If you grabbed a map of Tokyo and drew a ring around all the best bits, you would end up with the Yamanote Line – otherwise known as JY18. Run by East Japan Railway Company, it is quite simply one of the most important and busiest rail lines in the city.
This train line contains Tokyo's greatest hits, from Ginza to Shibuya, Shinagawa to Ueno. There may be 882 train stations in the greater Tokyo area (and 222 subway stops) but for a newcomer to the Japanese capital Yamanote has you covered.
My base is the Pullman Tamachi Tokyo hotel, a new stay that embraces its position right on Tamachi station. It has rail tickets for welcome cards and an open-air bar, Platform 9, that overlooks the busy station. If the Yamanote Line is a clock, Tamachi station sits at about six o'clock – just pick a direction and head off for the day.
The first day I decide to go clockwise, boarding the train to the sound of recorded birdsong (to help the visually impaired navigate the stations) going off to Harajuku. As a first-timer to Japan, this Shibuya neighbourhood is the perfect onslaught of fashion, neon and kawaii with laneways dedicated solely to sneaker shops, an overdose of cuteness in a hedgehog cafe and stocking-clad Harajuku girls shopping the latest in teen cool.
I wander the full length of the neighbourhood to Gyukatsu Motomura, serving a new twist on tonkatsu (breaded deep-fried pork cutlet) using wagyu; I queue in a tiny stairway before sitting at the counter with a lunch set of beef that is crisp on the outside and buttery inside. Then I join the river of humanity crossing the famous Shibuya Crossing before jumping back on the Yamanote Line and home to Tamachi.
That evening, a three-stop jump anti-clockwise sees me at Yurakucho station wandering the streets of Ginza. It is on this nocturnal meander that you realise how tied Tokyo life is to the train lines that criss-cross it. In many cities the areas in and around the rail lines can be dead spaces, but in Tokyo they are alive with shopping and food; under one rail arch sits a string of izakaya stalls giving off more steam than an old-school locomotive, the next a gyoza restaurant with a queue a few carriage-lengths long to get in. The alcoves are buzzing with life, the negative space a positive experience.
To end the night, I get tangential with my rail theme and delve into the basement space of The Iron Fairies, a cocktail bar so well designed you could be forgiven for thinking you had stumbled onto the set of Labyrinth; tiny iron fairy sculptures welcome you, inside there are huge glass jars of fairy dust and the signature cocktail, Heaven Lonely Flows, comes wrapped in more fairy floss than you will see at a carnival.
On my last day I find what might be the most striking version of rail/real life when I head to the electronics hub of Akihabara (anticlockwise from Tamachi six stops). On a whim I skip the computer shops and follow the rail line where I discover the artisan shopping "street" of 2k540, so named for its precise distance from Tokyo Station (two kilometres, 540 metres).
Directly underneath the rumble of the train, the pillars of the elevated line have been painted white and the arches filled with makers of high-end, limited-run leather products, furniture and jewellery. My favourite shop, Studio Uamou, is devoted to a small alien boy named Uamou who has telepathic horns that are used to spread empathy; in the adjoining cafe you can eat pancakes shaped like his head. I leave with a couple of badges and a feeling that other cities could learn from Tokyo's seamless integration of its busy train network.
Paul Chai travelled as a guest of Accor Hotels and Travel Associates.