Winston Aldworth is the Herald's Travel Editor.

Tokyo: Sartorial success and tea ceremonies in Japan's capital

In Tokyo's crowds, Winston Aldworth, finds the small things matter a great deal.

An alleyway in Kabuki-cho. Photo / 123RF
An alleyway in Kabuki-cho. Photo / 123RF

By New Zealand standards, I'm a reasonable dresser.

My socks match. I don't wear jandals into the office (unless it's a really hot Friday) and I wear ties to weddings. I give some thought to sneaker selection and I have what I believe to be a pretty cool collection of T-shirts for a 40-something dad.

By Tokyo standards, I'm basically a hobo.

On a long-weekend jaunt to the Japanese capital — a sprawling, bamboozling megacity of wild consumerism, fabulous ramen, strange tribal allegiances and intense attention to detail — we wandered bleary-eyed among a population all of who had thought about what they were wearing. In four days of walking the streets of this city — home to almost 17 million people — we saw maybe three people dressed in a manner that would seem casual in Auckland.

If you're reading this in Auckland, take a look around yourself right now.

Unless you work in a law firm, chances are there's someone in your immediate vicinity who wouldn't look out of place slouching on a chair at a beachfront cafe with a flat white in their hand.

Tokyo is different. It's not that all the Tokyo folk looked "flash". They're not some pack of dandies. But if a man in Tokyo wears a suit, he wears it well. If someone is wearing streetwear, they've thought about what streetwear to wear and — as we were to learn — which street on which to wear the streetwear.

For the natives of Tokyo, the little things matter.

There's not actually very much on display inside the intriguingly titled Tokyo National Museum. For a nation whose empires have spread through Asia, halfway across the Pacific and, 75 years ago last Sunday, knocked on the door of Australasia with bombing raids on Darwin, they've compressed a lot into a couple of tidy — gorgeous, in fact — buildings in Ueno Park.

The main building is not much bigger than Auckland's own Imperial War Museum.

But, as with so much in the Japanese capital, the little things matter.

Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan. Photo / Getty Images
Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan. Photo / Getty Images

Like the way they display a samurai sword. Gleaming lines of steel — some not merely older than Waitangi, but older than Kupe — sitting, their middles a sly arch downwards as their tips nose up, on basic frames, certain of their menace and as gleamingly clean as some nameless piece of high-tech gadgetry from some nameless high-street vendor.

It's Japan. They could display a warehouse full of samurai swords if they wanted to. Instead, through this museum (which is among the greatest I've visited) there's just a handful (a scabbardfull?) of samurai blades. There are no handles — they're long rotten — just surgical metal. A few lengths of it, glistening cool.

In this museum, with so much to pack in, attention to detail is king. The small things matter.

One part of the museum makes sense of the rest of Tokyo. Centuries ago, Japanese artisans got really good really early at making the little accoutrements of domestic life — fiddly bits like clay crockery with handles you hold just so and intricate silk stitching. They got so good, that these delicate things — and the niceties of manners and social subtleties that went with them — spread through all levels of society.

Asakusa, in Tokyo.  Photo / Thomas
Asakusa, in Tokyo. Photo / Thomas

There's this thing you do with tea when it's served to you in Japan. The tea ceremony is called chanoyu and it involves a fiddly business of cups and sweets being placed in front of the drinker. You're meant to turn the cup — or bowl, or whatever the thing is — clockwise two times before drinking from it. They've been drinking tea like this in Japan for more than 1000 years. So what?

A thousand-odd years back, craftsmen around the world were producing fiddly nonsense like tea cups that need to be turned twice before drinking. Hats had to be worn just so in Florence and there were certain ways of bowing to the monarch in London, Beijing or Mumbai.

But these Japanese craftsmen and artisans got so good at making these things that every hut in the village had one. These rituals — not just of tea, but also needlecraft, pottery and stitching shoes — became important in the lower ranks of Japanese society long before poor people in the rest of the world got fussy about how to drink tea.

So, this attention to subtle detail was sown into the fabric of common Japanese life at a grassroots level at a time when common folk in other parts of the world were pretty bloody pleased simply to be drinking tea that wouldn't give them dysentery.

And — et voila! — 1000 years later there's a population of 17 million well-dressed city slickers who give serious thought to small matters of detail and ritual that simply pass the rest of us by.

Many of Tokyo's regions have their own subculture where their own nuanced rules apply. In Akihabara, a neighbourhood given over to the sale and celebration of electronic devices, young women dressed in anime-style maids outfits tout for customers to enter their cafes.

Near the Meiji Shrine in Yoyogi Park, punk rockers and groups of "teddy boys" with tsunamic quiffs gather in gangs, while in Asakusa women in traditional kimono dress shop for donuts near the Senso-ji Buddhist temple. In Shibuya, expensive suits and high-street fashions are the thing.

Through all these areas, vast crowds of people are shopping.

Keeping up is exhausting work.

We had a couple of great guide books with us, Jane Lawson's Tokyo Style Guide and a Lonely Planet pocket guide. Unfortunately, they were often no use.

All the Japanese we met were unfailingly polite, determinedly obliging and smilingly friendly. They were also utterly hopeless. There's this weird thing going on where, on a societal level, Japan is totally blanking western visitors — other than on the trains, there are few (like, zero) signs using Latin letters. That makes it hard to find a toilet in public, to read a street sign or to find the restaurant that you picked from your guidebook. The GPS-aided app on our phones would tell us we were standing in front of the restaurant; we'd look up and see 10 storeys of Japanese font.

Young woman advertising Maids' Cafe in Akihabara known as Electric Town or Geek Town selling Manga based games and videos in Tokyo. Photo / Getty Images
Young woman advertising Maids' Cafe in Akihabara known as Electric Town or Geek Town selling Manga based games and videos in Tokyo. Photo / Getty Images

It was like the city — and indeed the society — simply wasn't all that fussed about western visitors. Ask a Tokyo local for directions and they'll do what they can to help, but it's surprising how few of them speak English.

English-speaking guests are like some sort of an afterthought. And that's fabulous.

To feel so alien and yes — lost in translation — in a city where you can drink the tap water and the trains are reliable is a wonderfully liberating thing.

Especially on a short break. With Air New Zealand's flight from Auckland landing early and departing from Tokyo in the evening, we were able to get five full days out of three nights on the ground. A long weekend in another world.

Stumped by the script, we'd often end up taking a punt on a random restaurant — that's how I ate the best ramen of my life in Asakusa, dined in a place where we had to order from a vending machine located outside and wandered unaware into the barbecue house that was the inspiration for the glorious swordfight in Kill Bill. Chance is a fine thing.

I arrived back in Auckland on Air New Zealand's NZ90, touching down at 9am on a warm Tuesday in early December. I had the taxi swing by home so I could drop off my suitcase, then I came straight into the office.

Walking into the very flash NZME building, on Graham St, home to the New Zealand Herald, I fell in behind three men also arriving at work for the day. All three wore shorts, two were in jandals. All in T-shirts. It was good to be home.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand offers daily non-stop flights from Auckland to Narita.

Accommodation: The Gate Hotel in Asakusa is modern and stylish with train stations nearby. Just across the road is the Senso-ji, a beautiful Buddhist temple.

- NZ Herald

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