With a celebrated Sydney chef as his guide, Anthony Dennis discovers the soul of Japan
It's 4.20am in Tokyo and, wiping what little sleep I've had from bleary eyes, I'm struggling to assure myself that rising at dawn in the world's biggest cities is nearly always the most rewarding time of the day for a traveller.
In Paris it's the aroma of baking croissants wafting from patisseries; in Hong Kong the massed tai chi in parks and gardens. And in Tokyo? It's all about fish, particularly the arresting spectacle of myriad marine life being auctioned and sold in the massive Tsukiji fish markets.
Right now, I'd prefer the croissants. Inside my tiny Roppongi hotel room the phone is ringing. There's a familiar and friendly Japanese-accented voice on the other end. "Good morning, I'm downstairs in the lobby," says Tetsuya Wakuda. "Come down when you're ready."
He's 10 minutes early (but don't worry, I'm nearly ready). Both of us share a passion for Japan and have long discussed meeting in Tokyo one day. Now, through a happy coincidence, we're in town the same week and we're planning to spend the day together visiting a few of the Japanese-born restaurateur's favourite places.
For the first decade of his 20 years in Australia the young Tetsuya, who was born in Hamamatsu, between Nagoya and Tokyo, never returned to his homeland. Now he visits each year, having fully re-engaged with Japan and, specifically, Tokyo.
"Because I grew up in Japan, once I'd settled in Australia it became a second priority to come back here," he says. "But through the restaurant in Sydney we have so many Japanese people coming through all the time and it's really stimulated my interest in Japan again."
And each time Tetsuya is drawn back to the Tsukiji central fish markets. At dawn the markets are the busiest place in one of the world's busiest cities - almost a city within a city. For the foreign visitor it's a motif for Japan's insatiable appetite for seafood.
We walk through the markets in the cold half-dark, dodging manic "Mighty Cars" - small, zippy motorised carts that workers use to cover the vast distances of the market.
Tsukiji is the centre of the universe for the world's major seafood producing countries, all vying for a slice of the lucrative Japanese market. Generally speaking, only the best seafood comes here. Tetsuya notes the absence of a fishy smell, evidence of the impeccable freshness of the produce that the Japanese demand.
"These are from the Maldives," says Tetsuya, strolling through the fine mist of an enormous hall packed with fastidiously arranged snap-frozen tuna. "These are from Taiwan, Vietnam, Turkey, Spain. Amazing, isn't it? Only in a country like Japan, which is so attached to tuna, is there anything like this."
One mammoth specimen from the North Sea weighs in at nearly 270 kilograms and sells for about $50 a kilo. Smaller yellow-fin from Australia are also attracting studied attention from buyers. As we wander through the market's wholesale section Tetsuya quietly points out a parcel of whale meat at one of the stalls.
Tokyo can be confounding for the first-time visitor. As Arthur Golden, author of Memoirs of a Geisha, once wrote: "How you react to Tokyo is perhaps the true test of whether you love cities, or the amenities they offer."
Here there are temples to explore, department stores to marvel at, museums to visit and bars to hang out in until the early hours. But spend a day in Tokyo with someone like Tetsuya and, unsurprisingly, the city's fascination with food comes to the fore.
At 8 we emerge into the daylight for a breakfast of sushi at one of the market's many restaurants and bars - a Tsukiji must.
The sushi bar, which opens daily at 5.30am, is brimming with fish-market workers, mostly clerks. This is the equivalent of lunch for them. We take our seats as the guests of a third-generation tuna-monger and friend of Tetsuya's.
After the abalone, the black clams, the Japanese herring and the three grades of sushi and sashimi tuna, I stop asking Tetsuya, who in typical Japanese-style has been plying me with sake and beer, to identity the fish dishes that keep arriving at our
table. (In Japan the etiquette is for your dining companion to pour your drinks and for you to pour theirs. Resistance is invariably futile.)
Although I'm a sushi fan at home, there are some unfamiliar tastes coming across the counter and I figure it's probably best not to know precisely what I'm eating. But the superbly fresh tuna with flesh the colour of top-grade sirloin is the most exquisite I've eaten. My guide, refilling my sake cup, says tentative Australians shouldn't hesitate to come to such a place.
"The people at restaurants like this are very hospitable," he says. "So, after you've been to see the tuna being auctioned you can come to one of the sushi bars and eat it. You don't get quality like this in Australia."
Just like the French, the Italians and the Chinese, eating is at the heart and, more importantly, the soul of Japanese society. The changing seasons are marked less by climatic changes than by the latest variety of winter or spring vegetable to come on the market. Get close to food in Japan and you get close to the Japanese.
As Tetsuya points out, with a relatively healthy exchange rate between the Australian dollar and Japanese yen, now is one of the best times in years for Australians to visit. "So many of my Australian friends say, 'Japan, oh, it's sounds so difficult'. But since the recession Japan is changing for the better. It's inexpensive because the bubble economy has gone. But while there's so much information on Australia for the Japanese there's little information for Australians about Japan."
We're driving to Tokyo's biggest and boldest urban redevelopment, Roppongi Hills. It is a vast shopping, eating, cinema and cultural precinct that has revitalised one of the city's red-light districts. I'm nodding off in the back seat, weary from the early start and the unaccustomed sushi, beer and sake breakfast.
"I love the energy in Tokyo," says Tetsuya. "Everywhere you go there's so many people. Sometimes it's all too much. Like New York, you have to have stamina to survive. You have to be like the Tokyoites. They stay up late and catch up on their sleep on the train or in taxis. But you can also have quiet times." (A few minutes later he's asleep in the front seat and snoring rather loudly.)
At morning tea time our car pulls up in the smart area of Akasaka outside a place called Toraya. It's time for a mini tea ceremony. This is one of Tokyo's plush "wagashi" sweet shops that has opened successful branches in Paris and New York. Japanese sweets, which often contain anko, the red adzuki-bean paste, are a work of art - and that's just the packaging.
The taste of wagashi is more sour than sweet to the foreign palate. It's normally accompanied by a bowl of lime-green, foamy matcha tea. But after the frenzy of Tsukiji the serenity of the salon offers some respite, and the tea has wonderful restorative properties.
The $3 billion Roppongi Hills has been such a success - 10 million people visited it in the two months after its opening last year - that another developer is building a rival complex, on an equally grand scale, not far away. Roppongi Hills is so big they conduct guided tours of it. And for visitors it's the perfect base during a visit.
The centrepiece is the 54-storey Mori Tower, named after the developer of the project and one of Japan's richest men, Minoru Mori. It's not the tallest building in Tokyo but it does have the biggest floor space and at night becomes a blue-lit, pulsating beacon for Tokyoites.
On the 52nd floor is the world's most civilised observation deck. There are no telescopes or crass souvenir shops. Just panoramic views of Tokyo in all its vastness.
Best of all, your observation tower ticket also lets you in to the city's newest museum of modern art, the outstanding Mori Art Museum on levels 52 and 53. During our visit there was a dazzling exhibition by one of Japan's most celebrated female artists, Kusama Yayoi, famous for her use of bold red dots that, in her own words, cause "interminable dizziness".
Elsewhere in the complex are 60 restaurants and cafes, scores of the most exclusive shops and a welcome amount of open space. We end up lunching not at one of the fancy Japanese or Chinese restaurants but at an ultra-modern and ultra-quick pasta bar whose owners claim to have created the world's fastest-cooking spaghetti. They serve it with pre-made sauces and it is surprisingly good.
After a siesta back at our respective hotels, Tetsuya's tour resumes in the evening at a tiny neighbourhood restaurant in Ginza, followed by a place called Tora (meaning Tiger) in the area of Ebisu, the centre for Tokyo's cultural cognoscenti.
Tokyo is one of the world's great food capitals; you can dine on the haughtiest haute cuisine or the most casual, and convivial, street food. And it doesn't get much more informal than a robatayaki - a lively, smoky, rustic-style of restaurant where multiple courses are grilled on a hearth and a lot of beer, sake and shochu (a distilled spirit with a fearfully high alcohol content) is consumed.
"I love the fancy restaurants of Tokyo but this place is more homey," says Tetsuya. "It takes me back to the old Japan. It's a place for sharing food with good friends. And I really love the fact that when you walk into a restaurant like this the staff all say, 'Welcome home'."
The fish markets will be opening again soon. Tokyo's come full circle. Tetsuya stays up for a few more hours, enjoying the company of Japanese friends.
You certainly need stamina to keep up in Tokyo. Even more so to keep up with Tetsuya.
Tetsuya's Tokyo tips
Conquer the subway and you conquer Tokyo. Don't allow yourself to succumb to the rush at stations and don't recoil at its complexity. Stop, think and take your time to study the English-language maps that are located at every station. Buy a Passnet ticket for multiple journeys.
Be brave. Don't miss out on great Tokyo experiences, like eating at terrific restaurants, because of the language barrier. Most Japanese welcome the company of foreigners and appreciate them showing an interest in Japanese cuisine.
Try to learn at least a few phrases. Japan is a society which operates on civilities and a few key words, combined with a ready smile, can work wonders and make your stay more pleasant. As the sign on the Tokyo subway says: "Smile is the best make-up."
If you're eager to save money, make lunch your main meal. Prices are invariably cheaper to attract customers. The main department stores usually have good-value restaurants on their top floors with meals.
Don't bother getting up early in Tokyo unless you want to witness the peak-hour subway crush or visit the fish markets. Most cafes don't open till mid-morning and by 10 the subway is much more manageable. The city has fantastic night-life and the subway is safe, including for women, until it closes. Taxis are plentiful but not cheap.
Japan Airlines (9272 1111) and Qantas (131 313) operate daily services to Japan. If you're holidaying in Japan it's cheaper and easier to book a package with Jalpak (details below).
From the airport take the Limousine bus for about $40 - it goes direct to major hotels. Or take the smoother Narita Express train, which is quicker and marginally cheaper than the bus. Once in Tokyo use the subway.
Jalpak (phone 9285 6611), Japan Airlines' travel agent arm, has packages including the eight-day "Absolute Japan" deal with return air fares, six nights' hotel accommodation in Tokyo and Kyoto, and airport transfers, from $2500 a person. Basic packages of three nights' Tokyo accommodation and return air fares start from $1646. For traditional accommodation see www.japaneseguesthouses.com
It's imperative, before you go, to research transport, manners, restaurant and cuisine styles - and bathing practices if you're staying in traditional accommodation. Travel light. Japan is still a largely cash-based society with fewer ATMs than you might expect. Take a mix of cash, traveller's cheques and cards, which are widely accepted. Australian mobile phones are not compatible with the Japanese system. Tipping is not customary.
Japan National Tourist Organisation, phone 9251 3024 or see www.jnto.go.jp
Lonely Planet's Japan and Gateway to Japan guidebooks.
"I generally stay in Shinjuku, the major entertainment area of Tokyo. It is all glitter and lights and walking out at midnight is like walking through Martin Place at lunchtime. There are thousands of people. Hidden away are traditional yakitori restaurants and sushi bars - so small they often seat fewer than a dozen people. They are a must. Outside the cities onsens, natural spring baths, are a way of really experiencing traditional Japan. Up first thing in the morning to soak in an onsen, followed by a traditional Japanese breakfast of fish, rice and miso soup, is a great way to start the day."
Mika Nishimura, Kyoto-born director-producer at SBS Television
"Trying to do in Japan what you do in Australia may be expensive, whether staying in a hotel, eating steak or drinking wine. So avoid expensive Western hotels - for the same money you can have a better experience and get better value by staying in a ryokan [traditional Japanese inn]. You sleep on tatami and they serve you a full Japanese breakfast. They can also serve dinner in your room. There's nothing more relaxing than being able to eat a formal, yet delicate, meal, while wearing yukata [lightweight cotton nightgown]. One of the really great things about visiting Japan for me is that there are so many traditional festivals, originating in temples and shrines, throughout the year. They allow you to easily tap into Japan's ancient world while still experiencing what its contemporary culture can offer."
Akira Isogawa, Kyoto-born fashion designer
"The Tokyo neighbourhood of Harajuku is famous for its youth culture. The young Japanese express themselves in a quirky and original way by using a combination of designer brands and vintage clothing. In this area is Togo Shinto shrine, which has a flea market on weekends where you can pick up antique wares such as kimonos, art and books. At Aoyama [an adjacent suburb] you can find all the flagship stores of the local designer brands, such as Yohji Yamamoto, Comme des Garcons and younger designers like Undercover. In Tokyo I enjoy eating at robatayaki (see main story). This type of restaurant is orientated towards meeting colleagues and friends where four to six dishes can be shared."
Ian Pearlman, Australian-born Japanese specialist who leads World Expeditions walking tours to Japan
"Unless you're in the middle of Tokyo the Japanese countryside is never far away. In contrast to a place of great plains and big skies like Australia, Japan has a tight arrangement of modest but painterly mountains, consisting of dense forests with settlements nestled in valleys. There's a great scale of ordinary life and every corner of the Japanese countryside is layered in history. Best of all, the forest and paddies are not fenced; hiking trails filter right through them, providing great freedom to explore. To walk similar trails in Australia you have to go to a national park and you don't get the farming scenes or the ancient shrines."