JAPAN PART III: TOKYO
Much like Toronto, Tokyo is a city of neighbourhoods. In fact, I think you could argue Tokyo is really the prime definition of that term. Quick research will net you neighbourhoods like Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ginza, Akihabara, Roppongi, Ueno amongst others. A little bit more and you'll probably start seeing Shimokitazawa, Kichijoji, Nakameguro, Daikanyama, Koenji... The list goes on.
If you've read Murakami, you'll probably have seen these names tossed around as well. His characters are often put up in these neighbourhoods and he describes them with great detail atmosphere. One thing Murakami also gets right is the distinct feel of each of those neighbourhoods as they are all different in their own right. You can't really go wrong when exploring all the neighbourhoods of Tokyo and you might as well randomly pick a few to explore.
Unfortunately we weren't there for long so we only got a chance to visit a few of the main ones. That said, they are usually the ones with the highest turnover in terms of businesses and buildings being torn down and rebuilt. If you've ever visited a big metropolis multiple times over a few years, you start to get a sense of something I can only describe as a "peculiar familiarity". Walking down streets that you've walked before, but each time with a new shop at the corner or mall by the station - it's a half-baked familiarity, but it's wonderful. This isn't exclusive to Tokyo by any means, but it is certainly a city where rapid changes to both obvious or unnoticed streetscapes and neighbourhoods can occur .
ALONG THE SUMIDA RIVER
In all my previous trips to Tokyo, I'd only ever stayed in the Shinjuku area. It's probably the most convenient just because of the sheer number of connections and transportation options within reach. This time, however, we chose to stay in the Kuramae neighbourhood. Kuramae is a small area along the Sumida river within close proximity to the more popular Asakusa neighbourhood. It's known for housing many older factories turned artisan studios and is going through a bit of a surge with the Tokyo Skytree being nearby.
In Kuramae, we stayed at Nui Hostel & Bar Lounge. It was a pretty sweet hostel (the space was formerly a toy factory) and the bar/café downstairs was awesome. Most nights upon returning to the hostel, I would make a stop at the bar for a beer and chat with fellow travellers or locals. Much like many other things in Japan, Nui struck a perfect balance with how the space and business itself was multi-purpose and functional for different uses. Apart from the nightcaps, we would stop by the same space in the morning for an expertly brewed pour over (or aeropress if you prefer) and to review our travel plans for the day. Most of the staff spoke fluent English with many of them having studied or worked in North America before. This place had some really good vibes and I would definitely recommend it if you're looking for something a little off the beaten path.
SITTING ON SILVER
It's more than likely that you go to Tokyo to get a taste of the big city life in Asia. Tokyo's definitely a prime choice because it basically never sleeps. Bars and clubs are open through the night so that if you miss the last train home, you might as well just party until the first train leaves the next morning at 5AM. Walking down the streets in the heart of Tokyo, you will be flanked on both sides by big tall buildings of commercial and residential use (though exactly where you are in Tokyo will dictate the proportion of this combination). It's not only true in Tokyo, but something that may be unusual to North Americans is that restaurants and shops might also be set up on the upper floors of buildings and not just the ground floor. Such is the density and demand for space that it is wholly viable for shops to set up above street level.
When you arrive in Ginza, this is especially true. Tall buildings form canyons of luxury here as you walk past the flagship store after flagship store for everyone's favourite French and Italian designers. Shopping is great here if you've got the money. Otherwise you'll be just like me and end up window shopping at Itoya, the stationery store. Yeah. I couldn't afford to buy paper. OK well, I mean, I could... But would anyone without a fat paycheque pony up $50 on a few sheets of paper?
Luxe. In Japan, luxe is serious. "Shit's expensive, man". That's probably something you'll hear from your friends who visit Japan. Perhaps it's the mass overconsumption we experience in North America, but there's no such thing in Japan. Least not something you could generalize the people or culture with. You order the just-right amount (or what you think is the right amount) and if you're still hungry... Well, you incrementally order more or you might just go home slightly hungry and regardless, you'll still have a pretty big hole in your pocket. Like many other things in Japan, it's about the experience. The idea of quantity (and that more is better) or measurable metrics are far from the idea that they are trying to drive home.
Actually, nevermind. I forgot about one exception. Nomihodai. I guess if you've ever spent any time in Japan working or know people who have worked there, there's one thing that the Japanese love to do and that is drink. Nomihodai? It's all you can drink. Unfortunately I've only ever heard about this from friends who are from Japan or who have worked there so I can't really tell you much else about it (drinking isn't really Karen's thing).
That wasn't really to do with Ginza in particular but I guess my attempt to bring it full circle is that despite the world-class level of luxury in Ginza and the extreme levels of moderation in Japanese culture, there are still small exceptions such as all you can drink options that you'll find in Ginza and all over Japan, really.
The last couple of days in Japan felt really sped up for us. I wasn't able to shoot as much, in part because of burnout from shooting so much for the days prior, and also because we were so busy trying to get from place to place that I wasn't really able to get into a nice groove or rhythm. Frankly, we probably tried to do too much while in Tokyo. Hopping on train after train to get from here to there, it got pretty hectic. On the other hand, there was so much that we didn't do either. There were a bunch of neighbourhoods and places that we didn't make it to but that's probably more than likely the case with anyone who visits Tokyo.
Unsurprisingly, I could probably never get sick of vacations to Japan. Living and working there is understandably a whole other beast of which I'm not inclined to try, but being on holiday in Japan is certainly one of the most pleasurable things I've experienced. Despite not being able to see everything we wanted, I think we took solace in the fact that we will find ourselves back there again one day.
Nui Hostel & Bar Lounge was a great place to stay for us. I spoke about it quite a bit above so there's not much more to say. The company that runs Nui also has a number of similar hostels in Kyoto and Tokyo all with the same general direction and vibe. Citan is their newest location and was under construction when we visited but is open now. If it's anything like Nui, I'd definitely try staying there the next time I'm in Tokyo.