Yeoh Siew Hoon tells us why she loves Tokyo even more now.
A recent survey rates Japan as Asia’s most tourist-friendly nation in the World Economic Forum’s latest travel and tourism competitiveness index.
The time is 5 a.m. at Haneda Airport. You’d think I’d be really grumpy from the lack of sleep, but I can’t help smiling as I breeze through immigration. I’ve always loved Japan and I love it even more now that I do not need to apply for a visa to visit.
I also love how Tokyo has become a friendlier place for visitors. Japan has become very serious about its inbound tourism in the last two years and, as such, has taken steps to make its gateway city easier to enjoy. In fact, a recent survey rates Japan as Asia’s most tourist-friendly nation in the World Economic Forum’s latest travel and tourism competitiveness index. According to the WEF, Japan ranked first in the world in customer service and second for its unique cultural heritage, with the nation also scoring high in its communications network and efficient air and ground transport infrastructure.
Technology has helped to a great extent. While free Wi-Fi is almost everywhere, you can now order local data packs online. Have it delivered to your hotel, use it for the time you’re in the country and then return the pack in a self-addressed envelope, hassle-free.
This means you can access Google Maps anytime to ensure you don’t get lost – I found myself walking more between places, thanks to this. Moreover, the Tokyo Subway app is available in English, Korean and Chinese – gone are the days of wandering lost in Tokyo’s massive train network.
Apps, such as Uber, have also made it easier to get around. Uber drivers tend to speak some English, although I find cabbies in Tokyo to be generally helpful and language is no barrier.
One evening, it took our driver nearly an hour to find a hole-in-the-wall restaurant we had been recommended. When we finally found it – ironically, the all-powerful Google Maps gave us the wrong address of Warasu – he kissed the floor and took photographs with us.
Each time I visit Tokyo I make it a point to discover new places. On this trip, I decided to check out Asakusa, where I simply wandered along its narrow side with nothing more than my smartphone. I popped into a little mom-and-pop soba place where they had a simplified menu in English with pictures. The menu said “point and order” so I followed the instruction and slurped down my soba. It was simply delicious.
The area is also home to Kappabashi (Kitchen Town), famous for its – you guessed it – kitchenware. I watched with amusement as my friends from Singapore snatched up pots, pans and dining ware.
“Can’t you get them in Singapore?” I asked. “Yes, but not the same,” they replied.
With the Japanese yen hitting an all-time low, shoppers are out in force and Ginza is a hot favourite with shoppers. A friend who wanted to buy Issey Miyake’s Bao Bao handbags, which apparently is the IT bag now, said the store was completely emptied out of the bags.
“Not a single bag left,” she lamented.
Another great discovery on this trip is the Daikanyama district, which is becoming a hip and trendy area for the artsy and creative crowd. Here you will find lots of interesting cafes and independent boutiques. It is also home to Tsutaya Books, a wonderful store that reminds you of how glorious it is to feel the touch of books and just browse whilst listening to vinyl records. I could spend all day there and I think many people do – there is no lack of chilling space within and around the store; some have outdoor seating options, and these cafes and lounges are packed with young people.
My local friends told me that alfresco dining is now a trend and I was, therefore, taken to Commune 246 that night. Billed as “Tokyo’s coolest outdoor food court” where you can grab a seat and order from the various food stalls around, it inevitably resulted in the most random food combination possible – I didn’t know sangria and Japanese chips could go so well together.
Of course, nothing beats a bowl of piping hot ramen in the wee hours of the morning after you’ve been to the clubs. At Blue Note, I watched 91-year-old Bob Dorough hold his audience’s attention with his raspy vocals and quirky bebop style.
He told us he’d turn 92 on 12 December this year, the day Frank Sinatra would have turned 100.
“You got to love what you do and do it every day,” he said, sharing his secret to longevity.
Zettai-teki ni tadashīdesu. That means “absolutely right” in Japanese, according to Google Translate.
Note: Shangri-La Hotel, Tokyo is located right on top of the Tokyo Station, which means you can get to practically anywhere in the city. If you like to walk, Ginza and the Imperial Palace are close enough.