Asia: Tale of three cities

By Andrew Koubaridis

Andrew Koubaridis gets a taste for the finer things

The bright city lights of Shanghai. Photo / Thinkstock
The bright city lights of Shanghai. Photo / Thinkstock

My feet are sore and there is nothing this ultra-modern hotel can do about it.

Tokyo's Hotel Ryumeikan boasts virtually every gadget you can think of - the toilet seems to have a mind of its own - so it's a fair bet there's probably a hot tub somewhere.

My sore feet are the result of a frenetic walk through the labyrinth that is Tokyo where we have 48 hours to see as much as possible. At least I get to relax in luxury at the end of it with a hotel room that offers a sleep system (slight vibration and music), Nespresso machine, wifi and shower.

With a little local nous we find the best in eating, drinking and shopping often in places that look unspectacular on the outside. In Tokyo, many of the coolest places do appear unspectacular until you're inside. That's a relief because there's so much more to Tokyo than the usual drawcards.

Our guide has no problem navigating the multiple train stops and changes to reveal these places. One is Ten-ichi-tempura, an eatery popular with visiting dignitaries (former US President Bill Clinton is fan apparently) and although the dishes were a bit of a mystery, they kept coming, each requiring careful explanation as to what they were.

In Shanghai, I swap walking for sitting in a vintage motorbike sidecar to get a look at the "real Shanghai" - and it is nothing like the futuristic skyscrapers and cosmopolitan bustle that exists only a few kilometres away.

I am suspicious at first. Anyone who has been to Shanghai will know how crazy driving can be, where constant tooting seems to replace road rules.

However, there is no need to worry. The bike, a 1938 replica BMW R71, is safe and comfortable, which is good as there's really nothing between you and the sights - and smells - of this massive city, and the people are friendly, which is just as well as we nip through the narrow spaces.

Here, children play on the streets while adults gut fish and prepare food in the doorways of shacks. Washing dries on crudely built clothes lines hanging above the road. You don't want to be too squeamish in the fish market, but the people look happy as they wave and smile at visitors, all the while hacking away at fish.

If fossicking for antiques is your thing then you'll be in heaven. Our guide parks at the start of a lane that is lined both sides with small, dark shops full of treasure. Many of them remind me of a dusty shed at a grandparent's place.

Just up the road you can have a latte at the ever-present Starbucks (is anywhere spared?) before mixing with locals in the People's Park and its famed Marriage Market.

Parents eager to find a spouse for their child try to find a match by carefully studying the specifications listed.

The sidecar tour gives me an impression of a city still growing awkwardly. There is plenty to remind you of the past, yet you are surrounded by modern symbols. This is no more evident than in the elegant Fairmont Peace Hotel, which has been restored with no expense spared - a spa health club and skylight swimming pool, all helping to ease weary limbs.

This heritage hotel still has its famous jazz band (average age of members is 77) playing in the bar. The six of them have been doing it for decades and guests can't get enough of it.

Last stop is Hong Kong, a city where they use virtually every space available, as a walking tour through the Kowloon district demonstrated. On those busy streets we find a bird market, a flower market - apparently popular because so few Hong Kong people have room for gardens - and a fish market, where locals can buy all sorts of exotic fish.

In Mong Kok, the world's most densely populated neighbourhood - said to be about 130,000 people per square kilometre - the crowds are far less chaotic than in Shanghai but much less orderly than Tokyo.

A walking tour off the beaten track is well worth it if you want a quick glimpse of what really makes a city tick - even if your feet won't thank you for it at the end of the day.

Andrew Koubaridis travelled as a guest of Air New Zealand.

- NZ Herald

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