, 3:21 pm

Never was there a place where so many people dart about between such tall skyscrapers before thrusting themselves onto an apparently unfathomable transport network as Tokyo.

But thankfully, it’s all done with such ease and efficiency that it doesn’t overwhelm new visitors to the Japanese capital.

And there’s certainly enough of the familiar to off-set the exotic - this is a place where East meets West and where old and new sit comfortably side by side.

Tokyo is a cosmopolitan city where ancient temples hold their own nestled between the grey and glistening skyscrapers and technology and mythology go hand in hand.

The culture which created the seven-minute lunch break has given rise to the bento box - a painstakingly decorated and thoughtfully prepared meal of Japanese ingredients which are available in shops, kiosks and vending machines on every street corner.

Perhaps the most fun example of such contrasting elements can be found in the nightlife hub of Roppongi.

Karaoke isn’t just an evening of entertainment in Japan, it’s where the unassuming Japanese let go of all their inhibitions and drunkenly belt out a tune.

It doesn’t matter if think you can’t sing. In the privacy of a karaoke box (it’s actually a rather big private room) family, friends and workmates share an unforgettable experience where the only rule is that you entertain each other.

If something a little more tranquil, though no less cultural, is to your tastes then the hushed tea houses provide the yin to karaoke’s yang.

In a solemn tea making ceremony, known in Japan as the Way of Tea, a cuppa is by no means quick.

The elaborate ritual, which takes place in a small and simple chashitsu (tea room), requires a strict adherence to tradition and the host goes though painstaking rehearsals to ensure there are no mistakes.

In the same way the Japanese cherish their heritage and embrace Western culture, two religions abide happily with each other and the people pick and choose between them.

Emerge at the end of Nakamise-dori, one of many shopping-mad Tokyo’s designer boutique-laden streets, and you find yourself in the heart of the Japanese spiritual world.

Here a Buddhist temple sits cheek by jowl with a Shinto shrine.

Our guide put it simply, explaining that the Japanese use the Shinto tradition for celebratory events, like marriages, and Buddhism for solemn ones, like funerals.

Senso-ji, like the countless other temples scattered around the country, is no empty refuge of an abandoned religion.

This is a lively hive of activity where worshippers get their future predicted or assured in at least half a dozen different ways and, if they behave respectfully, tourists can too.

The city of Tokyo is vast but not daunting.

Fashionable Roppongi is the compact district where Toyko’s karaoke boxes, bars and nightclubs are concentrated and it won’t take long to find something to your liking on the bustling streets.

Shibuya is Tokyo’s answer to New York’s Times Square, famous for it’s shopping and scramble crossing.

When traffic is stopped at this busy junction pedestrians surge across the road from all sides, like marbles spilling out of a box.

No visit to Japan would be complete, for the geeks among us, without a visit to Akihabara - otherwise known as Electric City.

It was here that companies like Sony and Panasonic began the technology revolution making TVs and appliances which transformed homes and kitchens around the world.

In Akihabara the latest gadgets are on sale and much cheaper than you’ll find back home, if it’s even available at home yet. A playground for people like me - big kids at heart.

I stayed at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, in the central district of Hibiya and a stone’s throw from Nihonbashi, the ancient bridge which typically forms part of a modern highway and pin-points the centre of the city and the whole of Japan.

Befitting its status as one of the great hotels of the world, the 38th floor reception at the Mandarin offers breathtaking views stretching out towards the Imperial Palace, the Shinjuku skyscraper district, and Japan’s spiritual heart of Mount Fuji, which graces the horizon with its near-perfect snow-capped peak.

Even after a restful flight, it’s time to take a break from the hustle and bustle for a little indulgence.

Expert therapists at the Mandarin spa take you on a voyage of luxurious treatments combining both Asian and Western-inspired traditions.

The Mandarin also boasts no less than five Michelin restaurants - each of them offering a real dining experience of fine French, classic Italian, modern molecular and, of course, traditional sushi.

Experiencing the innovative culinary art of molecular gastronomy at the Mandarin’s Tapas Molecular Bar has to rank as one of the most memorable meals in anyone’s lifetime.

Glass plates and steel menus set the very modern scene. The equipment of syringes and pipettes demonstrates the science of this unique approach to flavor, producing a remarkable ‘tasting’ experience.

In the course of about two hours, the entertaining chefs will prepare about 20 bite-sized delicacies which concoct surprise after surprise for the taste buds.

I flew Business Class from London Heathrow to Tokyo Haneda with British Airways in a perfectly timed service which arrives and departs in time to allow for breakfast on opposite sides of the world.

It’s a glamorous schedule befitting the 007 flight number and which also enables plenty of rest in preparation for the sights and sounds of the holiday ahead.

I am normally a very nervous flyer, but the added space and attention of the wonderful BA cabin crew put me completely at ease.

Haneda Airport only opened to international traffic with the construction of a new terminal in 2011.

And with typical Japanese efficiency, it’s just a short 20 minute ride to central Tokyo.

In March 2011 Japan suffered a terrible tragedy when a massive 8.9-magnitude earthquake struck and hit the north-east coast with a tsunami.

But with a self-reliant dignity they are picking up the pieces and rebuilding.

Tourists are advised to steer clear of the areas most affected by damage, around 250 miles away from Tokyo.

But in the capital, where all buildings are designed to withstand even the strongest quakes, life is now back on track.

Travel facts - Tokyo, Japan

:: Best for: An exciting city break with plenty of culture.

:: Time to go: In the spring months of March and April when Cherry blossoms, one of the best-loved symbols of Japan, bloom and sweep across the country.

:: Don’t miss: The sight of all kinds of fresh fish and other seafood and the crazy atmosphere of scooters, trucks, sellers and buyers hurrying around Tsukiji Market the world’s largest fish market.

:: Need to know: UK mobile phones don’t automatically work with Japanese networks so if you need your phone, check with your service provider in advance.

:: Don’t forget: Your business cards, even if you’re not a business traveller. Exchanging cards is an important ritual in Japan.

Travel facts:

Mike Hornby flew to Japan with British Airways and was a guest of Mandarin Oriental Hotels and ANA Crowne Plaza Kobe.

British Airways Holidays offer four nights’ room-only at the five-star Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo from £1,599 on deps during June. Price includes return BA flights ex-Heathrow, if booked by May 31.

Reservations: 0844 493 0758 and

Flight only rates by BA to Tokyo Narita: ex-Heathrow and Manchester (£804.15); ex-Glasgow (£803.28).

For more information about travel to and in Japan, visit the Japan National Tourism Organization’s website or call 0207 398 5670.

:: For images of hotels, contact Emily Perry at Ann Scott Associates, on 0207 823 9988 and email [email protected] Images of Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo can be downloaded on and ‘photo gallery’. :: Free high-res images of Japan can be downloaded from media section of JNTO website on Contact Kylie Clark at JNTO on 0207 398 5670 and email [email protected]