Tokyo is a city you seem to know lots about without ever having been there. A bit like New York. Its culture, quirks and imagery are reproduced and shared throughout the world. You know that crossing in Tokyo? Of course you do! The neon signs, the noise, the people, all of it is something we already had in our minds before we stepped off the plane in our first destination. Barry had been here already, but not Katia. We stayed at a nice hostel called CITAN, and in general, is it just us or have hostels become swankier?
Tokyo was everything we imagined it to be, and also not at all what we imagined it to be. In some ways, it was quieter than we thought, and more spacious, but in other ways it was louder and madder than we could comprehend. It was a good example of what Japan came to represent, a mixture of constant contradictions.
Although we visited all the places you'd expect us to (the Manga and Maidcafe central Akihabara, that crossing in Shibuya, the old temple grounds in Asakusa, the park in Ueno and the shopping districts in Ginza), what we really loved were those places slightly further out that had a life of their own, seemingly separated from Tokyo but inspired by it.
Kagurazaka is a real peaceful haven only a short ride away from the city centre. Weirdly, French music was playing out of the speakers on the street, which actually made the area feel even more relaxed and nice. The reason for this is that the name Kagurazaka means "Good Music Slope" and because it was in close proximity to the Edo Castle, it was once filled with music emanating from the court. Everything seemed to have it's own pace there. There is a huge french influence and you'll come across quite a few fancy restaurants and bakeries. But, what we loved most of all, was getting lost down small alleyways that lead to cute shops, houses and cafes, all of which exhibited that unique sense of Japanese style. This is the closest you'll get to traditional Japan in Tokyo. You probably won't be able to find any cheap eats here, but it's worth the visit to just stroll about. Have a tea or coffee at the traditional Tomboro and take it all in. Alternatively, if you're dying for that Flat White, the New Zealand cafe Mojo is one of the few places to get one.
Shimokitazawa was our other gem, the Bohemian quarter in Western Tokyo. We had to go there for an Ikebana workshop that we booked through AirBnb which, by the way, was a wonderful way to learn more about Japanese culture. This area is all about cool shops, bars, restaurants and as many second hand shops as you can fit into one place. Think a Japanese version of Camden Lock, but tidier... Having survived the bombing during WWII, it became a second-hand market for US soldiers based in Tokyo and later embraced the hippy culture of 1970s. This is still evident and we both found ourselves some nice second hand items for a nice price. Although Japanese food is present, the food here is predominately from around the world, expect more coffee shops and burger joint kind of fare. Oh, and there's an organic shop stocking everything from food to skin care to washing liquids. This is a perfect place to stroll around, do some shopping and have some food. It's all about the atmosphere.
One way to get to know a city is by going on a tour of some kind. In Tokyo there's lots to chose from and one of our new favourite additions to AirBnB is their "experiences". You no longer need to walk in one huge group listening to a tour guide reel off some facts, but you can see the city in many different ways. We did two experiences in Tokyo: an Ikebana workshop and "Eating like a local". We think think one of the joys of travel and these experiences is the people you meet and the stories you hear, this is what brings the city alive. For our eating experience we met the entrepreneur Yuta in Factoria Nishiogi, a co working community space for artists and creatives. It's pushing the boundaries of traditional working practices in Japan with the mission that work/life balance is key to happier life. We learned much from Yuta about the difficulties and the benefits of being a young entrepreneur in Tokyo. Yuta also explained that many people in Tokyo have very little access to countryside and being in nature, so he's got some plans up his sleeve to change that. In the meantime, he organises community BBQ's which have been hugely successful as outdoor gatherings in nature. It's great to see entrepreneurs solving issues facing this urban community.
Another local Tokyo entrepreneur using the power of community is the litter app founder Fujio who on meeting told us to call him "Fuji, after the mountain". We arranged to meet having come across his app and website on a search for social enterprises in Tokyo. Having travelled the world, he found that one of the biggest problems is litter and founded his company to clean the planet. This is something we feel passionate about having seen the increase in litter and in particular, the devastation our plastic usage is having on the world. But in Japan? There didn't seem to be much litter about and a real lack of rubbish bins. The amount of times we've walked down the street holding our rubbish going: "Where are the rubbish bins????" You only see them next to vending machines. There's an amazing ritual when people get off trains and take all their litter with them, queue up to the bins and sort out their rubbish into different compartments. Could you see other cultures doing this? Fujio explained that he set up the app to tackle the global issues of litter and in Japan the problem is hidden from our view.
Fujio's app Pirika provides you the opportunity to record what rubbish you picked up and its location. It's a communal effort. You see some litter, you pick it up, you register it. What the app allows Pirika to trace, is where the most amount of litter is and what type of litter is dumped most often. This research and data has caught the eye some big companies. Communities can trace what rubbish is produced and where it coming from, tackling waste before it happens and in a smart way. Cleaning the world, we like that! We can all take part, check out the app.