It’s late and I’m in Japan’s biggest red-light district. Kabukicho in Tokyo is where carousing salarymen mix with hawkers and touts in a maze of karaoke bars and gentlemen’s clubs. A blaze of neon flickers above our heads. The city’s governor is cracking down on sleaze and crime, and Kabukicho is in the firing line. Yet this assault on the senses, with its long history and carnival-like atmosphere, is something that no visitor should miss – Tokyo's nightlife is key to understanding this complex city.
A tall, well-dressed man with a perfect English accent asks if he can help. My friends and I explain that we’re looking for just one quick drink before returning to our hotel, the Park Hyatt – a five-minute taxi ride away. The young man smiles while he thinks.
Most bars in Kabukicho have a cover charge of 5,000 yen (around £38), which includes all drinks and entry but makes a ‘swifty’ more difficult. So we’re pleasantly surprised to be welcomed at a smart basement bar. Our new young friend produces a business card with his name, mobile number and the English words: ‘free guide’. Anything we want he can organise. In Japan, service culture pervades every aspect of society. But what exactly is Japanese society? Box office hits such as The Last Samurai and Memoirs of a Geisha have boosted tourism and raised awareness of Japanese traditions, but Western preconceptions still exist.
Japan is a country of traditions and customs. Many are principles we’d be wise to uphold in the West: punctuality, politeness, respect and service. Others may raise an eyebrow, as Geishas are still groomed in Kyoto for those wealthy enough to afford their company, and for businessmen, having both a wife and mistress is commonplace. Sexual equality can still be a challenge in the land of the rising sun.
Then there is the Japanese obsession with onsen (mineral hot-spring baths). Thanks to Japan’s plentiful thermal activity, you need only poke a stick in the ground to find o-yu (literally, ‘honourable hot water’) and a weekend visit to the baths is a traditional opportunity for fathers and sons to bond. Yet getting naked with total strangers – as is the custom – is not, for most of us, a cultural norm. My old-fashioned British reserve was tested to the max as I dipped in and out of the bubbling hot springs, naked as the day I was born.
“The Japanese perceive bathing as a great social leveller,” explained a naked cobather. “Company presidents rub shoulders with truck drivers, priests with publicans.” Everyone revels in the anonymity of nudity, and the locals were clearly pleased to see Westerners joining in with their traditional rituals. Before long I felt totally relaxed. “The difficulty comes when the Japanese travel west,” explained a friend of mine at Virgin Atlantic when I relayed the story. “We’ve a spa in our Upper Class lounge where swimwear is required, but that seems to get lost in translation!”
Talking of Lost in Translation, it was in the bar of the Park Hyatt that fading movie star Bob Harris (Bill Murray) first met the disorientated Charlotte (Scarlet Johansson) in the Oscar-winning movie. The bar is one of the coolest in the city, with nightly jazz from international artists, though the cover charge reflects this. Equally impressive is the state-of-theart spa on the 47th floor, where floor-to-ceiling windows surround a 20-metre pool, offering sensational views of the city.
When it comes to dining, both the New York Grill at the Park Hyatt and Keyakizaka at the Grand Hyatt hold Michelin stars.
In fact, Tokyo is Michelin’s biggest star of all, having recently eclipsed Paris, London and New York to become, officially, the most delicious city on earth. Over 170 restaurants and 30 hotels won awards in the Michelin Guide Tokyo 2009, yet food is still reasonably priced for the quality.
A set lunch could cost as little as 700 to 1,000 yen (£5 to £8); a traditional sushi dish picked off the conveyor belt even less, between 130 and 750 yen (£1 and £6). Getting around the city is also easier than you might think. The key is understanding that a day card can be bought for either the Tokyo Metro Line or the Toei Line and is not transferable between the two – so you need to map your route. The day card only costs 500 yen (£4) so you could just buy one of each.
The destinations are written in English. The highlight of my trip was meeting Tetsuro Shimaguchi, a samurai master and teacher. For those familiar with the film Kill Bill: Vol. 1, Tetsuro Shimaguchi choreographed the epic group samurai sword fight, and taught stars of the film, Lucy Liu and Uma Thurman how to fight. He now runs a teaching programme for tourists. The course lasts a couple of hours and ends with your own choreographed fight scene with the master caught on video. Tetsuro has limited English but the warmth of his personality needs no translation. He told me how he starred in the film as ‘Crazy 88 #1’ or Miki, and laughed as he explained through an interpreter how he was the first to die in the fight scene. “I had to die quickly so I could choreograph the rest of the scene.” Tetsuro is a great motivator. “Good … excellent … very good,” he encouraged throughout my training. “You must have done this before, I can’t believe it’s your first time,” relayed the translator. Far too complementary as I struggled to coordinate my four samurai moves, screaming “ten” (sky) or “chi” (earth) while striking high or low.
After the course Tetsuro told me how he’d been asked by Tom Cruise to train him for the film, The Last Samurai. After meeting to discuss it, Tetsuro said no. “Mr Cruise would not train in the traditional style,” said Tetsuro, who refuses to train any other way. I left with the utmost respect for a man of the highest principles, true to the oldest traditions. The same can be said of Japan itself.