It will host this year's Rugby World Cup — but Tokyo has many other intriguing delights for visitors as Dylan Cleaver discovers.
The Rugby World Cup is coming to Tokyo but if you care to take your eye off the ball for a few days, you'll find near limitless things to do in Japan's capital. Here are just four of them.
1 TAKE IN THE (SUB)CULTURE
One of the fascinating aspects of this city is how each precinct, or suburb, seems to have an identity of its own. Often this identity revolves around Japan's obsession with subcultures.
From the high-end streetwear of Harajuku to the retro rock 'n' roll fetishists of Shimokita to the "book city" of Jinbocho, it feels like the city changes with every stop on the Metro.
One stop you must alight at is Akihabara.
Keep your eyes up and down but don't linger on any one spot for too long when wandering around this hub of Japan's otaku culture. Though strictly speaking a term for people with obsessive interests, in Akihabara it refers to those with a love for anime and manga ... or perhaps maids and electronics.
It's a bewitching sort of precinct. One minute you're in an old school electronics retail market — called Radio Center — staring at thousands of coils of second-hand cabling, the next you're on the third floor of a multi-storey sex shop checking out the latest in single-use, latex vaginas.
Join the throngs moving up and down the stairs at Mandarake, one of the largest manga and anime stores in the world. It's mostly harmless, but every now and then you're going to see something that makes you say: "What the heck!" Just roll with it.
Yeah, this nerd scene can be a bit weird and the whole maid cosplay cafe scene is a little creepy, but Akihabara provides the most fascinating of glimpses into urban Japanese subcultures.
Tokyo can be hard on the liver. Perhaps it's the perception the Japanese have of Westerners, but you get the distinct impression that the hosts feel it is their obligation to ply you with beer and spirits — two things they happen to be very good at making — to the point where conversation moves from stilted and awkward to slurring and collegial.
Usefully, then, there are lots of places to indulge.
Most Westerners will be pointed in the direction of Roppongi, in all its garish charmlessness. There are several theme-bars here where you can pull up a pew and watch some footy, but by Tokyo standards it's a fairly seedy, inauthentic area with spruikers offering cheap drinks and shows of an "exotic" nature. If you do find yourself in the area and are in the market for a pint and a good view of a telly, the Hobgoblin British Pub and Legends sports bar are two popular choices that sit side-by-side.
To drink like a Tokyo office worker — fast and furiously — head to Shinbashi, where bars and bars and more bars are dedicated to the "salaryman". There are more places to drink beer than you could attempt in a liver-spotted lifetime but why not leave the lager zone and try the Sake Plaza. The four-floor complex is administered by the Central Brewers' Union and there's not much more you'll need to know about the drink after visiting here.
There's Shibuya, where most of the cool kids go to shop and be seen. The precinct has become synonymous with excess and that includes booze, with a popular Instagram page — shibuyameltdown — dedicated to the after-effects of a big night out there. That will often be spent in Nonbei Yokocho (which translates to "drunkard's alley"), a famous Izakay street with enduring fame/infamy.
Not far up the road shines Shinjuku, the neon-lit, archetypal Tokyo postcard image. Shinjuku has it all: a red-light district (Kabukicho), a gay area (Shinjuku Nichome), jazz bars, craft-beer homages and the location bar for Lost in Translation (Park Hyatt). You could do all this or you could head just east of the train station to Golden Gai, a neighbourhood of intriguing hole-in-the-wall bars. It's a great night out but be warned: several of the tiny bars are strictly locals only.
This is a far from an exhaustive list. You'll find plenty of places to slake your thirst in suburbs like Akasaka, near Roppongi but a world away in tone, and Hamamatsucho (Devilcraft Brewpub is a ripper), but we'd be here all day if we tried.
Instead we'd also urge you to ...
With a metro system that conveniently snakes its way into every crevice of Tokyo's seemingly endless urban sprawl, Japan's capital doesn't immediately strike you as a walker's paradise.
But you should get your shoes on and keep your head on a swivel because there's always something to see in this teeming metropolis.
With the help of expat New Zealander Greg Lane (tokyocheapo.com) and expat Brit Julia Maeda (tokyopersonalised.com), we beat the feet to see places like Akihabara (see #1) and Hamamatsucho.
We also traversed a small portion of the city from Omotesando to Shibuya via Harajuku. This saw us in iconic streets like Cat St and Takeshita St, plus less celebrated retail outlets like Condomania which, ahem, comes pretty much as advertised.
You may have heard that the Japanese enjoy fish and, more unfortunately, marine mammals.
Personally, I'd rather spend time in a wastewater treatment centre than a fish market but for those who like the bracing smells of dead sea creatures, the Tsukiji Outer Market is considered a must-visit.
Recent changes have seen the inner market — home of the legendary tuna auctions — relocate to Toyosu, but Tsukiji is still the place to go for your fill(et) of fish.
It would be remiss to visit Tokyo and not wander through a couple of Shinto or Buddhist shrines. The most easily accessible and touristy — it is lined with snack and trinket stalls — is the Sensoji temple in Akasusa. Equally accessible but less frenetic is the Meiji shrine in sprawling Yoyogi Park. Set among the historic Yanaka Cemetery Park, Tennoji temple comes highly recommended.
4 CATCH THE TRAIN TO YOKOHAMA
Technically, Yokohama is a separate city — the second largest in Japan — but there are no neat start and end points from Tokyo to its satellites. In fact, to get to Yokohama from Tokyo you also go through Kawasaki (eighth-largest) but to the untrained eye it's just one, massive urban megalopolis (actual word).
Yokohama does, however, have an unmistakably different feel to Tokyo, even if it looks a lot the same.
There are a few reasons for venturing to Yokohama at the southern end of Tokyo Bay, not least because its stadium (which, let's be honest, was not designed for rugby) will host the biggest games of the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
But tournament aside, Yokohama has a calling card that should prove irresistible: the noodle.
There are a lot of cool things to do in Yokohama, but nothing quite as enticing as a visit to the Cupnoodles Museum — a celebration of the genius of Momofuku Ando, inventor of instant noodles.
Ramen to that, you say? Well here's something even better: Shinyokohama Raumen Museum. Here you'll queue up for a few floors of displays devoted to the history of the ramen noodle, those slippery, salty strings of joy. This museum has a basement featuring nine ramen shops, each devoted to a different style, from Sapporo ramen (miso-based soup) in the north, to Hakata ramen (pork-and chicken-based soup) in the south.
Air New Zealand flies daily from Auckland to Tokyo, Narita, with one-way fares starting from $629.
For information on Rugby World Cup tours of Japan, go to jnto.org.au.