Of Maid Cafes and Monkey Teabags: Tokyo Treasurehunt
Ready, set, GO!
If you ever thought the cost of a Tokyo experience would pump up your blood pressure, a romp through the student district of Shimokitazawa will tickle you silly. Actor, Tokyo Local and all-round good guy, Go, took the pulse of this Rat & Dragon project and prescribed a jaunt through its buzzing narrow lanes for a dose of his favourite local secrets.
Live music venues and indie theatres share pavements with offbeat fashion stores and retro, pre-loved shops and hidden markets. While Harajuku might wear the pants in the Tokyo fashion scene, it also has the tourists, the gawkers and those simply riding the bandwagon.
Shimokitazawa, on the other hand, is grungy and authentic, fun and flippant, and best of all – damn cheap. You’ll bag a bargain on anything here, from crazy second-hand toys and junk to speciality foods and designer or vintage threads. You might even find free comedy (much funnier if you speak Japanese, we’re told) and most restaurants, bars and Izakayas (traditional pubs) touted super-cheap food and drink deals. Naturally enough, this attracts thousands of Tokyo’s students and young locals, who pour through the streets looking for fun – just what we need to point our lenses at.
Ever up for some mischief on camera or off, Go was never short of something funny to say or do, which made filming a pleasure as we shot street life and some of the quirkier sides to the district. One of the more oddball being a speciality egg shop. You could handle the eggs, view photos and histories of the chickens that laid them, and read quotes from the farmers, complete with discussion boards on yolk colour and quality.
We went to one of Tokyo’s leading tea houses, where people queue politely for hours to sample award-winning matcha (powdered green tea) and we have to say it was sensational. (The matcha shaved-ice here is a MUST)
Go also introduced us to a packed out Tsukemen (dipping noodle) shop, where lunch was hand-made before our eyes and cost about USD7 for a huge helping of simple deliciousness.
And to cap it all off, we found an all-day happy hour with draft beers at about USD $1.50. Tokyo on the cheap – the perfect remedy.
Koichi and the Big Stuff
Rat & Dragon reached into our list of contacts and were delighted to find Koichi – Sound Designer, Bassist and Tokyo Local – who offered to guide us to ‘must see’ Tokyo.
First stop was Akihabara, the tech-geek-chic district otherwise known as Electric City. Cliff-like high rise buildings house story upon story of electronics, gaming, manga and anime stores. Their facades blaze with monumental billboards where you’ll come face to face with your larger-than-life anime character or pop star heroes, five stories high.
Here we took a sneaky peek under the skirt of Tokyo’s infamous maid cafes. Filming and photography was rigorously restricted, so to experience the weirdness of it, you’ll just have to go.
Instead of saying ‘excuse me’ you’ll need to ‘nyeng-nyeng’ (the Japanese equivalent of ‘meow meow’) for your maid’s attention. There are also cat gestures to accompany this, and you’ll get extra praise if you wear ears to do so. Your maid is gorgeous, wearing a frilly French Maid outfit, and will even address you as ‘Master’ (or Princess, if you’re so inclined). Your coffee will come with your choice of a baby bear or kitten illustration in chocolate, hand-drawn at your table. Weird? Just shrug it off with a ‘that’s Tokyo’.
To balance things up, Koichi then took us to Asakusa, Tokyo’s boldest inner-city shrine, for some quiet contemplation and traditional fortune telling amid the sumptuous colours and structures of the temple.
As if that wasn’t contrast enough, we then journeyed with Koichi on the ultra-modern Yurikamome driverless elevated train to O-Daiba, an island reclaimed from the waters of Tokyo bay. Stunning harbour views and some of Tokyo’s most iconic modern architecture and attractions feed straight into the eyeballs.
Long time friends of Rat & Dragon, Erika and Ryoko, helped us break free from the Tokyo madness by hatching an escape plan to the mountains. From Tokyo, it was a 250km trip to Nagano prefecture and a forested valley called Jigokudani. After a ½ hour trek along a snowy forest path amid towering pine, we reached a natural onsen (hot spring pool) that has been taken over by a clan of Japanese macaques, also knows as Snow Monkeys. These guys get warm in the soothing hot waters, their little monkey faces turning bright red as they heat up and soak like furry little teabags. Monkey antics are funny at the best of times, but when wet and snowy, it makes for pure comedy and great filming. Rat & Dragon’s take on David Attenborough. Watch for our Snow Monkey blog coming soon!
And then of course it was back to the city and countless more experiences. A trip to the Sumo, the bright lights and madness of Shibuya crossing (see our blog post) and one of the most spectacular sunsets we’ve ever witnessed, viewed from the 45th floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan building when Mt Fuji popped out of the hazy crimson skyline right before our eyes. More food adventures, some mindboggling nights out and you have one hell of a film. Stay tuned for The Tokyo Project…